RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Rio Grande Valley is a world apart, surrounded and isolated by empty ranchland to the north, the Gulf to the east and Mexico to the south. A million and a half people live there amid both dazzling wealth and stark poverty. Federal authorities say the Valley, as it's called, is steeped in corruption of every stripe - drug smuggling, boat stealing, courthouse bribery, under-the-table payoffs and health care fraud. Late last year, the feds launched an operation to clean up this part of Texas. NPR's John Burnett has the first in our series on corruption in the Rio Grande Valley.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: This is where the crusade starts inside the FBI building in McAllen, Texas. It's a two-tone, three-story, bunker-like edifice in a newish office park across the street from public housing. The supervisory special agent in charge of the new Rio Grande Valley Public Corruption Task Force is Rock Stone. Yes, that's his real name.
ROCK STONE: The public's perception with which I now concur is that the problem is inordinately grave and that it is worse here than other places. We're being very vocal and very public about the fact that it is wrong, it is immoral, and you're betraying the public's trust.
BURNETT: Rock Stone looks the part - 6-foot-3, buff, career FBI, son of a cop. He says the task force has five times more investigators than in years past, including Texas Rangers. He says since his office opened its doors last November, they've gotten a steady stream of tips from the public about corrupt officials.
STONE: 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.
BURNETT: The Department of Justice created its newest anticorruption task force as a result of the continuing numbers of big and little fish getting nabbed down here 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.
JONATHAN TREVINO: I was a cop who went drug dealer. That's what it is.
BURNETT: Jonathan Trevino, a former narcotics squad leader, is serving 17 years in the federal pen. Last year, his entire unit went to prison for seizing dope and selling it back to traffickers in Hidalgo County.
TREVINO: No one forced us. No one held a gun to our head. No one threatened the families saying that you better participate in illegal activity. No, we all decided to abuse our position.
BURNETT: The corruption even reaches into ballot boxes. 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 different case in neighboring Cameron County, nine politiqueras have been charged with manipulating mail-in ballots. Mary Helen Flores an activist trying to clean up Valley elections.
MARY HELEN FLORES: A politiquera will get a person's vote by simply taking the ballot and filling it out themselves, or they will instruct the voter, just go ahead and mark your ballot right here. And they don't even know who they're voting for.
BURNETT: We'll hear more from Jonathan Trevino and the politqueras later in this series. What is it about this torrid latitude that creates what's known in law enforcement circles as a high-temptation environment? Al Alvarez is sipping a beer after work at a tavern in the Hidalgo County seat of Edinburg.
AL ALVAREZ: Salud.
BURNETT: He figures he's represented more indicted politicians than any other lawyer in the Valley.
ALVAREZ: Look, border cities are complex. The Valley is complex.
BURNETT: Complex indeed. In the tip of Texas, you find 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 grapefruits, snowbirds and immigrants. Today, the Rio Grande Valley is booming with new construction, bank branches, hospital complexes and luxury homes. Where does all the money come from? Alvarez lowers his voice.
ALVAREZ: You know, there's an underground economy. Drugs fuel 20 percent of the economy here in the Valley.
BURNETT: A fifth of the economy floating in drug money may be high. There's a lot of legitimate money in circulation from agribusiness, hospitals, rich Mexicans who've 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 just across the river from Brownsville. The Valley is a major trans-shipment zone for weed, coke and meth destined for northern cities. And there's a brisk local market here for cheap narcotics.
CHAD RICHARDSON: There is a lot of dirty money in the Rio Grande Valley.
BURNETT: Chad Richardson estimates five to 10 percent of the Valley economy is rooted in illegal activity, primarily drugs. He's an emeritus sociologist at the University of Texas Pan American. Richardson co-wrote a book about the underground economy of the South Texas borderlands that did not endear him to the chambers of commerce.
RICHARDSON: And that money is available to corrupt public officials including officers at the border, including sheriffs, including judges.
BURNETT: Some friends have gathered on the porch of a graceful old home in West Brownsville on a soft, muggy night. Ruth Wagner, a retired teacher, says that 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.
RUTH WAGNER: It was cotton, it's arms, it's people, it's drugs. It's something that's gone on forever because it's a part of a border culture.
BURNETT: In the 27 years Wagner has been down here, she's noticed the frequent news stories about public servants being led away in handcuffs.
WAGNER: 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.
CARLOS GOMEZ: They'll clean up for a while and then it'll just all fall back into order because that's just the way things are. Nobody's ever really done anything long-term about this.
BURNETT: Carlos Gomez, a social worker and a Valley native, is not so sure the FBI's anticorruption dragnet can change entrenched behavior.
GOMEZ: Corruption's always been of issue here in the Valley. It has always been the compadre system. You scratch my back; I'll scratch yours, so to speak.
BURNETT: But maybe things are starting to change in small ways. Carlos Cisneros is a lawyer in Brownsville and an author who writes legal thrillers set in the Valley. Driving on a rainy day, he says his colleagues down at the courthouse have become wary.
CARLOS CISNEROS: I'd remember, I mean, if you were engaged in some illegality, people wouldn't think twice about talking about it on their cell phones. Nowadays, people have taken notice that big brother is watching, and you cannot presume that it's just like the good old days.
BURNETT: And Cisneros says he's glad because the Rio Grande Valley is at a crossroads. 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. It's high time to break bad habits. Again, FBI supervisory Special Agent Rock Stone.
STONE: We're here to plant a flag and show that it all ends now because 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.
BURNETT: It's too early to say how much of a change the Rio Grande Valley Public Corruption Task Force has made. The FBI says it's working a large volume of cases covertly. You'll know we're coming after you, Stone says, when we show up with an arrest warrant. John Burnett, NPR News, Brownsville.
MONTAGNE: And you can hear John's next story in this series, An Antidrug Unit Goes Bad, tonight on All Things Considered.
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