“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