The Rio Grande Valley, the area in South Texas along the border, is mostly known for its poverty and immigration issues. Very soon, however, the nation will hear a story that’s going to change some pretty profound stereotypes about the border region: the drug wars and corruption to the south and the law and order efforts to the north. John Burnett, one of two Texas-based NPR reporters, is part of a new NPR series examining corruption on the Texas side of that line. He spoke with Texas Standard about the Federal Government’s involvement in what sounds like a crackdown on corruption in the state.
On getting turned on to the story:
“I’d been spending a lot of time down there covering the immigration stories and private prisons and different things and I just kept noticing all these public officials that were being indicted and … sent to prison for quite a variety of crimes – both federal border agents as well as lots and lots of local county people. So I went to the FBI building in McAllen and met the unforgettable supervisory special agent who goes by the name Rock Stone – he lives up to the part. He wants to say that there’s a new sheriff in town; corruption is endemic in the Rio Grande Valley, that’s the perception, and he’s here to plant the flag and say, ‘It stops here.’”
On the kind of corruption in the region:
“The Rio Grande Valley is an enormously valuable transshipment zone for the Gulf cartel across the river in Matamoros, so there’s a whole lot of dirty money down there. There’s also a pretty good size local retail market for drugs. So there’s drug money, which can be used to bribe judges, to bribe district attorneys, to bribe sheriffs, to bribe local cops, to bribe GPs, to bribe border patrol agents. Then you have people going to the courthouse, bribing court house officials. You have pay to play. … You have enormous health care fraud. … And then you have vote buying, which was news to me.”
On economic disparity:
“Certainly there is a lot of drug money in the Valley, but there’s also a lot of new construction down there; it’s booming. The University of Texas is expanding, there’s a whole lot of rich Mexicans moving into the region to flee the drug violence. There’s agri-business money. In some ways the isolation, I think, has led to this tradition of public corruption down there. We know that it’s isolated by vast ranch land to the north, the gulf to the east, Mexico to the south, but … when we ask the big ‘why’ question, poverty comes up. On the one hand, there’s a Maserati and a Jaguar dealership … in a place where a third of the population lives below the poverty level. There’s a lot of temptation.”
On his research’s findings:
“The Department of Justice compares all of the U.S. attorney districts across the country and in 2013, the last year for which there are figures, there were more public corruption convictions in the South Texas region, which is based in Houston, than in any other region of the country. … Another interesting figure was that in 21 years, no fewer than five sheriffs have gone to prison, and from 2000 to 2013, 13 federal border agents also went to prison. It’s what public integrity investigators call a ‘high temptation environment.’”
On whether the FBI can fix the problem at hand:
“I think other parts of the country have been cleared up, when you think about some of the public corruption that used to exist in Chicago and New York and even New Orleans. … You start sending people to prison. It’s like this lawyer told us down there, ‘Down at the courthouse, my buddies aren’t talking into their cell phones, bragging abou the judge that they just gave money for a favor.’ He said, ‘People are looking over their shoulders, they know big brother’s watching now.’”
The series will air next week.