In the deeply Democratic Rio Grande Valley, the primary is the election that matters. And in local races like county commissioner and district attorney a sliver of votes can make a difference between winning and losing the election. Many times, paid campaign workers called “politiqueras” deliver the votes that put a candidate over the top.
Politiqueras—who are paid to turn out voters, especially in low-income neighborhoods and colonias—have been part of elections in the Rio Grande Valley for decades. But the recent suicide of a school board president in the small town of Donna and the indictment of three politiqueras for allegedly buying votes in a Donna school board election with beer, drugs and cash has rattled the Valley’s political world.
Politiqueras are typically older women with deep ties in the community. They meet with seniors at nursing homes and adult daycare centers and residents in colonias to advocate for their candidates. They come bearing barbecue plates or Mexican pastries and offer voters a ride to the polls, none of which is illegal. But over the decades intense competition in an impoverished region for a limited number of jobs and the power to decide who gets a government contract or a lucrative-paying job has pushed some candidates to cross the legal line and offer cash for votes. “The competition for access to [government] contracts has become intense,” says former Edinburg state Rep. Aaron Peña. “Politiqueras have been pushed further and further to perform in a system that has been corrupted.”
The FBI alleges in federal court documents that Guadalupe Escamilla, Rebecca Gonzalez and Diana Castañeda worked as politiqueras for candidates in the 2012 primary, and for candidates for the Donna Independent School Board during the 2012 general election. According to the FBI, they were paid by campaign managers to buy votes for $3 to $10 per vote. Sometimes the women also gave out beer and cigarettes for votes and in some instances dropped off voters to buy drugs after they went to the polls.
No candidates or campaign managers have been arrested, but the FBI investigation continues. Less than two weeks after the arrests of the three women, Donna ISD School Board President Alfredo Lugo committed suicide at home by hanging himself on New Year’s Day. The FBI won’t confirm whether Lugo was a person of interest in the investigation. And his family has remained silent about the tragedy.
During a decade in public office, Peña says he was often approached by politiqueras looking for campaign work in his district, which ranged from Edinburg to Edcouch-Elsa. “A politiquera would say, ‘You know my reputation and that I’m really good at getting people out to vote and for my services I’ll need $5,000 a month,’” Peña says. “Then she’d go to your opponent and say, ‘I want you to pay me $7,000 so I don’t work for the other guy.’ So you’d end up not even trusting the politiquera. Some candidates would pay off a politiquera just to neutralize her in the election. She wouldn’t even work. It was like extortion.”
But Orlando Salinas, whose family has been involved in local politics for generations, says not all politiqueras should be viewed as lawbreakers just because of the indictments. “They can be a great thing because they’re community-based organizers who will go out and get people to the polls. That’s what bothers me about this politiquera issue—it’s always got a negative connotation but a lot of the blame needs to fall on the candidates themselves because there are a lot of good, hardworking politiqueras.”
Dr. Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, says it’s too soon to say whether the recent indictments will change practices in South Texas. “The adverse publicity could certainly reduce the use of politiqueras,” he says. “But the impact won’t be known until after the election.”
The controversy hasn’t affected voter turnout. Of the 15 most populous counties in the state, Hidalgo County has the highest early voting turnout, at 8.8 percent of registered voters, for Tuesday’s primary, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. Much of the turnout is due to an expensive, hard-fought race between 18-year incumbent District Attorney Rene Guerra and his opponent, former state District Judge Ricardo Rodriguez.
It’s difficult to quantify how much of the early voter turnout is due to politiqueras. But the indictments have become a major issue in the election. Recently, the McAllen Monitor reported that Rodriguez paid Blanca Cruz, a well-known politiquera, $5,300 to work on his campaign. Rodriguez pointed out that Guerra had also hired Cruz in 2010, even though he had indicted her for voter fraud eight years earlier. The charges were later dropped.
Peña says what happened to Cruz is all too common. “They are indicted but there’s never a conviction,” he says. “I’m glad to see the feds finally get involved. Everyone knows the rules of the game, but no one enforces them. I hope things will change for the better with these indictments.”