Pubdate: Fri, 04 Aug 2000
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2000 San Jose Mercury News
Contact:  750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, CA 95190
Fax: (408) 271-3792
Author: Jesse Katz, Los Angeles Times


Drug-money Graft In Texas Border Area Didn't Disappear After Bribery Conviction

STARR COUNTY, Texas -- There's an old sheriff in town.

Twenty-one months after going to prison on a federal bribery conviction, 
Eugenio "Gene" Falcon Jr. returned to the impoverished borderlands he once 
ruled. He locked himself behind the wrought-iron gates of his ranch house a 
month ago, ignoring the speculation swirling around his next move.

"When I see him, I think I'll still call him Sheriff Falcon," said Beda 
"Bea" Baxter, a 78-year-old community matriarch, ordering another beer at 
Chucho's cantina rather than venture out in the 102-degree afternoon.

For 17 years, Falcon was Starr County's most popular politician. Dusty, 
clannish and remote, Starr County has been called a smuggler's paradise, a 
snake pit of corruption and "Texas' Little Colombia."

But the county, located in the state's southernmost tip, also is a bastion 
of Old World pride and nobility, still 97 percent Latino. Surnames can be 
traced to the Spanish explorers who claimed this land 2 1/2 centuries ago, 
their cowboy traditions and familial alliances still shaping life here.

Despite the war on drugs declared in Washington, Starr County's 86 miles of 
international riverfront are seen here as terminally porous. Falcon tried 
to keep peace with the drug traffickers. To survive, politically and 
physically, he had to coexist with the lawless, to accept that a ribbon of 
water was no match for supply and demand.

"If you were to look in every person's closet, I would say that 98 percent 
of the public would have skeletons," Falcon, a ninth-generation Starr 
County descendant, told the Los Angeles Times in a lengthy profile last 
year. "We all fall short. None of us is pure."

But to journalists who came in, and to the federal agents, Falcon looked 
dirty. Falcon never made more than $38,000 a year as sheriff, but he lived 
on a 10-acre spread once owned by the county's most notorious 
"narcotraficante." And so, in 1997, the FBI set a trap.

Falcon thought he was meeting with the proprietor of Linda's Bail Bonds, 
Homero Arturo Longoria, who recently had opened an office in Starr County. 
Longoria, however, was working for the federal government as an informant. 
In exchange for referring inmates to Longoria, Falcon accepted a total of 

Caught on tape, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison.

"It was like a play, produced by the government, and everybody knew their 
role," said Jerry Lozano, the former city administrator of Rio Grande City, 
the county seat. "Gene was the antihero, a good man from a good family who 
gave in to his weaknesses."

It would be hard to argue that Starr County has become a better, safer or 
more prosperous place during Falcon's absence.

The palm trees along the highway still end when the road enters Starr 
County. The unpaved "colonias" still flood in the winter, and melon pickers 
still risk their lives under the triple-digit summer sky. The unemployment 
has dropped slightly but still hovers over 25 percent. Per-capita income 
has inched up, but is nevertheless just $8,225.

And drugs? On March 25, a car chase here led officers to a 7,264-pound 
stash of marijuana. On May 18, U.S. Border Patrol agents came across 1,037 
pounds bundled near the river. On June 15, spotting a truck speeding away 
from the waterfront, agents seized a 1,188-pound load.

"The problem in Starr County was never Gene Falcon," Lozano said. "It was a 
bigger disease -- called poverty."
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