Longform

The Siege

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According to Sheriff Mestas, the county had a "big problem" with alcohol ("It goes back generations; it's just a way of life down here"), burglaries ("out of hand") and lax law enforcement. A few years ago, when he called the police to respond to a burglary at his business, a liquor store in Fort Garland, they didn't bother to show up until the next day -- and "for others, they didn't show up at all," he says.

Mestas had been a state trooper for 26 years when he retired in 1997; he was married to a woman from Chama and had lived in the San Luis Valley for decades. True, he was born in Trinidad, on the other side of the mountains, and that made him an outsider in some people's eyes, but it didn't stop him from running for sheriff in 1998 and winning with more than 75 percent of the vote.

"I'm probably the first sheriff elected here who wasn't from here," he notes. "But I just felt I could make a difference. Living in the community and seeing the gangs that were running around, and people being afraid of sitting on their front porches, and listening to people say they were buying weapons for self-protection -- everything was totally out of control."

Mestas inherited a decrepit office and a 35-year-old jail so forlorn that it would soon be condemned by the county commissioners. With the aid of federal and state grants, he acquired more patrol cars, boosted the number of full-time deputies from six to ten, and embarked on a $650,000 renovation of the jail and sheriff's office. According to some guests, the jail still has plumbing and safety problems; Mestas boasts of improved security (passersby are no longer hooted at by inmates hanging out of windows, for example) and a planned expansion.

The new sheriff wasted no time putting his new patrol units on the streets of San Luis. An unbroken double yellow line and signs banning U-turns spanned the length of Main Street, but they had been routinely ignored by locals whose errands took them to businesses on both sides of the street. (The alternative would be to drive through the entire town, then loop back.) Mestas's deputies started handing out tickets for U-turns, and the complaints from angry motorists and incensed business owners poured into the town hall. Before long, the town council voted to remove the "No U-Turn" signs.

In other areas, though, the sheriff wasn't so easily deterred. Increased traffic enforcement translated into increased county revenue from fines, and county officials supported the effort by approving a model traffic code that spelled out a host of violations. Citations for speeding took a sizable leap.

"People don't agree with the speed-limit signs, but we aren't the ones who post them," the sheriff says. "The policy of this department has always been that we allow ten miles per hour over the speed limit before we stop them. If people say they've been stopped for less, they're lying."

County court records do show a few citations issued to people for going less than nine or even less than five miles over the limit. They also show that a number of people have sought to contest the tickets, arguing that since the crackdown began they've been careful to drive under the limit, but the deputy claims they're speeding anyway. Such arguments, which pit the driver's word against the officer's, have had little success.

A deluge of speeding tickets (and the resulting hike in insurance rates) was only the beginning. Motorists in Costilla County soon learned there was no end to the petty infractions for which they could be pulled over, from a faulty license-plate bulb to "failure to count to five" at a stop sign before proceeding. Failure to signal a turn at a four-way stop, whether there's another car in sight or not. Failure to signal a turn into your own driveway. Driving too fast for the weather conditions. Driving too slow. Driving the speed limit but "impeding a semi."

"You can't even cruise the town anymore," says Maria Martinez, one of the leaders of the recall effort. "They were giving tickets for everything and anything. We asked them to give warnings, but they kept at it. My brother hadn't had a ticket in thirty years, and he got one for not using his signal at a four-way stop; the deputies were hiding behind the bridge. I called Mestas to ask why he was doing a speed trap like that. He said that's law enforcement."

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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