SANTA FE (KRQE) - The state of New Mexico could lose out on tens of millions of dollars because it tacitly allows illegal horse racing tracks to operate in rural areas, according to a state senator.
"If we passively acknowledge and don't do anything about the illegal tracks, we're not living up to our commitment," said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming.
Smith is talking about New Mexico's gambling compact with the state's 14 Indian tribes. That deal says the tribes get to offer nearly all the gambling opportunities in the state outside of the state-sanctioned horse racing tracks.
In return, the tribes promise to turn over a share of their slot machine profits to the state. Last year, that added $66 million to state coffers.
But Smith told KRQE News 13 future payments could be in jeopardy because by ignoring the illegal horse tracks, the state could be violating the compact.
"Once we struck a deal, I expect us to hold up our end of it," he said.
News 13 investigative reporter Larry Barker recently uncovered illegal bush tracks all over New Mexico – many with connections to Mexican drug cartels. He found rigged races, drugged horses, big bets, bigger money and frequent violence because debts are often settled as if this was still the Wild West.
This lawless empire stretches from Grants to Roswell. Police know about them, but say they are hard to shut down.
Still, New Mexico State Police Chief Robert Shilling said law enforcement is not ignoring the problem.
"They're very mobile," he said. "They can pick up their gates and move. They're not building permanent facilities, so it's hard for law enforcement to address."
The most recent attempt by the state to prosecute those behind an illegal horse racing track took place in Roswell in 2009. However, it ended in acquittal after the state couldn't prove the horses were actual race horses.
And Shilling said that with limited resources and few complaints from the public, actively looking for the tracks is not a top priority.
"If this becomes an issue and the executive makes it a priority, we answer to the executive and, by all means, we'd make it a priority," Shilling said.
Pojoaque Pueblo Gov. George Rivera told News 13 he's concerned enough to look into the issue further.
"It's something new for us to examine, and we're going to continue to look at it to see if there is a violation of revenue sharing," Rivera said. "If we're going to be paying revenue sharing for limited exclusivity, we need to be sure what we're paying for."
New Mexico's Gaming Control Board, which regulates all gambling, is working to address the issue, said Executive Director Frank Baca. But in the meantime, the state isn't breaking any of its promises to the tribes, Baca said.
"That type of conduct – illegal conduct – is not the type of event that triggers a violation of the compact," he said. "People have an understanding that some things are simply illegal, and you can't just 100 percent guarantee that all illegal activity, whether it's speeding or anything else, is stamped out."
One of the gaming compacts between the state and five of the tribes is set to expire in three years, when it is up for renegotiation. Smith said he expects the illegal horse tracks to be a major talking point in those negotiations.
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