CITY ELECTIONS IN SUNLAND PARK: Part I: Background
(Coming up this weekend: Interviews with the candidates!)
"Arriving there, mingled with the human leaf storm, dragged along by its impetuous force, came the dregs of warehouses, hospitals, amusement parlors, electric plants; the dregs made up of single women and men who tied their mules to hitching posts by the hotel, carrying their single piece of baggage, a wooden trunk or a bundle of clothing, and in a few months each had his own house, two mistresses, and the military title that was due him for having arrived late for the war." Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Leaf Storm (La Hojarasca)
Sunland Park lies in the wake of a leaf storm that swept through long ago. Like all winds its force was invisible to the naked eye but everyone could feel it and you could see the tumbleweeds of hope and the dust and sands of flowering ambition blowing across the landscape, saturating every nook and cranny of the village, ineluctably altering the dreams and lives and calculations of people for miles around. The storm itself was never given a name that stuck, but the name of the man responsible for it, Charlie Crowder, is known to all. And it is the dregs and remnants of the storm unleashed by his vision that are still in play in the politics of the region today. At one moment while the storm was raging the vision appeared to materialize in the form of an oasis, with a green golf course and palm trees but that turned out to be a mirage, and today the golf course where Lee Trevino once played is a dried up patch, brown, a not-quite-living symbol of what might have been.
The life force that kept the grass green and sustained the leaf storm was water. But politicians bashed and ripped apart with bludgeons and crowbars the delicate architecture for water that Crowder, under the watchful eyes of the state engineer, had masterfully crafted over the years. And Sunland Park too often was in the path of the bludgeons. Sunland Park mayor Ruben Segura was arrested by county authorities for the audacity of laying pipes for transporting water the city owned. A developer who promised far more than he delivered to players throughout the region acquired some of Crowder's water in a shadowy legal maneuver backed by the state, governed by Bill Richardson at the time. Later Richardson threatened to take over the city's finances until the mayor and council capitulated to his demands, signing away the city's water rights for a joint powers agreement that cripples the autonomy cities normally have to control their development.
Pieces of the dreams Charlie Crowder dreamed did materialize in spite of all of this. There is an international crossing at Santa Teresa. The port of entry on the US side was assembled by two private citizens, Myles Culbertson and Jack Pickel a quarter century ago, on their own, when state and federal governments dragged their heels. Crowder himself, when the Mexican side delayed, built the twelve-mile road connecting the crossing to the nearest Mexican highway. He rented equipment, crossed the border and built it as Mexican authorities looked the other way. Union Pacific recently finished an intermodal facility for regional traffic. Maquila plants on the Mexican side are recovering from the Great Recession and buses transport workers to them in 24-hour shifts. The largest computer plant in the world lies just a few dozen feet from the international boundary line at Santa Teresa crossing. And the killing sprees that made Juarez the most violent city in the world have subsided. But when the leaf storm ended Crowder had lost land and water and Sunland Park was as impoverished as ever.
In 2011 the mayor of Sunland Park, Martin Resendiz, admitted he had signed 9 contracts to an architectural design company, committing the city to over $1 million, while intoxicated after five hours of drinking with the contractors at Ardovino's, an expensive restaurant in Sunland Park. A city council member, Daniel Salinas, admitted he was present at the time, intoxicated. Resendiz resigned several months later, and mayoral functions passed to Salinas, who was mayor pro tem at the time. But in February 2012 Salinas--now a candidate for mayor--was arrested, along with city manager Jaime Aguilera, on charges of extortion. They were accused of videotaping mayoral candidate Gerardo Hernandez with a lap-dancer and then threatening to release the tape unless Hernandez dropped out of the mayor's race. On March 6 2012 Salinas was elected Mayor, but he was not allowed to serve while under indictment. Aguilera and Salinas pleaded guilty to reduced charges later on. In April 2012 Javier Perea, a 24-year old business administration graduate was named mayor of Sunland Park. But Attorney General Gary King would not let him serve until technical details concerning his appointment were resolved to his exacting standards. Perea was reappointed in August of that year. By that time the state auditor had uncovered sloppy accounting practices and violations of state law and municipal spending regulations. The state took over Sunland Park's finances after suspending two city officials on May 14, and sent an official from Santa Fe to review the books.
It has become socially acceptable within the New Mexico political class to ridicule Sunland Park. Eyeballs roll upward; an air of disbelief is feigned; a knowing smile forms on one's lips. Never mind that in El Paso, less than a mile away from Sunland Park City Hall, as the above events in Sunland were unfolding FBI agents unraveled massive corruption among county and school administration officials going back for years. County Judge Anthony Cobos, a former El Paso City Councilman, was arrested in 2011 and pled guilty in 2013 of receiving bribes in return for contracts in both elected positions. In 2011 El Paso County Judge Dolores Briones pled guilty to embezzlement of federal program funds and was sentenced in 2013. In 2011 Travis Ketner, El Paso County chief of staff was sentenced for receiving bribes as a public official. All in all, FBI investigations of public bribery around that time resulted in 39 federal convictions involving not only El Paso County government officials, but also several El Paso school districts, and well over $2 billion in contracts. Juxtaposed against the cosmic scale of corruption which shook El Paso's political class to its very foundations, election mischief with a lap dancer and contracts signed by a mayor liquored up by contractors, pales by comparison. But Sunland Park, not El Paso, remains the butt of jokes in New Mexico.
In Sunland Park today pot-holes punctuate some of the streets and tumbleweeds flicker nervously in the wind, pinned against the fencing of a dirt schoolyard. Foolish planning decisions and code enforcement lapses are evident to the discerning eye in some of the neighborhoods. It is for street sweepers, bomberos, basureros, police officers, and the like to clean up the messes made by the natural forces of wind and rain and snow, the gnawing passage of time, and the messes dusted up by political mischief. The council, working with the mayor, must determine which of these messes needs to be cleaned up first.
But the council more desperately needs to determine what Sunland Park wants to become ten, twenty years from now. The leaf storm left Sunland Park surrounded by a powerful, growing city to its East; a thriving, fascinating, often labyrinthine city of two million a few dozen yards to its South; a dynamic port of entry to the West; a chronically negligent and sometimes hostile county government to the North, and a state government that never seems to get it, except at picture-taking time. What kind of relationship should Sunland have with El Paso ten years from now? Who can help us get there? How do we think smartly about our relationship with Juarez and the state of Chihuahua? How do we relate to the Santa Teresa project? What about the unincorporated village of Santa Teresa? How do we exert the political clout we need to gain the attention of Dona Ana county for our needs?
These are urgent, but not easy questions, and there is no single correct answer to any of them. What matters is for the council to struggle with them, learn from them, argue them out, come to a consensus, and move forward. People of Sunland Park: The leaf storm, as it vanished over Mount Cristo Rey and looked down at Sunland Park one last time, anointed you with a sacred trust. Choose your leaders wisely, y vayan con Dios. Jose Z. Garcia, January 29, 2016.