LAST AUGUST, AS THE RELENTLESS SUN HAMMERED at the dusty streets of Rio Grande City, Sheriff Eugenio Falcón, Jr., emerged from the air-conditioned refuge of his office and walked one block to Linda’s Bail Bonds, a modest brick building in the center of town. A large man with massive shoulders, olive skin, and black eyes, the 44-year-old Falcón wore a striped, short-sleeved sports shirt and a gimme cap, a casual outfit that spoke of the ease he’d acquired in his job. Seventeen years had passed since he’d first taken office, and the position now fit him like a second skin. He ruled Starr County with tactics borrowed from the old South Texas political bosses—a connoisseur of local history might call him the last of the patróns. Most of his constituents viewed him simply as the barrier that stood between good and evil.
But in Starr County, the distinction between what is good and what is evil becomes oddly blurred at times, as if obscured by the all-consuming dust. Situated halfway between Brownsville and Laredo, Starr County is an isolated backwater, with no major north-south highway and hardly any hope. Half its residents survive on incomes that fall below the poverty line. The rich soil of the bustling Rio Grande Valley lies just out of reach, NAFTA has yet to make an impact along this stretch of the border, and the prolific oil and gas fields found elsewhere in South Texas are missing here. In this forsaken landscape of sandy hills and dense brush, politics is a year-round preoccupation, because those in office control the most precious commodities in the area, namely jobs and contracts. There are always some citizens who are willing to pay for access to the favors of government. And it is perpetually true that here even the best men are susceptible to corruption.
At Linda’s Bail Bonds, Sheriff Gene Falcón strolled past a sign that showed a man behind bars (aptly suggesting the bottom-feeding quality of the business) and into the reception area. He had come to see the owner, Homero Arturo Longoria. Although Longoria came from a respected family, his own name had gone to seed—there were stories of welching on debts, among other indiscretions. His profile sagged in a similar fashion; he was balding, wore glasses, and had a paunch. Yet his new business was thriving. Though Linda’s Bail Bonds was only five months old, Longoria was handling more inmates than many established bondsmen in town. In fact, he was getting so many clients from the county jail that federal officials in Houston had come to suspect that the sheriff was at the center of an extensive influence-peddling scheme. At that very moment—unknown to Falcón—FBI agents were shadowing every move he made.
A renewed federal commitment to exposing South Texas graft had already resulted in the conviction of the sheriffs of two neighboring counties, as well as other public officials. “The number one priority of the Southern District is to address public-corruption issues,” U.S. attorney James DeAtley told me. To the federal prosecutors, Sheriff Falcón personified all that was wrong with South Texas, and they considered it their job to expose his faults. To his supporters, however, Gene Falcón had always embodied the best of Starr County. Falcón came from one of the area’s oldest families, and he was hailed as a reformer when he took office. He brought progress, an infrequent visitor, to Rio Grande City, in the form of federal grants and new jobs. It’s true that the sheriff had been accused of offenses that ranged from mingling with reputed drug dealers to a murder in Mexico (for which another man was ultimately convicted). Yet Starr’s residents have always judged their leaders by how they serve the community, not whether they conform to laws that are written far from the border’s gritty reality. The dealers Falcón supposedly associated with sold their drugs in Houston or in San Antonio, not on his turf. When did anyone in those distant cities demonstrate concern for Starr County? So to the sheriff’s admirers, the prosecution of Gene Falcón by attorneys based in Houston made it seem as if the county itself were on trial. And in a way, it was.
I MET FALCÓN FOR THE FIRST TIME ON A MILD, CLEAR DAY IN January. Red, white, and blue political placards blanketed the town, an indication that the all-important March primaries were just weeks away. The sheriff had been indicted two weeks before; the question of his guilt or innocence had yet to be resolved. Even in pressed Wrangler blue jeans, a khaki shirt, roper boots, and a white Stetson hat, Falcón still had something spit-and-polish in his look that suggested the disciplined aura of the state trooper he had once been. He appeared personable and clean-cut—not at all the stereotype of a seamy politician. At the same time, he seemed impossible to read, perhaps because of the impenetrable web of rumors that surrounded him. “A sheriff wears many different hats, all colors and all shapes,” Falcón volunteered. “You deal with all kinds of people, from hardened criminals to good citizens. Sometimes couples come to me, and I wind up doing marriage counseling.”
I had just watched Falcón deliver a similar type of counseling session. A hunched, older man had buttonholed him and delivered a convoluted story in Spanish. It’s central theme was that the man’s son appeared to be mixed up with drugs. Falcón had leaned against the wall of his lawyer’s office, throwing one arm up toward the ceiling to listen. He cut an authoritative, almost swaggering figure, but he addressed the speaker with a kind of subservience. The old man represented one of Starr County’s voters, and Falcón held his job at their collective whim. The sheriff was polite and attentive; he promised to speak to the boy. The job of a patrón appeared to involve an odd mix of public relations, hand-holding, and moral leadership.
If the sheriff could be respectful of his constituents,