The trial of drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán showed just how pervasive the influence of cartel money is in Mexican politics. One former drug lord testified that Guzmán paid a $100 million bribe to former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Though that allegation hasn’t yet been independently verified, the charges are consistent with reports of corruption between cartels and Mexican politicians, at all levels.
But the problem isn’t just in Mexico. One Texas historian has called drug money the “WD-40” of the Rio Grande Valley. In a recent story for The New York Times, Houston Bureau Chief Manny Fernandez reports that that’s an accurate metaphor. His story, co-reported with Mitchell Ferman, describes how corruption ended the careers of three sheriffs in U.S. cities along the border.
“There have been a, sort of a collection over the years … of these sheriffs and local cops and constables who get tempted and who take drug money,” Fernandez says. “It happens, and it happened in the past and it’s happening in the present today.”
Fernandez says this behavior isn’t the norm among the vast majority of law-enforcement officers along the border. And for those who are involved in corrupt activities, Fernandez says it’s a different flavor than the entrenched, systemic corruption that happens in Mexico.
“The type of corruption: it probably is more intense on the Mexican side,” Fernandez says. “But still … it certainly raises eyebrows.”
In the Times story, Fernandez and Ferman wrote: “More than 100 local, state and federal law enforcement officials have been indicted on drug-related corruption charges on America’s southwest border since the 1990s,” and Fernandez says federal officials are looking at the problem.
“I think the feds, in the last maybe five or six years, started taking a lot of this more seriously,” Fernandez says.
He says some of that added attention came from the Panama Unit scandal in Hidalgo County that started about a decade ago, when an anti-drug task force was stealing from drug dealers and selling those drugs to other dealers. Fernandez says the FBI also started a task force in the Rio Grande Valley around the same time, which targeted public officials involved in corruption.
Fernandez says the corruption has led to an underground economy in the Rio Grande Valley. But the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Houston told Fernandez that he didn’t know how large that economy was.
“He couldn’t put a number on it, he couldn’t guess how big it is, he couldn’t guess how much percentage drug money fuels the legitimate economy in the Rio Grande Valley, but it’s there,” Fernandez says.
He says people in the Valley don’t like to talk about it, especially because it can fuel the negative stereotypes about the region.
“People there, they don’t want everyone to think that it’s a violent place and there’s, you know, drug dealers running around everywhere,” Fernandez says. “It’s a very subtle, almost invisible thing. But it doesn’t make people feel unsafe.”
Fernandez, who’s now based in McAllen, says he feels safe living there.
“One thing I was shocked by: McAllen had zero murders in 2018. That’s just one factoid that sort of reminds me, and hopefully reminds readers, that the facts on the ground and public perception are not quite mixing,” Fernandez says.
Written by Caroline Covington.