Twenty years have passed since Former Hidalgo County Sheriff Brigido “Brig” Marmolejo was indicted on charges of money laundering, racketeering and bribery, after prosecutors found he’d allowed drug traffickers to use his personal office to have sex with women. He’d eventually be convicted at trial.
But since that case went public in 1994, the pall of corruption has dogged the Rio Grande Valley and continues today.
Just last week, Attorney General Greg Abbott ran down the list of recent corruption cases across the Rio Grande Valley, likening it to that of a third-world country, saying that it destroys Texans’ trust in government.
Since Marmolejo’s conviction in November 1994, two sheriffs from Starr County and one from Cameron County, various other local politicians and city employees have found themselves crossing the line into criminal activity.
That has perpetuated the image that South Texas is a den of corruption, said Philip Ethridge, a criminal justice professor at the University of Texas-Pan American.
While the criminal activity is done by only a few and for a small amount of money the cloud of corruption overshadows all the successes by the majority of the hard working people in the county, Ethridge said.
“These are the individuals that you are supposed to trust in an emergency so when allegations of corruption are made the question mark is placed not only on that officer but on the entire department,” he said.
The multi-count indictment against Marmolejo was unsealed Feb. 11, 1994, when federal agents arrested the long time lawman after a 10-month investigation into bribes he took for the special treatment of Homero Beltran Aguirre, a drug trafficker and Hidalgo County Jail inmate allowed a series of conjugal visits.
Evidence presented in the trial showed that Marmolejo was collecting a monthly $5,000 bribe from Beltran plus an additional $1,000 each time his relatives or his girlfriend visited. The sheriff also took money on various other occasions that totaled $200,000.
Two decades later, Marmolejo prefers to stay out of the spotlight, having retired after serving his seven-year sentence and re-entering private life.
A Monitor reporter recently went to Marmolejo’s white, single-story Edinburg home to talk to him about his life since prison.
“I used to be him,” Marmolejo said with a deep voice when the reporter asked for the former sheriff.
Marmolejo declined to comment on the corruption cases that have succeeded him — most recently that of the Panama Unit and several former lawmen at the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office.
“I really don’t want to get involved into all of that,” Marmolejo said when asked about the perceived cloud of corruption in the area.
While Marmolejo ultimately went down in that case, the most recent scandal to rock the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office has climbed the ranks, but has failed to reach the top. Sheriff Lupe Treviño denies knowledge of wrongdoing inside his office and with the Panama Unit, the narcotics task force that his son served on while a Mission police investigator.
“I’ll say this until I am blue in the face,” Treviño said. “I had no knowledge about the criminal activities of those individuals nor have I been complicit in those activities.”
The case of the Panama Unit — which garnered that name based on its police radio call sign — went public nearly 14 months ago, when federal agents arrested four members, including Jonathan Treviño, the sheriff’s son, and Alexis Espinoza, the Hidalgo police chief’s son, accusing them of stealing drugs from traffickers only to sell them to other narcotics dealers.
In the months following the initial arrests, nine law enforcement officials had pleaded or were found guilty in the case, including the head of the sheriff’s crime stoppers program.
And on Christmas Eve, agents arrested sheriff’s Cmdr. Jose “Joe” Padilla on an indictment that accuses him of protecting convicted drug trafficker Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez. Padilla continues to fight the charges.
Many across the Valley have asked whether the sheriff would find himself in handcuffs. Treviño maintains that will never happen.
“I want them to investigate me,” he said. “I want them to take a good look because they are going to find that I have not been complicit in any illegalities.”
In an interview, the sheriff said he is a victim in the case himself, with former deputies and his former commander taking advantage of him by asking for money from criminals — under the guise that they were campaign contributions.
“They used me, my name and my office for their personal gain,” he said.
When a member of the law enforcement community finds themselves in trouble with the law, the community takes notice because they are held to a higher standard, Ethridge said.
The fact that the sheriff holds an elected position opens the door to certain improprieties — perceived or otherwise, Ethridge said.
“When you have a criminal that wants to contribute to a campaign he will feel like a favor is owed to him much in the same way drug dealers are able to buy officials in Mexico,” he said.
Corruption is not something seen only in South Texas. But cases of public officials on the take have spiked because of the increased presence of federal law enforcement scrutiny across the region, Ethridge said.
Unlike district attorneys and state district judges, which are elected positions, the federal system seems to be more removed from possible personal conflicts, Ethridge said.
“You really don’t see elected district attorneys prosecuting these individuals,” he said. “What you see are federal agencies conducting long term investigations into corrupt activities and taking the case to federal court, which seem to have fewer political ties.”
Also dragging on the case has been the media attention surrounding it, the sheriff contends, fostering the notion that the Valley is ripe with corruption when most people are not.
“It has gotten out of hand,” Treviño said. “Any little thing that moves in that case is an automatic front page. What I have a problem with is that the media is forgetting to cover the many positive stories that we have.”
And with such cases, a loss of belief in public officials and law enforcement among the public can easily spread, Ethridge said.
“Most police and sheriff’s deputies are honest, hardworking men and women but all you need is one or two to dirty ones to smear the entire department in the public’s mind,” the professor said.
That, and speculation about what’s to come next in the case creates rumors, as well — something Treviño says comes from his opposition, which he’s always faced in his political career.
“I may be naive in saying this but I believe that elections are decided by the silent majority — not the ones spreading rumors or drawing attention to themselves,” he said. “And I believe that the silent majority believes in the honest work of the men and women of the sheriff’s office.”