New Mexico town dissolves police dept after gun smuggling scandal

The scandal-plagued, tiny New Mexico border town of Columbus is dissolving its police department and asking the county sheriff to protect its citizens.

An employee at Columbus City Hall confirmed to The Lookout that the police force has been dissolved. The Luna County Sheriff's Office will now take over patrolling the town.

The town has been upended since federal authorities arrested Police Chief Angelo Vega, Mayor Eddie Espinoza, Village Trustee Blas Gutierrez and nine other residents for conspiring to smuggle hundreds of guns to drug cartels over the border in March. All of the accused have pleaded not guilty, and their trial is expected in October, according to the Las Cruces Sun News. (You can read the indictment here.)

The Associated Press presciently reported in May of 2009 that a law enforcement "vacuum" had made the town attractive to drug smugglers who moved over the border to settle down in Columbus. The "four-man police force in Columbus has turned over seven times in three years because of scandal or apathy," the AP reported, adding that more residents of the formerly modest town were driving flashy cars and buying fancy homes. Vega, who had then just nabbed the police chief job, told the AP that no illegal activity would be tolerated. "This is a new day for Columbus," he said.

In another strange twist, the Las Cruces paper reported that the New Mexico U.S. Attorney's Office has been relieved of its duties in prosecuting the trial late last month. Now, federal attorneys in El Paso, Texas will take over the case. Neither office would tell the paper what was behind the switch, and The Lookout has not yet received a reply to its a request for comment from us to the New Mexico U.S. Attorney's Office.

Gutierrez, the village trustee, only resigned his post on July 8, months after his arrest; he maintains that the arrest was politically motivated. Gutierrez's wife, Gabriela, has also been charged in the smuggling case, and a federal agent said when law enforcement officers made the arrest at their home she was "attempting to hide bulk cash on her person and within her children's shoes."

A new mayor, formerly the town clerk, was just elected in late June. The three remaining town trustees voted to dissolve the police department on July 7.