Sheriff candidate: Valley is ‘infested’ with drug cartel members

Seated on the left, challenger Geovani Hernandez. Standing on the right, incumbent Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)

WESLACO, RGV – The two candidates running for Hidalgo County sheriff offer sharply different views on the threat to the Rio Grande Valley from Mexican drug cartels.

At a candidates’ forum on Tuesday, challenger Geovani Hernandez claimed the Valley was “infested with drug cartel members.” He also told the Guardian that his secret weapon in securing victory at the polls could be the Women in Action group that has sought to galvanize residents in Hidalgo County colonias.

Hidalgo County Sheriff Guadalupe ‘Lupe’ Treviño said Hernandez’s claims about the level of infiltration by drug cartels in the Valley are greatly exaggerated. He also questioned who was funding Hernandez’s campaign.

Tuesday evening’s lively debate was hosted by Hidalgo County Texas Democratic Women. More than 200 people were in attendance at the Palm Aire hotel in Weslaco. It was the first time Treviño and Hernandez had gone head to head at a political forum.

“We have got to be real. I have walked the streets. I have talked to the people. All of us know we are infested with drug cartel members,” Hernandez told the audience. “We need to protect our families. What happens here affects the rest of the United States of America. I have worked terrorism, I have worked borders before. I do not protect drug dealers.”

Treviño responded with a personal assessment of his seven and a half years as sheriff. He said he had focused on three major issues, reducing the crime rate, community outreach and reducing domestic violence. He said success had been achieved in all these areas.

“In the last three years we have reduced the violent crime rate by 64 percent. Just last year we reduced it by 24 percent. We have made thousands of house visits. We have initiated a community centered project that receives statewide recognition and awards for reducing crime. We have developed a one of a kind domestic abuse program that targets the reoffending subjects,” Treviño said.

“Under my leadership we have improved the quality of life. I am the only candidate in this campaign that has been shown to be trustworthy, that has demonstrated integrity and proven to be credible. I have been tested and I have proven myself.”

In an interview with the Guardian after the debate, Treviño was asked about Hernandez’s “all of us know we are infested with drug cartel members” remark.

“There is absolutely no doubt there is a cartel presence in the Valley. We have known this forever. I was the commander of the state and federal drug taskforce for 17 years and we knew it back in 1992,” Treviño said.

“The difference now is this: we know who they are; for the most part, we now where they live. We know who they associate with. We have got them under surveillance. The FBI knows who they are. Nobody has witnessed any violent outbursts at La Plaza Mall. You do not see shootouts on the expressway. You do not see beheaded bodies. That is the big difference.”

Treviño said the Valley will never experience the level of drug cartel-related violence seen in Mexico. He gave a number of reasons for his confidence.

“Number one, there is a strong police presence in Hidalgo County with super cooperation in all law enforcement agencies. Number two, we are not as corruptible as the Mexican police. Yes, we have corruption. Of course we do. It is in all jurisdictional ranks. But we are not as corrupt as they are. That protects us.”

The third reason the Valley will not see the level of violence seen in Mexico, Treviño said, is because the people of the United States will not tolerate it.

“The American public will never stand for an outright assault on the American people on U.S. soil. They will never succumb to that. That is why we have to be extremely careful who is elected sheriff of Hidalgo County. We have to scrutinize that individual. We have to scrutinize his background. We have to scrutinize his financial sources. The proof in the pudding is right there.”

Hernandez told the Guardian he welcomes public scrutiny of where his campaign funding is coming from.

“I think it is a good idea to scrutinize the funding of both candidates. The Treviño campaign is spending 15 times more than the position of sheriff is worth. It makes you start thinking about the integrity of people. If you look at my report, I am not taking any big donations, just what I need to run a campaign,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez also said he stands by his “infested” remarks. He told voters to check a report by the Texas Department of Public Safety. “Let’s get real. Everybody knows what is going on. We have different cartels operating here. It is ridiculous to say they are not.”

Hernandez also spoke about the Women in Action group his campaign is funding. More than 450 women are involved, walking the streets of Hidalgo County colonias to drum up support for civic engagement and Hernandez’s campaign. “The Women in Action group is doing a great job. There is a lot of excitement. The women and their families want change. The group will keep going after the sheriff’s race is over. This is a long term commitment,” Hernandez said.

Dolores Garcia of McAllen is leading Women in Action. Speaking in Spanish, Garcia said the group was working to educate colonia residents about the importance of civic engagement.

“We have been working on this since April 2011. We need more women to vote. We also need to know what issues are important to them. This is all about community outreach and education,” Garcia said. Asked why Hernandez’s election is important for colonia residents, Garcia said: “He is a professional with integrity. He wants to help the people. He is focusing on women. Nobody has done that before.”