texasmonthly.com: Who were your main sources for this story, and what were your experiences with them like?
Cecilia Ballí: I interviewed more than a dozen people at length, though most of them didn’t make it into the final draft of the story. I felt it was important to get as many perspectives as possible, since I did not live in Cameron County during Conrado Cantu’s administration and had to reconstruct the events that unfolded during his term. This included the perspective of prosecutors, journalists, county politicians, current and former assistant district attorneys, and private attorneys. The people who were willing to spend the most time helping me on the story were the federal prosecutors; Alberto Pullen, Mr. Cantu’s attorney in the federal case; and former DA Yolanda de Leon. I went back to them many times with questions. I appreciated that they were willing to talk to me about a subject that was growing a bit old in Brownsville.
texasmonthly.com: Is Conrado Cantu’s case especially indicative of public corruption in South Texas?
CB: There’s no way around the fact that Conrado Cantu was the fifth Texas border sheriff to be convicted for abusing his office in eleven years. I’m a native of the border, of Cameron County, and this is something that’s difficult to swallow. It was this question that ultimately guided my story: Is it geography? Culture? Happenstance? It’s definitely not genes—I reject any theory that tries to explain human behavior with such sweeping causes. Not every South Texas politician is corrupt, or vulnerable to corruption. What I concluded is that there is a political tradition, or culture, in the Rio Grande Valley that makes it easier for a man like Conrado Cantu, who had little grounding in the notion of law and justice, to take advantage of his position. For me, the cases of public corruption that are actually the most enervating are the ones that happen every day and don’t make it to federal court—myriad minor characters in public office who promise jobs, accept bribes, influence the vote, fire people at will, abuse public coffers. These actions, which pepper the saga of Conrado Cantu as sheriff, usually get brushed away with probation or tiny jail sentences at best.
texasmonthly.com: How much does corruption affect your average South Texan? Why not accept a public figure with known corrupt tendencies if he or she performed well otherwise?
CB: I suppose there’s a faint sense of fatalism among some South Texas voters, who have seen too many bad politicians pass through town. If this one’s business is growing because he’s a county commissioner, well at least he’s paving my road. It becomes a tit-for-tat relationship; some people will overlook small power plays if their everyday lives are getting better. (That said, I don’t think anyone down there would knowingly tolerate an elected leader who was involved in serious crime, like the drug business.) Others just don’t have a lot of information and don’t find out when officials get in trouble. But that attitude is not good enough, because it begins to corrode local notions of fairness and justice. It can be really difficult to be the “little guy” in a court case down there, no matter how right you are; if the other side is being represented by one of the city’s more influential attorneys—some of whom are perceived to have an in with the judges—you feel like it’s almost impossible to win your case. You feel like you don’t exist.
texasmonthly.com: Do constituents in South Texas, who want favors in return for votes, expect too much from politicos?
CB: I should clarify first that not all South Texas constituents expect favors for their votes. In fact, the vast majority don’t. That is simply the tradition that shapes how business sometimes gets done in the county courthouse. And those who expect favors only expect what they know they can get in their political universe; these expectations develop over time. And I think these expectations exist everywhere, in every political system and in every community. The more important thing is to be able to keep them in check with a healthy justice system.
texasmonthly.com: What influence does Mexico have on the fact that corruption in South Texas is often seen as the “inevitable by-product of power”?
CB: I’m not really clear on this, even after reporting this story. The jury is divided on the issue. Alberto Pullen, Mr. Cantu’s attorney, told me, “This is a region that’s highly influenced by the Mexican way of life.” And according to the federal indictment against Mr. Cantu and his co-defendants, Geronimo Garcia was telling drug traffickers that the cops in Cameron County could be corrupted similarly to the cops across the Rio Grande, in Mexico. I’ve done a lot of reporting in northern Mexico and I don’t think the two political systems can be compared. They are two different realities—both of them corruptible but to much different degrees, and in different ways. We have more checks and balances in the United States in the form of different police agencies and prosecuting authorities. And, ultimately, we have jury trials. Power can be corrupted anywhere. The more interesting question to me is not why, but how. Mr. Pullen only half-jokingly shared his “theory of relativity” with me, which I think speaks a lot of truth: “The corruption in this area is relative. Relative to its people, to its culture. Relative to the wealth of the area . . . But South Texas gets the black eye.”
texasmonthly.com: How much does the palanca political system contribute to continual corruption? Would a more even two-party system in South Texas help alleviate some of these problems?
CB: I think a true two-party system—or better yet, a multi-party system—is a healthy thing anywhere. No one can say that all of the Democrats in South Texas are corrupted, and that the Republicans would not be if they were in office. Corruption is not party-specific; it is something that flourishes, I believe, when people in public office grow too comfortable with their power. So a more competitive election season would presumably force politicians to be more accountable to their constituencies.
texasmonthly.com: What is the hope of South Texas politics? The occasional “righteous streak” that Yolanda de Leon had?
CB: What is the hope of politics anywhere? I don’t think the problem of fading political values and virtues is endemic to South Texas. Lately we’ve seen several big cases of corruption and fraud in the U.S. Congress; people who we never imagined would have to step down from office. It’s a malaise that afflicts American politics, period. Sure, corruption is a historical fact. But it seems to me that what we expect of our elected leaders, what they expect to get from their office, and what it takes to win an election have all changed. Yolanda de Leon posed this thought to me: “Does no one look beneath the surface anymore? I don’t know that this particular observation is more true of the border than it is of anyplace else.”
texasmonthly.com: What can be done to get more people with righteous streaks to enter and stay in office? Or would their naiveté be their downfall?
CB: I think anyone who wants to serve in public office for a long time has to learn to work with others. A sense of righteousness doesn’t automatically indicate naiveté, or place one entirely outside the margins of the local political establishment. But it is more difficult to fight the uphill battle. I should say that there is a growing cadre of new voters in Cameron County who want to “do things right.” Many of them aspire to serve in political office, but so far it has not been “their turn” to get elected. As I state in the story, the quality of leadership in Cameron County and greater South Texas fluctuates over time between good and bad, like the reign of Roman emperors. Change will come someday, but I think it will take more new faces in government so that there is not such a rigid division between those who are “inside” and “outside” the system.
texasmonthly.com: Increased patrols, crime-watch programs, visits to schools—corruption aside, it’s easy to think that Cantu doesn’t sound half bad. Do you believe his claim that if it weren’t for men like Geronimo Garcia, he would have been a good sheriff and man?
CB: I don’t doubt that there is a part of Conrado Cantu that was very loving and that wanted to do good by his community. But I don’t think he can blame his fall on Geronimo Garcia. I think his record speaks for itself. Mr. Cantu was making criminal cases disappear and promising favors since before the days of Jerry Garcia. He was a man who was too easily influenced and who enjoyed even the smallest privileges that came with his power. He had to be reprimanded by the Commissioners Court because he racked up phenomenal cell phone bills for the county. And he was a terrible administrator. The county’s jail system fell into chaos under his watch, with employees investigated or convicted of stealing from inmates, having sex with female inmates, bringing drugs into the jails, and helping inmates escape. Anyone like Conrado Cantu should not be in public office, as I see it. If some communities were safer because of him, that was at the larger cost of an efficient and effective government.