HARLINGEN, RGV – The South Texas border region will be in the national spotlight again on Monday when NPR News begins a three-part series titled “Corruption in the Rio Grande Valley.”

John Burnett
John Burnett

The series, written and presented by John Burnett and produced by Marisa Peñaloza, will air on Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

Mario Muñoz, presenter of Closer to Home on RGV Public Radio 88 FM, the Valley’s NPR station, interviewed Burnett about the series. Muñoz said corruption is ubiquitous so why focus on the Rio Grande Valley? Burnett responded:

“Well, Mario, we interviewed more than two dozen people. The reasons are complicated. As you know, border cities are complex. Certainly, the tradition and the history of the Rio Grande Valley play into it. It has always been area where contraband has moved through, beginning when Confederate cotton was smuggled into Matamoros to avoid Union blockades; the smuggling of people, the smuggling of drugs.

“And then you have the presence of the Gulf Cartel in Matamoros. It is really undeniable that it has put a lot of dirty money into the Rio Grande Valley. Chad Richardson, an emeritus professor at UT-Pan Am told us he calculated five to ten percent of the economy of the Rio Grande Valley is underground, primarily drugs. And so, the fact that the Rio Grande Valley is a major trans-shipment point for so much narcotics heading north is a factor.

“And then also poverty, the numbers are amazing, as you know. A third of the population of the Valley lives below the poverty line; receives food stamps and yet there is a lot of wealth there. You have a Maserati and a Jaguar dealership and a place where a third of the population is poor. So, there is a lot of money there, some of it licit, some illicit. There is a lot of temptation. Law enforcement says that’s a temptation-rich environment.”

Muñoz asked Burnett what particular topics will be covered in the series. Burnett said there would be three segments.

“We started off with just two pieces and then we got just so much. I was working with my producer, Marisa Peñaloza and so we expanded it to three pieces. The first is going to be on Monday’s Morning Edition, which is the overview, which will talk about the FBI’s new Rio Grande Valley public corruption task force, as they try to kind of root out some of this activity,” Burnett said.

“The second piece will be on All Things Considered on Monday about politiqueras, about some of the abuses by the campaign workers, harvesting votes. And then, lastly, we look at the infamous Panama Unit, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office and the City of Mission, Jonathan Treviño, the commander. We went to federal prison up in west Pennsylvania and had a long interview with Mr. Treviño and it was really fascinating as he kind of gave us the anatomy of how a cop goes rogue.”

Marisa Peñaloza
Marisa Peñaloza

Editor’s Note: The main photo accompanying this story shows former Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño and his son Jonathan, who ran the Panama Unit. Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone magazine.