Sunland Park officials charged in extortion plot
Uncertainty surrounds management of city government and the upcoming election following the arrests of Sunland Park Mayor Pro Tem Daniel Salinas and City Manager Jamie Aguilera. Two other employees face charges but have not yet been arrested.
Read the criminal complaints against Salinas and Aguilera here. The redactions were done by NMPolitics.net.
Sunland Park Mayor Pro Tem Daniel Salinas, City Manager Jamie Aguilera and two others are facing felony charges in an alleged extortion plot involving a lap-dance video designed to get one of Salinas’ opponents to drop out of the mayoral race.
Salinas and Aguilera were arrested this evening and are being held on $50,000 cash bonds, Doña Ana County District Attorney Amy Orlando confirmed. Public Works Director Jesus Dario Hernandez and Martah Alondra Lozano, an assistant temporary human resources employee, have been charged but are not in custody.
Hernandez and Lozano live in El Paso and, unless they turn themselves in, may have to be extradited.
The criminal complaints against the four aren’t yet available, but Orlando said Salinas and Aguilera each face a third-degree felony charge of extortion and fourth-degree felony charges of conspiracy to extort, tampering with evidence, and conspiracy to tamper with evidence. If convicted, each faces a maximum of 7.5 years in prison.
Hernandez and Lozano each face fourth-degree felony charges of tampering with evidence and conspiracy to tamper with evidence, and a maximum of three years in prison if convicted.
The charges stem from an alleged attempt to use a video of mayoral candidate Gerardo Hernandez getting a lap dance to force Hernandez to drop out of the March 6 race. Salinas and Gerardo Hernandez are also joined in that race by Jose Luis Hernandez, no relation to Gerardo Hernandez. Neither mayoral candidate is related to the public works director who also has the same last name.
Sunland Park Mayor Martin Resendiz hasn’t shown up for work since October, so Salinas and Aguilera have been running the city. The felony charges they face are another blow to a city that is also under investigation by the FBI and the subject of a special audit the state auditor announced last week.
Management of city government is now up in the air, and calls for state takeover are certain to intensify. The charges also make an upcoming election that has been hotly contested and controversial even less predictable.
Details of the allegations
Gerardo Hernandez initiated the police investigation by reporting that he was approached on Feb. 16 by an unknown man who had a photo of him getting the lap dance. The person allegedly threatened to release the video if Hernandez didn’t drop out of the mayoral race.
Gerardo Hernandez has admitted to participating in the lap dance, which he said took place sometime in January when a potential campaign employee brought the woman with him to a meeting. He says it was a set-up. Video of the lap dance has been leaked to the media.
According to Orlando, surveillance video from city hall and data from computers that were seized shows that the lap-dance video was put on Aguilera’s computer on Feb. 15, the day before the alleged extortion attempt. At the same time, video-editing software was installed on the computer.
That software took a still frame of the video, which was edited to make Gerardo Hernandez’s face clearer, Orlando said. The next day, police believe, that still frame was presented to Hernandez along with the demand that he drop out of the race.
Surveillance video shows Salinas walking into Aguilera’s office while the video was being edited on the 15thand shows Aguilera peeking out of the office, Orlando said, proving that both were in the office at the time.
The charges against Lozano and Jesus Hernandez stem from their actions on the day police raided city hall. While police were outside the building preparing to execute the search warrant, surveillance video shows Lozano running into Salinas’ office, locking the door, grabbing laptop computers and leaving the building through another door, Orlando said.
Lozano admitted to police that Salinas directed her to retrieve the laptops, Orlando said. Salinas told law enforcement the computers were stolen from his truck the next day in Ciudad Juárez and he no longer has them.
Surveillance video caught Jesus Hernandez entering city hall while police were outside preparing to serve the search warrant. He can be heard telling Lozano to “delete the video,” Orlando said.
Updated, 10:45 p.m.
Gerardo Hernandez released this statement:
“Having learned of the arrests of Mayor Pro-Tem Daniel Salinas and City Manager Jaime Aguilera for conspiracy, conspiracy to commit extortion, and tampering with evidence I am saddened that our community continues to suffer. This election has been very difficult for my family and I have made mistakes – mistakes that I have acknowledged and continue to work through with the support of my wife and children. For anyone to deliberately and intentionally cause harm to my family because of my personal bad judgment is disturbing.
“Mr. Salinas, Mr. Aguilera, and any others allegedly involved are entitled to due process and my family will pray for their families and those affected by their arrests. I have faith in the justice system.”
This article has been updated for clarity.