By Jeri Clausing and Juan Carlos Llorca
SUNLAND PARK, N.M. — While much of New Mexico is west of the Rio Grande, this dusty enclave of 14,000 residents is the only U.S. city located on the Mexico side of the river, on the same side as — and just across the border fence from — Juarez.
But it's more than the anomalous location that lends to the town's persistent reputation as a self-contained banana republic.
When state police descended on the dysfunctional community before the March elections, the reaction wasn't so much surprise as "what now?"
And that would be the latest allegations of extortion and financial kickbacks among municipal officials, and, more colorfully, the surreptitious filming of a topless lap dance being administered to one of the mayoral candidates.
But what is relatively new in Sunland Park and in other troubled border cities and towns is the harsh response to such shenanigans. State and federal agencies are cracking down on border town corruption as part of the larger effort to battle Mexican drug cartels.
"Everyone turned their heads for so long," said Richard Schwein, a former FBI agent in nearby El Paso, Texas, where at least 28 people have either been convicted or indicted recently for voting scandals or awarding fraudulent contracts. Then, when the Department of Justice and the FBI made it a priority, "Bingo!"
Another example can be found 70 miles west of El Paso, in tiny Columbus, N.M., where authorities a year ago arrested the mayor, police chief, a town trustee and 11 other people who have since pleaded guilty to charges they helped run guns across the border to Mexican drug cartels.
That corruption that seems endemic to the border towns can be blamed on a mix of small-town politics, an influx of corrupt government practices from across the border, and, of course, the rise of the cartels and their endless supply of cash.
"If you're (a small town police officer) making $35,000 a year, and someone offers you $5,000 cash ... and next month there's another $5,000 in it for you, you've just (substantially increased) your income by not being on patrol on a given road," said James Phelps, an assistant professor with the Department of Security Studies and Criminal Justice at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas.
The U.S. attorney for New Mexico, Kenneth Gonzalez, says more local officials have gotten caught up in scandals as federal authorities put a more intense and sophisticated focus on border towns as part of their attempts to thwart the cartels.
"A result of that intense scrutiny is that we more than likely are going to ensnare someone abusing their position," Gonzalez said.
In Sunland Park, an inquiry into local elections turned into a major probe by multiple agencies.
State auditor Hector Balderas said that broad cooperation among agencies shows that law enforcement is starting to realize that "many crimes are interrelated."
"I think law enforcement agencies and other agencies are now learning that these fiscal problems are symptoms of potentially greater corruption," Balderas said. "And a village or municipality can be infiltrated by criminal elements very easily."
Dona Ana District Attorney Amy Orlando stated in court that Sunland Park's former mayor pro tem and then mayor-elect, Daniel Salinas, 28, had boasted to his codefendants in the cases there that he had ties to the cartels and could call on them to have people who testify against him killed.
Salinas' attorney vehemently denied those allegations.
The two dozen felonies filed against Salinas to date focus on corruption of the financial and voting processes. Although he won the mayor's chair, he was barred from taking office by the terms of his bail.
So allies on the City Council recently named a political newcomer to the job. The new mayor, 24-year-old Javier Perea, most recently worked as a jewelry store employee at an El Paso mall. He replaces former Mayor Martin Resendiz, who dropped a bid for Congress after admitting in a deposition that he signed nine contracts while drunk.
Said Orlando, "Unfortunately I think what is happening down in Sunland Park is that it was being run by a small group of people that were using funds and using the resources there for their own gain, operating it really as just their own little town — not following rules, not following regulations."
Incorporated in 1983, Sunland Park could geographically be considered a suburb of El Paso or Las Cruces, N.M., or even an upscale neighborhood in north Juarez. The town has a modern racetrack, replete with casino gambling, on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande. There are a few store fronts, churches and even horse stables lining its main road.
The residents are friendly, but weary of the attention that they fear has made the town a laughingstock.
Salinas has declined to talk about the case, citing advice from his lawyer. But during an encounter outside his house after the second of his three arrests, he seemed at ease for a man facing multiple felony charges and continued investigation.
"I could write a book," he said with a wry smile.
And the native of the town still has many supporters.
"He is a good man, you can see it in his eyes," a man at the senior center said, before rushing off when asked for his name.
Besides Salinas, several city workers, including the city manager, the city's public information officer, the public works director and former city councilors and the former police chief, have also been indicted in the three separate criminal cases.
In one, Salinas and others are accused of trying to force his mayoral opponent, Gerardo Hernandez, out of the race with the lap dance video. Hernandez, who finished second, told The Associated Press his goal in running was to "make Sunland Park less like Mexico."
In another case, Salinas is accused of giving the former acting police chief the job of chief for convincing his sister not to run against a Salinas ally for city council. And in the third, Salinas and others are accused of billing hookers, drinks and campaign videos to a $12 million fund set up for the city by the owner of Sunland Park casino and racetrack to aid the town's ongoing efforts to get a border crossing built there.
State auditor Balderas said he's been monitoring the town since 2009. A previous auditor recommended the state take over the town in 2004 after finding scores of violations of state and local laws.
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"Sunland Park has had a culture that has lacked accountability for many years," Balderas said. "They probably should have been taken over many years ago. They got more brazen when they didn't."
Copyright 2012 Associated Press