Public corruption in the Valley

Bernard Ammerman

County and District Attorney in Willacy County

The lower Rio Grande Valley is a world apart from other places in Texas. It includes Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy Counties, and it is rarely visited by other than a select few categories of visitors. If you’re a college student on Spring Break, the beaches of South Padre Island beckon you to hang out and bask, along with droves of other Breakers, in this tropical climate. Winter Texans, mostly retirees, also welcome the climate in the Valley, away from the frozen tundra of Canada and similar places in the United States. Avid hunters and fishermen are also drawn in great numbers for seasonal bounty of fish and wild game. There are those who have families who reside here, people who visit relatives in the Valley. And, finally, there are inhabitants who have been here for generations—the locals.
    The name—the Valley—is a misnomer, as there are no mountains in the area. The terrain along the river, the Rio Grande (also referred to as the Rio Bravo), is more a delta than it is a valley. Regardless, the Valley is inhabited by over a million people. There is a cross section of economic classes among its inhabitants, as in so many other areas of the United States, but here there is also a palpable difference between glittering wealth starkly juxtaposed with significant poverty.
    “Across the river,” a term used by locals, is Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico. Three international bridges link Matamoros to Brownsville, the county seat of Cameron County. The Gateway International Bridge is less than a mile from the Cameron County courthouse. At one time, Matamoros enjoyed a reputation as a laidback border town, celebrated for inexpensive margaritas and fine Cuban cigars. As a baby prosecutor, I used to regularly venture into Mexico for lunch with other prosecutors and investigators. Not anymore. Matamoros is a vastly different city today. In yesteryears, the worst that could happen to you while across the border was that you might run out of money before the night was over. Now, you might not be seen again. Recent data from over a five-year period puts drug-related murders in Mexico at more than 60,000. That figure doesn’t include the more than 25,000 people who have gone missing. (Compare that to 5,700 homicides in the United States.) The violent deaths and vast number of missing people are a direct result of the war between two rival Mexican drug cartels: Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. They are in a constant battle for control of the border city of Matamoros and the billions of dollars earned in drug-trafficking. Around 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States comes via Mexico, and the fastest and most direct route is through the southernmost tip of Texas—that’s via Matamoros.  
    The business of the drug corridor can be illustrated by events that occurred in the Valley in early December. It was then that law enforcement seized over $500,000 in currency, 7,868 pounds of marijuana, 359 pounds of cocaine, 16 pounds of heroin, 385 pounds of methamphetamines—and 4,128 illegal aliens. No other part of Texas even comes close. While there’s no denying that the local economy does see some benefit from drug-trafficking money, the negative consequences far outweigh the good. The drug market contributes significantly to drug crimes, kidnappings, and homicides. Estimates tie five to 10 percent of the Valley’s economy to illegal activity, primarily drugs. As the Rio Grande Valley thrives from the illegal trade, much money is readily available to corrupt public officials. “Partnerships” between drug traffickers and law enforcement officials to conduct illegal activities are amicably referred to as the compadre system: You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.
    In 2013, more public officials were convicted of federal crimes in South Texas than in any other place in the nation: 83 such convictions stemmed from drug smuggling, vote stealing, courthouse bribery, and the like. Corruption devours South Texas public officials.
    In the past two decades, no fewer than five Valley sheriffs have been convicted of receiving bribes from drug traffickers. The list includes Cameron County Sheriff Conrado Cantu, who received a 24-year prison sentence, and Starr County Sheriff Eugenio Falcon, who got two years in prison. His predecessor, Starr County Sheriff Reymundo Guerra, received five years, and Hidalgo County Sheriff Brigido Marmolejo was sentenced to seven. Marmolejo’s successor, Hidalgo County Sheriff Guadalupe Treviño, got five years in prison. One would think that it is in vogue to be included in that list of compadres.
    The list also includes Mission Police Department Officer Jonathan Treviño, none other than Sheriff Treviño’s son. He pleaded guilty to escorting narcotics for criminals, laundering money, and stealing drugs to later sell, and received a sentence of 17 years in prison for his extensive involvement in illegal ventures. What is amazing is that over the past two years, his entire unit of 13 officers went to prison for similar acts.
    The convictions affect all facets of government, from legislators and judges to school board members, county commissioners, auditors, and mayors throughout the Valley, including some in Willacy County. Corruption continues at the federal level to include a recent United States Border Patrol Agent charged with a drug-cartel decapitation murder. That victim’s body was found floating off the waters of South Padre Island during Spring Break 2015. What is most unsettling is that the criminal corruption was happening right under my nose.
    In 2003, I was pursuing my Master of Laws (LLM) in San Francisco, California, when I interviewed for a job as an ADA in Cameron County. The office was headed then by District Attorney Yolanda de Leon. I was hired and immediately thrown into a courtroom. (I guess it was a sink-or-swim modus operandi.) I progressed fairly rapidly into a first-chair felony prosecutor.
