COLUMBUS, N.M. – The dusty little border town of Columbus, New Mexico, with almost no visible means of support, has been seeing something of a boom in the past year: Brand-new sport utility vehicles with flashy wheel rims are parked just off the bleak main drag. Homes are selling quickly, sometimes for cash.
The source of this sudden wealth? An influx of Mexican drug smugglers, investigators say.
The smugglers are fleeing the Mexican army's occupation of the town of Palomas, on the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border fence, and settling in Columbus, where there has been a law enforcement vacuum. The four-man police force in Columbus has turned over seven times in three years because of scandal or apathy.
"We know the names of the people," said Luna County Sheriff Raymond Cobos, who is based in Deming, 35 miles away. "I know that if I were a person involved in criminal activity, whether it's drug-related, human smuggling related, I certainly would welcome the absence of police."
So far, Columbus has been spared any violence, even though the sheriff's investigators estimate 10 percent of the population of 2,000 may be involved in illegal activity.
"I would say greater," said resident Robert Odom. "If a person wanted to, they could make a good living in Columbus — not legally, but they can make a lot of money if they are willing to risk going to jail."
Ranches and farms in the area are the largest legitimate employers, along with the few shops and cafes in town. Officially, the median income is less than $15,000 a year, a sum that is hard to reconcile with the sudden prosperity around town.
"There's a lot of people who don't work but have a lot of possessions," Odom said, adding that he often spots local teens driving fancy new cars. "They have hubcaps that cost more than my truck."
Real estate agent Martha Skinner, a former Columbus mayor, said she had her best year in 2008, selling about $500,000 in property in town, some to locals, some to Mexican buyers. The median home value in Columbus is about $52,000.
She said she had a few cash transactions where she couldn't help thinking, "Well, where did they get this money?"
Some residents and local officials say that without the illegal cash, the town might not survive.
Last month, Columbus got a new police chief, Angelo Vega, who said any illegal activity will be met with jail time. "This is a new day for Columbus," he declared.
In Palomas, the Mexican army took over law enforcement a year ago after the local police force was driven out by the drug dealers.
The Columbus police department has been in disarray too, plagued with unqualified officers and allegations of wrongdoing. One chief was arrested on gun theft charges that were later dropped, and two others were never certified police officers.
Working from a temporary trailer with wood paneling and cracked linoleum floors, Vega may be fighting an uphill battle. Around Columbus, some townspeople don't see a problem.
"Criminals don't live here," said Maria Gutierrez, the 48-year-old owner of the Pancho Villa Cafe, where menus include a wanted poster for the Mexican outlaw whose 1916 raid on the United States took place on this patch of desert. "The problem is in Palomas. It's serene here. It's tranquil here."
It is not clear whether the smugglers are legal or illegal immigrants, but local law enforcement authorities say that's not their business, it's the federal government's. And townspeople don't seem to care either way.
Odom said he suspects that the crime plaguing much of Mexico — more than 10,700 people have been killed since Mexico's president cracked down on the drug trade after taking office in 2006 — hasn't crossed into Columbus because the smugglers living here don't want to draw any attention from U.S. authorities.
But the sheriff said things could erupt at any time.
"To me it's kind of like living in proximity to a refinery," Cobos said. "If you have gasoline fumes that you can't properly vent, or control, and you have them in a confined space, all you need is a spark."