Google+ Back to mobile

La Linea

Photo from Eddie Guerra's Facebook page

After the sudden—yet not entirely surprising—resignation Friday of embattled Sheriff Lupe Treviño, Hidalgo County moved quickly to appoint an interim sheriff Wednesday. The Hidalgo County Commissioner’s Court appointed Precinct 4 Constable J.E. “Eddie” Guerra to run the law enforcement agency, one of the largest in the state with nearly 800 employees and a $44 million budget.

County residents will have an opportunity to elect a new sheriff in the November general election. The Monitor in McAllen reported that 12 candidates applied to replace Treviño as interim sheriff and there were three finalists up for consideration Wednesday. Guerra, the only elected official in the running, was chosen by unanimous vote after about 25 minutes of deliberation.

The 52-year-old Guerra will resign from the constable position immediately and begin serving as sheriff Thursday. “The message that I really want to give out is that we’re going to start restoring accountability back to the Sheriff’s Office,” Guerra said, according to The Monitor. “We’re going to hold these people accountable—the deputies accountable for their actions—from now on. We’re not going to make any excuses for any troubles.”

Treviño, in his resignation letter submitted to County Judge Ramon Garcia last week, said that Texas’ “eighth largest sheriff’s office deserves dedicated and focused attention which I have not been able to give it.” The 65-year-old has dealt with a series of scandals since ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI arrested his son Jonathan Treviño, a former Mission police officer, in December 2012. Jonathan and other officers associated with the Panama Unit—including five Hidalgo County deputies—were indicted for “conspiring to possess with intent to distribute” cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine.

Shortly after the Panama Unit bust, James Phil “JP” Flores, who ran the sheriff’s Crime Stoppers program, and 47-year-old warrants deputy Jorge Garza were also indicted along with Aida Palacios, an investigator with the district attorney’s office. According to federal indictments, the drug conspiracy centered on local drug dealers Fernando Guerra Sr. and his son Fernando Jr.—also indicted—who helped set up fake drug stings with the corrupt cops to rip off other local dealers and then sell their drugs.

In December of 2013, Treviño’s management of the law enforcement agency was dealt yet another blow when Commander Jose “Joe” Padila, a close ally and integral part of the sheriff’s re-election campaigns was indicted for drug trafficking and money laundering in connection with a known Weslaco drug trafficker, Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez. Padilla has pled not guilty and is still awaiting trial.

Treviño received two $5,000 cash donations from “El Gallo” Gonzalez. Treviño told The Monitor that Padilla had delivered the campaign donations but that he rejected the money. Gonzalez also paid for campaign re-election signs for Treviño.

Federal agents don’t seem close to ending their investigation, which only spells more trouble for the embattled Treviño who, to date, has not been charged with any crime. On March 10, Texas Rangers and federal agents executed a search warrant at the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s office and confiscated a computer. Two weeks later Treviño’s Chief of Staff Maria “Pat” Medina resigned for “personal reasons.” Medina is also Treviño’s campaign treasurer.

Treviño’s replacement, Guerra, will be sworn in tomorrow. Guerra has worked in Hidalgo County law enforcement since 1995. He has also worked as a reserve deputy for the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office. In a press release sent out late Wednesday, Guerra called his new appointment “nerve racking” but said he feels he can make a difference at the troubled sheriff’s agency.

“My first order of business tomorrow after I submit my bond and I am officially sworn into Office; is to address the hard working men and women at the Sheriff’s Office,” he said. “I am going to challenge them to work with me to regain the public’s trust and admiration and lift the dark cloud over the Sheriff’s Office.”

Photo from Sheriff Trevino’s Facebook page.
The sheriff and his sons (from left to right) Juan Carlos and Jonathan

Embattled Hidalgo County Sheriff Guadalupe “Lupe” Treviño—one of the border’s most powerful law enforcement officials, whose office has been roiled with allegations of corruption—formally announced his resignation Friday.

Scandal has dogged Treviño since ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI arrested his son Jonathan Treviño, a former Mission police officer, in December 2012. Since at least 2006, 30-year-old Jonathan Treviño had run a street-level narcotics task force called the Panama Unit in Hidalgo County. In March 2013, Jonathan and other officers associated with the Panama Unit—including five Hidalgo County deputies—were indicted for “conspiring to possess with intent to distribute” cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine.”

