The Sheriff Who Went to Pot

Hidalgo count’s top cop, brig marmolejo, was a champion of law and order—until mexican drug smugglers made him an offer that even he couldn’t refuse.

December 1994By Comments

“No one can bribe me.”

The man on the witness stand, Hidalgo County sheriff Brig Marmolejo, spoke these words with a gruff indignancy befitting his almighty stature. No elected official in the Rio Grande Valley was more loved and feared, and consequently more powerful, than Marmolejo. He was a man of the people but also a man of the Valley, an embodiment of both its sunny disposition and its murky soul. Beneath his mountainous frame, his placid, bespectacled face, and his almost whispery singsong voice smoldered a formidable mystique. The sheriff never carried a gun, and some criminals, including one cold-blooded murderer, would show up on the doorstep of his home to turn themselves in. He won by the greatest majorities of any elected official in South Texas without ever soliciting campaign funds; instead, he would say with a shrug, “People always phone me, wanting to give me money.” Wild rumors swirled wherever he kicked up dust. Was it true that he had a network of spies on both sides of the border? Was it true that his enemies sometimes wound up face down in the Rio Grande? Residents of the Valley seemed wholly unbothered. They preferred that their sheriffs be larger than life. Still, few wished to believe what was being suggested in Laredo’s federal courthouse on July 25, 1994—namely, that a man like Brig Marmolejo could be bought by drug-dealing inmates at the Hidalgo County jail.

No one can bribe me. It was the kind of declaration one seldom heard, and almost never believed, from a politician in the bribe-infested Valley. Brig Marmolejo was different, or at least he had been. He won office in 1976 with law-and-order rhetoric and a record to back it up. His pledge to the voters of Hidalgo County was that he would not be only tough but pure: “I will not seek favor with any group, and I will enforce the law equally when and where required.” For several years, Marmolejo lived up to that pledge when so many others could not. He was an exception, the rare Valley official who seemed capable of honesty.

But by this summer, Brig Marmolejo had become the latest in a series of Valley public figures to be accused of federal crimes. In April Marmolejo’s chief deputy, Bob Davis, had pleaded guilty to selling confidential police information. That same month, Zapata County sheriff Romeo Ramirez and county clerk Arnoldo Flores pleaded guilty to federal drug-related charges after being arrested in Operation Prickly Pear, a U.S. government sting that culminated in June with the conviction of Zapata County judge Jose Luis Guevara, on several counts of public corruption. And a few weeks before Marmolejo’s trial, defense attorney Robert Salinas, who had once been the Hidalgo County district attorney, pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering and one count of failing to file an IRS form after it was learned that he had been the “house counsel” for three drug organizatons, including the massive Donna-based drug-distributing network of Ramon “El Lechero” Martinez.

On July 27 Marmolejo joined their corrupt ranks. The Laredo jury found him guilty of eight counts of bribery, money laundering, and racketeering. For those who remembered the sheriff’s once-unassailable integrity, the implications of his demise were unbearably grim—so much so that many of his supporters chose to buy his ludicrous conspiracy theories rather than see the pressures of the Valley for what they were. Even those who had a stake in his conviction seemed to fall into brooding after the jury’s decision. “The temptations must have been unbelievable,” said IRS special agent John Trevino, one of the most active federal agents in the Marmolejo investigation. “Over the years, I’m sure the offers kept coming until finally the sheriff couldn’t pass up the chance.” Added former assistant U.S. attorney Jack Wolfe, who once prosecuted Homero Beltran, the drug trafficker who bribed Marmolejo: “I have a real feeling of empathy for Brig now.”

This was not just one sheriff’s story, after all. It was the story of borders easily crossed, of temptations ferried and ethics bartered. It was the ageless parable of the Rio Grande Valley.

The land itself is a lush deception, promising a better life than can be found either in the brush country to the immediate north or in the squalor south of the Rio Grande. The Valley’s promise is an empty one, for few regions in Texas have a higher unemployment rate. Yet this is by no means an unhappy part of the world. The four cities in the Rio Grande Valley—Harlingen, Brownsville, Edinburg, and McAllen—maintain an amiable bustle despite the wilting South Texas climate. The multitude of conolias between Harlingen and McAllen do not share the beaten-and-left-for-dead look of small towns throughout East Texas and along the Gulf Coast. The area’s inhabitants seem to carry on their lives in a collective swoon of contentment. Whatever deprivation they suffer seems somehow cushioned by the rich alluvial soil and the dazzling oranges, tomatoes, and sugar cane that spring from it. But those in the Valley who seek an end to their poverty by any means necessary do not look to the land. They look to the river.

Perhaps no border in the history of western civilization has spawned as much criminal conduct as the two-hundred-mile stretch of the Rio Grande that separates Zapata, Starr, Hidalgo, and Cameron counties from Mexico. It is, and always has been, a smuggler’s paradise. Here Confederate shipments of cotton penetrated the Union blockade during the Civil War; here guns found their destination during the Mexican War; and here the tequileros bootlegged their wares during Prohibition. And today? According to the FBI, more than half of the Mexican marijuana smuggled into the United States enters through Texas’ four southernmost counties, which loosely make up the Rio Grande Valley.

