The Tarnished Star of Starr County

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is a place of missing fingers. Gnarled pinkies. Slashed thumbs. Mangled knuckles. Butchered nails.

Stop by the Texas Cafe for coffee with the 7 a.m. regulars or swing by Chucho's later on for a few $1 beers. Nobody takes a seat without first shaking every hand in the house. Offer yours, and odds are you will end up gripping a stump.

Neto, La Negra, Guero, Alonzo, Boy--all have lost chunks of flesh, accidents suffered on the ranch or in the rodeo arena, mostly from the burn of a cinching lariat. In this insular patch of borderland, where Spanish bloodlines predate the boundaries of Texas and even of Mexico, the rituals of generations are still jealously guarded. To snare a fleeing steer with a twirling lasso from the back of a surging horse--that, as much as any fancy title or degree, remains Starr County's measure of a man.

"There's the rest of the United States and then there's Starr County," says Jose Maria "Chemita" Alvarez Jr., a scion of one of Starr County's ruling clans. "We're like our own country here. We haven't been tamed, and I don't think we want to be."

If he takes a shine to you--hardly a given for anyone not born on the Rio Grande--Alvarez may welcome you with a baby goat, put a knife to its throat and serve up a plate of fresh cabrito, roasted over a pit of mesquite. Not until after supper, when he cracks open the kid's smoky skull for a taste of eyeballs and brains, do you notice the nub. Alvarez holds up his clipped pinky in the moonlight, takes a pull of whiskey, and shrugs.

"Oh, that?"

Dust clings to everything, from his sweat-stained cowboy hat to his rattlesnake-skin boots.

"It comes with the territory."

So many things about Starr County do. All that is good about life on the border, and all that is bad, and all that just is, seems fiercely amplified here, like the miles of wild olive trees, their toxic fruit cloaked by ivory blossoms. Wedged into the arrowhead of Texas' southernmost tip, just before the Rio Grande's final plunge into the Gulf of Mexico, Starr County is a puzzle of ambiguities and extremes--the poorest county in the nation and a priceless relic of the Old West.

It has been portrayed, most often, as alien and irredeemable: the narco-capital of the U.S.-Mexico border, Texas' Little Colombia, a danger zone that only "Rambo would love." Yet the level of violence hardly reflects those labels or even approaches that of the big cities whose demand for drugs brings across the supply. Pavement and plumbing may be scarce, but nearly everyone owns a home. The per capita annual income is $7,233 and the unemployment rate often tops 30%, but Starr County's Latino majority is free to run its own show--no Anglo oligarchy to flatter, no corporate fat cats to kowtow to. The district attorney is known to fish on the Rio Grande. The retired port-of-entry chief strums corridos on a nylon-stringed guitar. One hundred and fifty years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo relocated it onto U.S. soil, Starr County remains one of the most Mexican corners of America--timeless, defiant, unadulterated. If ever a place mocked the border as a simple dividing line, this is it.

"We came before the Pilgrims," says Eugenio "Gene" Falcon Jr., a surname that is among Starr County's oldest. "Our blood was here already."

Falcon knows, probably better than anyone, the contradictions of his home. For 17 years, he was the sheriff, a 5-foot-11, 235-pound hoss packed into creased Wranglers, with a Colt .45 in the glove compartment of his extended-cab pickup and a golden five-point star on his starched white shirt. The son of educators, a high school football hero, a regular at First United Methodist Church, he was not just the law but Starr County's most popular politician, defender of a community that was forever taking it on the chin.

That is, until Falcon kissed his wife and four daughters goodbye last September and became inmate #79770079, sentenced to two years in federal prison for soliciting and accepting kickbacks from a Starr County bail bondsman. For much of his career, the U.S. government actually had suspected him of far worse; his neighboring counterparts--in Zapata County to the west and in Hidalgo County to the east--already had been convicted, respectively, of laundering drug money and of taking bribes from a jailed marijuana dealer.

Drawing a Line Down a River

A crooked sheriff on the border. It is an image worthy of Hollywood, sure to elicit knowing smirks. Except in Starr County. Rather than confirm their worst suspicions about him, Falcon's fall elevated him in the eyes of many constituents, reinforced their view that the outside world neither understands nor appreciates their ways. Privately, for Falcon, it was an unbearable disgrace. But instead of running him out of town, Starr County offered its hand, clung to him even: Falcon, the martyr, snatched from his native soil by a distant and arrogant power. "He didn't hurt us. He didn't steal from the taxpayers," says Beda "Bea" Baxter, a grandmother who hands out tamales in the cantinas every Christmas. "So, what's a little hanky-panky on the side?"

