Monday, November 05, 2007

Mexican-style corruption spreads to Texas City

Laredo residents silent on corruption

From MySA website:

Lynn Brezosky
Express-News Rio Grande Valley Bureau

LAREDO — Horns honk as locals drive past the marquee at the Shell station on Santa Ursula Avenue, which often holds messages about political goings-on as flammable as the gasoline sold there.
The messages change constantly. But to station owner Manuel Arechiga, the honks are signs of support from a population that's tired of corruption scandal after corruption scandal yet reluctant to say anything themselves.

Most everyone has a brother, a cousin — someone in the family — who works for the city, the county, the school board, or U.S. Customs and Border Protection. People fear that speaking out will risk that someone's livelihood.

"It's basically keep your mouth shut, keep your job," Arechiga said. "It's business as usual in Laredo."

The latest scandal involves Police Chief Agustin Dovalina, a veteran of the force who seemed the poster child for the up-and-up but was taking payoffs to protect eight-liner parlors.

It has not been lost on Laradoans that Dovalina pleaded guilty to a federal charge of extortion just days after resigning, pension and benefits intact.

Others pleading guilty to corruption charges recently have included National Guard soldiers, a U.S. Customs officer and the deputy commander of the Laredo Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force.

In 2004, two investigators with the county attorney's office were arrested for a similar eight-liner protection scheme. And the city has not forgotten the federal sweep of the district attorney's office a decade ago, when five people, including District Attorney Joe Rubio's father and brother, were convicted on charges involving case fixing.

"There's a lot of corruption going through the city," Arechiga said. "It's no secret the feds are all over the school district, the county, the airport. We're all fed up with it."

Rumors abound that more officials will be brought down. Arechiga's phone rings with insiders sharing the latest tip on who's about to turn himself in. People mail anonymous packages detailing scandals to the gas station.

But Arechiga said there is a growing clique of "people who care."

He said radio talk show host Jay St. John is one of them.

After a Rotary Club meeting made lively by millionaires sparring over the routing of the next international bridge, St. John walked down the hall in a spin, demonstrating how he constantly watches his back.

He is a one-man operation who rents radio time from a station across the river in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, for a daily morning show that puts city players on the hot seat.

He never needs to solicit advertising; it comes to him. He's on the air for two hours, then spends the rest of the day prowling City Hall and the county justice building. Security guards wave him by. Told the sheriff is eating lunch, he takes it as an invitation to enter the conference room and fix himself a fajita taco.

Sheriff Rick Flores looks happy to see him. He called Chief Dovalina's case "sad."

"It gets to the point where you become complacent, you become careless. And when you become careless, you're going to make mistakes," Flores said "You also need to surround yourself with good people. Corruption doesn't only exist in local law enforcement, corruption exists in every agency in law enforcement."

St. John, who grew up in San Antonio, attributes his success in the overwhelmingly Mexican American city to being raised by a Hispanic stepfather who helped him understand "the culture." It goes back to the old patron system, he said.

"These people have been suppressed for so long," he said. "People have never had the opportunity to speak out and be heard. They're still afraid to do so.

"This is a big little town."

Down the Interstate 35 access road, in the halls of the Mall Del Norte and in the H-E-B supermarket parking lot, shop owners and customers shook their heads at the demise of "the old chief." But several said they didn't want to talk publicly about corruption because "everybody knows everybody."

Trey Hughes, who owns a cavernous warehouse of Mexican crafts destined for boutiques and garden shops across the United States, called the state of affairs "hideous."

Laredo's boom, driven by the North American Free Trade Agreement, has been offset by drug cartel bloodshed in Mexico, he said, and tourism is dead. The feeling that everyone is on the take doesn't help.

"Some people lose track of what it means to be a public official," Hughes said.

At the Starbucks on the fast-growing north side of town, 17-year-olds Jesus Rangel and Enrique Leal said the scandals were embarrassing.

"People always feel Laredo's bad," Rangel said. "People think you're going to get kidnapped, robbed, shot. If the chief's bad, you can't expect much from the lower-ranking people."

"People think Laredo's the Third World," Leal said. Metro | State


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