The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight–Part II–A Culture of Corruption

Main Street Sunland Park, NM

Main Street Sunland Park, NM

In an earlier blog I wrote two years ago I discussed a rather tawdry story of election fraud and corruption in the border town of Sunland Park, New Mexico.  The then mayor pro temp, the city manager, and a number of other officials and council members were indicted and sent to jail. Apparently, millions of dollars were misspent, including questionable trips to Mexico by various city officials. The Governor had the city’s finances taken over by the State’s Department of Financial Affairs. Fast forward two years to today. Sunland Park, having just regained back control of its finances from the DFA this past summer, now seems bent on expanding its budget and power by the time-proven method of annexing adjacent properties. In this case the City Council, facing bankruptcy and looking for new avenues of revenue, has cast its eyes on the local community of Santa Teresa, hoping to add this more affluent community to its overall tax base.

Not surprisingly, Santa Teresa residents are less than enthusiastic about becoming a part of a city renowned for its corruption and fraudulent ways. A bedroom community of nearby El Paso, Texas, with some 5,000 executives, retirees, professionals and teachers, Santa Teresa originally was formed as part of an original master plan creating the Santa Teresa Country Club and its surroundings.

Santa Teresa,NM gated community

Santa Teresa, NM gated community

It includes a gated entry, private roads, and homes of substantially higher value than the trailers and adobe/brick structures comprising much of Sunland Park. Even with the local golf course closed due to the financial insolvency of its owner, the residential area presents a stark contrast to the border city of Sunland Park. If one includes the industrial park northwest of the country club area, along with the high school and elementary school, it is not too hard to envision a thriving new metropolis in this border region. That assumes, of course, growth and development not hampered by corrupt or just simply inept oversight by the local government.

Many Santa Teresans have shown up at the Sunland Park City Council meetings to voice their opposition to any proposed annexation. That opposition takes many forms. Obviously, finances play a role. Sunland Park has already indicated the city would tax the new area to the max, roughly twenty percent in new taxes. In exchange they would offer little or nothing in way of services, given most services are already provided by the State or County. Roads within the gated areas are private and would remain outside of the city’s jurisdiction.  Insurance rates in the relatively calm Santa Teresa area would be expected to rise as insurance data would be averaged in with that of Sunland Park.

However, even more of an issue is the culture of corruption embodied in Sunland Park’s government. The problems of malfeasance and official misconduct did not begin nor end with the problems unearthed two years ago. Citizens have complained for years about the problems of the city government in Sunland Park but with little done to change the culture. That seems to be continuing even today where members of the city council seem uninterested or unaware of simple boundaries between public and private interests. As one example, recently a city council member proposed using public funds to market and support a local private charter school, apparently, unaware of the illegality of such public support to a private enterprise.

Rather than being annexed, residents of Santa Teresa are now organizing to incorporate their boundaries and create their own city government. This is not an easy step and may face opposition by not only Sunland Park but, possibly, the county and even state officials who are reluctant to simply assign incorporation status without careful consideration. This, of course, works both ways. The residents of Santa Teresa must show that they can obtain the necessary funds and secure revenue that will allow them to provide the services they now receive from the State and the County.  They will need to provide for the salary of even a barebones city government—a city clerk/treasurer and a police chief, to pay for or find the police and fire services now provided by the county, and to provide road repair and other services (garbage collection) in those sectors where they are not provided privately. More importantly, they must provide for an open and transparent governance not seen to date with Sunland Park.

Stepping back, a bit this is not just a local interest story involving a few thousand residents living in a little known area of the border. As already noted the three-quarter of a million metropolis of El Paso lies only a few miles from the center of both of these communities. It sits on the border next to a two million plus population of Juarez, Mexico—notorious for its narco-trafficking, corruption and violence. El Paso itself has been embroiled in various levels of corruption, including a major education scandal and corruption charge leading to the State’s taking over the El Paso Independent School Board and imprisonment of the School Superintendent, local business and public officials’ being indicted and convicted of corruption and misuse of public funds, continuing investigations by state and federal law enforcement of ongoing charges of corruption and malfeasance, etc. A local FBI agent familiar with a number of these investigations was quoted as saying El Paso’s culture of corruption was worse than that of many other cities in the country such as New Orleans or Chicago, where “pay to play” was and is the norm for conducting public and private business in this border region. Unfortunately, the continuing unearthing of more cases of corruption and indictments only seems to support his charges.