For years, according to law enforcement sources, the task force had ripped off local dealers then resold the drugs for a profit. (The Panama Unit members pled guilty in 2013 and are still awaiting sentencing.) The news that the sheriff’s own son had been running a corrupt drug task force—while he lived with the sheriff—was shocking for many Rio Grande Valley residents. But it was only the beginning of the scandal that would roil the sheriff’s office.

Shortly after the Panama Unit bust, James Phil “JP” Flores, who ran the sheriff’s Crime Stoppers program, and 47-year-old warrants deputy Jorge Garza were also indicted along with Aida Palacios, an investigator with the district attorney’s office. According to federal indictments, the drug conspiracy centered on local drug dealers Fernando Guerra Sr. and his son Fernando Jr.—also indicted—who helped set up fake drug stings with the corrupt cops to rip off other local dealers and then sell their drugs.

In March 2013, I wrote about the sheriff and his troubles in a story called “The Shadow of the Son.” The sheriff, who runs one of the largest law enforcement agencies on the U.S.-Mexico border with 763 employees and a $44 million budget, had won his last re-election with more than 80 percent of the vote and had been tapped by the Department of Homeland Security as an adviser on border security. But since his son’s indictment and arrest, his 42-year career has been shadowed by allegations of corruption in his agency. Deputies and former deputies told the Observer that Treviño had forced employees to work on his campaigns or be demoted. Deputies were also forced to buy and sell tickets to fundraisers to pay off his campaign debt. Many of the deputies said that one of the sheriff’s commanders, Jose “Joe” Padilla, served as an enforcer for the sheriff, making sure that deputies carried out his wishes. In December 2013, Padilla was arrested on a seven-count indictment for drug trafficking and money laundering. He is still awaiting trial.

Throughout these many scandals, the sheriff has refused to resign. He’s continuously defended his record and said he had no knowledge of his son’s actions or the corruption in his agency. After Padilla was arrested, Treviño posted on his Facebook page: “Even though I consider him a friend and political supporter, I am not complicit in any illegalities whatsoever. People in all walks of life that know me and my reputation can attest to that.”

But last Friday the sheriff’s longtime chief of staff Pat Media retired. Rumors swirled in the Rio Grande Valley last week that Treviño would quickly follow in her footsteps. Today the sheriff alerted supporters on his Facebook page that he was indeed stepping down:

“Attached is my letter of resignation that serves as notice for my retirement. I do this with a very heavy heart but it is in the best interest of the County of Hidalgo and my family. Please take the letter and it’s contents for face value. Rumors run abound but they are rumors until they become fact. I would sincerely like to thank you for your support in good and bad times. These are the times when you find out who your true friends are. I have always counted on you and will continue to do so as you will with me…Thank You and God Bless You. Sheriff Lupe Trevino”

But the travails of the sheriff aren’t over yet. Many wonder whether the FBI is still investigating him and his agency and whether there will be more indictments. Commander Padilla’s trial will more than likely be set for the summer. Whatever comes out in the testimony will only further damage Treviño’s tarnished tenure as sheriff.

Eugenio del Bosque
Unaccompanied children waiting in a Mexican social service office

A majority of the unaccompanied Mexican and Central American children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border should qualify for political asylum, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ office, which released a report Wednesday on the growing humanitarian crisis.

“There is an alarming number of children seeking asylum. The U.S. government estimates this year there could be as many as 60,000 children in federal custody,” said Leslie Velez, a lead author of the new UNHCR report “Children on the Run,” released by the agency’s Washington, D.C., office, which covers the United States and the Caribbean.

Velez, in a conference call with reporters, said the “surge” of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without a parent or adult guardian began in 2011, and mirrors a sharp increase of adult U.S. asylum claims from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico that rose from 5,369 in 2009 to 36,174 in 2013. The growing humanitarian crisis is also affecting countries besides the United States. Neighboring Central American countries like Costa Rica and Nicaragua have seen a 432 percent increase in asylum claims, according to the report.