Starr County's reputation is inseparable from the river, a ribbon of water that early settlers never considered, or intended, to be much of an obstacle. Even after it began doubling as an international boundary in 1848, the Rio Grande proved impossible to police. Starr County's border with Mexico--about 50 miles as the crow flies--is raveled into 86 miles of bends and twists. What is not hidden by a curtain of ocotillo and creosote is sealed off by a private corral of gates and fences, inaccessible to the law. Anything for which there is a demand on one side and a supply on the other, from avocados to bull semen to AK-47s, gets secreted across here, floated and lugged over a maze of paths older than the border itself. The 37 U.S. Border Patrol agents stationed in Starr County in 1997 managed to intercept 77,000 pounds of marijuana, tops in the South Texas sector, yet nobody really thinks they put a crimp in the flow.

If you want to find evidence of Starr County's complicity in that traffic, you can; so dire are the conditions here that even modest displays of wealth stand out. Almost every story about this place has traded on the picture of incongruity, of gated Tudor-style mansions springing from chalky shantytowns, of farm workers parading in air-brushed, chrome-trimmed, wide-fendered "choo-choo" trucks, of the wall-to-wall taco stands and mini-marts and auto shops spread along Starr County's stretch of U.S. 83, midway between Laredo and Brownsville, despite more than half of its 53,000 residents officially living in poverty.

As a young man, before his roping accident, Chemita Alvarez ran dope. "Everybody was doing it," says Alvarez, now Starr County's Democratic Party chairman. "It seemed OK because the stuff wasn't staying here. It was just passing through."

Those images of Starr County are real, but they are not Starr County's only reality. There is a passion here that has nothing to do with crime, a mulish honesty that transcends the myth of a smuggler's paradise. It is a feeling that comes from staking out turf and staying put, from sinking roots in a climate that is inhospitable at best and lethal at worst, from doing things the way they have always been done, even if the rest of the world would never choose that life for itself.

"This, to me, is like . . . my place on Earth," says Benito Trevino, who can be found at the end of a seven-mile dirt road, in a swirl of orioles, butterflies and road runners.

A former migrant who later earned a degree in botany from the University of Texas, Trevino now raises tens of thousands of mesquite seedlings every year, mostly to restore habitat for the U.S. Department of the Interior. On weekends, he opens up Rancho Lomitas for nature tours, drawing on a childhood spent foraging for edible and medicinal plants on the banks of the Rio Grande. Afterward, he treats his guests to Jell-O spiked with cactus juice. He is Starr County's Republican Party chairman.

"Everywhere I've ever been in the world was alien to me," Trevino says. "Everything was, like, not real. Here, I can be just sitting under a tree, and it feels like home."

Viewed from within, Starr County is more than the sum of its faults. It is a vault of Latino pride and nobility, home to pioneer families that arrived when this part of Texas was still Nuevo Santander, a province of New Spain, and a British flag flew over the North. Governments came and went. Borders were marked and erased. But the people never budged. Even now, their descendants control much of Starr County's government, its commerce and its courts. The population is 97% Latino and a vast segment is still interrelated, if not by birth or marriage, then by the bonds of compadrismo--godparents and godchildren, guardians for life.

To a product of this environment, its folkways and its genealogy, Mexico will look less foreign, the line of demarcation less fixed. Relatives may span the Rio Grande, possibly own land on opposing banks. During the U.S.-Mexican War or the Civil War, they might have shuttled supplies across or traded on the black market; smugglers, at the time, operated here "on so great a scale that their calling was accepted as respectable business," writes Paul Horgan in his Pulitzer Prize-winning epic, "Great River." At the La Borde House hotel, and across the street at Letty's restaurant, you can still see the remains of the turn-of-the-century brick tunnels, now crumbling under warehouses and cellars, that once linked Starr County's merchants to Mexico's shores.

Over the years, little has changed but the commodities: first cattle, then tequila, now dope. Rather than impede illicit trade, the border fuels it, imparts a grotesque value to goods by injecting the element of risk. The U.S. government can declare war, unleash an army of agents, round up every last trafficker if it pleases. But from Starr County's vantage, that is like trying to halt a stampede with a single lasso: So long as the rest of America is willing to spend at least $50 billion a year on illegal drugs, how can you possibly think the appetite will go unfed?

