A local political scandal in a small New Mexico border town keeps getting bigger, with the trails of alleged crime crossing the state line into Texas and over the international border into Mexico. In a spider-like web of intrigue and seething corruption, the saga of Sunland Park implicates New Mexico politicians, border business interests, local press people and possibly even Mexican organized crime groups. The fall-out from the criminal cases has intensified a political crisis, and threatens to climax in an unprecedented state take-over of municipal affairs during a key election year.
The drama began breaking in February 2012, shortly before Sunland Park’s March 6 mayoral election, when one of the candidates and the city manager were arrested by New Mexico State Police and accused of extortion. City Councilor/Mayor Pro-Tem Daniel Salinas and City Manager Jaime Aguilera were charged along with others in connection with the secret filming of a video in which rival candidate Gerardo Hernandez appeared getting a lap dance from an unidentified, topless woman.
According to subsequent accounts, the plot enlisted Mexican journalist Jose Reyes, who had previously worked for El Diario de Juarez-El Paso, to snare Hernandez in a trap, as well as an unidentified man brought in from Mexico and then attired in a cheap Dollar General store-bought disguise. The mystery man later confronted Hernandez with the lap dance tape, demanding that the candidate withdraw from the mayor’s race or see the video released to news media. Instead, Hernandez went to law enforcement authorities.
Although Salinas’ arrest was well-publicized prior to the March 6 election, the 28-year-old politician was officially declared the winner by a small margin in a low voter turnout contest. A third candidate, Jose Luis Hernandez (not related to Gerardo Hernandez), also was on the ballot. The largely unknown Jose Luis Hernandez’s entrance into the race fueled speculation that the candidacy was part of a strategy to confuse voters into dividing their votes among the two Hernandezes to the benefit of Salinas.
Other elements of a possible, orchestrated election fraud surfaced. Unconfirmed reports circulated that people were paid cash to vote for Salinas. In early March, the Dona Ana County District Attorney’s office charged three former or current municipal officials, including ex-city councilor and Salinas ally Angelica Marquez, with violating state law by getting people from neighboring El Paso, Texas, to illegally cast ballots.
As election day crept near, Dona Ana County District Attorney Amy Orlando petitioned to postpone the voting. State District Judge Susan Riedel disagreed, ruling that the voice of the people must be heard and the election proceed. Amid mounting scandal, Frank Coppler, prominent Santa Fe lawyer and longtime attorney for Sunland Park, suddenly resigned.
The lap dance caper was only the beginning of problems for Salinas, who has since been arrested twice on other charges. Last month, Salinas was slapped with bribery charges for allegedly conspiring with Luis Monarez, a former Sunland Park police chief who had been previously dismissed over questions surrounding underage drinking, to rehire Monarez in return for convincing the policeman’s sister not to run for a city council post desired for a Salinas ally.
Most recently, the former mayor-elect was indicted on charges that were connected to a trip he and others took to the Border Legislative Conference last November in Saltillo, Mexico, a city submerged in narco-violence and a reputed stronghold of the Zetas crime organization. On Good Friday, Salinas was whisked from his Sunland Park home to the Dona Ana County Detention Center by New Mexico State Police officers.
Again filed by the Dona Ana County District Attorney’s Office, the case revolves around an alleged scheme by Salinas and political allies to get election campaign kickbacks worth $20,000 from a $2.4 million environmental impact study contract awarded by the City of Sunland Park to Juarez-El Paso businessman Jorge Angulo of Envirosystems Management Consultants., Inc., for a proposed new border crossing at Sunland Park-Anapra. Ostensibly, Salinas and company flew to the Saltillo conference to promote the plan.
Although it is an impoverished community of about 14,000 people, according to the 2010 Census, Sunland Park has great economic potential due to its choice border location directly across from the Ciudad Juarez colonia of Anapra. Building a border crossing there would not only reduce congestion and delays on El Paso’s international bridges, but provide opportunities for lucrative construction contracts and new area businesses.
