Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra, left, and challenger Frank Guerrero at a debate Friday in McAllen. Delcia Lopez/The Monitor dlopez@themonitor.com

McALLEN — Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra and his first Democratic challenger, Frank Guerrero, butted heads over the county’s crime rate during a political forum Friday.

McAllen South Rotary club hosted the discussion at the Radisson Hotel in South McAllen, where the attention focused solely on the sheriff’s Democratic Primary race.

“Good news is, everyone in this room will vote,” attorney and event moderator Dan Worthington said during his opening remarks.

Each candidate took 90 seconds to give a brief overview of their experience and vision as the county’s top law enforcement officer.

Guerra touted his education, his family’s deep roots in South Texas, which he said date back to the late 1700s, his six years of experience as sheriff and reminded attendees he was also elected constable before Hidalgo County Commissioners appointed him sheriff in 2014.

Guerrero came out swinging, wasting no time in claiming the county’s crime rate was on the rise. He spoke of his long law enforcement career beginning in high school, his experience managing a federal prison for the Department of Homeland Security in New York and his security firm in Nicaragua.

“I have actual experience,” Guerrero said. “I wasn’t born with a silver spoon.”

Guerra later retorted: “I’m the only one up here that has the experience of running the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office.”

The sheriff noted his 25 years in law enforcement and said he took over the sheriff and constable’s offices while they were “under a dark cloud.”

Since Guerra’s appointment in 2014, there’s been a “28 percent reduction in crime in this county and that’s something that I’m very proud of,” the sheriff added. “Like the old saying goes, if it isn’t broke, why fix it?”

Guerrero disagreed with those figures and insinuated Guerra was turning a blind eye to an increase in crime, though the challenger did not provide any specific data.

“The truth is, under my administration, crime is not on the rise,” Guerra told attendees, adding it was “a slap on the face of every hardworking” law enforcement official to say otherwise. He gave specific figures on murders, saying that between 2007 and 2017, rural Hidalgo County was averaging 17 homicides, per year. In 2018, there were four, and in 2019, there were five, he said.

Home invasions have also decreased, he continued. In previous years, the sheriff’s office responded to 56 invasions “one year” and 52 the other. Last year, there were 10, he said.

Following the forum, Guerrero told The Monitor the sheriff was only looking at the eight crimes reported in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report and not based on the state’s new reporting mechanism, the National Incident-Based Reporting System.

Guerrero claimed the sheriff’s office has been slow in its transition to NIBRS and said it asked the state for an extension.

The challenger said he requested crime data from the sheriff’s office via the Freedom of Information Act, but he has yet to receive it. So instead, Guerrero is basing his statement on information from other organizations that also track crime, such as D.A.R.E. and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

The candidates also discussed employee morale, raises, collective bargaining, turnover and a need for additional space at the jail.

“One of the things that I did when I was appointed is, I changed the policy and the leadership,” Guerra said about curbing public corruption. “I have also given my supervisors the ability to make a decision out on the field and they are responsible for (it) … and because of that, we have a good track record.”

The sheriff said he’s also been very transparent with the public when one of his deputies gets into trouble.

“I put it out immediately,” he said about letting the public know.

Guerrero, however, said employees are not well compensated, morale is low and turnover is high at the sheriff’s office.

“We are losing deputies to constables’ offices, to schools, private businesses,” he said.

Little has changed since Guerra took over from his predecessor, Sheriff Lupe Treviño, he added.

“The same people are still there that contributed to the problem,” he said. “Change needs to happen. We need to go in a new direction.”

That’s also why Guerrero is financing “90 percent” of his own campaign.

“That’s how you’re going to combat corruption,” he said.

And as far as the two “raises” the sheriff said he gave his staff, well, they were actually cost of living adjustments, and most of the staff only received about a 1.5% adjustment, Guerrero claimed. Should he win, he vowed to enter into a collective bargaining agreement.

The sheriff disagreed with Guerrero’s characterization of his staff and the environment at the sheriff’s office.

“When I started office as a sheriff, when I did have openings, we would just get 10 applicants, and that was because of the pay,” Guerra said. “We now get 50 to 60 applicants to choose from because now they see the sheriff’s office is a great place to work. We pay them well and they have great benefits.”

And if there was one thing on which they agreed, at least in public, it was that crimes, such as finding small amounts of marijuana on someone, shouldn’t land the accused in county jail. Instead, they should be let go once a promise to appear has been issued and signed. Issuing citations for such cases has recently become common practice among other large metropolitan areas in Texas.