It is not that people here like that fact, though some obviously are in on the action. It is just that most people here have learned to live with it, been forced to live with it, really, to accept smuggling as a byproduct of life on the frontier, like their missing fingers, unfortunate yet unavoidable.

The Sheriff's Unwritten Code

May is melon season in Starr County. What soil has not been reduced to powdered bone births fleshy, succulent globes of green and red and orange. Caravans of 18-wheelers rumble back and forth through town, hauling off crates to big-city supermarkets. Freelance vendors set up corner stands, hawking honeydew and watermelon from the beds of their trucks. Out in the fields, men and women stoop over the earth, heads wrapped like mummies, as they yank the fruit off of vines and set it on conveyor belts, tugged forward by tractors an inch at a time.

On the May afternoon that the Texas State Bank thermometer hits 109, a melon picker drops to the ground, dead.

"Fresh cantaloupe?" Falcon asks. He plunges a blade into the rind, puddling his kitchen counter with nectar and seeds. Then he wrinkles his silver-specked mustache and laughs: "I don't want to bribe you."

Even before his arrest, Falcon's career had been burdened by almost constant scrutiny, enough to have crushed a different man, in a different place. There was the question of his house; Falcon lives in a walled, 10-acre spread that used to be owned by Starr County's most infamous drug dealer. There was the question of his murder charge; a witness initially identified Falcon as one of the camouflaged gunmen who burst into a Mexican hospital a dozen years ago and pumped a suspected doper full of lead. There was the question of his assault charge; Falcon once grabbed a district attorney's investigator who was probing allegations of malfeasance in the Starr County Jail, and booted him out the door.

Now there is the embarrassment of the bribery case, captured by hidden cameras and microphones, which showed the sheriff pocketing $11,050 in exchange for steering inmates to Linda's Bail Bonds. Perceptions were not helped when Falcon posted his own bail minutes after being arrested, producing a financial statement that set his worth at half a million dollars, despite an annual sheriff's salary that never exceeded $38,000 during his nearly two decades on the job.

"I never said I was a white lily," he volunteers, "but I was never corrupted the way people might think."

With his meaty neck and muscular jowls, Falcon often is described as larger than life, Starr County's most powerful figure, the last of the patrones. But Falcon insists he never thought of himself that way. At 45, with a thinning triangle of hair and stiffening joints, he says he long ago recognized the limits of his position, understood he could not function without scrapping some of the ideals that guide other law enforcement agencies or compromising on a few of their absolutes. Unlike Southern California, South Texas is not a First World megalopolis trying to keep the Third World at bay, but just the opposite: a poor Mexican American outpost in the path of a global, multibillion-dollar criminal trade route that is coming through town whether anyone likes it or not.

Faced with 1,200 square miles, and as few as three deputies on patrol at any given time, Falcon early on arrived at the conclusion that the War on Drugs was not his to fight. "What do you want me to do?" he asks. "We weren't funded for it and we didn't have that kind of time. We would deal with dog bites, harassment calls, neighbor disputes, you name it. Cows being in the wrong pasture, fences being moved. We weren't going out looking for this or for that, like the feds. Our responsibility was so different." Besides, he adds, "the government's declared war already and where has that gotten us? The more dope you catch, the higher the price is. That just makes it more profitable."

So for all of the '80s and most of the '90s, while successive White House administrations were presiding over an unprecedented buildup along America's southern flank, Falcon was crafting a policy of his own. Whether out of fiendishness, as some have contended, or out of sensitivity, as he would insist, or out of some in-between combination of desperation and pragmatism, Falcon made his peace with the border, found a way of coexisting with forces many times more powerful than he.

"I'm not a person who goes by the book," Falcon says. "I could never follow guidelines or rules. I think I have to use my conscience." What his conscience told him was that "people have got to be treated with human consideration, regardless of who they are or what they've done. We work for the public. We need to put ourselves in their shoes."

That may be an easier task if your beat is a small Midwestern town, where the cash crop is corn. But if you are anywhere on the border, you are likely to run across a higher proportion of narcotraficantes, and accommodating them as constituents would seem to create some special challenges--except if you are Sheriff Falcon. "If you were to look in every person's closet, I would say that 98% of the public would have skeletons," he says. "We all fall short. To what degree? There's different degrees. But, basically, none of us is pure."