The number of U.S. immigration apprehensions of unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras has risen sharply from 4,059 in 2011 to 21,537 in 2013, and the majority of them cross the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, the shortest route from Central America into the U.S. Local and state authorities and advocates have struggled to provide resources and beds for all of the children arriving in Texas. In 2012, children were briefly sent to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to be housed in dormitories until additional shelters could be found.

The agency also interviewed unaccompanied minors from Mexico, and found that the number of Mexican children apprehended has also increased from 13,000 in 2011 to 18,754 in 2013. As I reported in the 2010 Observer story “Children of the Exodus,” Mexican children traveling alone are treated differently by U.S. immigration officials than Central American children. Instead of being screened and interviewed by U.S. Border Patrol agents, to see whether they qualify for asylum—as required by a congressional mandate—children are often returned to the nearest Mexican border city within 24 hours.

Velez said it was the U.N.’s task to document the reasons children are fleeing their homes in an unprecedented number. Velez said the agency interviewed 404 children from the four countries and found that pervasive violence and the inability of the state to provide security for its citizens were primary reasons for fleeing their countries. “At least 83 percent of the children had more than one reason for leaving,” she said.

The study’s authors said 72 percent of the children they interviewed from El Salvador qualified for “international protection,” (meaning possible asylum), the highest rate of any country. Children cited organized crime and gang violence as their primary reasons for fleeing El Salvador.

At least 48 percent of the Guatemalan children interviewed were indigenous, and they cited deprivation (poverty), violence at home and in society as their main reasons for leaving the country. At least 38 percent of Guatemalan children “raised international protection concerns,” according to the UNHRC.

Children from Honduras, like El Salvador, cited organized crime and pervasive violence in their country as primary reasons for leaving, and at least 57 percent of them raised international protection concerns, according to the report.

Findings from interviews with Mexican children were especially striking, according to the report. At least 64 percent of the children interviewed raised “international protection” concerns. And at least 38 percent of the children said they had been recruited by organized crime to be used in human trafficking “precisely because of their age and vulnerability,” according to the report. As I wrote in 2010 in “Children of the Exodus,” Mexican children are often used by organized crime for everything from drug smuggling to guiding immigrants through U.S. ranch lands, because if they are arrested they will be deported immediately back to Mexico. These children are powerless to defend themselves and often are intimidated and forced to participate in criminal activity.

In the report, the UNHCR asks that Central American countries, Mexico and the United States acknowledge that violence and insecurity are fueling the displacement of thousands of children and creating the humanitarian crisis. To help these displaced children, the agency recommends better asylum screening, and new or stronger laws to protect unaccompanied children.

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman
Screen shot from video released by Mexican government
Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman escorted to a military helicopter

Both the U.S. and Mexican governments are celebrating Saturday’s arrest of Mexico’s most notorious drug kingpin, Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, but longtime experts on Mexico believe his arrest will only spur more violence in a conflict that has already caused more than 100,000 deaths and at least 26,000 disappearances since 2006.

El Paso immigration lawyer Carlos Spector has, since 2006, represented dozens of families in asylum court as they flee warring political and drug factions. Spector currently represents 100 families in political asylum cases, and has begun receiving families from the southern states of Guerrero and Michoacan, where rampant extortion and government officials’ complicity with cartels have prompted communities to form their own self-defense forces. “Chapo’s capture is a great political victory for both countries, and they’re going to take it for a ride as long as they can until reality sets in and there’s the next wave of assassinations throughout the country,” Spector says.

Spector has family in both Mexico and the United States. His grandfather was mayor of the small Mexican town of Guadalupe just across the border from Tornillo, Texas. In 2009, the Mexican military moved into Guadalupe, spurring a scorched-earth campaign between Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel and the Juarez Cartel, which had run the territory for decades. The small town’s murder rate skyrocketed to one of the highest in the world, and many fled to the United States to ask for asylum. Several police officers were killed, and the military built a makeshift barracks in the small town to patrol Guadalupe and the surrounding Juarez Valley.

