By Rob Reynolds
Columbus, N.M., Police Chief Angelo Vega, shown here, along with the mayor and a town trustee were arrested by federal agents on drug and weapons charges. The tiny border community is known for its attack by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa nearly a century ago.
Until very recently, the little town of Columbus, New Mexico, had just one modest claim to fame: on March 11, 1916, it was raided by Mexican revolutionary leader Francisco “Pancho” Villa.
Villa's men sacked the town, causing several deaths and considerable destruction. The band then hightailed it back across the border, ahead of a punitive expedition sent by US President Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson's 10,000 troops failed to nab Villa, and the border town slumbered away the century beneath the New Mexico sun.
Now, Columbus has found new notoriety in connection with another kind of banditry. In March of this year, federal authorities swooped in on the town in helicopters and Jeeps, arresting 10 residents.
Among those snatched up in the raid were Mayor Eddie Espinosa, police chief Angelo Vega and village trustee Blas Gutierrez. They were charged with smuggling 400 guns across the border for Mexican crime gangs.
The haul of confiscated firearms included dozens of AK-47-type automatic weapons. The leaders of the gun-running ring, Espinosa, Vega and Gutierrez, have all pleaded guilty and face long prison sentences.
The town is still in shock, says the new mayor, Nicole Lawson: “I think it rattled us to our core. Its taken us this long to really get on our feet and continue on.”
Lawson, a soft spoken woman who not only serves as mayor but spends nights as an emergency medical technician and days home-schooling her 13-year-old mildly autistic son, discovered that Columbus was nearly broke.
“The books were a mess,” she said in an interview in her small office. “We owed money to the Internal Revenue Service. The town was in arrears on its debts.”
Lawson was forced to cut services, like the local library, and to lay off town employees. The town's scandal-tainted police department was abolished entirely. Law-enforcement duties are now handled by deputies from the Luna County Sheriff's office.
“It's a disappointment,” Lawson said of the financial mess she inherited, “because that's a position of trust, and our trust was violated.”
The corruption of Columbus is a telling example of the power that Mexican drug gangs exert from across the border. That illicit influence spreads far beyond Columbus.
Federal officials told Al Jazeera unequivocally that the cartels are determined to infiltrate the US agency that is primarily responsible for stopping narcotics from entering the country.
James Tomsheck, the assistant commissioner for internal affairs with the Customs and Border Protection service, or CBP, says “We do see an increasingly sophisticated effort on their part to identify potential corrupt persons in our workforce and to recruit persons into their workfoirce and direct them to apply for positions within CBP.”
129 Customs and Border Patrol agents have been arrested and charged with corruption in recent years. More than 600 investigations of possible corruption are under way.
In some cases, Mexican cartel operatives paid huge cash bribes to “turn” border patrol agents. Sometimes agents were snared in romantic relationships and then blackmailed into doing the cartel's bidding.
Tomsheck says officials are deeply concerned about the integrity of CBP, which he called “vulnerable” to penetration.
“In many instances we have found our employees were targeted by transnational organised crime groups operating on both sides of the border”, Tomsheck says.
The agency says it does rigorous background checks. Since 2008, it has required polygraph or lie-detector tests of all CBP job applicants. That has helped weed out some of the bad apples.
Tomsheck says it has enabled officials “to identify fairly significant numbers of employees obviously unsuitable for employment in any law enforcement organisation.”
Back in Columbus, I sat with a group of residents gathered in a small public park across from city hall. One slightly intoxicated older man complained of the lack of decent cockfights in recent years, while his wife said that since there are no jobs for young people in Columbus, it's no wonder many succumb to the temptation of working with Mexican drug gangs or gun runners.
Maria Delgado said she worries about crime, now that the town has no police force of its own. “We have reason to be afraid, because there is no one to protect us,” she said, frowning. Fear and corruption are growing, as Mexico's drug empires spread beyond its borders.