COLUMBUS, N.M. (AP) - A sheriff's department assigned to patrol a small New Mexico town that disbanded its police department following a gun smuggling ring involving the mayor and police chief said the town will likely be a permanent part of its patrol, while some residents said they'd like to have their police department back.
The Las Cruces Sun-News reports that since Luna County Sheriff Raymond Cobos created a plan to keep Columbus monitored 24 hours a day, his department has racked up expenses of between $17,000 and $18,000 a month to pay the salaries, overtime and fuel costs necessary to patrol Columbus.
"Once the police chief was arrested, and the mayor and other individuals, we got involved because there was no law enforcement," said Luna County Sheriff's Department Capt. Arturo Baeza, a spokesman for the department.
Last July, the town voted to dissolve its police department after 11 people were charged in an 84-count federal indictment involving arms smuggling to Mexican cartels. Police Chief Angelo Veg, Mayor Eddie Espinoza, and a trustee, Blas Gutierrez, were among 11 defendants charged. All but one of the 11 have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.
Baeza told the Sun-News that Columbus would most likely be a permanent part of the sheriff's patrol. "I don't see them ever getting a police department ever back on its feet," he said.
But he acknowledged that the presence of Luna County sheriff's deputies in Columbus would be a problem for some people. "I am sure there are people there who really didn't want us down there," Baeza said. "They kind of resent us going over there, I'm sure."
One of these is Walter Simpson, a resident of more than 30 years and a captain with the Columbus Fire Department. Simpson said he doesn't like the assumption from Luna County that his town will not ever have the capacity to sustain its own police department.
"That's the way (Sheriff) Cobos would like it, too. He would like total control of us down here. He would like us to be under his thumb," said Simpson, who was adamant that one day Columbus would sort out its finances and again open its police department.
"It's going to happen. We are very positive down here, regardless of what people think," said Simpson. "We will pull through it."
Nicole Lawson, appointed as Columbus mayor in June to replace her jail-bound predecessor, is the town's 37-year-old Emergency Medical Technician who is now assigned to clean up the town's finances.
The task, she said, is proving to be difficult
"It's frustrating, and it's hard. I have such dedicated workers, and I have to send them home," Lawson said about staff who is working late to help her sort through the finances. "I understand me staying late. But I have a mom of three in there working until midnight, then up at six and doing it again."
Before Columbus can consider starting its own police force again, the finances would have to be straightened out and the city would need to become profitable, she said. To do that, a 30-year loan for $700,000 might be necessary, Lawson said. She also said a forensic audit into the town's money trail is part of fixing its woes.
"Somebody will be held responsible for what happened" to the town's finances, said Lawson, whose term ends in March 2014.
Lawson said she can understand why people in her community would be frustrated by the myriad problems.
"I share your frustration," she said when asked what message she would send to her town. "Please don't give up. Stay involved. This is your community. Don't ever close your eyes or back down. The money that goes to that office is your money. The things that are done should be done to serve you."
One of the Luna County sheriff's deputies who is now patrolling Columbus said he was concerned less with politics than with the danger that he said still exists in the small border town.
"There is still an element in Columbus that certainly does not want an independent law enforcement oversight, which the sheriff's department provides," said Luna County Sheriff Lt. Robert Odom. "These are certain groups of people in town who have a history of being involved in criminal activity. Most people here won't talk to you about it because they are afraid."
Information from: Las Cruces Sun-News
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