As I wrote in a 2012 Texas Observer story, “The Deadliest Place in Mexico,” numerous survivors from the town told me that the military was assisting Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel in eradicating Juarez Cartel members. Spector says that since at least 2010, the Sinaloa Cartel has been in control of Guadalupe and the surrounding valley, which is under the control of the Mexican Army. The region still doesn’t have any local police forces. “A very interesting question is: How does the capture of Chapo change the dynamic of the relationship with Sinaloa and the military that has kept the cartel in power in the Juarez Valley?” says Spector.

The U.S. media is presenting Guzman’s capture and the Sinaloa Cartel in too simplistic of terms, he says. “They are viewing it through American eyes as another economic and corporate structure, but his power has a lot to do with deep family ties and personal loyalties which in large part is what Mexican politics are all about,” Spector says. “Now other cartels and dissident groups within Sinaloa are going to form new alliances and it’s going to create a lot of violence and readjustment.”

What doesn’t change is the drug market. “The production and distribution is still in place,” Spector says. “But I think we’re going to see a lot more violence, maybe not immediately but in the foreseeable future.”

David Ramirez, a former federal law enforcement officer, spent decades investigating and arresting drug cartel members before retiring in 2009. Ramirez says the arrest of another kingpin is always a political victory but ultimately doesn’t make a dent in the drug market.

As a rookie U.S. Border Patrol agent, Ramirez arrested Amado Carrillo Fuentes in the 1980s—later released by federal prosecutors—before he became the infamous “Lord of the Skies” and kingpin of the Juarez Cartel. Later, Ramirez became part of an elite group of covert agents in the Immigration and Naturalization Services, investigating organized crime. The INS was dissolved and repurposed into U.S. Customs and Border Protection under the massive new U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Ramirez retired in 2009.

“It frustrates me that we’ve been fighting the drug war for more than 40 years and arrested countless kingpins but we’re still in the same situation,” he says. “They talk as if it’s going to slow down the drug flow, but it does nothing. We need to stop the demand on our side of the border.”

The Sinaloa Cartel basically organized the drug smuggling structure in the western hemisphere back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he says. “The structure is already there—you don’t need Chapo Guzman. They’ll just put somebody else in his place.”

Support the Texas Observer
Lt. Gov. Dewhurst tours the Rio Grande on a well-armed DPS boat
Lt. Gov. Dewhurst on a DPS gunboat

When a normally buttoned-down Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst dons a bulletproof vest and poses next to a machine gun on the Rio Grande, it can only mean one thing—it’s Republican primary season.

For the four Republican candidates vying to occupy the state’s second-highest office, including incumbent Dewhurst, talking tough on border security is a tried and true campaign strategy. Waging war on the border might sway fickle Republican primary voters but it almost always alienates the majority of border residents.

Take for instance Dewhurst’s photo op on the Rio Grande in late September: While the 68-year-old Dewhurst posed for photographs on a Department of Public Safety armored gunboat, the agency was in the midst of its three-week “surge” along the border, called “Operation Strong Safety.” The surge featured DPS roving checkpoints throughout Hidalgo County, that created havoc in local communities. Businesses saw a reduction in customers, school attendance declined and local legislators received dozens of phone calls from panicked residents afraid that family members would be detained at the checkpoints and deported. “People are too afraid to go out,” Juanita Valdez-Cox, an immigrant advocate and executive director of La Union del Pueblo Entero, told the Observer at the time. “Many families here have mixed citizenship. The parents may not have documents but their children are U.S. citizens.”

After much public outcry by border residents and some legislators, DPS Director Steve McCraw said he wouldn’t conduct the checkpoints again without legislative authority. Still, two months later, Dewhurst praised Operation Strong Safety during a press conference and said the state should spend $60 million on a “continuous surge to substantially shut down our border.”

For his part, rival candidate Todd Staples has been beating the border war drum for years as Texas agriculture commissioner. In 2011, he commissioned two retired generals to do an $80,000 military assessment on security along the Texas-Mexico border. The generals referred to border cities in their report as a “sanitary tactical zone” where military operations can push back “narco-terrorists.” Another candidate, state Sen. Dan Patrick, has warned of “illegal invasions from Mexico” and pledged to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities. At least Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson has taken a more nuanced approach. He’s all for armed soldiers at the border, but he’s also for armed citizens throughout the state. “The fact that many Texans feel comfortable with only police carrying guns isn’t normal, historically speaking,” he wrote in a recent editorial for the San Antonio Express-News.  “Armed citizens shouldn’t be alarming in a free society.”

