Elected Officials' Arrests Shock Border Town Earlier this month, federal agents busted a suspected gunrunning ring that allegedly includes the mayor, police chief and a city councilman of Columbus, N.M. The government alleges the officials used the power and privileges of office to buy weapons destined for a Mexican drug cartel.
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Elected Officials' Arrests Shock Quiet Border Town

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Elected Officials' Arrests Shock Quiet Border Town

Elected Officials' Arrests Shock Quiet Border Town

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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

NPR's John Burnett has the story.

JOHN BURNETT: Federal agents swooped down on this remote border outpost and arrested Mayor Eddie Espinoza, Police Chief Angelo Vega, village trustee Blas Gutierrez and seven others. They've all been indicted for conspiracy to smuggle guns and making false statements to obtain firearms.

ROBERT ODOM: And if you read the indictment, there's damning evidence there. And it would point to the fact that our village was being run by a criminal cartel.

BURNETT: Columbus shares a land border with Palomas, Mexico. Odom says smuggling north to south, known locally as movidas, has a long tradition here - people, drugs, computers, televisions and now, guns.

ODOM: I don't think we expected that, because we know, we've seen, people killed in Palomas just right over there, and heads on the plaza cut off, and the mayor of Palomas murdered and his body burned up. To think that our elected officials were cooperating with that, I think it was more than we can still comprehend.

BURNETT: Indeed, Mexican law enforcement later seized some of the smuggled firearms at five murder scenes in Palomas and Juarez. Captain Arturo Baeza of the Sheriff's Department says that's the cartels' standard M.O.

ARTURO BAEZA: Well, usually what they do is they'll get a U.S. citizen. They'll have somebody doesn't have a criminal record, of course. And they'll buy one gun, then later two and then so forth. And then they get more people doing that. And it just keeps multiplying.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SPEAKING SPANISH)

BURNETT: Unidentified Man: (through translator) The gringos always blame Mexicans that we're the corrupt ones, but this deal with the guns in your country, now we see that there's corruption in the United States, too.

BURNETT: In a small shopping center in Palomas that caters to American tourists - the few who still venture across the border - a woman who gives her name as Irma stands in front of the eyeglasses shop where she works. She says she was born in Colorado and lives with her Mexican husband in Palomas.

IRMA: I was so embarrassed when I heard that, because everybody here in Mexico looked at me. You're a United States citizen, did you hear what your people did?

BURNETT: What did you say to them?

IRMA: Oh my god, I'm so sorry. Because a weapon is more dangerous than a drug.

BURNETT: The arrests in Columbus are part of that push. Eleven defendants have been indicted, none has been found guilty, one is still a fugitive.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND CHIMES)

BURNETT: On a recent afternoon, a great sandstorm blows in from the west, enveloping the weather-beaten buildings of Columbus in brown grit and adding to the town's Wild West demeanor. Do accusations that the city leadership is a cabal of gun traffickers worry longtime resident July McClure?

JULY MCCLURE: In spite of everything that goes on here, I don't lock my door. I leave things in the yard and gone for several days and nothing's ever disturbed. It's still a very safe place to be.

BURNETT: July McClure is a volunteer firefighter and a co-owner of the Tumbleweed Theater. She played an alien in the latest production. She seems to take the federal gun bust in stride - indeed, with a twinkle in her eye.

MCCLURE: Sometimes I think the Pancho Villa energy is still alive, and it creeps into our society living right here on the border.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News.

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