The marijuana is brought across the river on rafts and inner tubes by Mexican “river rats” or on planes that land on private airstrips at a cost of several thousand dollars per load. The pot is purchased on credit by local distributors, who warehouse their cargo in produce sheds before loading it onto eighteen-wheelers, under beds of fresh produce and ice, and driving it to a designated ranch farther upstate. At the ranch, buyers study the product, mark the merchandise they wish to purchase, and lay down the money. Some time later, each buyer’s driver pulls up a vehicle, loads his employer’s marijuana, and sets off for Oklahoma City, Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis, New York, or other points north and east. In turn, the money meanders southward. Some of it stays in the Valley, buried in the soil or exchanged for Krugerrands. Most of it, however, crosses back to Mexico, where it is laundered in casas de cambio (currency exchange offices), deposited in Mexican bank accounts, and driven back across the border in armored vehicles as legitimate reported currency, back into the hands of the invisible, untraceable souls who financed the deals at the outset.

A brief driving tour of the Valley is all it takes to understand why the allure of drug smuggling is at least as powerful as the incentive to see crack in the ghettos. The economic deprivation blankets the landscape of the colonias, until a sudden incongruity takes shape: a string of lush yards at the southern end of Weslaco, a bright red Mercedes whipping into a ramshackle block at the edge of Donna, an opulent hacienda looming over the scrubland outside of Hargill. “These are extremely poor counties down here,” says Brownsville-based assistant U.S. attorney Charles Lewis. “The shining houses on the hill are owned by drug dealers. So who’s a poor local kid going to look up to?”

The river adds to the seduction. Anyone who has seen the Rio Grande—scarcely more than a puddle in places and many miles of it completely deserted—can imagine how easily contraband crosses the border. But the real explanation for the torrential flow of Mexican marijuana into Texas lies with the elected officials and law enforcement agents who live on either side of the river. In Mexico policemen pay regular “fees” to authorities for the privilege of having a job and therefore cannot make ends meet unless they find creative ways of making xtra money. Things are not so cut and dried in the Rio Grande Valley, but the stage is similarly set. The local officials are, by and large, of modest means, while the smugglers have money to burn. With as little effort as it takes to turn a cheek or wave a hand or speak a few words into a telephone, an otherwise honest man can double his month’s salary. And why not? The goods travel quickly out of the area and become someone else’s problem. And if rumors should circulate…well, the taxpayers understand. Everyone on the border knows someone involved in the drug trade: a neighbor, a cousin, a prominent banker. Business is business. Everyone sympathizes. Everyone gets along as best he can.

“Politics for me is easy because I just always try to get along with everybody. Except the feds,” says Brig Marmolejo. He manages a mirthless laugh as he reposes in the living room of his Edinburg home. It is September 15, nearly two months before his sentencing. Until then, the hours will be long for the sheriff. With characteristic defiance, he has kept his badge and his salary, refusing to relinquish either. (He eventually resigned under pressure on November 7.) But he no longer shows up for work and instead spends his days working on his ranch, planning his appeal, and practicing his gallows humor.

It is Marmolejo’s nature to be braced for the worst. Even in a situation that invites despair, his is disarmingly engaging. He greets strangers with an informal air and sprawls back into his seat as a way of encouraging guests to make themselves at home. In face-to-face conversation, he is given to filling the silence with comically pessimistic chatter about the weather, the traffic, and women. It is, of course, through small talk that he avoids more-revealing disclosures.

“Hell, nothing surprises me,” he says. “It never did. Over the years I’ve been investigated by everyone, from private investigators to the Texas Rangers to the FBI.” Marmolejo sighs as he falls back heavily into his living room sofa and folds his arms just over his prodigious belly. “The goddamned Republican federal agents,” he then adds, citing in a single epithet the two most loathsome characteristics he can imagine. “They sent them down here mostly to keep an eye on me.”

Marmolejo’s easy tenor and welcoming expression pay into all the stereotypes of the good-natured, slow-moving Hispanic bumpkin, an image he does not altogether discourage. Nonetheless, his successes as a sheriff and a politican owe to his complicated nature. Described by almost everyone as a “man of the people,” Marmolejo has four years of college education and tends to ridicule those who do not. He is quick to befriend yet trusts almost no one. He is of the Valley but not from it, having been reared some two hundred miles up the road in the agricultural hamlet of Yorktown. He spent his youth working in cotton fields and today asserts with proletarian hostility that “there’s no fat people in Yorktown”—seemingly unaware of his own physique, which reflects decades of easy living. His amiability is both genuine and a front for darker preoccupations.