Eugenio del Bosque
Unaccompanied Children in Reynosa, Mexico

The U.S. Border Patrol recently released some stunning apprehension figures for the Rio Grande Valley. While the rest of the U.S.-Mexico border is still experiencing some of the lowest apprehension rates in forty years, the number of border crossers caught in the Valley has tripled since 2010.

The nexus of migration has shifted from Tucson, Arizona to South Texas. Since 1998, Tucson, Arizona, has registered the highest number of yearly apprehensions. But in 2013, the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector reported 154,453 migrant apprehensions compared to 120,939 for Tucson.

For anyone working with the immigrant community in the Rio Grande Valley, the new figures come as no surprise. There has been a huge influx of women, children and men from Central America fleeing skyrocketing violence and seeking refuge in the United States. South Texas has long been a favored route for Central Americans but the numbers of migrants in the past two years is the highest since Central America’s civil wars more than three decades ago.

Most troubling are the thousands of unaccompanied children—the majority between 7 and 18—fleeing deteriorating security conditions in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In April 2012, South Texas shelters for unaccompanied children reached overflow capacity. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement, scrambled to find emergency shelters for the children. The agency even called on Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to provide shelter to more than 100 Central American kids.

The number of children pouring across the border hasn’t abated since then. And the Office of Refugee and Resettlement has had to secure more shelters across Texas to house the children.

“In Central America, organized crime and gang activity are leading to some of the highest murder rates in the world,” says Adam Isaacson, a senior associate for regional security at the non-profit Washington Office on Latin America. “What surprises me about these apprehension numbers is how fast it has grown in the past two years. The number of people has tripled.”

Because of the violence in Central America, parents already in the United States without documents are paying smugglers to bring their children across the border. Other children threatened by growing gang violence are fleeing to the United States even if they have no relatives here. It’s a humanitarian disaster, says Isaacson. Migrants are targeted for forced labor, extortion and recruitment by the cartels. “On the route to the United States, just about everyone is either robbed, kidnapped or raped,” he says.

Once they cross the border into the United States, migrants hiking through the desert or rugged ranch lands can die from heat exposure or hypothermia. The Border Patrol reported 156 deaths in the Rio Grande Valley in 2013, second only to Tucson where 194 people died.

In June 2012, Lavinia Limon, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants, published an open letter to Congress asking that they address the unfolding humanitarian crisis through immigration reform. As Limon wrote in a letter published in The Texas Observer:

“The central fact of our existing immigration policies is that they keep families separated. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, passed by Congress in 1996 created the current problem. All at once it erected a major barrier for parents here illegally from ever seeing their young children again.”

One other trend that stands out for me from the latest Border Patrol report is the historically low level of apprehensions for Mexicans continues. In 2012, the Pew Research Center attributed this trend to a number of reasons including heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, the growing dangers of crossing the border as well as a decline in birth rates.

But the growing security crisis in Mexico is also having an impact on immigration numbers. What the Border Patrol doesn’t track is the number of political asylum requests. As noted in a recent New York Times article, political asylum requests from Mexico more than doubled from 13,800 in 2012 to 36,000 requests in 2013. Many Mexicans seeking asylum have moved to U.S. border states like Texas. And no doubt, with things deteriorating in Michoacan and other states we might see even more asylum requests in 2014.

The takeaway is that the humanitarian crisis is growing and much of it is now playing out in Texas, especially in the Rio Grande Valley.

Photo from Sheriff Trevino’s Facebook page.
Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño and his sons Juan Carlos (left) and Jonathan.

In Hidalgo County, when it comes to law enforcement corruption,  the feds like to make their arrests right before the holidays.

On Christmas Eve, Commander Jose “Joe” Padilla, right-hand man to Sheriff Guadalupe “Lupe” Treviño was arrested on a seven-count indictment for drug trafficking and money laundering. Padilla’s arrest makes it increasingly difficult for Treviño—the county’s top lawman—to continue to deny any knowledge of wrongdoing by his deputies, his own son and now a top commander who many say worked as his chief enforcer within the border’s second largest law enforcement agency.

