The Dead City

photo by Eugenio del Bosque
Saint Death

Death greets visitors to Reynosa these days. On the outskirts of this gritty industrial city across the Rio Grande from McAllen, a shining, white altar to the skeletal specter la Santa Muerte (Saint Death)—a favorite of the poor, the disenfranchised, and the criminal underclass—stands guard at her post, a smiling grim reaper, a fitting saint for these times.

My husband and I stop at la Santa Muerte on the edge of town. As my husband snaps photographs, a silver pickup truck careens down the highway at high speed with its hazard lights flashing. It weaves dangerously in and out of traffic. Moments later, a Mexican army convoy of several Humvees speeds down the highway in pursuit, the soldiers’ assault rifles glinting in the afternoon sun. Fear courses through me as I realize what’s happening. I’m standing at the side of the road, and a sliver of Mexico’s drug war is headed right for me. I pretend not to see them. As they pass, I think it would be fitting if I had to take shelter behind the altar to la Santa Muerte. It’s the only place where anyone in Reynosa seems to find comfort.

The altar wasn’t here a decade ago when I worked in Reynosa as a reporter. The city was different. It had a vibrant plaza and a healthy tourism trade. Families strolled downtown. Reynosa was never pretty, but it was alive. It had hope. Now the mood is fatalistic. The city itself has become a victim of the drug violence that has killed more than 28,000 people in Mexico since 2006. The restaurants and small businesses downtown are closed. The ice-cream store is gone. Shop owners can’t afford the extortion payments charged by organized crime. Weeds sprout from the fronts of boarded-up discos. Shuttered restaurants tagged with graffiti crumble under the August sun. Two weeks ago, someone threw a grenade at city hall. It stands deserted now. In the streets, no one smiles; no one makes eye contact.

It’s not only the narco-traficantes that residents have to worry about. The failure of the army to curtail the violence has emboldened other criminals—kidnappers, carjackers and anyone else with nothing to lose. The bullets could come anytime from anywhere. When people speak about the cartels or organized crime, they whisper, even sitting in their own living rooms. I hear again and again: “Don’t use my name,” and “You didn’t hear it from me.” A lawyer tells me he tried to file a lawsuit, but the courthouse no longer functions. Another resident tells me she can no longer visit friends in the neighboring city of Rio Bravo. The Gulf Cartel has checkpoints there, and you must pay to enter the city. They wear uniforms, she says, like an army.

Meanwhile, from her post at the edge of the city, la Santa Muerte smiles. This is her dominion now.

—Melissa del Bosque


dept. of Disputed Elections

Home Cooking

Texas’ 5th Court of Appeals turns out to be more sentimental than you might imagine. Home, the court recently ruled, really is where the heart is—at least in the case of Republican state Sen. Brian Birdwell.

Birdwell won a special election in June to replace the retiring Kip Averitt, a Waco Republican. Birdwell, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, is perhaps best known for his inspirational recovery following the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. He sustained burns to 60 percent of his body and had 39 surgeries. He gradually recovered, founded a Christian ministry for burn victims, and even started fishing again.

Problem is, he did it all in Virginia. Even getting the fishing license.

Although he maintained property in Texas, Birdwell only moved back to the Lone Star State in 2007. In fact, Birdwell voted in Virginia elections in 2006, an act that requires voters to declare their residency there. You might assume that would make him ineligible for the Texas Senate, which requires five years of Texas residency.

But you would be mistaken. After winning the special election to serve the final months of Averitt’s term, Birdwell was nominated for the November ballot to serve a full four years. Sensing a chance to steal a Senate seat, Democrats filed a lawsuit seeking to boot Birdwell from the ballot. The case seemed straightforward: Birdwell, according to his voting records, hasn’t been a resident of Texas for five years.

The Democrats’ case fell victim to that tried-and-true legal device: the technical loophole. On Aug. 19, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas—comprised entirely of Republicans—ruled in Birdwell’s favor. The justices wrote that Democrats should have first asked the state Republican Party to remove Birdwell from the ballot before going to court. In its 12-page ruling, the court barely mentioned Birdwell’s residency.

In an odd twist, the name that did come off the ballot was the Democratic nominee, John Cullar, a Waco attorney and longtime activist. Cullar was never a serious candidate; Democrats had nominated him the day before filing suit.

So the case has been wrapped up neatly. Birdwell has no credible opponent and likely will continue to serve a state he’s resided in for only three years. But, hey, close enough.

