Drug Smugglers From Mexico Move Into NM Town

Alicia A. Caldwell, AP, May 1, 2009

This dusty little border town with almost no visible means of support has been seeing something of a boom in the past year: Brand-new Lincoln Navigators and Cadillac Escalades with flashy hubcaps 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Some residents and local officials say that without the illegal cash, the town might not survive.

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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.

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