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The Siege

The new sheriff vowed to clean up the town of San Luis. For many locals, the price was too high.

Even those who support the notion of taking drunks off the road suggest that the heavy-handed process has left sober citizens feeling harassed. "I've been stopped for weaving," says Joe Gallegos, Mestas's predecessor as sheriff. "I don't even drink. [Undersheriff] Pugliese insisted I had been drinking. I showed him my Diet Pepsi. I told him, 'Take me down to the office and give me a Breathalyzer. If I come out dirty, arrest me. But if I come out clean, I'm going to sue you.' He dropped it."

Three years ago, John Mestas was selling liquor in Fort Garland. Now DUI enforcement has made him the Eliot Ness of southern Colorado. Liquor stores in San Luis report that their sales are off by as much as 80 percent. The two bars in town have cut back hours drastically because of an absence of customers. Whether legally drunk or not, no one wants to take the chance of being stopped with the odor of alcohol on his breath.

"You can't open the bar," complains Sam Medina, who operates the Covered Wagon restaurant and bar. "Nobody will go in there. The cops drive by and take down license numbers. Then they go drink coffee, come back, and if this car or that car is still there, the minute the person leaves the place, they stop them."

Mestas denies that his officers are staking out the bars. "I'm sure their business is off," he says. "People don't go to the bars like they used to. We're living in a different time."

The Medinas, in any case, have their own set of grievances with the sheriff's office. Sam's wife, Teresa, says that deputies burst into their house early one morning and held her on the floor with a gun to her head, traumatizing her four-year-old grandson, while serving an arrest warrant on Sam for cocaine distribution. (Sam later pleaded guilty to a possession charge; Mestas says Teresa interfered with the arrest.) Sam's niece, Betty Medina, was the town clerk until officers came to her house in 1999 to arrest two of her sons on burglary charges; Betty ended up being charged with marijuana possession and "intimidation of a witness." Although her sons were later acquitted and the charges against her were dropped, Betty Medina was recently arrested on a fresh charge of "harboring a fugitive" over another incident involving one of her sons. She says the affair has turned her life upside down and led to relentless harassment by the police, who park outside her house for an hour at a time and routinely stop her kids on the street.

"I lost my job. I lost my car. I was slandered in the newspaper," she says. "I'm not saying my kids are the best kids in the world; they've been in trouble. And I'm not saying they shouldn't do law enforcement. But it doesn't make sense to me to mistreat people the way they do."

Sheriff Mestas says the only people who have problems with his officers are people who got caught doing something wrong. He points to the Santa Ana festival as proof that he's turning things around. In 1997, there were more than a dozen fights at the festival, and in 1998, the event was canceled out of concerns over more violence. But the festival has been held during each of the past two years and has been relatively peaceful, Mestas notes, largely because of the increased police presence.

"People are safe to walk the streets at night, they're safe to sit on the porch and visit," he says. "Tourists are starting to come in. The stigma that goes with San Luis is no longer there."

But according to local historian Maria Valdez, who's been active in the land-grant dispute, Mestas's style of policing only perpetuates the myth that Costilla County is an enclave of desperadoes. "There are a few people crossing over the line, but everybody else gets the stigma," she says. "It only feeds stereotypes and sets people elsewhere against this community. So when you bring up the land issue, for instance, people say, 'Oh, San Luis -- they're lawless.' These things come back and haunt the community for years."

A year into the new sheriff's term, the Costilla County Chamber of Commerce organized a public meeting in response to mounting complaints about the police. Mestas and four of his deputies attended. So did fifty citizens.

"At least 32 of them had complaints," says recall supporter Glenda Maes. "John said he was not aware of all these concerns. He committed to quarterly citizen reviews, and we've never had one."

Mestas says he doesn't remember making any such pledge to the group, which he describes as "pretty anti-law enforcement." Rick Manzanares, director of the Fort Garland Museum, says that while the subject did come up, it wasn't clear who was supposed to organize a review process. Other attendees recall that there was a definite understanding that another public meeting would be held soon, to pursue the issues raised and discuss possible changes in policy. But sixteen months have passed, and there's been no second meeting.

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