From a small hill at a state park here, the border town of Palomas, Mexico, can be made out through the desert haze. It lies four miles to the south, but the corruption that roils Palomas and the rest of Northern Mexico may as well be a block away.
Last year, black sedans and hatchbacks loaded with federal agents poured into Columbus, a town of 2,000 people, arresting the mayor, the police chief, a city trustee and nine others. They have all pleaded guilty in a gun-smuggling operation that sold about 100 firearms, mostly assault rifles, to Mexican drug cartels.
"Unfortunately, the border is just one vast conspiracy," said Howard Anderson, the lawyer for former Mayor Eddie Espinoza.
In southern Texas over the last year and a half, nine lawmen have been charged with allowing guns or drugs to illegally cross the border between Laredo and Brownsville. In Sunland Park, N.M., authorities are investigating a dozen officials, and the mayor and city manager have left office. In the last eight years, 130 U.S. Border Patrol agents have been arrested and 600 more are under investigation.
"It all comes down to taking some of the lowest-paid public servants and putting them in a position" where salaries can be doubled, said James Phelps, an assistant professor at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. "The likelihood of getting caught is extremely low, and the reward can be very high."