The Siege

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"People are afraid to venture out at night now," says Bob Green, editor of a local nonprofit weekly, La Sierra. "It's so darn easy to be a popular cop here. You go in the stores, you shoot the breeze. These guys don't do that. I don't know why respect has to go out the window. I see a tolerant community, but one that's getting fed up with this. It's starting to feel like a police state."

Sheriff Mestas insists he's just doing the job he was hired to do. "A lot of these people behind the recall want this community to go back to what it used to be," he says. "They don't want law enforcement here. They want to be able to do as they please. People say they're afraid to go to town. Why would they be afraid if they're not going to break the law?"

But there are people in San Luis, respectable businesspeople and civic leaders, who say that Mestas's troops treat everyone as if they were lawbreakers, that the stepped-up enforcement has become a nightmare of surveillance and intimidation. Their quest for a more aggressive police force has become a cautionary tale: Beware of what you ask for -- you just might get it.

"Everyone wanted some law and order," says Cynthia Devereaux. "Drug enforcement, drunk driving -- that sort of thing. But those issues are still with us. All they've done is trample on our rights."

Until recently, law enforcement in San Luis and the surrounding villages -- Chama, San Pablo, San Pedro, San Acacio -- was largely a family affair. It wasn't unusual for a given officer and suspect to have some prior acquaintance or even to be related by blood or marriage. Nor was it out of the question for a sheriff to draw up an arrest warrant, phone the wanted man and request that he report to the jail the next day, just like on The Andy Griffith Show.

But Costilla County isn't Mayberry. After five decades in which the county's population declined or remained stagnant, the 1990s brought a 15 percent increase in the number of residents, from 3,190 to 3,663. Much of the growth was fueled by tourism -- San Luis is a short drive from Taos and the Great Sand Dunes -- and by developers' efforts to lure part-time residents to new subdivisions, such as the Forbes properties in the northern end of the county. And as the area became more image-conscious, the cries for a more "professional" police force grew.

"The perception valley-wide was that law enforcement had been very casual in Costilla County," says La Sierra's Bob Green. "People wanted to see more control."

Just how severe the crime problem had become remains a matter of debate. There are law-and-order types, including Sheriff Mestas, who talk about the county as if it were a lawless frontier until fairly recently -- until 1999, maybe. "There was no law enforcement down here at all," Mestas says. "You couldn't come down to San Luis without a fight breaking out. If you were an outsider, you dare not come into this town, because you'd get the shit beat out of you."

Crime statistics, however, do not support the notion that Costilla was some kind of rogue county. Locals say its reputation as a "troubled area," as the Denver Post delicately put it in an admiring article about Mestas two years ago, is a result of the media's tendency to exaggerate the level of violence involved in the longstanding dispute between local land-grant heirs and the wealthy owners of the Taylor Ranch, also known as La Sierra. A 1989 federal raid on the county, resulting in the arrest of 23 residents for poaching -- most of whom had shot illegal game for cash offered by an undercover officer -- didn't help matters. Nor did the occasional corruption scandal involving county officials or cops, such as the ex-deputy who pleaded guilty to theft two years ago after she neglected to report her live-in boyfriend's taste for stolen goods.

The chronic public-safety problems, though, tended to be much more mundane: Bar fights, public drinking and drunk driving, particularly during the annual Santiago y Santa Ana Festival in July. A few kids with drug habits breaking into businesses or houses looking for quick cash. Speeding on Main Street in San Luis.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast