ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – In exchange for protection and help with smuggling drugs and guns, a former police chief in a New Mexico border town collected more than $2,000 a month from the Juárez Cartel, a former town official testified Wednesday.
Blas "Woody" Gutierrez, the former Columbus village trustee, told a federal court that former Police Chief Angelo Vega also received $1,500 each time he allowed cartel members to use village vehicles, including police cruisers, for the syndicate's various operations, the Albuquerque Journal reported (http://bit.ly/1929zPJ ).
Gutierrez's testimony came in a trial involving Danny Burnett, a former school superintendent who is charged with leaking information about a federal wiretap investigation into a Columbus gun and drug smuggling ring.
It was the first time such details from the 2011 gun smuggling case — which ensnared Gutierrez, Vega and former Mayor Eddie Espinoza — have been made public as all of the defendants have pleaded guilty.
Another former Columbus mayor and current city councilor, Martha Skinner, said Thursday she would have guessed Vega would have been paid more for the actions that cost him his career and could ultimately land him in prison. Vega made about $3,000 a month working for the city.
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"It surprises me that it's that low," Skinner said of the cartel payments. "I would have guessed (he got paid) at least $10,000 a month."
But George W. Grayson, a College of William & Mary government professor who has written extensively about Mexican drug cartels, said it's not unusual for cartels to bribe U.S. public officials with small amounts of money. Some officials don't make high salaries and those working in border towns may have relatives in Mexico and feel threatened by cartels, Grayson said.
Meanwhile, other officials may be bribed with higher amounts. "It's just the cost of doing business and the cartels know this," Grayson said.
Vega is the key prosecution witness in the case against Burnett, the husband of Assistant U.S. Attorney Paula Burnett, who has not been charged with any crime.
Vega testified Wednesday that he didn't remember exactly how much he was paid or how long he worked for the cartel. But he admitted running background checks and license plates at the request of cartel members and buying military gear at law enforcement supply stores for members of the Juárez Cartel and its enforcement arm, La Linea.
Gutierrez said Vega told him that he had a friend whose wife worked in the U.S. Attorney's Office and that the friend told Vega their telephones were tapped.
Gutierrez said he was not sure Vega was telling the truth until the two men met in Columbus and Vega destroyed his new phone in front of Gutierrez.
"He did it to show he wasn't messing around," Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez also testified that Vega claimed his friend could make the case go away for $20,000.
Other government witnesses testified that no one in the U.S. Attorney's Office could make a criminal case "go away" and that it would be impossible in an investigation as intensive as the one targeting the Columbus gun smuggling ring.
Assistant U.S. attorneys involved in the investigation testified that the quantity and quality of telephone conversations dropped after Feb. 17, 2011, the day Vega had lunch with Danny Burnett at an Albuquerque restaurant.
Gutierrez and Vega were among more than a dozen defendants who pleaded guilty in the case.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.