For months, rumors had swirled about Padilla’s imminent arrest. It was December 2012 when federal agents from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI arrested the sheriff’s son Jonathan Treviño, Alexis Espinoza, son of the City of Hidalgo police chief, and two other deputies who were part of the now defunct Panama Unit narcotics task force. The remaining three members were indicted in March of 2012.

Jonathan Treviño was assigned as leader of the task force at age 23 and he staffed the Panama Unit with his close friends. Multiple law enforcement sources say the Panama Unit brazenly ripped off local drug dealers for at least six years until their arrests in December 2012. The news that the sheriff’s son had run a corrupt task force shocked Hidalgo County, but more arrests were announced and it appeared that the corruption in the department ran even deeper. Shortly after the Panama Unit bust, James Phil “JP” Flores, who ran the sheriff’s crime stoppers program, and 47-year-old warrants deputy Jorge Garza were also indicted along with Aida Palacios, an investigator with the district attorney’s office. According to federal indictments, the drug conspiracy centered on local drug dealers Fernando Guerra Sr. and his son Fernando Jr.—also indicted—who helped set up fake drug stings with the corrupt cops to rip off other local dealers and then sell their drugs.

One by one they pleaded guilty and avoided trial—all except Jorge Garza. Instead of taking a plea agreement and risking 10 years to life in prison, the former Hidalgo County deputy wanted his day in federal court. He got his wish, over several days in August, and South Texas followed every minute of the trial over social media as the web of corruption in the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department slowly unraveled.

At the center of the damning testimony was Padilla, painted as the sheriff’s top enforcer who struck fear into deputies underneath him. On the witness stand, indicted Panama Unit member Fabian Rodriguez described Padilla’s role within the sheriff’s department. “Padilla has free rein and he puts the fear in people. I feared him even though I was part of his inner circle,” Rodriguez told the jury. “I’m afraid as I’m testifying right now.”

Rodriguez also testified that Padilla would send deputies to shine his shoes, pick up his dry cleaning and pay his taxes while on county time. Padilla would also tell deputies to alter their time sheets to say they had worked overtime. Then they would use the comp time to work for the sheriff’s campaign. “Padilla wouldn’t put his name on it [the time sheet] because he didn’t want it coming back to him. He would tell someone else to do it,” Rodriguez told the jury.

When Garza’s attorney subpoenaed Padilla, it was the talk of the town. Padilla strode into the courtroom in uniform, then promptly asserted his Fifth Amendment rights rather than answer any questions before a judge and jury. U.S. District Judge Randy Crane informed the jury that Padilla was being investigated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Despite the revelation, Sheriff Treviño said he would keep Padilla on staff.

Months passed until this week’s announcement of Padilla’s arrest. The unsealed indictment links Padilla with suspected drug dealer Tomas Reyes Gonzalez, known as El Gallo (the Rooster). The indictment alleges that Padilla provided protection for El Gallo and his associates. During the trial in August, witnesses testified that the alleged drug dealer was also a political donor to Sheriff Treviño.

The most fascinating piece of the case is the sheriff. With nine indicted lawmen—including seven sheriff’s deputies and his own son—Treviño has maintained on the witness stand and in the media that he had no idea his deputies were colluding with drug dealers. When contacted by The Monitor after Commander Padilla’s arrest on Tuesday, he told the newspaper, “Unequivocally, there’s absolutely no way I had any knowledge whatsoever about the allegations, if they are true, any more than I did about the Panama Unit.”

But clearly, federal investigators aren’t done yet with Treviño. Neither are former employees—who say the sheriff retaliated against them for failing to work his campaign re-election in 2012—and residents who say they were victimized by his son’s drug task force. Both parties have filed civil lawsuits against the sheriff. More damning evidence and testimony will undoubtedly come to light—and at this rate, it wouldn’t be surprising if the feds delivered another unsettling Christmas present next year.

Former Tamaulipas Gov. Tomas Yarrington Ruvacalba
Courtesy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Former Tamaulipas Gov. Tomas Yarrington Ruvacalba

Former Tamaulipas Gov. Tomas Yarrington Ruvacalba was once considered presidential material, but now both Mexico and the United States have issued warrants for his arrest.

