This week, Morning Edition and All Things Considered examine public corruption in South Texas. The FBI has launched a task force to clean up pervasive misconduct by public servants in the Rio Grande Valley. But as NPR's John Burnett and Marisa Penaloza report, the problems are entrenched.
The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is a world apart, isolated by empty ranch land to the north, the Gulf to the east, and Mexico to the south. A million and a half people live there amid dazzling wealth and stark poverty.
But federal authorities say "the Valley" is steeped in corruption of every stripe: drug smuggling, vote stealing, courthouse bribery, under-the-table payoffs and health care fraud. Late last year, the feds launched the Rio Grande Valley Public Corruption Task Force to clean up South Texas.
It's housed in the FBI building, a three-story, bunker-like edifice in an office park across the street from public housing in McAllen, Texas.
"The public's perception is that the problem is inordinately grave and that it is worse here than other places," says FBI supervisory special agent Rock Stone. "We're being very vocal and very public about the fact that [public corruption] is wrong, it is immoral and you're betraying the public's trust."
Rock Stone — that's his actual name — looks the part: 6 foot 3 inches, buff, career FBI agent and son of a cop. He says the task force has five times the number of investigators than in years past, including Texas Rangers and agents of the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security. Since his office opened its doors last November, they've gotten a steady stream of tips from the public about corrupt officials.
"And we're going to pursue all of these people: school board, city, county, state, judicial, executive, legislative. We're going to pursue them and we're going to lock them up," Stone says.
The Justice Department created its newest anti-corruption task force as a result of the continuing numbers of big and little fish getting nabbed down on the border. In 2013, more public officials were convicted of federal crimes in South Texas — 83 of them — than in any other region of the country.
In the last two decades, no fewer than five sheriffs have been busted for corruption. And from 2000 to 2013, 13 U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have gone to prison.
"I was a cop who went drug dealer. That's what it is," says Jonathan Treviño, a former narcotics squad leader who is serving 17 years in a federal penitentiary. Last year, his entire unit went to prison for seizing dope and selling it back to traffickers in Hidalgo County.
"No one forced us. No one held a gun to our heads. No one threatened the families saying 'you better participate in illegal activity.' No, we all decided to abuse our position," he said in an interview inside the prison.
Jonathan Treviño's father, Lupe, who was Hidalgo County's powerful and popular sheriff, is serving a five-year prison term for a separate conviction. He admitted taking $10,000 in illegal campaign contributions from a drug trafficker known as The Rooster, with ties to the Gulf Cartel.
Corruption also reaches into local elections. Five campaign workers, known as "politiqueras," pleaded guilty to election fraud in Hidalgo County in a case involving votes bought with cash, beer and cocaine. In a separate case in neighboring Cameron County, nine politiqueras have been charged with manipulating mail-in ballots.
"A politiquera will get a person's vote by simply taking the ballot and filling it out themselves, or they will instruct the voter: 'Go ahead and mark your ballot right here.' And they don't even know who they are voting for," says Mary Helen Flores, founder of Citizens Against Voter Abuse, which is trying to reform Valley elections.
The Rio Grande Valley is known in law enforcement circles as a "high temptation environment." Al Alvarez figures he's represented more indicted politicians than any other lawyer in the Valley. He sips a beer after work at a tavern in the Hidalgo County seat of Edinburg.
"Look," he says, "border cities are complex. The Valley is complex."
It's certainly complex economically. In the tip of Texas, there's a Maserati and a Jaguar dealership. Yet a third of the population lives below the poverty line and receives food stamps.
For years, this tropical river delta was known mainly for ruby red grapefruit, snowbirds and unauthorized immigrants. Today, the Rio Grande Valley is booming with new construction of bank branches, hospital complexes and luxury homes.
Where does all the money come from?
"You know, there is an underground economy," Alvarez says, lowering his voice. "Drugs fuel 20 percent of the economy here in the Valley."
His estimate that a fifth of the local economy floats in drug money may be high. There's a lot of legitimate money in circulation from agribusiness, hospitals, rich Mexicans who have relocated here and the big state and federal border security payrolls.
But there's no denying the local economy benefits from the existence of the Gulf Cartel headquartered in Matamoros just across the river from Brownsville, even as the cartel's proximity also contributes to drug crimes, kidnappings and homicides in the region. The Valley is a major trans-shipment zone for marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines destined for northern cities. And there's a brisk local market for cheap narcotics in the Valley.
"There is a lot of dirty money in the Rio Grande Valley," says Chad Richardson, emeritus sociologist at the University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg. He estimates five to 10 percent of the Valley economy is rooted in illegal activity, primarily drugs. Richardson co-wrote a book about the underground economy of the South Texas borderlands that did not endear him to the chambers of commerce.
"And that money is available to corrupt public officials including officers at the border, including sheriffs, including judges," he says.
Some friends have gathered on the porch of a graceful old home in West Brownsville on a soft, muggy night. They are talking about corruption in the Valley. A retired college instructor named Ruth Wagner says corruption and contraband have been a feature of the border going back to Civil War times when confederate cotton was smuggled through Mexican ports to avoid Union blockades.
"It was cotton, it's arms, it's people, it's drugs," she says. "It's something that's gone on forever because it's a part of a border culture." In the 27 years Wagner has been in the Valley, she's noticed the frequent images of public servants being led away in handcuffs.
"I think the FBI is down here more. I think the bigger guys are just getting caught. I think there's more of a focus on what's going on on the border right now," she says.
Her friend, Carlos Gomez, is not so sure.
"They'll clean up for awhile and then it'll just fall back into order because that's just the way things are. Nobody's ever really done anything long term about this," says Gomez, a Valley native and a social worker.
"Corruption's always been an issue here in the Valley," he continues. "It has always been the compadre system: you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours."
Maybe things are starting to change in small ways.
Carlos Cisneros, a lawyer in Brownsville and an author who writes legal thrillers set in the Valley, says his colleagues down at the courthouse have become wary.
"I remember, if you were engaged in some illegality, people wouldn't think twice about talking about it on their cellphones," he says. "Nowadays, people have taken notice that big brother is watching and you cannot presume that it's just like the good old days."
Cisneros says he's glad because the Rio Grande Valley is at a crossroads and it's time to break bad habits. Space X is breaking ground on a commercial spaceport east of Brownsville and the University of Texas is building a major new medical school in the Valley.
"We're here to plant the flag and show that it all ends now," says the FBI's Rock Stone. "I don't want to hear anymore, 'It's always been that way.' Well, it's not going to be that way anymore on my watch. I plan to be an instrument of change."
It's too early to say how much of a change the Rio Grande Valley Public Corruption Task Force has made. Stone says they're working a large volume of cases, covertly. "You'll know we're coming after you," he adds, "when we show up with an arrest warrant."
Next in our series: John Burnett and Marisa Peñaloza talk more with Jonathan Treviño. He, along with eight other officers, were convicted of stealing cash and cocaine from drug busts and putting it back on the streets.