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In Columbus, N.M., small-town politics are magnified by gun scandal

MexicoLaws and LegislationLocal GovernmentCrime, Law and Justice

COLUMBUS, N.M. — Each morning, embattled Mayor Nicole Lawson performs a private ritual in this tiny U.S.-Mexico border village of 1,600 isolated souls, a forgotten place with mostly unpaved roads and not a single stoplight.

After brushing her teeth, she pads over to a white note board bearing only an oversize number scrawled in black. On this mid-January morning, she wipes away the "58," replacing it with "57."

With a sigh of satisfaction, Lawson, 39, counts down yet another difficult day until the end of her term running a hamlet that may be one of America's most dysfunctional communities.

In a predawn 2011 raid that made national news, federal helicopters swooped in to round up Mayor Eddie Espinoza and 11 others, including the police chief and a town trustee. Ten of them later went to prison for smuggling guns into Mexico and into the hands of the country's drug cartels, leaving behind shocked residents here and a government in chaos.

Lawson, an emergency medical technician and former village clerk, was soon appointed mayor and faced an immediate crisis: a helter-skelter bookkeeping system that had been neglected for years.

"I remember walking into the records office and seeing papers and folders scattered across the floor," she said. "I just sat down and cried."

Although no funds appeared to have been stolen, $400,000 in grant money had been siphoned off to pay other village bills, leaving state and federal taxes deep in arrears. Many financial reports had been falsified, others not completed. If Lawson didn't act fast to sort out the mess, New Mexico officials warned, Columbus was in danger of bankruptcy.

The job has exacted a physical and emotional toll. Lawson, a bashful bespectacled woman with shoulder-length hair, said she had gained 50 pounds from the stress of dealing with critics, including a website run by the son of a former mayor that analyzes her every move.

Working for little more than $1 an hour, she has had less time for taking care of her 16-year-old autistic son and endured a revolving door of workers with no knowledge of bookkeeping — all she could get, she said, in a place this isolated.

Lawson says she won't run in the March 10 election and will celebrate leaving office with a "Thank God I'm not mayor" party.

Critics welcome the departure of a woman they see as an aloof micromanager who became part of the problem, refusing advice and alienating local and state officials. The Luna County sheriff refuses to speak to Lawson, and the county manager in 2012 wrote to state officials warning that village management was so confused that "a crisis is inevitable."

Intervention was necessary, the letter said, "to avert an embarrassment" with more unwanted national news out of Columbus.

"Many of us prayed that, warts and all, Eddie Espinoza would come back from prison and take his old job back," said Martha Skinner, 77, a former mayor who now runs a bed-and-breakfast.

State officials attribute the tension to small-town politics in an isolated area where it's difficult to attract qualified municipal workers.

Said Wayne Sowell, director of the local government division in the state Department of Finance and Administration: "One city clerk there called to say, 'I just got the job. Now can you tell me how to turn on the computer?'"

Lawson says she won't miss being mayor. "I'm just a paper pusher, not a politician," she said. "I look forward to going back to being a nobody again."

Lawson was working overnight as the village's emergency medical technician when federal agents arrested a dozen people on suspicion of selling scores of assault rifles to Mexican cartels. Locals joked it was the first successful assault here since Mexican marauder Pancho Villa's forces raided the enclave in 1916.

Robert Gutierrez, the father of the trustee nabbed in the sting and a former trustee himself, replaced Espinoza for a few months. None of the three trustees left, including Gutierrez, wanted to be mayor, but the village had no money for a special election, so the village board decided to appoint someone.

But who? The village is 85% Latino, mostly blue-collar folks with family over the border in the sister town of Palomas. Residents mind their own business and keep their doors closed.

The trustees passed over Skinner for Lawson, who had worked as a clerk for Espinoza. Reaction was swift, with Skinner's supporters alleging Lawson was part of Espinoza's corrupt cabal. "Gossip flies fast in this place," Lawson said. "It hurt me but I tried to ignore it."

Inside a home with walls painted green, orange and purple, she explained why she agreed to be mayor, beginning with how she quit her job with Espinoza in 2010 after four years of watching him shift funds between city accounts to cover shortages. She reported the activity to state officials but heard nothing, she said, although Sowell said he had no record of her complaints.

"I felt responsible for what happened," said Lawson, who relocated here from Virginia in 2002.

Her husband, Don, had doubts: "I figured she was going to be up to her eyeballs in alligators."

And soon, she was. Lawson said she was forced to take drastic measures to get control of village finances, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in arrears: She fired the four-member police force, and code enforcement and animal control officers.

Critics roll their eyes. "She's a drama queen," said Phillip Skinner, Martha's brother and a bus driver now running for mayor. "And her attitude has everybody against us — the county, the state, everybody."

The mayor's most vocal critic is Martha Skinner's son, Addison Bachman, who has gleefully chronicled her exploits on his website, ColumBuzz. The self-regarded Matt Drudge of Columbus began his site after the federal arrest, calling it "ColumBUST," but soon changed it to suit the continuing gossip about Lawson. "It's a three-ring circus," he said.

He also has criticized how the religious mayor conducts village business via her personal email, with the user name "lovehisword."

Lawson has her supporters, though. "She's doing the best she can with what she has to work with," says Art Miller, a mechanic who wonders aloud why people go into local politics in the first place.

He turns to Lawson. "You'll be free pretty soon."

"Fifty-seven days," she says.

Miller offers a bit of consolation to the village's accidental mayor: "It'll be like you're out of jail."

john.glionna@latimes.com

@jglionna

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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