Yet it was not so long ago that Brigido Marmolejo, Jr., seemed to be nothing less than a knight in shining armor. When he made his first run for sheriff, in 1976, Hidalgo County was still very much a dark-skinned region run by white-skinned patricians named Bentsen and Newhouse. The sheriff at the time, Claudio Castaneda, Sr., was the county’s first Hispanic sheriff in nearly a century, but he was hopelessly out of his depth and certain to be defeated after his second term. Hispanic leaders feared a political backlash. They looked to 42-year-old Brig Marmolejo as their savior. His had been the career of a peace officer who could do no wrong: at the Edinburg Police Department, where, at the age of 32, he became the youngest assistant chief in the Valley; at the Hidalgo County highway patrol, which he directed; and at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, where he spent more than five years chasing bootleggers. Marmolejo was a political novice, but he had an able tutor in his brother-in-law, veteran Valley campaign manager Jim Wilson. Just as important, he was thoroughly “anglocized,” and it pleased the power bosses that Marmolejo, unlike the incumbent, had a reputation as a head-cracking law-and-order cop who would keep the common folk in line. His campaign slogan said it all: “A Big man for a Big Job.” Marmolejo defeated Castaneda and three other candidates in the Democratic primary and coasted through the general election.

The new sheriff’s first term was all that any law-abiding voter could hope for. Shortly after taking office, Marmolejo called a press conference to announce that the county’s newly built jail was shoddily constructed and susceptible to escapes, and that he would appoint a blue-ribbon panel to fix the mess. He demanded (and received) increased fuding for more jailers to replace the current inmate-guards, noting dryly, “Even though they’re called trusties, they can’t be trusted,” When more than two hundred protesting farm workers from Alabama and Georgia marched down to the border to block the Hidalgo-Reynosa bridge, he waded in and arrested all of them. The message was clear: Anyone who raised a ruckus in Hidalgo County was bound for jail.

But the distinguishing event of Brig Marmolejo’s first term occurred in 1978. The county’s most powerful official at that time was district attorney Oscar McInnis. Word reached the sheriff from one of his snitches at the Hidalgo County jail that McInnis was trying to get rid of the ex-husband of a woman he was seeing on the sly and that he had solicited the snitch’s help. Marmolejo placed a wire on the inmate and sent him off to talk to McInnis. The resulting taped conversation featured the Hidalgo County DA offering the inmate money to kill his girlfriend’s ex-husband. Marmolejo faced pressure to abandon the investigation, but he pressed forward until McInnis was indicted for solicitation of murder and disbarred in 1979.

The following year, Marmolejo won reelection easily. Yet there would linger a fallout over his clash with Oscar McInnis, who pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and later had his law license reinstated. The Texas Rangers, who were loyal to McInnis, retaliated with their own investigation of Marmolejo, while local FBI agents made known their resentment of the sheriff for being excluded from his investigation. Later he would raise the ire of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, which he accused of hiring thieves and drunkards. “Brig earned the never-ending enmity of every one of those agencies,” says Jim Wilson. “They had it in for him. And they were going to get him.”

But to do this, they would need the invaluable assistance of Brig Marmolejo.

Throughout the eighties the Hidalgo County sheriff routed his election-year opponents and rapidly became the most popular politician in the region. But in the impoverished Rio Grande Valley, the role models were not the ones wearing badges.

One of the most respected men in Brig Marmolejo’s county was an Edinburg High School teacher’s aide named Juan Frank Garcia, who had done federal time for smuggling marijuana. Garcia was generous with his money, and no one in Edinburg seemed preoccupied with the source of his wealth. When Garcia threw a party for the Valley football coaches that included alcohol, marijuana, and strippers among the party favors, the normally timid Edinburg Daily Review was moved to denounce his poor taste. “We got a lot of negative response from readers who liked Juan Frank and thought we were picking on him unfairly,” remembers the Review’s editor, Gilbert Tagle. When Garcia was found shot to death in 1989—apparently by Colmbian cocaine traficantes who felt threatened by his growing distribution network—an embarrassed silence fell over the county.

Yet Garcia’s presence in the Rio Grande Valley paled in comparison with that of Ramon Martinez, known as El Lechero (“the Milkman”) from his early days of delivering marinjuana out of a milk truck. Martinez, a lifelong resident of Donna, got his start in the early seventies transporting marijuana supplied by a former Mexican military officer. Despite three different convictions, Martinez’s distribution network had grown to unfathomable proportions. Much of his pot was funneled to Oklahoma City, where it was dispersed across the country. He employed hundreds of men and women, owned more than thirty trafficking vehicles, and established distribution links at ranches outside Inez and Corsicana. El lechero donated thousands of dollars in hush money to the families of convicted subordinates. Using sham transactions he invested in real estate and laundered money through his horse-racing business. Unimpeded by Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, Ramon Martinez was well on his way to becoming the wealthiest man in Hidalgo County.

To the people of Donna, Martinez was el patron. He purchased softball uniforms for the Donna police department’s team. When the city’s lawn mowers were in disrepair, Martinez loaned Donna his own equipment. It would have surprised only an outsider that, when Martinez was brought into court for a bond hearing in the late eighties, numerous prominent citizens—including Mayor Hector Casiano—showed up to lend their support. He paraded around with his $16,000 belt buckle and his Anglo girlfriends, his fortune amassed, he said, through his horses and his fighting roosters. Like other high-rolling traffickers in Hidalgo County, Ramon Martinez waved his ill-gotten wealth like a matador’s cape. And the county’s bull of a law enforcement official, Sheriff Brig Marmolejo, blinked.