In the immediate vicinity of Sunland Park, land is or will be a hot commodity in the coming years. A new crossing at Sunland Park/Anapra could also serve as a conduit for illicit commerce-in both directions.
The money to lay the groundwork for a new international crossing came from a $12 million fund donated to Sunland Park by Stan Fulton, owner of the Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino. .
The Border Legislative Conference was attended by state lawmakers from the U.S.-Mexico border states, who meet regularly to draft policy recommendations to their respective federal governments. The final conference statement did not include any mention of the long-proposed Sunland Park-Anapra crossing, but endorsed the importance of border crossings in general as drivers of economic development.
According to a criminal complaint, Angulo paid Saltillo conference costs for Salinas and associates that included nighttime romps in Saltillo’s red-light world. Angulo then allegedly billed the city for the conference “expenses.”
The 69-year-old businessman was jailed in El Paso to await extradition to New Mexico in order to face fraud, conspiracy and related criminal charges. The case against Angulo, Salinas and likely others also alleges that Salinas and friends sought a campaign donation from Angulo to run Angelica Marquez for the Dona Ana County Commission so she would be in a position to help control water rights.
Court documents in the State of New Mexico v. Jorge I. Angulo indicate that key players in the alleged plots, including former City Manager Aguilera and Public Information Officer Arturo Alba, are singing to prosecutors. Alba is well-known in the Ciudad Juarez and El Paso media world, where he worked for such outlets as Channel 44, owned by the well-known Cabada family.
Salinas defense attorney Joshua Spencer recently maintained that cooperating witnesses have “credibility” problems. The lawyer also asserted that his client was not the “flight risk” as portrayed by prosecutors. Still in the hoosegow, Salinas has pleaded not guilty to the numerous charges pending against him.
In the Angulo case, Salinas was initially held on one million dollars bail, an amount which was later lowered to $250,000. Dona Ana County Prosecutor Steve Blankenship said that Salinas had threatened cooperating witnesses and even was heard claiming he had connections to violent Mexican drug cartels.
A certain air of fear and intimidation shrouds the Sunland Park cases. Separately, Blankenship confirmed that a New Mexico State Police officer who resides in Sunland Park recently had his patrol car marked with a threatening message consisting of “watch it or watch out,” when it was parked outside Sunland Park City Hall. Blankenship told FNS that his office “would take any threat seriously.” The county prosecutor said he did not know if the reported April 6 shooting of a parked, unmarked state police vehicle in Las Cruces had anything to do with the Sunland Park turmoil. No one was reported injured in the Las Cruces incident.
The New Mexico cases could be only the beginning of trouble for Daniel Salinas and other defendants. The geographic scope of the criminal accusations implies federal violations. For instance, the alleged plan to rehire Luis Monarez as police chief was supposedly discussed at a Village Inn restaurant. There are no Village Inns in Sunland Park, but several are open for business in El Paso right across the state line. Two of the men sought on charges, journalist Jose Reyes and former Sunland Park Public Works Director Dario Hernandez, are said to have fled to Mexico. What’s more, the latest felony case against Salinas and others is tied in part to Mexico travel.
“We can’t confirm or deny whether we have an ongoing investigation,” said Elizabeth Martinez, executive assistant U.S. attorney and spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office in New Mexico. In comments to FNS, Martinez said that the federal government frequently looks for the existence of a nexus of interstate commerce in order to decide whether to pursue a particular case. Late last week, Sunland Park Interim Mayor Isabel Santos and City Councilor Carmen Rodriguez told the El Paso press the FBI was already interviewing people in their city.
Prosecutor Steve Blankenship said he is pretty confident that fugitives Jose Reyes and Jesus Dario Hernandez are south of the border. Efforts to convince the men to voluntarily return rather than confront lengthy extradition proceedings are underway, Blankenship said.
