SUNLAND PARK, N.M. - Scandals and dirty politics have long defined this dusty border town. So when a woman started dancing topless in mayoral candidate Gerardo Hernandez's office, he says it crossed his mind it could be a setup.
"But then I thought to myself, you're not that important, who would set you up?" Hernandez said in an interview Thursday.
It all started, Hernandez said, after a Mexican national fleeing threats south of the border offered to assist his campaign. During a meeting, Hernandez said, the man turned on some music and indicated the woman who was with him liked to dance. The dance turned sexual, Hernandez said, but there was no sex, just a dance.
"As any gentleman would know, it was a lap dance," he said.
And all the while, Hernandez says, he was being taped without his knowledge.
His opponents say the married candidate is simply trying to cover up being caught in an uncompromising position.
"He made his cross, now he should carry it," said City Council candidate Ernesto Marquez.
Marquez said he saw a video of the encounter after a flash drive was dropped off at an election booth in the parking lot of City Hall. He says the recording depicts Hernandez engaging in lewd acts with the woman that go beyond dancing. Marquez said he gave the memory stick to one of Hernandez's rivals, Daniel Salinas, but doesn't know what happened to it from there.
No one knows who placed the flash drive in the booth.
But the answer to that question is apparently what state police were looking for when they raided City Hall this week, a few days after Hernandez said he told authorities a stranger approached him and threatened to leak a sex video of him if he refused to drop out of the race.
Police were back at City Hall on Friday, where Hernandez said they seized some envelopes of evidence. Local media also reported that Las Cruces and state police were at Salinas' home. Also Friday, State Auditor Hector Balderas confirmed he has launched a special audit of town finances.
Residents, meantime, are just plain fed up with a City Hall that has seen raids by state police three times in as many years and whose mayor acknowledged signing a million dollar contract last year while drunk.
"It's been happening for years," said grocery store cashier Roberto Perez. "They are all the same. ... They just squander the money because it's not theirs. They don't give a (expletive.)"
Things have gotten so bad that state Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Las Cruces, last year asked the state to take over government in the southern New Mexico town that borders Texas and Mexico.
Garcia's request came after Mayor Martin Resendiz nearly came to blows with the mayor pro tem after council members questioned the mayor's attendance and his approval of a $47,000 buyout for the city manager. Garcia said this week she has not heard back from the state, but may follow up after the mayoral elections next month.
"It's always the same," said resident Beatriz Perez. The politicians "keep saying they are going to do stuff, and they do nothing. It's like no one cares about us."
Hernandez says he is the target of a setup by Salinas. Salinas has denied any involvement and says he's not under investigation for extortion. Attempts by The Associated Press to contact Salinas on Thursday were not successful.
State police and the district attorney have declined to say why they raided City Hall, saying the search warrant was sealed.
Hernandez said police were looking for surveillance video that might show who approached him in the parking lot and who left a copy of the questionable video at his opponent's election booth near City Hall.
Meantime, police stand guard as voting continues in the March 6 mayoral race, which is already under review by the state after Hernandez alleged absentee voting applications were improperly withheld. City officials have denied any wrongdoing.
"We've been here since they started early voting," said Jaime Reyes of the Sunland Park police. "Just to make sure everything stays quiet."