Enforcers caught in corruption of 'dirty' Texas towns
EDINBURG, Texas – When it comes to corrupt public officials aiding the smugglers of drugs and illegal immigrants, this is the dirtiest town, in the most crooked county, in the most bribable state along the U.S.-Mexico border, court records show.
Federal prosecutors convicted 206 defendants on public corruption charges in the border counties of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California in 2013 and 2014 — 52 people who offered bribes, and 154 local, county, state and federal employees who pocketed those or smuggled people or narcotics.
Texas had 166 convictions, 34 in Hidalgo County alone, with a dozen cases linked to government agencies headquartered in Edinburg, the county seat.
It's the epicenter of a “mordida,” or pay-to-play culture revved up by revenues tied to smuggling orchestrated by Mexican criminal cartels, according to court documents analyzed by a Tribune-Review investigations reporter.
The most bribable government employees worked at the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Department, where Sheriff Guadalupe Treviño pleaded guilty in 2014 to accepting campaign contributions from a notorious drug gang. He was sentenced to five years in a minimum security federal prison camp in Pensacola, Fla.
His son, Jonathan, a Mission, Texas, police officer and leader of the county's anti-drug trafficking “Panama Unit” — named after a strain of marijuana — is in prison. Federal authorities caught him and other rogue cops escorting narcotics for criminals, laundering money and stealing dope.
Over the past two years, 13 members of the Hidalgo County sheriff's department landed in prison on public corruption charges tied to smuggling. The department employs about 430 sworn officers.
Few residents are shocked when new indictments are filed, but the fall of Treviño surprised and saddened even those with long careers in local law enforcement and the courts.
“When we first heard about the allegations, we thought it can't be true. Can't be. Then he stood there and pleaded guilty,” said Atanacio “J.R.” Gaitan, 51, the elected constable for the county's 4th Precinct.
Allegations of widespread corruption in south Texas are a simmering statewide political issue. During his victorious gubernatorial campaign last year, Republican Greg Abbott roiled Hidalgo County voters by comparing the level of graft across the Rio Grande Valley to what's seen in the Third World.
Abbott, then the state's outgoing attorney general, vowed to clean up the borderland region as governor.
But a Trib analysis found some of the worst corruption along the Texas border with Mexico originated within state government — 27 men and women in the state's judiciary, prisons, law enforcement or National Guard who got caught aiding smuggling operations.
In fact, along the 1,933 miles of U.S.-Mexico border, the only employees of any state government convicted on federal corruption charges in 2013 and 2014 belonged to Texas.
The FBI turned up arguably the state's most egregious case: a narcotics ring that ended in the convictions of 15 employees at the Texas correctional institution in Beeville for working with the white supremacist Aryan Circle Gang, the Raza Unida jail syndicate, and drug smugglers across the border — the very criminals they were supposed to keep away from the public.
Twenty-nine convicted municipal and county law enforcement officers worked at departments receiving “Border Star” grants to supplement federal efforts in the state's southern counties and overseen by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The governor's office declined comment; Public Safety officials disregarded numerous requests for comment.
Three out of five federal corruption cases found by a Trib investigations reporter involved law enforcement officers. Most belonged to county or municipal departments.
Sixty-nine percent of the corrupt cops worked for departments receiving “Operation Stonegarden” grants from the Department of Homeland Security. Those federal funds are designed to unite local and Native American law enforcement into a federally supervised, anti-trafficking mission targeting people, drugs and guns.
This year, Homeland Security will dispense $55 million in Stonegarden grants, with much of the spending overseen by elected county sheriffs including, until his indictment, Treviño.
That has triggered criticism from community leaders such as Ruben Villarreal, the former Republican mayor of Rio Grande City who recently stepped down and is considering a run for Congress.
He said too little federal funding trickles down to municipal police, allowing sheriffs along the border to “pick and choose” recipients. The sheriffs often reward political allies or squirrel away money for “overtime to supplement their payroll,” he said.
Over the past two years, three Starr County sheriff's deputies were convicted of public corruption. Two aided drug traffickers in Villareal's city and tipped off illegal gambling dens about police raids. The third deputy was nabbed transporting pot in nearby Jim Hogg County.
On Dec. 18, 2013, Homeland Security agents shuttered a Rio Grande City stash house on East Mirasoles Street that was located directly behind the city's municipal office complex and surrounded by a city parking lot. It had daily been shipping 15 illegal immigrants nationwide, according to court documents.
