Texas' Valley Of Corruption

May 24, 2011

The Drug War At Home

This is one installment in a 13-part series of multimedia stories by Fronteras: The Changing America Desk that investigates our role in the illegal narcotics trade.

The southernmost tip of Texas is the 120-mile-wide Rio Grande Valley. This region is home to a string of small towns perched on the edge of Mexican states like Tamaulipas, where drug cartels have taken over entire cities.

These cartels are expanding their reach north of the border, trapping many public officials in the United States in its web of corruption.

The tiny town of Sullivan City, in the Rio Grande Valley, is now mired in the scandal of the drug trade. And in the middle of it all is former Police Chief Hernán Guerra, charged with drug trafficking.

Few people in Sullivan City want to talk about Guerra. The dispatcher at the tiny station inside city hall said the new police chief is not available. Next door, the city secretary said she can’t reach the mayor. And after nearly a dozen attempts, she finally got the city manager on the phone — he had no comment.

Gumaro Flores has a few words to share. Manning his fruit stand near the highway, the former mayor reflects on the now convicted chief he once hired.

“He worked with me for about four of five years and he was a good man. Something went wrong or I don’t know what,” Flores said. “But I didn’t know nothing about it. He never said a thing.”

Guerra was sentenced last month to 10 years in prison, one of more than 2,600 people arrested as part of a massive crackdown on cartel networks across the country. Will Glaspy runs the Rio Grande Valley office of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which led the two-year investigation that led to the arrest of the ex-police chief.

“His involvement was more than just meeting with people here in Texas,” Glaspy said. “He actually traveled on several occasions into Mexico to meet with cartel leaders in an effort to ensure the success of their drug trafficking activities.”

Sullivan City sits just north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Click on the map above for a larger view.

Guerra, 45, made a modest salary as police chief — $38,000-a-year. But he greatly boosted his income by working for a cartel. He arranged times and places for traffickers to cross a total of two tons of marijuana through Sullivan City. His lawyer, Oscar Alvarez, said Guerra dug himself into a hole he could not crawl out of.

“He understands that he did some terrible things after being placed in a position of trust,” Alvarez said. “He knows that he has disgraced his community.”

Guerra is just the latest public official turned corrupt crook in the Rio Grande Valley. The long list includes sheriffs, other police chiefs and even judges.

Sullivan City, TX in the Rio Grande Valley

Gene Falcón was one of them. He served as Starr County sheriff for 17 years before taking a prison-bound nosedive for taking kickbacks in the late 1990s.

“I would be the first person to say: ‘Man look what happened to me. I don’t want that to happen to you,’” Falcón said. “Believe me, I’m not proud of it. I’m ashamed of it.”

This region is an extremely poor area and the temptation for good, easy money is a daily reality. But there’s also lots of border history here, a lasting bond with Mexico that, like a marriage, it’s for good and for bad, in sickness and in health, experts said.

“The reason that we have so much of this ingrained in our culture, participating with drug trafficking or all kinds of corruption, is because it goes by family,” said Rosalva Reséndiz, a criminal justice professor at the University of Texas-Pan American in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley.

“We have strong family ties. And those family ties will keep you, for example, in a drug trafficking family,” Reséndiz said.

The professor doesn’t need to go far for her research. She openly spoke of her own relatives in Mexico working for the Gulf cartel. And one of her students still fends off offers to join the Familia Michoacana cartel. He asked to remain anonymous for his personal safety.

“They offered me, they offered me,” the student said. “My own uncle, he told me: ‘As soon as you’re done with high school, if you don’t want to go to college, if you don’t find work, I’ll get you into it.’”

In Sullivan City, it’s Election Day. A slow but steady stream of voters head to the fire station to cast their vote.

Outside, Nidia Benavides and some supporters fire up a grill. Benavides is running for city council with a goal of finding a new, honest police chief. Yet she knows, ultimately, there’s no insurance against corruption.

“You see it everyday. You see it all the time,” Benavides said. “You know, it takes two or three years, but eventually they get caught.”

The latest to fall may be the police chief of the town of La Joya, next to Sullivan City. He was found dead in his car May 12. It was ruled a suicide. But many locals have little doubt there was some cartel connection.