LAS VEGAS, N.M. — This rugged, historic town is on its fifth police chief after burning through four of them in as many years — including one who resigned two weeks into the job.

A federal agent has accused several of the department’s police officers of moonlighting as informants for an alleged drug kingpin.

A former mayor was recently convicted of public corruption charges and sentenced to 18 months’ probation.

“Cronyism, favoritism and all that stuff, that’s the culture here,” says Rock Ulibarri, a former San Miguel County commissioner who over the years has filed numerous civil rights complaints against the Las Vegas Police Department.

The community’s distrust of all forms of government is almost palpable, writ large after news that the U.S. Forest Service accidentally sparked last summer’s Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire — the largest blaze in state history — and imperiled the city’s water supply. 

The past four years have not been good ones for Las Vegas’ leaders. From 2018 to 2021, residents endured a barrage of news about local scandal and corruption.

Now, a new police chief is tasked with mending the department’s fractured image. Antonio Salazar, 35, is just 16 months into his post as police chief. He envisions a department dedicated to “community policing” — implementing programs like Coffee with a Cop and resuming the “Battle of the Badges” basketball game between the city’s police and fire departments. He also wants to bring the anti-drug program D.A.R.E. back to the city’s schools and is encouraging officers to coach youth sports, which police in this town were barred from doing just five years ago.

He acknowledges that both officers and residents in Las Vegas have gone far too long without a steady hand on the rudder. “If you have that much inconsistency anywhere,” he told Searchlight New Mexico from his office just off the Las Vegas Plaza, “you’re going to see issues.”

Las Vegas Police Chief Antonio Salazar

Salazar was appointed chief in 2021, just 15 years after graduating from West Las Vegas High School, not even half a mile from his current office. He worked as a guard at the local county jail before moving to Clovis in 2009, where he worked in the Curry County Sheriff’s Office and attended the Southeastern New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy. Now, back home, he speaks of shaping the type of police department he believes Las Vegas needs: one that holds meetings with residents, uses empathy rather than force on mental health calls, and goes after more funding. His intent is to grow the department, which currently stands at some two dozen officers, to 35.

But even as the young chief floats these big ideas, critics say the city has tossed aside police oversight and defanged a civilian advisory commission. Real change will be difficult, watchdogs fear, given the department’s troubled history. 

A revolving door for police chiefs

The clock is already ticking for Salazar, who is poised to be the city’s longest-serving chief in years.

The police department’s leadership has been in disarray since 2018, when then-Chief Juan Montaño retired after nearly four years on the job. Documents filed in federal court offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the turmoil that followed his departure.

Tonita Gurule-Giron, the then-mayor who has since been convicted of corruption, allegedly passed over former Deputy Chief Kenneth Jenkins because he was Black. According to court documents, Gurule-Giron used racial slurs to refer to him and vowed to “get rid of the Negro.”

Her pick, instead, was Jerry Delgado, a former New Mexico State Police officer who was being sued at the time for allegedly keeping a disabled woman handcuffed on the ground for 30 minutes while she had a seizure. Delgado’s tenure as Las Vegas police chief was short-lived; he resigned after just two weeks on the job when a local attorney accused him of molesting her as a child. It was never clear whether his resignation was related to the woman’s allegation. At the time, he denied it, and his one-sentence resignation letter made no mention of it.

Ever since then, the beige police station off Las Vegas’ iconic downtown plaza has been a revolving door for leadership.

Timeline of police chiefs in Las Vegas Police Department

NameStart DateEnd Date
Juan Montaño2015 October 2018
Jerry DelgadoOctober 2018October 2018
David BibbNovember 2018July 2020
Adrian CrespinJuly 2020August 2021
Antonio SalazarAugust 2021Present

When Louie A. Trujillo was elected mayor in 2020, he took it as his job to appoint a new police chief. That person, he said, would embrace community policing, encourage continuing education and training opportunities, and replace the department’s aging fleet with modern vehicles. In an interview with Searchlight, Trujillo — a longtime New Mexico Department of Health employee — said he wanted someone “ambitious” and open to a “new way of policing.”

In fact, much of the troubled department’s turnover has occurred since Trujillo became mayor. In one instance, he replaced an interim leader; in another, he dismissed his own hire, citing a “difference in ideology and philosophy.”

Experts say that level of turnover is cause for concern.

“Mayors don’t understand what it takes to be a police leader,” said Maria Haberfeld, one of the country’s leading experts on police leadership and ethics, who chairs the department of law, police science and criminal justice administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “The appointment of police chiefs should not be done by one individual, like a mayor.”

DEA: Alleged drug kingpin had ‘sources’ in police force

The issues in the Las Vegas police force run deeper than turnover, however.

As the scourge of fentanyl has engulfed the nation, so has it overtaken small towns like Las Vegas. State police routinely report finding copious amounts of the drug during routine traffic stops here. In October, a woman pulled over during such a stop was discovered with more than 1,000 fentanyl pills.

