The year’s top stories encompass grief, scandal and progress

A year marked by tragedy, political scandal and ongoing border conflict frequently put the Rio Grande Valley in the national eye in 2019.

The stories with perhaps the most impact locally was the separate shootings and deaths of two veteran Valley law enforcement officers, which drew national attention and united the RGV in grief.

Mission police Cpl. Jose Luis “Speedy” Espericueta, a 13-year veteran with the force, was shot and killed in the line of duty on June 20 while responding to a woman who said that her 33-yearold son had fired a handgun at her car near Stewart Road and U.S. Business 83.

When Espericueta attempted to make contact with the shooter, Juan Carlos Chapa Jr., Chapa fled and began firing at Espericueta, hitting him.

Gunfire between Chapa and other officers ensued and Chapa was hit. He was later pronounced dead at Rio Grande Regional Hospital.

Espericueta, 44, also succumbed to his wounds that evening, becoming the first Mission police offi cer to die in the line of duty since 1978. He was a decorated officer who had been cited for saving an elderly man from a house fire. He was known nationally for his appearances on the A& E network program “Live PD.”

One street in Mission was renamed after the fallen officer. An organization committed to paying Espericueta’s mortgage and a Mercedes police patrol car was dedicated in his honor. There was a memorial run.

Sadly, Espericueta was not the only local law enforcement officer to die in the line of duty this year.

According to authorities, DPS trooper Moises Sanchez was shot once in the head and once in the shoulder on April 6, allegedly by 24-year-old Victor Alejandro Godinez, while responding to a vehicular accident.

Godinez was arrested that night.

Sanchez, 49, died on Aug. 24 after undergoing surgery related to the shooting.

Sanchez was known as a family man who was heavily involved with the community. Thousands attended his funeral at Bert Ogden Arena and a boulevard in Edinburg was renamed in his honor.

Godinez, the man accused of shooting Sanchez, remains behind bars and could face the death penalty.

BORDER NEWS

The Valley was once again a focal point for national debate about the U.S.-Mexico border in 2019.

Many high-profile individuals visited the border, most notably President Donald Trump, who came to McAllen in January.

The president’s visit sparked raucous demonstrations in favor and opposed to Trump, the arrest of several protestors and a gaggle of national media.

The three-hour tour of the Valley included a stop at the border, where the president met with law enforcement and politicians, and took questions from the media.

The vice president also made a stop in the Valley, conducting private meetings with U.S. Customs and Border Protection offi cials in McAllen in July.

Pence visited the border as national attention on the southern border was mounting over the conditions of migrants in federal custody.

The visit occurred just weeks before news broke of the arrest of Francisco Erwin Galicia, 18, who was on his way to soccer tryouts at a college in North Texas when he was detained at the Falfurrias checkpoint and kept at a detention facility for more than three weeks, despite showing proof of his citizenship.

The incident again drew national attention to the Valley and prompted outcry from over a dozen lawmakers.

FLOODING STRIKES AGAIN

Flooding again devastated the Mid-Valley in 2019, almost a year to the day after a 500-year storm caused tens of millions in damages in the summer of 2018.

The June 24, 2019 storm wreaked havoc along I-2 from Donna eastward to Cameron County, but also severely impacted the Delta area and rural Willacy County.

It took several days for floodwaters to recede from eastern Hidalgo County, reigniting the vociferous concerns from residents who were still trying to recover from what the National Weather Service
had dubbed The Great June Flood of 2018.

City leaders in Weslaco had heeded the call to action from their constituents, and had made a concerted effort since late 2018 to address maintenance issues and other problems which had plagued the city’s drainage system and exacerbated the flooding. Weslaco’s efforts paid off when residents overwhelmingly approved the passage of a $10 million drainage improvement bond election in May.

The city also codified its commitment to addressing drainage woes when the city commission voted unanimously to make its citizens’ Drainage Advisory Board a permanent fixture after the bond’s passage.

Meanwhile, Hidalgo County officials began a spate of drainage projects of their own using funds approved by voters in a November 2018 bond election. Precinct 1 Commissioner David Fuentes said the bulk of the $190 million in projects would be completed in his Mid-Valley precinct, starting with a $10 million detention pond being constructed adjacent to the Las Brisas neighborhood, which sustained severe flooding in both events.

