It all began with a lap dance. In mid-February, Sunland Park mayoral candidate Gerardo Hernandez was approached by a stranger in the City Hall parking lot holding a compromising photo and threatening to release the revealing video taken of a stripper’s lap dance in his election headquarters if he didn’t drop out. With, perhaps, a cooler head than when he met with the stripper, Hernandez went to the authorities with the attempted extortion threat. They moved in quickly and seized city records, surveillance videos, computers, and other documents. His election opponent Mayor Pro Temp Daniel Salinas denied any knowledge of the alleged extortion.
Acting City Manager Jaime Aguilera claimed that it was much ado about nothing, saying to the El Paso Times: “We’ve had these things before, where investigators come and go and take records, and the DA never does anything.” Perhaps not the best choice of words. Salinas, Aguilera and others were arrested and charged in the extortion scheme, even as the video found its way onto the airways. Salinas made bail on the initial charges and won the election by 84 votes with major help from some 500 suspicious absentee votes. Salinas’ celebration was cut short, however, as new charges of crimes emerged from the seized city records. The State’s auditors and District Attorney found evidence of even more sordid crimes of corruption and malfeasance.
Felony charges in addition to attempted extortion, include tampering with evidence, conspiracy, election fraud, bribery, misuse of public funds, and corruption. At last count the list of accused Salinas allies–his “gang” –included the acting Police Chief, the City Spokesperson, the Public Works director, two former City Councilors, and two former free lance journalists. Last week the FBI confirmed that they have joined the County and State Attorney in investigating potential federal crimes in the beleaguered city. Sunland Park’s mayor’s seat was left vacant in early April after Salinas was unable to take the oath of office since as a condition of his bonded release he was prohibited from setting foot in City Hall.
Why so much furor over a job paying only $500 per month? Why were so many willing to risk going to jail for corruption in a dusty border town of only 14,000 souls? Most assuredly, part of the answer lies with the $12 million that Sunland Park Casino owner Stanley Fulton donated to help the city create a new pedestrian and personal auto border crossing with neighboring Anapara. No doubt Salinas and his band with so much money on the table could only focus on their own self interests rather than that of the Community. For now the border crossing is on hold with no decisions even where the potential crossing might be built.
To the eye there is little on either side of this stretch of the border–Mexico’s Anapara with its dusty streets with makeshift homes and Sunland Park with only three traffic lights and a host of trailer parks, used car lots, and pawn shops dispersed amongst the urban sprawl. However, the potential and opportunity for economic growth with appropriate leadership abounds. Fulton and other community leaders envision a new flourishing corridor of entertainment and business development that would bring hundreds/thousands of new jobs and opportunities to both sides of the border.
These folks see what’s happening in the neighboring towns of Santa Teresa and San Geronimo to the south and ask how can they be part of this new economic dynamic. For instance the global electronics giant, Foxcon built a 1 million square ft. maquiladora facility in San Geronimo, Chihuahua just down the way.
A new border highway on the Mexican side brings hundreds of workers from Juarez and Anapara to the Foxcon facility where Dell computers, Apple iPhones and iPads are assembled and then sent to customers all over the US via the free trade zone at Santa Teresa. Union Pacific, recognizing the opportunity for not only their busy east-west rail traffic but the potential for new north-south initiatives, recently began building a new $400 million intermodal facility just west of Santa Teresa. Expected to have an overall economic impact of over $500 million and creating more than 600 new permanent jobs, UP’s new inland port will act as a major lynch pin in driving the region’s economic growth. The new facility positions Santa Teresa as a strategic hub for goods movement in this region and will no doubt attract other major companies beyond Foxcon to locate nearby.
Numerous companies, many already located in Santa Teresa’s industrial park, are bringing thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in investment to Southern New Mexico and West Texas. These companies clearly recognize the value of having a close linkage with the industrial base of Juarez and a nearby international port of entry for movement of their goods and services. Working with such organizations as New Mexico International Business Accelerator and the BNSL many of these companies banded together to form the Border Industrial Association. Working collaboratively to strengthen the overall regional infrastructure of the region the Association has successfully brought in millions of dollars in state funds for urgently needed infrastructure for the area. They have captured the attention of many at the state level, including the Governor and the Secretary of Economic Development in New Mexico, who look to invest additional scarce funds. These officials obviously recognize the potential for this region to serve as a unique economic development model impacting the entire state.
Unfortunately, the ongoing problems of Sunland Park cast a pall on potential for investment in the region. Such negative images have already spilled over into such issues as water use, electrical power, waste treatment and recycling, impacting the entire region from West El Paso to Santa Teresa and the Mesilla Valley to Las Cruces. Resolution of these issues requires collaborative efforts from numerous parties in the region never an easy proposition. Even prior to the recent corruption and fraud accusations Sunland Park’s dysfunctional City government had a reputation for creating problems. For example, they unsuccessfully tried to hold off the formation of the independent regional Camino Real Regional Utility Authority which took control of these water resources (one of the few revenue streams for the city) out of the City’s hands. In another example the US Senate recently held hearings in Las Cruces focused on border environment concerns which high-lighted a broken-down wastewater treatment plant — one of two in Sunland Park — and aging infrastructure that are contributing to improper wastewater treatment, impacting the Rio Grande. Another black eye on the City’s management.
In the end it is lost opportunities that may be the largest legacy of the “gang that couldn’t shoot straight.” Their bumbling attempts to try to steal an election, among other crimes would be almost laughable except for the impact on the rest of the local communities. Potential loss of new industry, new jobs and new opportunities desperately needed in the region are the real cost of such shenanigans. Hopefully, swift adjudication by the state and federal governments along with the formation of a new legitimate, local government will allow the full potential of this border region to unfold.–Paul Maxwell