Vote-Buying Scandal Rattles Valley Politics

The FBI investigates the use of politiqueras in Valley elections.
by Published on
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District Attorney Rene Guerra (R) with Sheriff Lupe TReviño. Some residents have called on Guerra to crack down on politiquera abuses.

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.”

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Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.

  • gotroy22

    Bringing Mexico to America.

  • Robert

    With a culture where so many are willing to sell their vote without consequence lopping a few of the buying hydra’s heads offers little hope of change. There needs to be consequences both buyer and seller. Holder is probably pushing this because win or lose nothing changes and/or Obama people were the losers in the primaries.

  • thewlyno

    i guess it goes without say that this is a Democrat M.O.

    • Joe Blow

      Actually one of the first articles I read on this subject happened in Florida, with Cuban folks. I was very surprised as they said the doers to get votes were Republican.

  • pabarge

    women. corruption. hispanics. what will they think of next?

  • pabarge

    Name the political party (because these mutts will not).

    • BrainBrian

      “In the deeply Democratic Rio Grande Valley” (first sentence). Not enough?

  • wildbill2u

    Back in the 70s when I was working in politics in San Antonio, the political operatives in the Mexican American precincts were mostly men. Perhaps it was different in the Valley. But it was always a “vote for cash” proposition from the days of LBJ and the famous Box 13 to my era.

    The politico guy asked for cash for what was euphemistically called “walking around money” and then he was supposed to round up the voters and make sure they got to the polls and voted right. The going rate for a vote in those days was $5. Having a bar-b-q rally with lots of beer didn’t hurt either.

    You were never sure whether the guy would actually deliver or whether he might take cash from your opponent as well. I didn’t trust them so I didn’t use them. But I never doubted that they COULD deliver some votes for somebody, especially if they had political ties going way back.

    The practice was exclusively was aimed at low information Mexican American voters for the Democratic candidates.

    • mesquito

      I knew a guy who used to do Democratic Party work in Houston during the same era. His job was to attend “bake sales” at Black churches as a representative for whichever faction employed him that week. If his employers desired a low Black turnout, for instance, the winning bid for the pastor’s wife’s cake would also secure a non-political, entirely Godly sermon the Sunday before the Primary. Conversely, if high turn-out was needed, that pastor could be induced to deliver political stemwinder worth of The Reverend Jackson himself, and maintain the agitation for 48 hours

      • wildbill2u

        Same all over. The political operatives in the black community are the pastors of the churches and they often had their hands out for ‘walking around money’ to help get out the vote. One of the best in San Antonio was a guy whose church consisted of himself and six ‘sisters’ but he was catered to as a community leader by some of the City Council like he had a church of thousands.

  • Rich

    Democrats at work!

  • teapartydoc

    Hey guys. Your ruining the “myth narrative”.

  • Want a conversation

    This can’t be true. Holder says there ain’t no damn voter fraud. That is why we don’t need no ID checks.

  • elHombre

    The FBI now pimps for the Democrats like most federal agencies. Don’t hold your breath waiting for startling results.

  • LeighLeigh

    HOLD UP. This happens in the black inner cities EVERYWHERE…..but the only reason why justice is involved is because the Republicans started using the same Democratic Tactics…and that is why Holder is investigating. Period.

  • Bandit

    The only Mexican I want to see come to the US is Javier Hernandez

  • Ben Franklin

    These people are not very good at what they do. Obama just buys votes with tax money. He promises to rob certain people and give it to others — and it is all completely legal. He just accepts your vote first and then gives you the kickback instead of vice versa.

  • shurty

    Just trying to make the illegals feel more at home.