To Falcon's thinking, it helped that the cargo being shipped across Starr County was almost exclusively marijuana. "I can't close my eyes--we have drugs going through," he says. "But when you see marijuana versus crack cocaine, you see a lot of difference."

For a time, Falcon used the services of an auto mechanic, even though he knew the man had a prior drug conviction. The mechanic put in long hours and did good work. Then one day, federal agents raided the shop and seized 500 pounds of weed. "The dopers, they're human, just like everybody else," says Falcon, who felt betrayed but never questioned his decision to trust an ex-con. "I'd go to a doper's home, to talk to him about his children at school or a problem someone had in his family or something to do with a neighbor. The office was always open. I never closed the door to anybody."

There was, in fact, an agreement of sorts--"a give-and-take deal," as Falcon puts it, "maybe not written but understood." So long as the dopers did not litter Starr County with corpses, Starr County was not going to go out of its way to hunt the dopers down. "You got problems with somebody, you go do it somewhere else," he says. "If we catch you, we do our job. But we're not going to harass you or harass your family or treat you different from anybody else."

Unlike the feds, Falcon never stormed a house just to serve a warrant, never forced a family at gunpoint down on the floor. He often made arrests without touching his weapon, sometimes without even unhitching his cuffs. If a suspect was reluctant to turn himself in, Falcon would lure him with the promise of a reasonable bail. If a prisoner had a sick or dying relative, Falcon could be counted on to arrange for a furlough. "Yes, I did favors, a lot of favors," he says. "But not for kickbacks. I did it for family reasons, for moral reasons, for godly reasons."

He expected the criminals to reciprocate. Once, after a doper made threats against a deputy and his family, Falcon went to the offender's home and challenged him face to face. "This is how the cow eats the cabbage," Falcon recalls saying. "Our families are sacred. If any officer or their families are tampered with, I guarantee you we'll settle this thing. Out of the court system."

Falcon, who crossed the border to attend college at the Instituto Tecnologico de Monterrey before dropping out to become a cop, applied the same principles to Mexico. Rather than a nefarious neighbor, it was a land of rugged pleasures. Members of the Policia Judicial, instead of corrupt conspirators, were his peers and friends. Sometimes, he joined them for target practice, violating Mexican law by entering the country with his revolver and ammunition. Other times, he skirted U.S. law by returning to Starr County with a few Cuban cigars. "There's so much harassment at the bridge," says Falcon, whose youngest brother is an Immigration and Naturalization Service inspector at a checkpoint farther to the north. "That's the only reason I would personally hate to go--the coming back."

This view of the War on Drugs--the notion of its futility and divisiveness--did nothing to endear Falcon to the U.S. government. In 1990, not long after Fred Ball took over as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's South Texas bureau, he was briefed about Starr County's top cop, learning things "that made us all wonder what the heck was going on." Ball called Falcon in for a meeting and confronted him with the rumors, mostly about the sheriff's "tremendous flow of money" and his relationship with the Mexican police. "He adamantly, vehemently denied them," recalls Ball, who retired from the DEA in 1996. "He said that he was a victim of persecution by the federal government."

During Ball's tenure, Falcon was never the target of "an official open investigation by DEA." But agents remained cautious and distrustful, rarely discussing their operations with him or his deputies until they were complete. "I was concerned that if we gave advance notice, there was a possibility, if not a probability, that the defendants were going to find out before we got to town," says Ball, whose department closed its Starr County branch in the 1970s, worried about the danger to agents in such a remote setting.

As for Falcon's suggestion that he had no budget to do battle with the dopers, "that's a piss-poor excuse," Ball says. "Acts of omission are just as bad as acts of commission." Nonetheless, if Falcon was not going to join in the fight, then he had no business crying about heavy-handed tactics when other agencies tried to fulfill the mission for which, in fact, they were funded. "Which way do you want it?" asks Ball. "Are you going to do your job? Or do you want the federal government down there cleaning up your county?"

