Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times (m341utpd20120509102402/600 )
COLUMBUS, N.M. — From a small hill at a state park here, the border town of Palomas, Mexico, can be made out through the desert haze. It lies four miles to the south, but the corruption that roils Palomas and the rest of Northern Mexico may as well be a block away.
Last year, black sedans and hatchbacks loaded with federal agents poured into Columbus, a town of 2,000 people, arresting the mayor, the police chief, a city trustee and nine others. They have all pleaded guilty in a gun-smuggling operation that sold about 100 firearms, mostly assault rifles, to Mexican drug cartels.
"Unfortunately, the border is just one vast conspiracy," said Howard Anderson, the lawyer for former Mayor Eddie Espinoza.
In southern Texas over the last year and a half, nine lawmen have been charged with allowing guns or drugs to illegally cross the border between Laredo and Brownsville. In Sunland Park, N.M., authorities are investigating a dozen officials, and the mayor and city manager have left office. In the last eight years, 130 U.S. Border Patrol agents have been arrested and 600 more are under investigation.
"It all comes down to taking some of the lowest-paid public servants and putting them in a position" where salaries can be doubled, said James Phelps, an assistant professor at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. "The likelihood of getting caught is extremely low, and the reward can be very high."
Javier Lozano used to work as a police officer in Palomas. Now he presides as municipal judge in Columbus. He long suspected that eventually Columbus or some other U.S. border town would be tarnished.
Unless the cartel violence is stopped, he warned, more U.S. communities within eyesight of Mexico will be disgraced.
At Columbus City Hall, the new mayor, Nicole Lawson, said almost everyone in town was related to someone in Palomas. Americans live in Palomas because it is cheaper, and they can drive to Columbus for school and healthcare. Like Lozano, she had worried about when her hometown would be compromised.
The border? "That's just a line in the air," she said.
In the Columbus scheme, Espinoza, the mayor for several years, rented an apartment in El Paso, Texas, to store weapons before they were carried or driven across the border, officials said. About 200 were sold, they said, half of them making it to Mexico.
Anderson, his lawyer, said the mayor pocketed $100 for each of the 16 firearms he handled that made it across the Rio Grande. "We're not talking about a lot of money," he acknowledged. "It's nickel-and-dime stuff."
Anderson said the mayor, a Navy veteran and former state park official, had hoped to leave something for his son serving in Afghanistan.
Police Chief Angelo Vega, 41, was one of nine chiefs to serve Columbus in the last eight years. Luna County Sheriff Raymond Cobos said he thought Vega was particularly unlikable because he betrayed the badge.
"This was just out-and-out corruption," Cobos said. "His transactions cost people [in Mexico] their lives. But then, anybody with a complete lack of moral compass, moral direction, will do anything."
Blas Gutierrez, 31, a city trustee, faces up to 10 years in prison. His family and his attorney said his drug habit put him in need of ready cash. When he was arrested, he had just been reelected to a four-year term in Columbus, and his family was fairly prominent on both sides of the border, running grocery stores, a gas station and a pharmacy.
"He knows he really destroyed his family," said his attorney, Charles McElhinney. "He's got a few young kids, and his wife most likely will be deported back to Mexico."
Officials said Gutierrez found a firearms dealer in Chaparral, N.M., who sold the weapons out of his trailer-court home with a U.S. flag flying out front. That dealer, Ian Garland, a former police officer and decorated veteran, has also pleaded guilty. He contends agents from theBureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosivesencouraged him to sell the firearms, much like what happened in Phoenix under the federal Fast and Furious surveillance operation, in which 2,000 weapons were lost across the border.
Robert Gutierrez, Blas Gutierrez's father, is heartbroken. In the back room of his San Jose grocery in Columbus, he spoke sadly of the cross-border culture that he, his parents and his children embraced, only to see so much of their heritage scarred by guns and drugs.
"I've lived here all this time, the last 40 years," he said. "It's part of the border area, where things come and go. They come up north illegally or not, and they go south illegally or not."
He brushed back his long black-and-white hair. "When you grow up here," he said, "you accept this."