It is impossible to pinpoint exactly when Marmolejo discarded what his 1976 campaign literature cited as “the public obligation to enforce the law wherever and whenever it is broken.” Likely the sheriff himself does not know when—or, for that matter, why. Perhaps the reinstatement of former DA Oscar McInnis’ law license convinced him that justice was a fool’s pursuit in the Valley. Perhaps his continual exposure to crooked cops and federal agents on the take corroded his own integrity. Perhaps he saw the futility of the War on Drugs. Perhaps he saw the money others were making and decided that some of it should be coming his way.

After his trial, in the privacy of his home, Marmolejo acknowledged that he had been offered bribes on numerous occasions throughout his eighteen-year tenure. On one occasion a close friend involved in the drug trade offered the sheriff some money in exchange for some “assistance.” Marmolejo agreed to meet the friend at an Edinburg restaurant. After the meal, the man said to the sheriff, “I’ve got that money for you.”

According to Marmolejo, his reply was, “Tell you what. I’ve been broke all my life, and I might as well go ahead and stay broke.” He did not take the money; nor, however, did he arrest the man for attempting to bribe an officer. The friend’s overture remained their little secret, and life went on as before in the Valley.

Yet close observers could see that something about the sheriff had changed. “He became more lax in law enforcement,” says one of his former deputies, “as if he wasn’t interested.” Though Marmolejo often claimed credit for drug busts that were actually made by city cops, he and his deputies were seldom active in major federal cases. Edinburgh Daily Review editor Gilbert Tagle recalls thinking, “Too many guys out there are making big money. Is Brig doing enough?”

Where once Brig Marmolejo had stood for law and order, for getting tough and not trusting inmates, he was now developing a reputation as a softy. “Brig never cared who he was seen with,” admits Jim Wilson. “He was always friendly to the bad guys. If they were out on bond, they’d buy him a drink and he’d sit and laugh with them and pat them on the back.” Marmolejo would tell people that dopers were voters too. But they were more than that. They were big-time contributors who often threw pachangas, or fundraising parties, for the Hidalgo County sheriff. It did not amuse federal agents to walk into a bar and see the sheriff boozing it up with traffickers who loudly bragged about their latest shipments.

In the meantime, what was Brig Marmolejo doing about the infamous Ramon Martinez? “We couldn’t get near the guy,” Marmolejo says today—though Kerr County authorities had arrested El Lechero once and the feds had nailed him three times. And what about Juan Frank Garcia, the Edinburg teacher’s aide linked with Colombian traficantes? “He was a good friend of mine,” Marmolejo says without a moment’s hesitation.

No doubt the sheriff had his enemies. But it was his friends he should have been worrying about.

In 1992 Marmolejo ran for a fifth term and won, but not by the usual breathtaking margin. “He got lazy and cocky,” says Jim Wilson, who did not run his brother-in-law’s campaign that year. “He was worn down to a frazzle.”

As both politician and sheriff, Marmolejo was a shadow of his former self. Whenever and however the transformation had begun, by 1992 it was complete: The once-pugnacious sheriff now presided over the state’s most drug-infested county with a peculiar disinterest. Several of the area’s big-time traffickers would eventually be arrested, though seldom by Hidalgo County deputies. And since no federal pretrial facility exists in the Valley, such prisoners would often wind up at the Hidalgo County jail, in the care of Brig Marmolejo.

Among federal inmates, word spread: If you wanted special treatment, such as “contact visits” (when inmates may talk to visitors outside of the visitation room, privately, and make physical contact with them), this could be arranged at the Hidalgo Count jail. The doling out of contact visits consumed an inordinate amount of Marmolejo’s time. He personally met with families of inmates and showed himself to be un jefe muy simpatico. It was an excellent way to curry favor with constituents, since many Valley residents had at least one family member tied up in the drug trade.

But the doling out of contact visits benefited Marmolejo in more tangible ways as well. “It was commonly known that if you had the money, you could get contact visits,” says a former Hidalgo County deputy. “Now, it’s true that a lot of good, humble people would get visits. But there were also times when I saw people turned away because they didn’t have the right amount of cash. The term was ‘political contributions.’”

There is, of course, another term for this type of conduct: “bribery.” In exchange for money, Marmolejo was giving wealthy smugglers preferential treatment in his jail. “In effect,” says assistant U.S. attorney Greg Surovic, the man who would ultimately prosecute Marmolejo, “he was saying, ‘Bring your drug business to Hidalgo County, because if you get caught, we’ll make it fun for you in jail.’”