THE BIRTH OF THE VALLEY MPO

In June, Gov. Greg Abbott signed the last remaining on the merger documents of the RGV’s three metropolitan planning organizations, igniting what local and state officials say should result in a flurry of transportation funding for South Texas.

The Brownsville, Harlingen- San Benito and Hidalgo County MPOs were merged to create the Valley MPO, responsible for securing federal transportation funds funneled to Texas.

Proponents of the plan said the regional MPO will help the Valley compete for funding against MPOs in other heavily populated areas in Texas.

In November, Andrew Canon, former Hidalgo County MPO director, was named the first executive director of the new Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization.

FREE TUITION AT UTRGV

In a boon to local scholars, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley announced in September that it will be offering free tuition to certain students with annual household incomes of $75,000 and under, beginning in the 2020 academic year.

UTRGV President Guy Bailey called the program the most expansive in the state and said that it is expected to lead to more than half of the university’s students paying no tuition by next year.

Over 21,000 undergraduate students receive any financial aid, with about 18,500 undergrads coming from households of $75,000 or less estimated for the 2020-21 academic year, according to UTRGV.

MOLINA ARRESTED

An alleged voter fraud scheme that resulted in the arrest of a mayor, his wife and a gaggle of other individuals came to light in 2019 and is continuing to unfold in Edinburg.

Mayor Richard Molina was arrested in April and arraigned in July facing 12 charges related to potential voter fraud in the 2017 municipal election in which he was victorious by roughly 1,200 votes. Molina pleaded not guilty.

Molina’s wife, Dalia Molina, and Julio Carranza were also indicted in connection to the AG’s investigation, with both pleading not guilty.

The trio were not the only ones to be charged in relation to the investigation. So far, more than 20 people have been charged with illegal voting in the election, including City Secretary Ludivina Leal.

Molina’s trial was rescheduled from December to March.

WESLACO BRIBERY

Early this spring, news broke that the FBI had been investigating many former Weslaco and Rio
Grande City public officials for allegedly participating in a multimillion dollar bribery scheme involving the rehabilitation of Weslaco’s water treatment facilities.

First, then-Rio Grande City municipal judge Leonel Lopez Jr. and then-District 4 Weslaco City Commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla each pleaded guilty to one count of federal programs bribery.

Days later, four more men were implicated in the scheme. Former District 2 Weslaco City Commissioner John F. Cuellar, former Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar, Weslaco businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla, and then-Rio Grande City school board trustee Daniel J. Garcia were named in a 74-count superseding indictment.

All four men pleaded not guilty to the charges, though in August, John Cuellar reached a deal with prosecutors. He pleaded guilty on one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud.

In October, Quintanilla was charged in a separate, but related, bribery case wherein federal prosecutors allege he participated in a scheme with McAllen hotelier Sunil Wadhwani to profit off a Motel 6 hotel development; they pleaded not guilty.

Sentencing for those who have pleaded guilty has been delayed until early 2020. Meanwhile, trial in the water plant bribery case is slated to begin in early February.

DISTRICT JUDGE SENTENCED

Former state District Judge Rodolfo “Rudy” Delgado was sentenced to five years in September, two months after jurors found the ex-judge guilty in a case involving bribes that he accepted from a local attorney in exchange for favorable consideration in his courtroom.

The FBI began investigating Delgado in November 2016 and Delgado was arrested in February 2018.

Delgado was expected to report for his first day in federal prison in November.

LA JOYA ARRESTS

The arrests in the city of La Joya began soon after FBI agents executed a search warrant at city hall.

The first was of Sylvia Garces Valdez who was arrested on Aug. 19 on allegations that she offered cash to “Person A” intending to influence and reward “Person B” for their influence in granting a public relations contract to her, according to the indictment. Garces Valdez pleaded not guilty.

Last week, “Person A” was revealed to be Frances A. Salinas — the former interim executive director of the La Joya Housing Authority who is also the daughter of former Mayor Jose “Fito” Salinas and current City Commissioner Mary Salinas.

Frances Salinas was arrested last week in San Antonio on charges of wire fraud. The identity of “Person B” remains unconfi rmed and has only been identified as an elected offi cial for the city of La Joya.

In a separate case, former La Joya City Administrator Mike Alaniz pleaded guilty in October to a federal theft charge.

Alaniz, who retired from the city in June, is accused of using his position as the city administrator to have the city of La Joya purchase a lot from him, according to government prosecutors.

Alaniz’s sentencing is scheduled for March.