For a region trying to salvage its reputation after being labeled a hotbed of public corruption, the news in Hidalgo County this week wasn’t good.
Former Hidalgo County Sheriff Guadalupe “Lupe” Treviño, a nine-year veteran of the office and a fixture of the region’s Democratic Party, pleaded guilty to federal charges of money laundering on Monday. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas said the former lawman “received cash contributions for his election campaign from alleged drug trafficker Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez.”
The plea came just two months after border Democrats very publicly admonished Republican attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott for comments he made likening corruption on the border to “third world” conditions. During a subsequent stop in El Paso he expanded on the comments, adding that corruption occurs everywhere in Texas.
On Monday, Abbott was quick to tweet the news of Treviño’s downfall: “Election Fraud on Border: Trail of money given to Hidalgo Co. Sheriff's campaign by alleged drug trafficker http://shar.es/T2S8z."
He also tweeted about last week’s conviction of Maria P. Medina, Treviño’s former chief of staff and campaign manager, who admitted to authorities that she falsified records to conceal the money trail. Abbott’s plan to secure the border, he tweeted, would end the lure of corruption for public officials.
When asked specifically if this week’s conviction proves that corruption is more prevalent on the border, an Abbott spokesman referred to an opinion piece the attorney general had published in the McAllen Monitor.
“This corruption — wherever it occurs — erodes the social fabric of our communities and destroys Texans’ trust and confidence in government,” he wrote. “The Rio Grande Valley — like all of Texas — is filled with ethical, hardworking families whose very foundation is based on integrity. But, even The Monitor recently noted, 'the pall of corruption has dogged the Rio Grande Valley and continues today' and 'cases of public officials on the take have spiked.'"
Javier Villalobos, the Hidalgo County Republican Party chairman, said he thought Abbott’s comments were taken out of context for political purposes. He added that an argument could be made that the border is more vulnerable to illegal activity.
“In reality, sometimes when you take a look at it, it’s not necessarily untrue,” he said. “So I think people of course will make it a political issue.”
Villalobos said he would meet with the county party to discuss the possibility of fielding a candidate “that at least has a chance” in the Democratic stronghold. But he said that despite Treviño’s affiliation with the opposing side, he doubted it would give a local Republican an edge.
“I don’t think anybody is really going to take it against the [Democratic] Party but rather the individual,” he said. “It’s not a party issue. It’s an individual issue, so it’s not going to make a difference.”
Hidalgo County Democratic Party Chairwoman Kelly Salazar conceded that the news was a stain on the region, but added that when corruption takes place on the border, it unfairly grabs more attention than similar activities elsewhere.
“It was a sad day here in Hidalgo County upon learning about the plea of guilt, but to generalize this area as a corrupt area is very insulting,” she said. “There are a lot of hard-working and honest people that work very hard to ensure that their constituents are fairly represented.”
The county has installed J.E. “Eddie” Guerra as interim sheriff until an election later this year. Salazar said that applications for potential candidates would be available next month and that in June, precinct chairs would begin naming their nominees.
Citing testimony offered in court, The Monitor reported that Treviño may have laundered between $70,000 and $120,000. His plea came after a grand jury in 2013 indicted several members of the department’s Panama Unit, a task force that included the sheriff’s son, Jonathan Treviño. The indictments included allegations that the drug-interdiction task force was allegedly distributing marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines, The Monitor reported.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/04/17/corruption-border-back-focus-after-guilty-plea/.