The former mayor of a small New Mexico border town has pleaded guilty to charges he participated in a gun smuggling ring that federal prosecutors said sent hundreds of guns into Mexico, authorities said Wednesday.
Eddie Espinoza faces 65 years in prison. The 51-year-old was arrested in March along with two other Columbus town officials _ police chief Angelo Vega and former trustee Blas Gutierrez. The three were among a dozen people charged in the federal sting.
United States Attorney John E. Murphy of West Texas announced Wednesday afternoon that Espinoza pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy, three counts of making false statements in the acquisition of firearms and three counts of smuggling firearms from the United States during a hearing Tuesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge William P. Lynch in Las Cruces.
"I am glad to hear about it," said Rosemary Zamora, who lost her job as a town police officer earlier this week because of the town's dire financial condition, which current officials blame on the indicted men.
"It's affected the whole community. We can't even get any grants because the government doesn't trust Columbus anymore," she said.
Earlier this week, the town's board of trustees shut down Columbus's three-member police department and reduced other employees' hours in an attempt by new Mayor Nicole Lawson to stabilize the budget.
The village will rely on the Luna County Sheriff's Office for law enforcement. Sheriff Raymond Cobos said deputies have always patrolled the area anyway and he'll shift resources to cover the village.
Columbus sits just north of Palomas, Mexico, a town that has seen increasing violence as drug cartels wage war against one another, the Mexican Army and police.
Former Mayor Martha Skinner said she was surprised anyone would plead guilty, and she speculated that Espinoza did so because he has kidney problems and is on dialysis. Skinner said she anticipates it will take the town five to 10 years to recover financially.
"We have had a terrible time trying to reorganize," she said. "There is no money. He spent every single dime we had. So things have not been good."
A spokesman for Murphy said Tuesday's hearing was called after Espinoza decided to enter the plea. A sentencing date hasn't been set and hearings haven't been scheduled for anyone else in the case.
Espinoza faces up to 10 years in federal prison for each of the smuggling counts; up to five years in federal prison for the conspiracy charge as well as each of the false statement charges. Espinoza remains in federal custody. No sentencing date has been scheduled.
"It's just sad to know that there are still people like that around," Zamora said after learning of Espinoza's plea. "For a police officer, that's got to be the lowest thing ever."