    In 2004, de Leon lost her election to a young, charismatic criminal defense attorney by the name of Armando Villalobos. I didn’t know if I was going to have a job after moving so recently from California, but I interviewed with Mr. V, as we called him, and I was hired and assigned back to a district court. Over the next few years the office staff grew from 50 to nearly 100 employees. I kept my head down and plowed away at trying criminal cases, earning a decent track record of convictions in high-profile trials. I even prosecuted a case with my boss, Mr. V, against Tejano musician Joe Lopez. We secured a guilty verdict of aggravated sexual assault of a child. During that trial, I took note of Mr. V’s intelligence and prowess in prosecuting. I knew no political office was outside his reach, as he was a rising star in South Texas politics. What I didn’t know, because I did not know him personally, was that Mr. V had a dark side. I also did not know that numerous defense attorneys and a judge knew him well and that they seemed to share his questionable ethical values.
    In 2012, Mr. V was among a dozen people caught in a cash-for-court-favors scandal in Cameron County. Jurors convicted him of racketeering, bribery, and extortion. The evidence showed that Mr. V participated in a scheme involving Amit Livingston, who was being prosecuted for killing his girlfriend in 2005 and then dumping her body in the sand dunes of South Padre Island. Prosecutors alleged that former District Judge Abel Limas plotted with Mr. V and with Mr. V’s former law partner in criminal and civil cases involving Livingston. The scheme involved the $500,000 cash bond put up for Livingston’s release. Prosecutors alleged that Mr. V set up his former law partner to represent the victim’s three children in their wrongful-death lawsuit against Livingston. Both the criminal and civil cases involving Livingston landed in Judge Limas’courtroom. In the criminal case, Judge Limas agreed to convict and sentence Livingston on the same day, thereby freeing up his cash bond. It was used as the settlement in the civil suit.
    However, Limas also agreed to Livingston’s request that he be given 60 days to get his affairs in order before surrendering to a 23-year prison sentence. As any sensible person would predict, Livingston skipped the country, fled to India, and assumed a different name. But his $500,000 bond became immediately available to settle the lawsuit—a hefty settlement of $200,000 in attorney’s fees for handling the civil case. Prosecutors said Mr. V’s former law partner kicked $80,000 back to Mr. V, and together they shared about $10,000 with the judge. Later, Judge Limas ended up being one of the main witnesses in Mr. V’s trial. And in 2014, Livingston was arrested by Indian authorities and was extradited back to Texas to serve his 23-year sentence.
    Evidence presented at trial also revealed that, from 2006 through 2012, Mr. V and others were involved in ongoing schemes to illegally generate income for themselves and others through a pattern of bribery. Jurors found that Mr. V solicited and accepted more than $100,000 in bribes in return for favorable acts of prosecutorial discretion, including minimizing charging decisions, pretrial diversion agreements, agreements on probationary matters, and case dismissals. Moreover, Mr. V arranged for certain defense attorneys to handle asset forfeiture matters at the DA’s Office.
    Such was the extent of unethical and criminal practices during Mr. V’s term as Cameron County District Attorney that a list of notable compadres ended up matriculated to penal institutions. District Judge Abel Limas got a six-year sentence, while former State Representative and defense attorney Jim Solis received nearly four years in prison. Defense attorney Ray Marchan received a 31⁄2-year sentence, though he committed suicide by jumping off the Queen Isabella Bridge on the day he was to surrender himself to prison. Jaime Munivez, a DA investigator, and defense attorney Joe Valley each received one year, and Mr. V himself is serving 13 years at the Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Kentucky, for engaging in a campaign of selling justice to the highest bidder. He was also ordered to pay restitution of $339,000, including $200,000 to the children of Amit Livingston’s murder victim.
    Working in the Valley today, I still hear rumors of odd actions in the criminal justice system. If you are in the Valley, don’t be alarmed if you receive a Valley handshake. That’s an interesting and typical saludo (greeting): a handshake with one hand and a pat-down (to check for recording devices) with the other. Corruption in the Valley is endemic. “In the Valley we don’t just tolerate corrupt government, we vote for it!” reads a local bumper sticker. It devours resources and impedes the proper carrying out of criminal justice while penalizing the honest and capable. Two former colleagues who worked under Mr. V were recently hired as federal prosecutors, and that is good. However, another former prosecutor recently went to another Texas city to interview for a position only to be questioned not about his credentials but rather about his connection with Mr. V. There appeared to be a guilt-by-association mentality.  
    The Rio Grande Valley is in a state of metamorphosis. The last few years have thrust on it pains of growth that it had never experienced before. It has also become a channel for the flow of billions of dollars—a second, under-the-radar economy—generated by drug-trafficking. With all the temptation and greed that this unregulated cash fosters, many of its people are caught between right and wrong. The vast numbers will prevail in doing the right thing; a few will falter. But even those who have already been caught in the tangles of wrongdoing will still love the Valley’s people, its terrain, its lovely beaches, the ubiquitous palm trees, and the freedom to roam the green countryside.
    Allegations of public corruption may be sent to the new Texas Ranger Public Integrity Unit at 512/424-2160 or [email protected]