Recently, I had an interesting encounter with an elderly lady who accosted me at the local tortilleria—I was picking up tamales for my family’s Christmas tamalada. This woman vented her frustrations about the way I was “going after” gambling rooms in our county; she considered them totally harmless, especially in an area where there was otherwise “nothing to do.” I was taken aback by her very public expression of ire—all I wanted was tamales.
I explained that I was just the prosecutor, not the police who raided her room. She reiterated that the casino was just clean entertainment. Then she told me of an old couple she knew who had frequented this particular game room; they had died after said establishment was raided and closed (temporarily) in 2013. She was blaming me, indirectly, for their deaths. I told her that my sister is a medical doctor and that I would ask her if the casino’s closure and her friends’ deaths could be related or even plausible.
Later that day, at my family’s Christmas celebration, I dutifully asked my sister about the lady’s insistence that her gambling buddies had died (of boredom?) after their casino was shut down. Her reply was that shutting down a casino couldn’t cause death but that, yes, it could result in a loss of votes. I guess that comes with the territory and with the unwritten effects of the local DA’s job description. I felt a bit relieved at my sister’s answer, but my encounter at the meat market just goes to show how common these game rooms are and how hard they are to fight—even some of the citizenry is against us.
The struggles in my county
My jurisdiction, Willacy County, is located on the southernmost tip of Texas in the lower Rio Grande Valley. Willacy has a population of roughly 22,000 and is sometimes known, however unfortunately, as a county populated by prisons. A county jail, state jail, federal jail, and criminal alien requirement detention center are some of the landmarks. The county boasted a Walmart Supercenter up until a few weeks ago, when it all too suddenly closed its doors and took with it jobs and needed revenues. We do have an HEB grocery store of statewide caliber and a once-thriving oil and gas industry, as well as wind farms that dot the countryside with stately windmills.
Because Willacy County is greatly dependent on oil and gas, the recent decline in oil prices has dealt the county a serious economic blow. Added to that loss of income, Willacy County suffered a prison riot, and, as noted earlier, Walmart decided to shut its doors with little warning. All told, the aftermath of these unexpected downturns has resulted in a painful loss of jobs and income to the county and its people. A previous county budget of approximately $8 million was shaved to $6 million—a debilitating 25-percent cut.
While Willacy County revenue sources have been limping along and even disappearing, another kind of business enterprise has been booming: gambling rooms, and they are brimming with 8-liners. Commonly called maquinitas (Spanish for “little machines”), 8-liners are video slot machines, and they feed the gambling addictions of the poor. They operate in murky atmospheres and engage in perpetual cat-and-mouse games with the authorities. On the surface, operations are above-board and within their legal rights to own, operate, and play the machines; they even pay hefty fees to open and run their establishments. By law, they may not pay cash prizes to their clients, but many Rio Grande Valley 8-liner establishments blatantly break the law by paying out more than what’s allowed (a prize of not more than 10 times the amount of the bet or $5, whichever is less). One example was when the Raymondville Police Department and Willacy County Sheriff’s Office raided some 8-liners because the machines were still paying out more than $5 per play. To remedy that, operators quickly reprogrammed their maquinitas to pay lesser amounts that fell into compliance. How long before the machines were reprogrammed to their original payouts is anybody’s guess.
They also skirt the law by awarding indirect cash payouts. For example, when casinos were busted for paying cash, they immediately moved to novelty .999 fine silver coins or flecks of silver—which is quickly converted to cash at the neighboring gold and silver exchange. A defense attorney tried to convince me that silver does not constitute cash because the government removed it as currency decades ago. I contend that the casinos and the gold exchanges are in cahoots.
Because of these cat-and-mouse shenanigans, some communities have few incentives to investigate gambling rooms. Their city officials have simply begun requiring 8-liners to pay for costly permits to set up shop in their towns. (Lyford is one of those cities.) Operators are well aware that Willacy County lacks the resources—and even the will—to prove whether or to what extent cash is exchanged in their operations, and they have flourished. Small wonder they have become so common even in Texas, a state that publicly and officially is keeping casinos out while quietly and unofficially allowing 8-liner game rooms to proliferate. The argument then follows that if the gambling rooms are paying for permits to operate, why should authorities hound them? And at a time when county revenues are but a fraction of other years, one cannot negate that the needy cities of Willacy County can use the revenues these game rooms provide.
As a result, 8-liners have become a constant headache to local law enforcement and to me as the county prosecutor. One morning I was awakened by my chief investigator with a report that a local 8-liner game room had been broken into. The stolen items included cash and silver. The law enforcement agency asked me to pay a confidential informant to help recover the stolen funds, so that once recovered, the assets could be returned to the gambling room. I was (and am) vexed, as would be any taxpaying citizen of Willacy County. I have a duty to seek justice for the citizenry, certainly—but does that obligation extend to using the resources of this office to go after a criminal with the ultimate goal of returning assets to yet another unsavory individual who may be breaking the law as well? I believe I spoke for the citizens of Willacy County when I said no.