—Abby Rapoport



dept. of injustice

Tim Cole’s Legacy

When the Tim Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions gathered for the first time on Oct. 13, 2009, the first person the judges, prosecutors, innocence attorneys, reform advocates, and legislators on the panel heard from was Cole’s half-brother, Cory Session. “Tim died in prison while being oppressed,” he told them. “Let’s not let it happen again.”

They took Session’s plea to heart. Ten months later, on Aug. 25, the panel members finalized a report that recommends strong reforms to Texas’ criminal justice system. If the reforms are enacted, the number of wrongful convictions in Texas would decline immediately.

Cole is perhaps the most famous of the many Texans who have been wrongly convicted. The former Texas Tech student was imprisoned in 1986 for a rape he didn’t commit. For 13 years, Cole wasted away in prison, while the man who committed the crime tried to convince authorities Cole was innocent. Cole died in prison from asthma complications in 1999—a decade before DNA testing proved his innocence. Last year Gov. Rick Perry made Cole the first Texan to be exonerated posthumously. The Legislature created the advisory panel with one of two bills bearing Cole’s name in the 2009 session.

The causes of wrongful convictions are no secret. The No. 1 problem is witness misidentification, which has contributed to about 75 percent of flawed cases, according to the New York-based Innocence Project. Botched forensic evidence, made-up testimony from jailhouse snitches, and false confessions also are major factors.

The panel took on all these issues. It recommends that Texas require all law enforcement agencies to adopt standard procedures for police lineups. That would prevent coaching eyewitnesses to identify a suspect or stacking lineups so a suspect stands out.

The panel recommends that police officers record their interrogations to reduce false confessions. And it wants Texas courts to ban jailhouse informants from the witness stand unless their testimony can be verified.

These ideas aren’t new. Many have failed in the Legislature for years. The key question is, how much clout does Tim Cole’s name and story carry? Will the Legislature stash the report in a drawer? Or will lawmakers consider criminal justice reforms that would have saved Cole’s life? We’ll begin to find out when the Legislature convenes in January.

—Dave Mann


dept. of Literalism

PolitiFact’s Tough Crowd

There’s an old Texas proverb: One man’s joke is another man’s slander.

PolitiFact Texas doesn’t bother to distinguish. The collaborative  venture between the Austin American-Statesman and the national PolitiFact project at the St. Petersburg Times investigates political claims to see how accurate they are—what editor Gardner Selby calls “truthiness.” After examining a statement’s veracity, PolitiFact Texas slaps it with a rating on the Truth-o-meter: anything from “True” to “Pants on Fire” (which comes with a nifty graphic featuring animated flames).

It’s serious business—perhaps too serious.

For instance, state Democratic Party Chair Boyd Richie recently accused Gov. Rick Perry of “spending Texans’ hard-earned money to live like Louis XIV.” PolitiFact explained in more than 800 dour words why Perry’s rental house, while opulent, isn’t quite Versailles. In its piece, PolitiFact Texas acknowledged that “Democrats said Richie was joshing,” but that didn’t stop it from rating the statement “Pantalon en Feu.”

No good line goes unchecked. Jeff Weems, the Democratic candidate for Railroad Commission, observed in June that his reclusive Republican opponent “saw his shadow on the primary day and no one has seen him since.” PolitiFact noted dryly that “Democrat Jeff Weems says Republican foe has been an out-of-sight groundhog since March primaries.” After investigating, PolitiFact rated it “Barely True.”

Jokes are worth investigating, Selby says, because “you’re not guaranteed that a voter’s going to get your joke.” True, and the PolitiFact staff has shot down a variety of seriously false assertions, from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White’s claim that Perry is the highest-paid state employee, to Perry’s statement that White helped the Obama administration on cap-and-trade legislation, to reminding U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee that there’s now only one Vietnam.

But Hector Uribe, a Democratic candidate for Land Commissioner, found his trousers alight for a bit of political satire. His campaign issued a tongue-in-cheek press release in January lauding the candidate’s role in No Country for Old Men. It mentioned that “Uribe’s Republican opponent [Land Commissioner and noted gun enthusiast Jerry Patterson] threatened to shoot him last week.” Given the tone, it was hard to take the release seriously. The statement still got a “Pants on Fire,” though readers who finished the article saw the label was granted for “making us laugh and for reminding us not to take this stuff too seriously.” They might need more reminding.

By the way, there’s no need to fact-check that proverb at the top. We made it up.

—Abby Rapoport

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Published at 6:09 pm CST