The Bad Guy With the Badge

Conrado Cantu called himself “the people’s sheriff.” He spoke to school-children about the evils of drugs and patrolled the dark back roads to prevent crime. But all his charisma couldn’t hide the sad truth that he was yet another crooked South Texas lawman who betrayed his community.

IT WAS JUST PAST TWO O’ CLOCK ON AN EARLY spring day in 2004 when the Cameron County Sheriff’s Department received a call from a desperate woman. Her brother-in-law was holding her sister hostage inside their home in Olmito, a normally serene community of 1,200 souls just outside Brownsville, a few miles from the Rio Grande. Sheriff’s deputies sped to the scene, a languid road dotted with simple homes and ranches with Spanish names like Palo Blanco and Las Campanas. The husband jumped into a Dodge pickup and fled, the red and white and blue lights of the deputies flashing behind him. When he realized escape was impossible, he reversed direction, skidded into his driveway, and vanished inside the house. One deputy kicked in a door but ducked into a bedroom when he saw the man reach for a shotgun. Other deputies entered the house, and one of them fired at least two shots at the suspect, missing. A struggle broke out. There was blood on the tile floor, shattered glass, the smell of pepper spray. When the man, 65-year-old Rodolfo Federico Garza, was finally in handcuffs, he argued with the deputies that they were not supposed to be there. He had a personal arrangement with the sheriff.

Sheriff Conrado Cantu, the top-ranking law enforcement officer in the county, lived just down that farm road in a low-slung, brown-roofed brick home. He was well known and well liked in the area, as he was throughout the South Texas county. In the dual world of the border, Cantu was American by birth but seemed more at ease speaking the region’s predominant Spanish language. Now, the hostage incident—which would have been erased from history if his will had prevailed—hinted at another person behind the star he bore proudly on his chest.

A captain arrived at the scene of the dispute. Rumaldo Rodriguez, who was considered one of the sheriff’s most trusted aides, pulled aside a deputy and warned him that what he was about to say was “off the record.” His orders were terse and nonnegotiable. The sheriff’s department needed to make everything disappear, Rodriguez said. No reports should be made. The media should not find out. He approached another deputy, who was already being questioned by a sheriff’s department investigator, and ordered him to end the interview and leave. Rodriguez told a third officer that Rodolfo Garza would be taken directly to the sheriff.

The captain questioned Garza, who admitted that he had pointed a shotgun, that shots had been fired, and that he had known he was evading arrest when he drove off in his pickup. Rodriguez ordered that the man be uncuffed. He let him go back inside his house and change his clothes. Then he personally drove Garza to the sheriff’s home and released him. The matter would have ended there had someone not tipped off the district attorney, a practice that concerned county residents and employees had used for years as the only way to hold the sheriff accountable for his actions. But Garza would never go to jail.

The official who had orchestrated Garza’s release on his cell phone was a different Conrado Cantu from the one most of his constituents thought they knew. Not until the feds whisked him away in the summer of 2005 was the picture of this other man complete, and even then his former supporters wondered exactly how he had come to such a bad end. Perhaps he wanted to please everyone. Or he was not that smart. Or he was somebody for whom everything seemed easy. Or he was somebody—federal prosecutors would argue before a judge—whose concept of the law was deeply flawed and damaging to the administration of justice in Cameron County. Indeed, after the district attorney had scrutinized his every move and the FBI had retraced all of his missteps, Cantu came to stand for the worst of South Texas politics and law enforcement: the idea that the law serves the lawman, not the other way around. Even worse is that local políticos and constituents let him get away with it for so long.

CONRADO CANTU HAD been in law enforcement for only five years when he declared himself “the people’s candidate for sheriff” in January 2000. “The new times are crying out for a new generation of leadership,” he discoursed in a local newspaper story. Only 44—young by county standards—he worked the electorate with all his God-given charm. He had broad shoulders, a robust stomach, and an intense gaze underlined by a bristly mustache that many women considered handsome. He dressed in elegant cowboy-cut jackets and a Western hat and boots; he played the guitar and was prone to deliver rousing ranchera songs with the passion of a mariachi star.

Cantu was a former plumber, a used-car salesman, and an owner of a seafood restaurant who had served as a chief deputy constable for a year before being elected constable, in 1996. Constables like to think of themselves as the peace officer closest to the people, and Cantu campaigned as “the people’s sheriff.” “You can have all the education in the world. You can have all the experience,” he told a local journalist, “but if you do not work with the people and help them with their problems, you will never make a difference.” He called himself Animo—Spanish for “cheer,” or “enthusiasm.” To be sheriff, Animo preached, one also needed “a tremendous amount of good common sense.”

From where Gilberto Hinojosa sat at the pinnacle of county government, Cantu’s electoral filing made no sense. It was widely understood within the Cameron County Democratic establishment, which dominated local elections, that one had to pay his dues before seeking such a high-profile public office. Not to mention that Hinojosa, the county judge and, some would say, the anointer of local Democratic candidates, was happy with then-sheriff Omar Lucio. During a conversation in Hinojosa’s office in the county’s squat administration building in Brownsville, the county judge tried to persuade Cantu to wait until he had more experience.

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