Above all, the sheriff made jail fun for Homero Heraldo Beltran-Aguirre. Unlike the other high-dollar traffickers in the Valley, Beltran maintained a low profile. He was from Monterrey and kept most of his assets, which included a multimillion dollar mansion, in Mexico. He did not throw pachangas for politicians or hang out in Edinburg’s Echo hotel bar with other dealers and their defense attorneys. Nonetheless, Homero Beltran was Ramon Martinez’s chief supplier of marijuana and perhaps the single largest exporter of Mexican pot in the Rio Grande Valley. Beltran’s source was said to be the Quintero family, suspected in the 1985 murder of Drug Enforcement agent Enrique Camarena. From 1984 until 1990 Beltran was the conduit through which tens of thousand of pounds of marijuana from the Quintero farms made its way onto El Lechero’s eighteen-wheelers and across the United States.

But the Quintero-Beltran-Martinez axis began to crumble in 1989, when El Lechero was arrested and charged in a 92-count federal indictment. Faced with a federal life sentence, which precludes the possibility of parole, El Lechero agreed to a “debriefing.” He ratted on every major player in his network, including his supplier, Homero Beltan. In April 1991 the information he supplied led directly to Beltran’s arrest in San Diego, California.

Like Martinez before him, Homero Beltran analyzed his prospects and decided he’d better sing. He knew other distributors and money launderers in the Valley, and federal agents involved in those cases hung on his every word. They decided to keep him close. Arrangements were made to transfer Beltran from California to Marmolejo’s Hidalgo County jail.

By September 1991, Beltran happened to notice that another federal drug prisoner in the jail, Freddy Gonzalez, was enjoying frequent contact visits. Gonzalez was from Progreso, where, as Marmolejo put it, “he helped me out quite a bit with votes.” The trafficker and the sheriff were friends, according to both men, and the former exploited their relationship by convincing the latter to hire three of Gonzalez’s nephews as jailers, who in turn allowed their uncle to have contact visits whenever he wished. Gonzalez told Beltran that some of these visits were not merely contact, but conjugal, and that he was paying Marmolejo several thousand dollars in return. Gonzalez let it be known that he wasn’t the only federal inmate paying for private visits with women in the jail library. If Beltran was interested, Freddy Gonzalez would see what he could do—for a fee, of course.

Thus did the marijuana exporter and the sheriff have breakfast together one fall morning in 1991. The two men hit it off; as Marmolejo later testified, somewhat vaguely, “He was a good person to have a conversation with.” From a profit standpoint, Beltran proved to be a particularly good conversationalist that morning. The deal they ultimately settled on gave Beltran three “private” contact visits every week; in return, Marmolejo would be paid $5,000 per month and an additional $1,000 per visit. To keep things discreet, no money would change hands between the two. Instead, Beltran would use a trusted intermediary who managed his affairs in Monterrey. The man who would deliver Beltran’s money, his wife, his children, and later his girlfriend, was his brother-in-law, Juan Antonio Guardado.

Since his indictment in January, Marmolejo has consistently maintained that every gift he received and every deal he entered into with Guardado was done to develop a connection with him, not Beltran. “I was approached by Guardado, who told me he was a policeman in Mexico,” Marmolejo says. “He said his brother-in-law was in jail. Basically I was just trying to work a relationship with him. It’s a hell of a lot better knowing somebody from Monterrey or Reynosa or wherever. It opens a lot of doors in Mexico.”

Guardado was in fact a butcher, not a police officer, when the sheriff first laid eyes on him in October 1991. Marmolejo admits that he didn’t attempt to confirm whether the drug trafficker’s brother-in-law was the policeman he claimed to be because, as he puts it, “in Mexico, anybody has a damn badge.” Yet for reasons unexplained, the sheriff courted Guardado from October 1991 until July 1993 as if he were the only cop ever to cross the border. During that period, the “Mexican policeman” did not assist Marmolejo in a single investigation. What did happen, however, was that Guardado frequently brought visitors to Beltran, and the visits took place in the sheriff’s office. When Beltran’s family showed up, they often brought candy and cabrito for the inmate and various deputies. So elaborate were these mealtime visits that annoyed Hidalgo County officers began to refer to Beltran’s group as “the picnickers.”

At other times, however, the children and the food were not present. Only Beltran and his wife were; and, according to both the Beltrans and Hidalgo County officers, these one-on-one meetings took place behind the sheriff’s closed door, with either Marmolejo or his chief jailer, Mario Salinas, guarding the door. By November 1992, Beltran was enjoying conjugal visits with a second woman: 25-year-old Mariadalia Huerta-Solis, his secret girlfriend from Morelia. Guardado faithfully transported Huerta-Solis across the border without the knowledge of Beltran’s wife, whisking her into the jail on weekends and taking her directly to the sheriff’s office, where Beltran would then be summoned. Marmolejo would leave his office, close the door behind him, and let the two sweethearts have full run of the place. “It was well known that the sheriff let couples have closed-door meetings in his office,” a former deputy says. “The problem was, he kept a lot of weapons in there. He had a submachine gun, a .45, his personal revolver, and several shotguns. It scared the shit out of me.”