El Paso once one of the fastest growing metropolises in the Southwest, home in the past to a number of national and international companies (Continental, Hilton, El Paso Natural Gas), now struggles to establish itself again as a region worthy of economic investment and growth, to show itself equal to such other Southwestern cities as Phoenix, Tucson, San Antonio and San Diego. It has great educational institutions (UTEP and Texas Tech medical School), one of the largest manufacturing bases in North America, major defense hubs and investments at Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range, a thriving art and cultural arts community, and a new, resurgent entrepreneurial culture. Issues of corruption, real or otherwise, can only drag on El Paso’s economic resurgence and negatively impact people on the outside who are looking to invest in communities with known values and quality of life standards suitable for their families and companies.

It cannot be lost on anyone within or outside our border community of the possible link of corruption in El Paso and its proximity to Juarez. In terms of physical security and safety the differences between Juarez and El Paso are like night and day. El Paso is arguably one of the safest cities if not the safest city of its size in the U.S. What is less clear is whether it meets the same standards of law and order when it comes to the more ethically driven crimes of corruption and malfeasance—so called white collar crimes. I spent more than a decade of my professional career living and working in Latin America, including Mexico, Venezuela and Argentina. I have traveled extensively to the rest of Latin America both as a private academic, as well as a government official. I concluded long ago that one of the major factors preventing many of these countries from obtaining the degree of development and economic growth commensurate with their levels of education, natural resources, and capabilities was the pervasive culture of corruption. Most Latinos have little if any trust of their governments, assuming they are corrupt, starting from the highest levels of the Presidents and Ministers, down to the local police and justices. Rather than a rule of law it is a rule of morditas—bribes—that governs much of everyday living in Latin America. Without an atmosphere of trust and belief in their institutions of government, it is hard to see how these countries can rise to their highest potentials and capabilities.

In the U.S. on a national scale we are involved in a major debate regarding comprehensive immigration reform. The large number of undocumented (“illegal”) immigrants, mostly from Mexico and other Latin American countries, has stirred strong passions on both sides of the issue. Opponents to any reform see illegal immigration as unacceptably attacking our rule of law and fairness. In their passion they disregard any humanitarian or even economic concerns related to the undocumented immigrant issue, the concerns that proponents of immigration reform see as paramount to any comprehensive resolution. Even a perception that the culture of corruption rampant in Mexico can or will spill over into the U.S. in our border regions as already noted creates a problem for the economic development and well-being of these border sectors. Seen from a national perspective, extending beyond the border, such perceptions and concerns only add fuel to the raging debate for or against immigration reform.

Incumbent upon any community whether at the local, state or national level is the requirement to ensure that our laws are applied fairly and equally, openly and honestly. That requires creating and maintaining an atmosphere of trust in the institutions of government and their officials, regardless of the level. In the case of the community of Santa Teresa the culture of corruption that has surrounded Sunland Park gives it cause for great concern. That same concern can be applied to El Paso where any, while more sophisticated and, perhaps, more pervasive culture of corruption is no less damaging. At the end of the day it is up to the citizens of those communities to ensure their governments are held to the highest standards of honesty and fairness. That is done through constant vigilance, verification and, ultimately, failing all else, the ballot box.  As I learned in my many years in DC, all national politics are local—while we may think nationally we must act locally.—Paul Maxwell

 

This document edited by Carol Feickert, CeeJay Publications, Denver, Colorado. Contact [email protected]

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6 thoughts on “The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight–Part II–A Culture of Corruption

  1. I seem to recall a charge of racism leveled against the FBI because the mordida was a part of Mexican culture and who were these gringos to say it’s illegal.

    • Unfortunately, it is part of their culture, just not one we wish to emulate nor should they perpetuate. I stand by my statements about a culture of corruption–bribe or mordita it comes out the same in terms of eroding society and rational rule of law.

  2. One immediate thought…what prevails in Argentina is the “mafia” model of action, brought by the tidal wave of southern Italian immigrants in the early 20th century and still dominating life in Buenos Aires today. When the economic crisis led to scavengers going through apartment building trash looking for anything of value to sell, immediately there were “capos” imposing a fee for access to the most lucrative blocks.

    Once established patterns of behavior are extremely difficult to erradicate; the recent events in our own society demonstrate, for example, how racism has not gone away despite the pious statements from the Supreme Court and other institutions about how much has changed since the 1960s. Distrust of government built up in colonial societies and poisoned the atmosphere after independence. If the citizens of Sunland Park tolerated or even benefitted from the culture of corruption there, it will certainly not change after just a few years under DFA control. And it is clear that quite a few people in El Paso are benefitting from behind-the-scenes decisions that do nothing for the average citizen. Unfortunately the response is likely to be apathy, and an apparently rational conclusion that there is no point in even voting as nothing will change. There is a reason why the election turnout in El Paso is the worst in the state.

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