Hernandez is a U.S-born citizen, with a “lot to lose,” Blankenship noted, while Reyes is a Mexican citizen but has family and property in El Paso. Blankenship added that his office is working on identifying the dancer in the video that was used in the alleged extortion attempt against Gerardo Hernandez.
Back on the political front, Sunland Park is grappling with a crisis that is shaping up as an unparalleled one even in the frequently turbulent world of New Mexico governance. In a twist of fate for the history books, Daniel Salinas was officially elected mayor but never assumed office because pending criminal charges and judicial restrictions prevented him from taking the required oath.
With a 30-day deadline for a swearing in fast approaching, Salinas’ lawyer appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court, which took only minutes to decline overruling a lower court order barring Salinas from having any contact with city employees or property. Courts were squelching the rights of voters, defense attorney Spencer contended.
Meanwhile, newly-elected City Councilor Isabel Santos, a longtime environmental justice activist, emerged as the interim mayor. A special April 12 City Council meeting to consider the naming of a permanent mayor and new city manager was unexpectedly postponed after scores of people crowded the council chambers beyond capacity.
Shouting and tension ensued at the meeting, with followers of Gerardo Hernandez, the number two vote-getter in March’s mayoral election, demanding that their man be installed as mayor.
And if the political confusion wasn’t prevalent enough already, two previously unknown individuals popped out of the woodwork to publicly announce that they were available to be mayor too. Further stirring up stormy political waters, Gerardo Hernandez declared on Friday, April 13, that he would legally challenge the results of the March 6 election.
Robert Ardovino, owner of the popular Ardovino’s Desert Crossing restaurant and member of a family with a long history in Sunland Park, said he attended the April 12 meeting only to leave in frustration over the lack of political progress from local elected officials.
“Right now, it’s just a little bit of chaos, and it seems like its going to be kind of tough for these councilors now to pull some kind of semblance of normalcy,” Ardovino commented to FNS. “That’s what they were elected to do, so they’d better buckle down and get the job done.” Ardovino said his city has been “dragged through the toilet” and urgently needs political order. Unfortunately, city politics is polarized by “two factions who feel they are absolutely right and there is no working together,” he said.
The possibility of a state take-over of Sunland Park’s internal finances looms large.
A pending decision rides on an audit of the city’s finances, and a team from State Auditor Hector Balderas’ office is finalizing a report on any wrong-doings. According to Evan Blackstone, chief of staff for New Mexico State Auditor Hector Balderas, New Mexico law permits the Secretary of Financial Administration to suspend local officials and take control of municipal finances in certain circumstances.
In a phone interview with FNS, Balderas said the financial report and recommendations from his office will go to Governor Susana Martinez, law enforcement agencies and the public in general. Balderas judged the overall picture in Sunland Park as “much more dire than the original reports.”
The New Mexico official declined to say whether he will recommend that Governor Martinez take the reigns of city government, but acknowledged that events such as the botched April 12 meeting could weigh in on his counsel. “I am aware that this would be the first municipal take-over in New Mexico history,” Balderas said, adding that he will be careful in the recommendations he makes in his report.
But Balderas said the Sunland Park crisis also presented a special opportunity for residents and representatives from all levels of government to come together in a common cause of turning around a troubled town.
A positive sign, he said, is that residents are glad to finally see the state paying attention to them and eager to work with his investigators. “This has been a playground for bad actors for some time,” Balderas said of Sunland Park. “This has been a city that has been ignored for some time. What is tragic is that Sunland Park is strategically placed, and they have so much potential.”
The next Sunland Park City Council meeting has been scheduled for Wednesday, April 18, at 6 p.m. in the Riverside Elementary School, a much larger space than the city council’s quarters. How and when a new mayor as well as a new city manager will be selected, and whether they will help bring political stability are among many burning questions at the moment.
Kent Paterson edits Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news from the Center for Latin American and Border Studies of New Mexico State University.