Smuggling A Way Of Life In New Mexico Border Town
COLUMBUS, New Mexico - Federal law enforcement regularly arrests people for smuggling weapons across the border into Mexico. But it's not everyday that they detain a mayor, a town trustee and a police chief as suspected gun traffickers.
That was the situation earlier this month in Columbus, New Mexico, a small border town better known for being invaded by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in 1916.
Columbus is a town of less than 2,000 residents where tumbleweeds practically outnumber people. Longtime residents here say smuggling is a way of life.
“They call it 'movidas' here,” said Lt. Robert Odom, a reserve deputy with the Luna County Sheriff's Department.
Odom, 60, sits in the back seat of a suburban wearing silver aviators and a tan uniform that matches the desert landscape outside. He's lived in Columbus long enough to pick up the local jargon. "Movidas" is basically slang for smuggling.
“It's televisions, people, computers, drugs, guns.," Odom said. "It's everything.”
In Columbus, things move back and forth easily. From city hall, it takes less than five minutes to drive to the port of entry. The land crossing is so short that a brown mutt struts back and forth undetected between the United States and Mexico. Across the border is the town of Palomas, so tightly interconnected with its sister city that American school buses drive to the border to pick up Mexican school kids. Smuggling is a lucrative enterprise for both towns. But residents here were shocked when they learned weapons may be the latest addition to their town's illegal traffic.
On March 10, federal agents swooped into Columbus and arrested 10 people, including Mayor Eddie Espinoza, City Trustee Blas Gutierrez and Chief of Police Angelo Vega. The three are currently detained without bond. Another man is still a fugitive.
They are accused of smuggling more than 200 firearms - including AK-47 assault rifles and body armor - into Mexico. Records show the evidence against them is damning.
According to court records: Gutierrez, know locally as “Woody”, was allegedly receiving phone calls from an inmate inside a Mexican prison who asked him to smuggle guns. Later, he was stopped by federal agents while driving a local police vehicle loaded with weapons, which were seized. In wire tapped conversations, police chief Vega talks about calling federal agents to vouch for Gutierrez in an effort to retrieve the weapons.
July McClure is slender, with blonde hair and co-owns a theater company in Columbus. She sits on the patio of a local restaurant as a dust storm brews in the distance.
“Sometimes I think the Pancho Villa energy is still alive and it creeps into our society living right here on the border,” she said.
In 1916, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa famously invaded the town of Columbus. Today, modern bandits are a problem all across the southwest border. Their actions have serious consequences.
“These guns are not going down there to the cartels... to shoot doves or hunt turkey,” said Luna County Sheriff Raymond Cobos. “They are being used strictly to kill people and to intimidate governments at every level.”
More than 35,000 people have been murdered in Mexico in the last five years. In February an agent with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) assigned to Mexico was shot and killed by cartel assassins with a gun purchased in Texas. Some of the weapons allegedly smuggled out of Columbus were later picked up at murder scenes in Mexico. During a visit to the White House in early March, Mexican President Felipe Calderon urged President Obama to do more to stop the flow of weapons into Mexico.
Outside the main plaza in Palomas, Mexico, a laborer lounges around. The Columbus arrests have been a topic of discussion in town. He won't share his name due to the overall insecurity in Palomas. He said he is angry that Americans smuggle guns used to kill so many in his country.
“The gringos are always complaining about corruption on the Mexican side,” he said. “Well now we can see that in the United States there is also corruption.”