In early December, the United States indicted Yarrington on 11 counts of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering. Most Mexican politicians under indictment typically keep a low profile, but Yarrington—a fugitive in two countries—has taken to social media to build his case of innocence.

Yarrington served as mayor of Matamoros from 1993 to 1995 and governor of Tamaulipas from 1999 to 2005. In 1999 he was honored with a Texas Senate proclamation. On his website, which features the 56-year-old hooking a prized game fish, Yarrington says his troubles in Mexico stem from “political persecution from the past administration,” referring to the presidency of Felipe Calderon, which ended in December 2012. Calderon is from the National Action Party, which ousted Yarrington’s Institutional Revolutionary Party from the presidential palace in 2000. On Twitter the politician said the accusations against him were coerced and false. “…I’m going to reveal the inconsistencies and contradictions of the protected witnesses who have accused me falsely,” he tweeted.

Allegations in the U.S. against Yarrington first surfaced in February 2012 after authorities arrested wealthy Mexican businessman Antonio Peña Arguelles at his home in an upscale neighborhood in San Antonio. An affidavit filed by the DEA alleged that Peña Arguelles had funneled millions of dollars from the Zetas cartel to Yarrington and other elected officials. In May of 2012, another wealthy businessman, Fernando Alejandro Cano Martinez, was indicted in absentia on money laundering charges. Agents allege that Cano funneled millions from the Gulf Cartel and Zetas to Yarrington and helped him launder money through land and property purchases in South Texas and San Antonio.

After the indictment announcement in December, Yarrington hastily called a press conference in Mexico City where his Mexican and U.S. lawyers presented his defense. The legal team told reporters they had no idea where Yarrington might be hiding. U.S. authorities revoked his visa in February 2012 and asked him to leave the country, said his U.S. attorney Joel Androphy. “I fully expect Governor Yarrington to be acquitted. He’s done nothing wrong,” Androphy said. “We have a saying, ‘In the United States you can indict a ham sandwich,’” he told the room of Mexican reporters. “But in our country you are also innocent until proven guilty.”

But first Uncle Sam will have to find Yarrington, who wisely turned off the geo-locator on his Twitter account. If he is detained or turns himself in, his trial will likely take place in federal court in Brownsville.

Yarrington isn’t the only disgraced Mexican politician on the lam and hiding from U.S. authorities. Texas plays a crucial role as both a place of refuge (world-class gated communities!) and a place to funnel the hundreds of millions gathered through dubious means while serving in public office.

In November, U.S. attorneys indicted Hector Javier Villarreal Hernandez, 42, former Secretary of Finance of the State of Coahuila, and Jorge Juan Torres Lopez, 59, former Interim Governor of Coahuila. The two men are charged with money laundering and bank fraud.

Last year police in Tyler pulled over Villarreal, his wife and kids as they were passing through town in a Mercedes SUV. A deputy found a rifle and more than $67,000. Villarreal and his wife were detained. But the Department of Homeland Security let the couple go because they had legal visas to be in the country, according to KLTV News. Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert opined that the two probably left Texas immediately. “I’m going to talk to someone in Washington … because they are giving awfully bad directions to law enforcement who actually knows what they’re doing.”

To date, neither man has been found—either in Texas or on Twitter.


Employees at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have been bilking taxpayers for millions in overtime pay for years, according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which investigates cases of government waste and ethical violations. Overtime abuse has become so endemic that agency employees refer to overtime as “the candy bowl.”  On Nov. 1, the office’s Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner sent a letter to President Obama expressing deep concerns about the “long-standing abuse of overtime payments by the Department of Homeland Security.”

In her letter, Lerner said the problem is the misuse of Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime, or AUO, which agents can earn when tackling urgent work like a breaking law enforcement case. Among the allegations made by agency whistleblowers were that employees routinely reported working overtime when in fact they were “relaxing, joking, surfing the Internet and taking care of personal matters.”

The news was a blow to border business leaders and elected officials who were recently granted a five-year pilot program by Congress to allow them to form public-private partnerships to pay for additional agents or pay overtime during peak traffic times at international bridges.

