“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