Marmolejo admits that he granted Beltran contact visits in his office but insists that the door was never closed, that the visits were not conjugal, and that he never received money for these favors. When at the sheriff’s trial the Beltran camp produced a ledger detailing payments to Marmolejo, the sheriff’s supporters scoffed at the ledger’s authenticity. Yet it is well known that major drug dealers—including, as a raid revealed, Ramon “El Lechero” Martinez—frequently keep books of their transactions, as there is no other way to maintain an accounting of their cash-only business. Beltran’s ledger, which was maintained by one of his daughters, listed the daily expenses incurred by Guardado on his trips to Edinburg: hotels, cabrito, gasoline, commissary funds for Beltran, and payoffs for “Sr. Marmolejo.” These notations correspond precisely with records gathered by the federal government. In other words, for Beltran’s ledger to be falsified, the conspirators to this scheme would have to include his family, federal agents, the Border Patrol, the telephone company, two Edinburg hotels, and the commissary staff at Brig Marmolejo’s jail.

Homero Beltran had made a mockery of the jailhouse; it had become his brothel. In the meantime, Marmolejo had received thousands of dollars, and now and again Beltran had sweetened the pot with a few juicy noncash morsels. On October 16, 1991, Guardado paid $5,000 for a Marmolejo campaign billboard featuring the slogan, “It takes a mighty big man to fill these boots.” Three months later, while Beltran and Guardado were visiting with Marmolejo in his office, Guardado unveiled eight Rado watches, each worth more than $1,000. Beltran’s brother-in-law explained that the watches were late Christmas gifts for Marmolejo, chief jailer Mario Salinas, two captains, and their wives.

I don’t wear a watch,” Marmolejo told Guardado and Beltran. Still, he took the watch home anyway, along with the watch for his wife. When the three other officers asked the sheriff whether they should accept the watches, their superior shrugged and said, “It’s up to you.” The law says otherwise: Accepting a gift from an inmate is a state misdemeanor for police officers. But at the Hidalgo County jail, everything, including the penal code, was negotiable.

The seduction of Brig Marmolejo continued. When Guardado offered to give the sheriff a 1989 Trans Am, Marmolejo politely declined; after all, a man of his girth might find things a little tight inside a sports car. Beltran’s brother-in-law then offered the TransAm to Marmolejo’s daughter Irma as a wedding gift. Irma was excited, but she looked to her father for guidance. “It’s up to you,” he said. Marmolejo’s daughter took the car in November 1992. That same month, she took it to a used-car dealer and traded it in for another car worth $10,000.

In early 1993 the relationship between Marmolejo and the Beltran camp went one fatal step further. During one of the sheriff’s many chats with the trafficker, Beltran happened to mention that there was a produce shed near Edinburg that he would like to sell. The shed had been purchased in the name of a Beltran relative as a means of laundering drug money. When Beltran said he had never actually seen the shed but knew that it was on Alamo Road, Marmolejo’s eyes lit up. “I believe I know right where you’re talking about,” he said. “If I find anybody that wants to buy this shed, I’ll tell you.”

It was an awfully kind offer, even coming from un jefe muy simpatico. In the spirit of things, Beltran dangled an incentive: If Marmolejo helped sell the shed, he would receive a cut. Specifically, he could pocket the down payment, which was figured to run in the neighborhood of $20,000. Thereupon the sheriff set out to work on behalf of the Valley’s biggest marijuana supplier. He drove Guardado to see the produce shed, which was being leased by a lemon and lime dealer named Joe Garcia. Guardado collected the month’s $3,000 rent from Garcia, who was instructed to make the check out to Marmolejo. The sheriff would later insist that the checks were made out in his name because Guardado didn’t have a bank account, and that he reimbursed Guardado with $3,000 in cash that he happened to have stashed in his office desk.

Garcia didn’t quite know what to make of the arrangement. Still, if the sheriff was involved, surely things were on the up-and-up. While visiting with Garcia, Marmolejo mentioned that the shed was for sale. “If you want to buy the shed,” the sheriff added, “the owner is incarcerated here. I’ll put you in touch with him.”

The sheriff’s accommodating ways had reached new heights, but he wasn’t through yet. Marmolejo arranged for a contact visit between Garcia and Beltran to facilitate the sale. Then he visited an Edinburg appraiser and asked him to assess the value of the shed. Finally, on the date of the appraisal, Marmolejo personally delivered the $450 fee. He had become, in effect, a realtor—though only for a single client.

The energy that Brig Marmolejo devoted to assisting a convicted drug dealer’s business ventures wasn’t what one expected of a sheriff, not even in the Valley. On the other hand, it was the same sort of energy he used to display in the early days—at the expense of crooks, rather than on their behalf.

IN APRIL 1993 AGENTS received a tip about the sale of a produce shed on Alamo Road. When confronted by three agents. Produce vendor Joe Garcia acknowledged that he was buying it from a Hidalgo County inmate named Homero Beltran. But, added Garcia nervously, he was srue nothing illegal was going on. After all, Sheriff Brig Marmolejo was involved in the deal.

A tingle went up the federal agents’ collective spine.

The agents wasted no time in interrogating Beltran. “We’ve got you on another money-laundering deal, Homero,” the inmate was told by assistant U.S. attorney Greg Surovic. “Tell us everything there is to know about this Edinburg produce shed or we’ll file new charges.”