A 9th Generation Godfather

One afternoon last spring, after his guilty plea in March but before his sentencing in May, Falcon slipped into Letty's for a plate of chicken tacos. Friends kept interrupting to slap him on the back, to ask about his family, to tell him to keep his head up high. "If there's any way I can help, I'll do it for you," he heard from Noe Olivares, a U.S. Postal Service carrier with a 156-mile-a-day route. Not since he was first elected at 28 had he ventured into such a public place without badge or gun, yet here he was, still one of theirs--the same Sheriff Falcon who had the community's blessing to escort drunken drivers home instead of throwing them in jail, to administer preemptive belt-whuppings to unruly teenagers rather than waiting for them to break the law.

"I've had people ask me to marry them," he said, "even bury them."

Another interruption, this time a tattooed young man, asking to confer privately with el sherife. He appeared to be about 18 or 19, with a shaved head and a purple hickey on his neck. He whispered something about his baby son being ill, about not having enough money to get to a doctor. Nodding, Falcon put down his fork, changed a $20 bill at the register and slipped him a couple of bucks. They shook hands.

"He was up front with me and he showed me respect," explained Falcon, getting back to his lunch. "You learn to read people. If I had a child who was sick and needed attention and nobody would help, I . . . "

His voice wavered, just for a second. "I . . . would steal something."

The traits that tended to make Falcon look suspect from the outside were the very qualities that, in Starr County, allowed him to win reelection four times by wide margins. His sense of propriety, of being solicitous even to questionable elements within his constituency, appealed to the Rio Grande's culture of kinship--a code that values human bonds more than abstract notions of good and evil.

"This is going to sound stereotypical and may be seen as negative, but very often the way we do business in South Texas is more Mexican than it is American," says Antonio Zavaleta, dean of the Liberal Arts College at the University of Texas at Brownsville. "You can see it in our family ties and interpersonal relationships, the eye contact and the shaking of hands, the compadre system, the way 'deals' are cut, the offering and accepting of gifts. The word really is reciprocity, the need to reciprocate . . . which gets even more significant and intense when you add in the generational layers of these old pioneer clans."

Zavaleta fishes a history of the Rio Grande Valley from his bookshelf and turns to an entry on a Spanish army captain named Blas Maria de la Garza Falcon--a direct forebear of the sheriff's, nine generations removed--who helped lead an expedition across the river to what is now Starr County in 1753. "If you're a Falcon, you're totally wired, connected, plugged in," says Zavaleta, whose uncle, Gus, was Falcon's football coach at Monterrey Tech.

He makes a suggestion: "Ask Gene how many godchildren he has."

At Letty's, when the question gets asked, Falcon groans.

"Oh, my," he says. "I don't know."

A ballpark figure?

"A bunch of them," he says.

A guess--5, 10, 15?

Falcon throws up his hands.

"Many . . . many . . . many."

Only a Song to Its Name

Unless you are a smuggler, Starr County is not on the way to anywhere. You have to want to come here, veering 250 miles south of San Antonio, across an empty swath of scrub once known as the Wild Horse Desert. You can fly to one of the Rio Grande Valley hubs--Harlingen or McAllen--about an hour or so to the east. Yet even that close, you will be hard-pressed to find Starr County on a visitor's brochure or rental car map.

Driving west on U.S. 83, the terrain shifts from flat and lush to hilly and dry. Neon marquees give way to hand-lettered signs. With no major north-south thoroughfare, Starr County has not reaped the rewards of NAFTA traffic or the maquiladora trade. In a community that covers more ground than Orange County, there is no commercial airport and no train depot, no TV station and no daily newspaper. The largest employer is the county itself, a fact that tends to keep the economy hobbled by political vendettas and patronage. One theory holds that the predominantly Democratic bosses actually prefer it that way--an infusion of outside investment would dilute their clout.

"I call it the Republic of Starr," says Efrain "Kuki" Carrera, the county's most vociferous gadfly.

Isolation may be the ruin of Starr County, but it is also Starr County's most redemptive trait. In its own way, Starr County could not be freer--free from the anonymity of suburban sprawl, from the homogeneity of brand names and chain franchises, from a concept of progress that measures wealth but not spirit.

The district attorney, Heriberto "Herbie" Silva, leaves his truck unlocked in front of the courthouse. Falcon's eldest brother, Antonio, Starr County's favorite physician, makes house calls to the bed-ridden before church every Sunday morning. Filemon Garza Jr., the retired U.S. Customs Service director, plays his guitar at pachangas, the kind of party where you drive out past the lights of town to a few calcified acres that border nothing but coyotes, where you drink beer and grill meat and watch the sky burst with stars, and never have to worry about neighbors or bathrooms or singing off-key.