The city has a “historic pattern” of drug abuse, according to Trujillo, who attributes the problem largely to a matter of geography.  Las Vegas sits just off I-25, the main route between Albuquerque and Denver, and he says that highway has undoubtedly contributed to his city’s drug problem. 

Federal law enforcement agents suggested another explanation when they were investigating Robert “Fat Head” Padilla, an Albuquerque man alleged to have trafficked cocaine, heroin and fentanyl into Las Vegas for years as part of a northern New Mexico drug empire. In 2019, Thomas D. Long, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, told a federal judge that, in his opinion, city police officers were acting as informants for Padilla.

“Agents believe that Padilla has source(s) of information in the Las Vegas Police Department and/or the San Miguel County District Attorney’s Office,” Long said in a 2019 court filing. “Lead agents believe these source(s) of information may provide Padilla information regarding any investigations targeting Padilla as well as provide him information regarding impending execution of search warrants.”

When Padilla was arrested in 2019, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New Mexico announced that authorities had seized or documented 1.39 kilograms of cocaine, 160 grams of heroin, more than 30 guns and 2,000 fentanyl pills. 

The DEA declined to respond to Searchlight’s questions about the case.

Salazar, who was a Las Vegas police officer at the time of the DEA’s allegation, says he hasn’t investigated the claim. 

“We don’t really have any officers around that were here” at the time, he says, adding that accusations were “thrown around” due to the case’s high-profile nature. “If there was ever something that would have come up to lead me to believe that any officers now that are still here did have any involvement in that, I definitely would start an investigation and I definitely would get it handled.”

Will reform stick?

Salazar now faces yet another challenge as a police chief — this one involving a police review board that was created to review residents’ complaints. 

As a former reporter for the Las Vegas Optic, Lee Einer had some inside knowledge of the department’s troubles. He was named to a newly launched civilian-led Police Advisory Commission in early 2021, and hoped for a chance to bring some much-needed transparency and sunshine to law enforcement. But when the City Council signed a new ordinance in September that forbade the commission from making “any recommendations regarding LVPD,” Einer quit.

“It was a commission that had no purpose,” Einer says. “There are so many more fabulous ways to do nothing.”

Lee Einer, former member of the Las Vegas Police Advisory Commission

In an email to the city’s leaders, Commission Chair Roy Montibon also protested the changes. “The LV Police Advisory Commission should not be used merely as unpaid staff with no power and no authority to do anything,” he wrote. “That would constitute a needless additional layer of bureaucracy and would waste the talent, experience, brainpower and heart the members of the Commission bring to the Commission. If that is the vision— and final decision— then there is no point to our existence.”

Public records show that an earlier draft of the ordinance had given the commission much more power. Under that draft, its role was “to provide independent community oversight” of the Las Vegas Police Department by reviewing policies, complaints and recommending improvements.

Today, the police chief and mayor both say they want to revamp the commission’s role and are open to retooling the September ordinance. But they stress that no revisions will give the commission actual oversight or the ability to affect change within the department. Instead, they believe the board’s role should be to review the city’s crime statistics and give recommendations about which neighborhoods need the greatest police presence.

Time challenges

If Salazar is to be an agent for reform, he’ll have to outlast the five-year average tenure — 18.9 months — for a Las Vegas police chief. He currently has about eight months left in his two-year contract. And that raises the question: What does reform look like in a small town of some 13,000 people?

He and the mayor stress the need to get away from “paramilitary” policing — arming cops to the teeth and sending non-violent offenders to jail. The department has already enacted some of those reforms, like participating in a San Miguel County program that lets people charged with a misdemeanor enroll in job placement training rather than go to jail. They say Las Vegas police officers are especially well-suited to make mental health calls, since the city is home to the state’s only psychiatric hospital. 

Salazar is also looking to boost the department’s public events, which, according to recent studies, can improve a community’s relationship with local police.

Will he stay or will he go?

Whether Salazar is here for the long-term remains to be seen. The department needs steady guidance, most everyone around town acknowledges, but the title is no guarantee.

Meanwhile, Salazar’s office remains lightly decorated. The skinny bookshelf in the back of the room holds photographs of his children and a few motivational signs: “All things are difficult before they are easy” and “Don’t wish for it – work for it.”

Salazar is reserved, with the affectation of a career cop who plays his cards close to the vest. When he speaks, he’s quick and to the point, often using as few words as possible to get his point across.

But as low-key as he plays it, his ambition comes through — and the people around him take note. When he joined the department four years ago as a lowly patrolman, several coworkers gifted him with a rug that had been gathering dust in a closet at the downtown station. At the time, he told them that he intended to display it in his office, should he ever climb the ranks to chief. 

That rug now hangs on the wall beside his desk. Woven with the design of a police badge, it reads: “Chief, City of Las Vegas N. Mex.”

Joshua Bowling, Searchlight's criminal justice reporter, spent nearly six years covering local government, the environment and other issues at the Arizona Republic. His accountability reporting exposed...