For years border officials have begged the feds to hire more customs agents to relieve congestion at the international bridges. The long lines result in export and import delays causing produce to rot in transit, and pollution from idling trucks and cars. After nearly a decade of frustration for business leaders, Congress approved the public-private partnerships to help fund more agents in U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency within DHS.

“I’d be very supportive of CBP correcting this inappropriate behavior,” said Sam Vale, president of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company. Vale’s company is part of the South Texas Assets Consortium, which includes Cameron County and the cities of McAllen, Pharr and Laredo. The group is one of five public-private partnerships recently approved by Congress for the pilot program that begins in January.

Vale said he is concerned about the report’s findings of rampant abuse of overtime pay. He emphasized that the consortium wouldn’t pay overtime until U.S. Customs had exhausted its overtime coffers first. “If a truck stays one day longer waiting at the port of entry, the value of produce is reduced by 10 percent. The importer and exporter have to eat the difference in cost,” he said. “It’s a business decision—do you pay the overtime and allow the truck to be cleared faster or not?” he said. “Most would pay the overtime.”

Lerner’s agency investigated six Homeland Security offices nationwide including the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services headquarters in Washington, D.C., where a  “whistleblower alleged that employees claimed 10 hours of overtime every week,” an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Houston, and a Border Patrol station in Laredo where employees charged overtime to conduct routine administrative tasks.

The overtime charges at the six offices alone cost taxpayers at least $8.7 million annually. Lerner said the misuse of funds was an agency-wide problem and probably “would be in the tens of millions per year.”

Support the Texas Observer
Photo by Marissa Barnett
A protest last June in front of the Polk detention facility

Back in 2009, the Obama administration promised reform of the massive, mostly for-profit U.S. immigrant detention system. Immigrant advocates are still waiting.

The number of deportees hasn’t diminished and private detention facilities continue to expand. Every year more than 400,000 people waiting for hearings with an immigration judge are housed in far-flung jails and grim detention centers across the nation. Many of the people in detention—sometimes for years—are legal permanent residents, asylum seekers or survivors of domestic violence or human trafficking. The detentions are costly for taxpayers and economically and emotionally ruinous for immigrant families. While languishing in lockup, detainees are sometimes subjected to physical abuse, substandard medical care and inhumane living conditions.

Last year, the nonprofit watchdog group Detention Watch Network issued a report on 10 of the most inhumane lockups in the nation, saying they should be closed immediately because of myriad human rights abuses. The group sent a letter and a copy of the report to President Obama outlining their concerns and calling for the closures. Two of the facilities are in Texas: the Houston Processing Center, a private facility owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America, and the Polk County Detention Facility in Livingston operated by New Jersey-based private prison company Community Education Centers.

The 10 facilities were identified as the worst in the nation by a coalition of more than 320 immigrant advocate groups, community organizers, legal service providers and faith organizations. Bob Libal, executive director of the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, toured both detention facilities in 2012 and found detainees in crowded unsanitary cells without adequate medical care or edible food. Some detainees had been placed in solitary confinement for minor infractions.

A year has now passed and not one of the facilities has been closed. “The conditions haven’t improved at all,” Libal said. “They’ve actually gotten worse.”

The isolated Polk detention center now houses up to 400 to 500 asylum seekers from Latin America, said Libal. There are no legal services, no outside recreation. “People have to eat, sleep and use the restrooms in one enclosed area,” he said.

During the fractious debate over immigration reform in Congress, advocates like Libal feel that the crisis of mass detention of immigrants has largely been ignored. “People shouldn’t be locked up during immigration proceedings,” he said. Some alternatives to incarceration include supervised probation for immigrants waiting for their hearing dates.

To bring the problem back into the spotlight, Grassroots Leadership and the nonprofit Texans United for Families will hold a press conference Wednesday at 10 a.m. across the street from the Federal Plaza in Austin to call for the closure of the Polk County detention facility. “We want to continue to focus attention on a facility that is one of the most troubling detention centers in a very troubling immigrant detention system,” Libal said. ‘We shouldn’t have tens of thousands of people locked up every day across America.”