The bribe has long been a shortcut to wealth and power along the Texas-Mexico border. But these days, it’s not just politicians lining their pockets or crooked lawmen taking bags of cash to overlook drug loads.
The culture of bribery is quietly seeping into new realms of government, from school districts to municipal court, experts say.
Proximity to Mexico is at least partly to blame, said Anthony Knopp, a professor who teaches border history at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
“What we’re dealing with is a Third World country on the other side of the border where there is a culture of corruption . . . corruption will show up here, naturally.”
And show up, it has.
Since March 2004, 19 public officials including former Cameron County Sheriff Conrado Cantu, a city manager, several county commissioners, a school superintendent and several school trustees have been convicted of taking kickbacks and bribes.
The way things are done
The bribery culture has existed in Mexico for centuries. There, the bribe is known as la mordida—”the bite.” Paying mordidas is often the most efficient—or the only—way of getting things done in Mexico.
Federal officials in the Rio Grande Valley say they began seeing rising numbers of bribery cases several years ago, and formed a task force to target corruption and graft.
Bribery “undermines public confidence in government,” said Don DeGabrielle, the U.S. attorney for the federal district that stretches from Houston to Laredo and south to Brownsville.
But for some, the temptation is too great.
A Brownsville municipal court clerk was recently sentenced to probation for fixing traffic tickets, undeterred by hundreds of police officers around her at the police station. For a “fee,” a city code inspector and a permit clerk allegedly let six used-car lot owners operate in Brownsville without passing building inspections.
The culture of bribery “has filtered down to where it’s not just law enforcement,” a veteran U.S. agent said on condition of anonymity.
Bribery of lawmen remains a problem, he added.
“We’re seeing it a lot more . . . and it isn’t always cash,” he said. “It could be bottles of liquor, it could be a car. Sometimes it’s hunting trips.”
Some in the Valley blame federal authorities.
The government “creates crime” by using “unsavory” informants to entrap otherwise honest people, said Al Alvarez, a McAllen lawyer who has defended a number of public officials.
As the Valley grows and receives larger shares of state and federal funding, more and more locals get involved in government and some don’t know the law, Alvarez said.
The fallout from another federal investigation was even more tragic in the case of Ed Aparicio, 46, a popular state judge who killed himself last April on the day he announced his resignation. Although the judge was never charged with a crime, FBI agents had searched his home and courthouse chambers, carting off paintings and other potential evidence in a reported bribery investigation.
TV stations in the Valley routinely feature tales of public officials being caught allegedly pocketing bribes in exchange for a range of illegal favors.
In another case, the Cameron County district attorney is investigating how the Brownsville Navigation District spent $21.4 million in taxpayer money during a decade-long, futile effort to build a rail bridge to Mexico.
A private attorney hired by the district concluded $10.5 million was paid to subcontractors in Mexico who did little or no work, including a firm with close ties to Mexican officials.
Bribery has also crept into Valley elections, said Othal Brand Jr., who ran his father’s unsuccessful campaign for mayor last year in McAllen.
A political worker offered him “400 votes for $10 apiece, or $4,000,” he said.
Some worry that even more public officials could be compromised as vast amounts of drug money flow across the Texas border.
Laredo police frequently stop cars for speeding as they head through town on their way to Mexico, finding “massive amounts of cash,” said Jerry Thompson, a history professor at Texas A&M International University. “One had $400,000 in a bag in the back seat. He didn’t even have it in the trunk.