"We have qualities that, sometimes, are enviable," says Garza, who spent more than two decades battling smugglers on Starr County's two international bridges--with little success, he concedes.

To enter their world is to revert in time: handcrafted sandstone and filigreed ironwork, rusty wagon wheels and bleached animal bones, a landscape that looked antiquated enough in 1952 to pass for revolutionary Mexico in the Marlon Brando film "Viva Zapata!" Every few miles there is another hamlet, usually named after a founding family--Los Garcias, Los Trevinos, Los Villarreales--where ornate spikes top homemade fences and bas-relief plaques of the Virgin hang from the front door, the owner's name etched in the metal.

Starr County's largest town, Rio Grande City, is the site of Ft. Ringgold, which housed Gen. Zachary Taylor's troops during the Mexican-American War. In those days, bootleggers plied the river in steamships and Rio Grande City was known as Davis Landing, a prosperous port. The finest relic of that era is La Borde House, a 99-year-old Parisian-designed hotel on Main Street. Its seven ornate bedrooms, each individually named and decorated, swirl with tales of suicides and lovesick prostitutes. The motto: "Wake up in the past."

Across the street from the hotel, Leopoldo "Polo" Muniz Jr. performs his daily ritual, clutching a metal walker and shuffling out to a plastic lawn chair by his front door. Trucks growl by, kicking up hot clouds of dust and smoke. Muniz, who is 96, waves a leathery hand and smiles behind amber sunglasses held together by a safety pin. "Look, they all wave back at me," he says, a faded "Reelect Falcon" sticker clinging to his living room window. "They're happy because I'm still alive."

A few blocks away is Starr County's other prized landmark: The Grotto, a three-story mountain of stone and petrified wood, hand-sculpted to look like France's Grotto of Lourdes. As a child, Bea Baxter helped build The Grotto. These days, you can find her at Chucho's or the Round-Up, throwing back beers with the best of them. Her doctor, Tony Falcon, tells her that three drinks should be her limit. But each afternoon, the cans continue to line up, pink lipstick smudged on the brims.

"I've lived a wonderful life," says Baxter, her hair still thick, her eyebrows artfully penciled. When she was 62, she earned her GED. That was 15 years ago.

In her working years, she was a waitress, the talk of Speedy's Cafe in her frilly, low-cut pink uniform. It was then that the Hollywood people came to film "Viva Zapata!" staying next to Speedy's at La Borde House. One morning, Marlon Brando walked into the cafe. Baxter asked for an autograph. The actor took an ink pen and signed his name across her cleavage. "He was such a card!" says Baxter. "I didn't want to wash it off."

As she savors the memory, Filemon Garza strolls in. He has his guitar.

There is a TV in the corner, a California car chase unfolding on "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol." But it is no competition for the ex-Customs man and his rich Spanish tenor.

Ay, mi Rio Grande,

You saw me enter the world

As a child, you took care of me.

You also saw me grow.

Ay, mi Rio Grande,

You made me what I am.

That's why I always take you with me

Wherever I go.

Baxter cheers. "That's for Rio Grande City," she says. "Not everybody has that. Beautiful."

The song inspires J.D. "Joe" Martinez--until last summer, the chief executive of the Starr County Commissioner's Court--to pull up a chair. He pours a shot of Old Charter into his Diet Coke.

"Don't tell anybody what a good thing we got. They'll come and take it away," says the taciturn, white-haired rancher. He grabs a paper towel and starts to draw a map, sketching his family's roots back to a land grant, nearly a million acres' worth, from the Spanish throne, three centuries ago.

"Have you ever milked a cow?" he asks.

He picks up a bottle cap.

"If you had," Martinez scolds, "you could do this."

He wedges the metal disk between his ring finger and his pinky. He starts to press, drawing his fingers together--a slow, deliberate, trembling vise of flesh.

The bottle cap begins to buckle.

He grimaces and clamps harder. He squeezes until it folds in half.

The Ethics of Geography

Where is the line between those who are tainted and those who are not?

Starr County once tried to determine that for itself, convening a grand jury in the mid-1970s, in the hope that a thorough accounting of its drug problem would be rewarded with government funds. One of the jurors was Bea Baxter's son, a manager at Central Power & Light, who helped arrive at the conclusion that 10% to 35% of Starr County's residents had a hand in the trade.

