Down and Out

Writer-at-large Cecilia Ballí talks about former Cameron county sheriff Conrado Cantu. Who were your main sources for this story, and what were your experiences with them like?

Cecilia Ballí: I interviewed more than a dozen people at length, though most of them didn’t make it into the final draft of the story. I felt it was important to get as many perspectives as possible, since I did not live in Cameron County during Conrado Cantu’s administration and had to reconstruct the events that unfolded during his term. This included the perspective of prosecutors, journalists, county politicians, current and former assistant district attorneys, and private attorneys. The people who were willing to spend the most time helping me on the story were the federal prosecutors; Alberto Pullen, Mr. Cantu’s attorney in the federal case; and former DA Yolanda de Leon. I went back to them many times with questions. I appreciated that they were willing to talk to me about a subject that was growing a bit old in Brownsville. Is Conrado Cantu’s case especially indicative of public corruption in South Texas?

CB: There’s no way around the fact that Conrado Cantu was the fifth Texas border sheriff to be convicted for abusing his office in eleven years. I’m a native of the border, of Cameron County, and this is something that’s difficult to swallow. It was this question that ultimately guided my story: Is it geography? Culture? Happenstance? It’s definitely not genes—I reject any theory that tries to explain human behavior with such sweeping causes. Not every South Texas politician is corrupt, or vulnerable to corruption. What I concluded is that there is a political tradition, or culture, in the Rio Grande Valley that makes it easier for a man like Conrado Cantu, who had little grounding in the notion of law and justice, to take advantage of his position. For me, the cases of public corruption that are actually the most enervating are the ones that happen every day and don’t make it to federal court—myriad minor characters in public office who promise jobs, accept bribes, influence the vote, fire people at will, abuse public coffers. These actions, which pepper the saga of Conrado Cantu as sheriff, usually get brushed away with probation or tiny jail sentences at best. How much does corruption affect your average South Texan? Why not accept a public figure with known corrupt tendencies if he or she performed well otherwise?

CB: I suppose there’s a faint sense of fatalism among some South Texas voters, who have seen too many bad politicians pass through town. If this one’s business is growing because he’s a county commissioner, well at least he’s paving my

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