Beltran could see right through Surovic’s bluff. The trafficker had all the leverage on his side. He had been fishing for a modified-sentence deal from the feds for some time. Now he could see what they were hungry for. Since he didn’t need favors at the Hidalgo County jail anymore, it made perfect sense to throw Brig Marmolejo overboard. Beltran sent the feds away that first meeting, saying he would have to discuss things with his attorney. He remained coy during a second meeting with Surovic, while at the same time dropping a few tantalizing hints. By the third meeting, he was apparently given reason to believe that a reduced sentence with imminent. Homero Beltran then commenced to sing Marmolejo’s swan song.

Beltran ordered Guardado to cooperate with the feds, who promptly equipped Guardado with a wire and his truck with a video camera. On July 15, 1993, he arranged for a meeting with marmolejo to discuss business. While the two men drove aimlessly through Edinburg in Guardado’s truck, Guardado handed Marmolejo several thousand dollars, which the sheriff had asked for so he could build a pavilion on his ranch for his daughter’s wedding reception. Marmolejo stealthily snatched up the money and slid it down his boot. As he did, he looked up and saw a familiar building. The sight made him laugh. “Look, the courthouse!” he exclaimed.

The cash was referred to by both men, rather guardedly, as a “loan.” Of course, the longtime sheriff of Hidalgo County didn’t have to hit up an alleged Mexican cop for money: He had any number of banker friends who frequently approved loans for him without so much as a credit check. But this was a special kind of loan—one that, as Guardado assured Marmolejo when the two men met again four days later, he need not pay back. The sheriff protested mildly. Then he relented, saying, while the tapes rolled, “Damn, you’re all right!”

By this time, word had reached Marmolejo that Joe Garcia had told federal agents about the produce shed. He also knew that Beltran was dealing with federal prosecutors. And later that summer, Marmolejo now says, he received a disquieting pone call from a San Antonio associate who had something to tell him in person. With chief jailer Salinas in the passenger seat, Marmolejo drove north and met the man more or less halfway, in Hebbronville.

The source, who had received some information from a federal agent, spelled out the grim details. “They’ve got a lot on you, and they’re gonna do whatever it takes to get you,” he said. The acquaintance added, “There’s three million dollars to be made if you take the rap that you did certain favors for Homero Beltran. I’ll get a million, you’ll get a million, and [a Beltran intermediary] will get a million.” The money was from Beltran, who obviously was worried that Marmolejo might prevail in court and thereby jeopardize the trafficker’s reduced-sentence deal. The source did his best to convince Marmolejo that the scenario Beltran offered was more reasonable than facing a trial. “You can go to Mexico,” he said, “or stay here and get the charges reduced to something else.”

It was a vintage Rio Grande Valley deal: Take the money, keep things quiet, leave things in the hands of powerful friends, and wait patiently while justice warps like plastic under the South Texas sun. Oscar McInnis would have approved of the deal—which, if it truly existed, was the best offer Homero Beltran had ever sent Brig Marmolejo’s way. Yet it was one deal too many. The sheriff had long since abandoned his integrity, but his swagger had not altogether deserted him. He laughed and, in a voice that must have sounded about eighteen years younger, told the attorney to get lost.

On January 18, 1994, a federal grand jury in McAllen indicted the sheriff on eight counts of racketeering, money laundering, and federal bribery. A warrant was issued for the arrest of Marmolejo, Salinas, and two other Hidalgo County officers. In a raid of Marmolejo’s property federal agent failed to find the $147,000 in bribes that the sheriff had allegedly received from Beltran over the last two years. Nor did they find the two Rado watches. The agents did, however, discover farm equipment on the sheriff’s ranch that belonged to Eleazar Morin, a drug trafficker who had been in custody at the Hidalgo County jail.

When the secret federal audit of Marmolejo’s many real estate properties leaked out, even the most jaded Valley insiders had to chuckle with amazement. The fair market value of his properties totaled more than $900,000. That wasn’t a bad pile for a man of the people—particularly one making an annual salary of $46,305.

The seven-day trial this past July, United States v. Brigido Marmoejo, Jr., et al., was a dramatic and melancholy spectacle of justice deflowered. Because the case amounted to a primer on how things work in the Valley, every witness’ motives were inherently suspect. A host of information was deemed inadmissible by U.S. district judge George Kazen and kept from the jury. Even so, the twelve Laredo jurors knew enough to know when to smirk at the testimony, and so they did: at Beltran’s insistence that the prosecution had offered him no deals; at Guardado’s unctuous assurance that his drug-dealing broth-in-law had urged him simply “to tell the truth”; and at Marmolejo’s boast that “no one can bribe me.”

Local reporters, along with several federal agents and members of Marmolejo’s immediate family, watched with growing numbness as the body of evidence accumulated. Assistant U.S. attorney Surovic had built a classic Al Capone-style racketeering case: no drugs, no money, just a well-marked paper trail. In contrast, defense attorney Tony Canales brought forth almost no witnesses, instead urging the jurors to weigh the respected sheriff’s word against that of a dope dealer. This rather unenergetic strategy incensed Marmolejo’s supporters, who conjectured ridiculously that Canales had been pressured by IRS agents to roll over. In truth, whatever hope the defense harbored seemed to fade the moment Brig Marmolejo took the stand.

