Pistol Pushers

Among the Texans who gathered in Austin for the first day of the Eighty-fourth Legislature, on January 13, were a number of activists calling for an end to the state’s long-standing ban on openly carrying handguns. Their cause was, not long ago, a relatively obscure one. During the previous session, in 2013, there had been barely any discussion of open carry. Since then, however, the issue had rapidly gained traction.

Cops and Robbers

I. Ya están cantando los gallos. 
Yo no sé qué horas serán. 
“Ya vamos a levantarnos,” 
Arnulfo le dice a Juan. 
“Son tres horas a Reynosa
desde General Terán.”

—“Corrido 585,” as sung by Ramón Ayala

It was all here. in bundles. In baggies. In piles and piles and piles. Mota. Coke. Black tar. Meth. Locked away a mere fifteen miles from Mexico. Fabian didn’t know where it all came from, other than the odd stash house in Mission or San Juan, but he knew well enough where it would have gone: north, shuttled up U.S. 281, to compulsive traders on Wall Street and bored suburban kids in Cleveland and desperate meth heads in Chicago. The marijuana alone could have gotten a few million dollars on the street. It was the last day of November 2012, and just that month, narc officers had seized 250 pounds of the stuff, plus who knows how many kilos of cocaine—and that was only the guys in the sheriff’s department; never mind all the other agencies down here busting ass. It was hard to say how much the cartels even noticed the losses. But here in Edinburg, stockpiled in this evidence room for the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, was at least some proof of victory.

The place was a mess. Claustrophobic too. No windows, just a musty, fluorescent-lit space that reeked of weed so bad it gave you a headache. Shelves on the wall—metal industrial shelves—held the random assortment of tagged evidence. Rats chewed away at the stuff as it sat, waiting to be destroyed. Organizing this place was grunt work, for sure, but when the request for help came in, Fabian had been happy to comply. He always was. It was why he’d gotten into law enforcement, after all: service. That and respect. He liked the uniform, the rush of kicking down a door with a search warrant, a traffic stop to nab someone up to no good. It was why he’d worked as a detention officer and then entered the sheriff’s academy. It was why he’d worked his way up, impressing the sheriff enough to get promoted to one of the most exclusive narcotics forces on the border: the Panama Unit. 

Technically, he’d been a member only a month, but he’d been hanging with the guys for so long, his time busting narcos with them felt like years. Some of the guys—Sal, Eric—he knew from when they were in the academy together. Mata, too—he’d worked at the county jail. And Jonathan, of course. Everyone knew Jonathan. They were the real thing, a band of brothers, badasses who hauled in the Valley’s contraband. The cartels might have El Chapo or El Viceroy, the kings of meth and coke, but their street-level lackeys had Panama to contend with. Gulf thugs and Zetas could torture and behead each other in Reynosa all they liked; here in South Texas, they could get cut off at the knees, so to speak, their routes busted. Fabian had the photos to prove it—the guys posed all the time with the dope they seized. Just like in cop shows or Miami Vice. They’d even had a film crew follow them for that show Border Wars; they’d raided a stash house and found four thousand pounds of weed during one episode. That their work had serious repercussions—a dealer who’d been busted might suddenly go missing or end up in a field with a bullet through the head—well, that was all part of the job. A guy had to be stupid to get caught like that.

Fabian worked for a couple of hours. Stacking, sorting. Making the randomness less random. A little before noon, his phone rang, the ID flashing “JT.” Jonathan Treviño. The unit had had several official supervisors, but everyone knew Jonathan ran the thing; even the last supervisor had called Jonathan to find out when to show up for work. You did what Jonathan said. You had to. He was the sheriff’s son, so there was that. But then the guy was forceful too. Charismatic. He was only 28, same age as Fabian, but he was loud, cocky. Good-looking. That he liked to gamble, or had a weakness for certain women, just sort of gave him an irresistible edge. On their raids, he was fearless. It was Jonathan who called the shots—which of the Panama guys went on a bust, which dealers they would flip. 

Fabian picked up. “Get out here,” said the voice on the line. Jonathan was out in the field with Alexis—Alexis Espinoza, a Mission cop who did work with Homeland Security Investigations. He and Jonathan went way back; they’d grown up together. Alexis’s dad had worked under the sheriff before being named police chief of Hidalgo. Alexis liked the busts as much as the rest of them, helping the Panama Unit out as often as he could. 

Except now the two of them needed backup. It was urgent, said Jonathan. Fabian needed to meet him at U.S. 281 and Highway 107, follow a woman in a car. She was making a delivery, at least five kilos of cocaine. “You come out here and help us,” he ordered. “She thinks we’re going to escort her, but when she does the delivery, we’re going to raid the house.” 

Fabian nodded. “Okay,” he said. Then he paused. You never knew with Jonathan. He had to ask. “Is this a legit deal?”

Goodbye to a Writer

This is an editor’s letter I never wanted to write. After a forty-year career at Texas Monthly, my friend and colleague Paul Burka has decided to retire after this issue (you can read his farewell column, “What I’ve Learned,” on page 16). Paul, this magazine’s senior executive editor, has long been revered as the dean of the Capitol press corps, and he is the single most important observer of the Legislature that the state has ever produced.

Stalks of Rye

In the hierarchy of cocktails, the humble highball does not rank highly. Such minimalist constructions don’t even warrant menu space at many modern bars, having lost real estate to their more complex mixological counterparts. But though they may not be glamorous, these spirited concoctions are the first that bartenders learn how to make and usually the first to pass the lips of novice drinkers. 

Their Beautiful Launderette

Get there early,” warned my friend Pam. “We had to wait for an hour!” So three companions and I arrived promptly at six o’clock on a Saturday. “The wait could be an hour,” said the host, looking harried as more and more people jammed themselves into the small waiting area. The weather in Austin was cold and wet, and the crowd was in no mood to linger outside, even in the pools of warmth provided by heat lamps.

The Apache Amulet

The Apache were latecomers to the Southwest, arriving in what is now New Mexico from the north at about the same time the Spanish entered the region from the south. They were originally hunter-gatherers, collecting wild plants and hunting buffalo, elk, deer, and smaller game.

Lucrative When Wet

In the early eighties, a family rolling down Interstate 35 between Georgetown and San Antonio would have confronted a string of uniquely Texan tourist attractions. Over the years, Wonder World, Inner Space Cavern, the Snake Farm, and Ralph the Swimming Pig at Aquarena Springs probably pried millions of dollars from the hands of road-weary parents pestered by their carsick kids.

The Dreamer

When Kent Finlay agreed to be profiled for this piece, he knew he was dying. “Better sooner than later,” the revered songwriter and venue-owner from San Marcos warned. We scheduled an interview for later that week. When I called Kent’s cell at the appointed time, his daughter Jenni answered. “Dad’s not conscious right now,” she told me. Jenni was by her dad’s side, along with her sister, HalleyAnna, and brother, Sterling.

Meanwhile, in Texas . . .

  • The Brenham owner of the world’s largest barbecue pit, which can cook four tons of meat, put the grill up for sale on eBay with a starting price of $350,000.
  • A first-grade teacher in New Braunfels announced that she would donate one of her kidneys to a six-year-old student suffering organ failure.
  • The Rosenberg Police Department released a sketch of a robbery suspect wearing a ski mask.
  • Texas Tech students protested as a bulldozer knocked down an eleven-foot-tall “snow penis.”

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