To understand how police could miss a large smuggling operation only feet from their office, a Trib investigations reporter repeatedly sought interviews with Byron “Dutch” Piper, the police chief at the time of the raid, and and acting chief Noe Castillo. Both ignored repeated requests.
While a Trib investigations reporter was tracking Piper, so was the FBI. On June 22, federal prosecutors charged him with submitting fraudulent overtime vouchers for up to $44,000 through the Operation Stonegarden program designed to reimburse local police for helping Border Patrol.
In his confession, Piper 63, said he defrauded the program over five years because he was “lazy and stupid” and his actions were “another stain on law enforcement.”
The next day, June 23, Piper was found shot to death in his car in his driveway in what authorities said was an apparent suicide
Juan Rodriguez, Starr County's representative at the Laredo-based office of Texas Association of Regional Councils — a liaison between local, state and federal agencies involved — said corruption often isn't the most pressing problem communities along the border face.
Many border towns cannot generate enough cash from tiny tax bases to provide adequate police protection for their residents, yet alone the many thousands of Mexicans who work and shop in their communities daily, Rodriguez said.
Starr is the poorest county in Texas, Rodriguez said, the fifth poorest nationwide. Nearby Zapata County, reeling from crashing natural gas prices, is down to two patrol officers at any time.
Federal officials declined comment, but say their own corruption-busting efforts are working.
The feds insist they've finally gotten control over their own corruption problem that worsened after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and increasing pressure from Congress to control the southern border.
During the growth of Customs and Border Patrol between 2006 and 2011, investigations of potentially crooked officers leapt 42 percent, according to congressional testimony.
A glut of nearly 19,000 cases formed, not only probes into allegations of misconduct but deep-background reviews and reinvestigations of workers that involved about one out of four personnel at Customs or Border Patrol.
A Trib investigations reporter turned up 20 Customs inspectors and 16 Border Patrol agents convicted in 2013 and 2014 for corruption linked to smuggling along the southern border.
Doyle E. Amidon, 45, patrol agent in charge of Border Patrol's large station in Falfurrias, Texas, told a Trib investigations reporter that reforms enacted by the agency with the help of Congress have professionalized the force. He pointed to the increasing use of lie detector tests on new and existing employees.
Polygraph results bar about three out of five candidates for Border Patrol, largely by screening for prior drug abuse or other criminality.
Higher pay allowed Border Patrol to attract and retain better agents, especially young men and women discharged from the military, and they're reinvestigated every five years. Starting wages now run about $50,000 per year, usually higher than similar state and municipal law enforcement jobs.
Recruits aren't allowed to serve initially in their hometowns to keep them from affiliating with friends, and surveillance cameras are as likely to be trained on agents as suspected aliens.
In the checkpoints, supervisors change the contraband-sniffing canines and their handlers every 15 minutes, and agents never know which lane they'll be assigned or when they'll be moved to another location. When undocumented immigrants are caught north of the checkpoint station, supervisors review tape to see what went wrong, Amidon said.
Customs follows similar procedures in ports of entry.
Nearly as many corrupt officials and contractors performing government work were tied to agencies outside of Customs and Border Protection. For example, nine active-duty members of the Army and Marine Corps were among those convicted of trafficking guns, ammo, illegal aliens or narcotics in 2013 and 2014, the Trib investigative analysis found. Most were linked to human smuggling rings operating out of Fort Bliss and Fort Hood in Texas. The military members relied on their uniforms and special Department of Defense vehicle tags when trying to bring illegal aliens through Border Patrol checkpoints.
Perhaps the most disturbing cases, however, involved agents in Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General and those in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigations and intelligence divisions. These are the federal employees who are supposed to probe employee misconduct at Customs and Border Protection or to analyze highly classified data tied to terrorism or the cartels.
In McAllen, Texas, two Inspector General agents were convicted of falsifying reports on drug and human smuggling. In Arizona, an ICE investigator got caught using computer information to aid Mexican traffickers. And a probe into an intelligence unit in Texas and Arizona nabbed four federal workers and a contractor who were defrauding the government.
“The last thing that you want is to work next to another officer who is doing the wrong thing,” said Bob Hood, assistant director at Customs' San Ysidro Port of Entry near San Diego, one of the busiest border processing stations on Earth.