The sheriff’s voice was smooth and impassive, with its usual quality of easygoing fatalism. But his testimony was a tangle of contradictions and nonsense. “I don’t trust anybody, really. But I do trust people. In my job, you have to.” “I have a policy that I do favors, but I don’t like to ask for favors.” “Since Juan Antonio Guardado always said, ‘Anytime you need anything, just call me,’ I didn’t see anything wrong with borrowing from him. It was a fine line, but I needed the money…” It was as if the Hidalgo County sheriff had become the official mouthpiece of Rio Grande Valley double-talk. The more he spoke, the clearer it became that regardless of what Brig Marmolejo had or had not done, his word could be trusted no more than that of the felon Homero Beltran.

In his closing argument, Canales did everything but drop to his knees as he beseeched the jurors: “Was the sheriff a fool? I think he was. I think we all agree….But is there anybody in this room who hasn’t befriended someone who goes sour? Is there anyone in this room who hasn’t been had?

“Guardado pushed and pushed,” he moaned. “Gave him watches. Foolish. Foolish. But it was a gift, not a bribe. And a gift isn’t a part of the indictment.”

Again Marmolejo’s attorney said it: “My client was a fool.” Ironically, Canales had been a young U.S. attorney when Marmolejo brought him the information that Oscar McInnis was soliciting a murder. Canales knew the kind of man his client was back then. But much had changed over the years, and not just for Marmolejo. Now Canales defended, rather than prosecuted, Valley drug smugglers and crooked politicians, and was himself far removed from the days when Brig Marmolejo stood for something other than the Valley’s tortured ethics. Canales chose not to dredge up the old heroics. No character witnesses had been called to bring forth a more gallant era. The jury had already heard too much about behavior in the Valley to imagine great things of the rotund man who now sat glassy-eyed and red-faced while his lawyer fought to save him by casting him as a buffoon.

The jury took all of five hours to decide that Marmolejo was guilty of everything the federal government had accused him of.

With the Martinez network dismantled in Hidalgo County and federal investigators sweeping through Starr County, with Zapata County expunged of its crooked leaders, with trafficking being pushed upriver to Webb and El Paso counties, with all this reform in the air, it would be comforting to imagine the Valley in a newfound state of purity. Yet there are signs that this will never be. Two powerful drug-smuggling families have sprung up in Weslaco, just east of Donna. Four bodies, two of them identified as the corpses of Mexican reporters, were discovered this past summer in the Hidalgo County town of Monte Alto. Since the passage of NAFTA, the number of border trucking companies has increased by more than 700 percent, while the opportunities for currency laundering in the free-trade zone have become seemingly limitless.

And even as new players in the drug trade spring up daily, the old smugglers remain as symbols, if nothing else, that justice does not come easily in the Rio Grande Valley. The information provided by Ramon “El Lechero” Martinez and Homero Beltran all but ensures that the two Hidalgo County traffickers will someday be back on the streets. They will return to find a new sheriff; and they will doubtless remember that once upon a time, Brig Marmolejo was a new sheriff as well.

“There’s more corruption in South Texas than Brig Marmolejo,” says a veteran attorney and lifelong Valley resident. “And Brig’s not necessarily the most corrupt among them.”

A FEW MILES NORTHWEST OF Edinburg, a middle-aged Hispanic gentleman sat outdoors with his visitor, sipping Mexican beer and talking about his old friend Brig Marmolejo while the sun retreated from view. His ranch property was cactus-snaggled and thoroughly unmanicured, yet not without its own wild beauty. Ribs and sweetbreads roasted on the barbecue nearby. Nothing stirred except for the crackling of the fire.

The man, who had once been a prominent elected official in Hidalgo County, spoke of the fallen sheriff with fondness. Now and again his voice grew solemn, but for the most part he conversed in a tone of airy unflappability, as if all was inevitable and all would be put right in the future. Brig Marmolejo spoke in such a voice, even on the witness stand. It was a melody peculiar to this part of the world—and, like this part of the world, strangely seductive.

“Just a few weeks ago, after the verdict, I had a pachanga for Brig here,” the man was saying. “And it was like old times. People telling jokes, having a few drinks, eating barbecue, listening to the musicians.”

Reflecting for a moment, he then flashed an ironic smile. “It was almost like not acknowledging that someone had died.” He changed his tone, as if to correct himself. “The point was not to judge,” he said. “You know, you don’t turn your back on someone who was weak. This is how the culture functions. We’re all like cousins. And what we were all trying to say was, ‘We don’t know enough about what really happened. We only know what we read in the paper. But regardless, we’re here.’”

The gentleman chewed thoughtfully on a rib for a while. Then, under the Valley’s darkening glow he said softly, in that voice of almost hypnotic fatalism: “The only purpose was to say, ‘We’re still the same.’”

Related Content