It was a door that Starr County later regretted having opened. While the numbers seemed reasonable, outsiders had a tendency to paint Starr County with the broadest possible brush. "As much as 35% of the population is actively involved in drug smuggling," the Wall Street Journal reported in 1985. A year later, the New York Times wrote: "It is widely said that at least half of Starr County's residents are directly or indirectly involved in the drug traffic." By 1990, the Washington Times had it up to 75%.

"That's outrageous," says Falcon. "People from big cities forget to look in their own backyard."

What appears to distinguish Starr County is not so much the quantity of people involved but the quality. The list of ex-cons reads almost like a Chamber of Commerce roll call.

One of the more notorious busts came in 1991, when a state trooper pulled over a gray pickup on Highway 83, for heavily tinted windows and a failure to signal. The driver stepped out, court records would later show, trailed by a waft of fresh marijuana. The trooper peeked into the cab and there, tossed in like dirty laundry, were two trash bags, each brimming with 50 pounds of weed. Then he glanced back at the driver, a pale, angular man in his mid-30s, as clean-cut as a country-western singer.

The trooper suddenly felt foolish. Had he just stumbled upon an undercover operation? The guy looked that neat and polite.

"Do you work for DEA?" the trooper asked.

"No, sir," the driver replied.

"What kind of work do you do?"

"I am the county clerk in Starr County."

That would be Juan Jose Mills, whose arrest and conviction put him on a roster with Starr County constables, justices of the peace and sheriff's deputies. The student body president of Rio Grande City High School got caught with 32 pounds of marijuana in his gym bag a few years back; he was on a school bus, headed to a weightlifting meet. The father-and-son team that owned Starr County's largest car dealership, Garza Chevrolet, ended up behind bars on dual money-laundering convictions. Another prominent citizen--the president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation and owner of the international bridge that links Rio Grande City to Mexico--did his time back in the '70s, for possession of pot. It was during that era that Alvarez, the future Democratic chairman, also got popped with a load.

"I had just come back from college," says Alvarez, who graduated from the University of Houston in 1974 with a degree in history and political science. "The culture, at the time, was: You live on the border, you bring me drugs."

Alvarez, who says he received three years' probation, looks back at himself as "young and stupid." Even so, he believes that his community is held to an unfair moral standard, that Starr County is the victim--and not the culprit--of America's inability to curb its addictions. "If you took a county in, say, Iowa and put that Iowa county down here, they'd have the same problems. It's all demand and supply, the old capitalistic way." Alvarez says this over drinks one night at La Borde House. He is wearing a ball cap emblazoned with the slogan: "If all else fails, lower your standards."

His GOP counterpart, Benito Trevino, also knows from firsthand experience: In the '80s, he says, two of his brothers did time for drugs. Instead of making him more accepting, it left Trevino even less tolerant.

"My brothers and I were raised together. We lived under the same conditions, we ate the same food, we were instilled with the same morals and principles. They just chose to commit crimes," Trevino says. "I chose not to." He grows particularly indignant over those Starr County loyalists who insist that a criminal record is not necessarily a reflection of character, that Gene (or Chemita or Juan) is an essentially good person, just one who, like all humans do, happened to make a mistake.

"You cannot be a criminal and a good person at the same time," Trevino says. "When I hear those comments, it makes me think that a majority of those people are involved somehow in criminal activity themselves. Why do they say those things? Is it so that, when they get caught, somebody else will say, 'Oh, poor criminal, he's such a good guy.'?"

In Starr County, the line between good and bad zigs and zags like the river, adapting to the terrain. An otherwise diligent officer might be persuaded to look the other way or redirect his patrol. A farmer might be tempted to leave a gate unlocked or allow a truck to park overnight in his barn. This could be as infrequent as once or twice a year--hard to detect and easy to rationalize. Smuggling in Starr County is often a case of, "Here's somebody I grew up with, who I've known all my life, who asked me to do him a favor," says Barry Abbott, the DEA chief in South Texas. "The way they look at it, they're just doing a favor. They're not really a criminal."

Even people who see the line of criminality more keenly acknowledge that the tons of marijuana passing through Starr County leave behind a coveted windfall. While the dopers are more discreet these days--not many strut around in gold and ostrich skin any more--their profits still help to keep Main Street afloat. Given the dearth of legitimate commerce, there is a financial incentive to turn a blind eye. "That's what happens to a community when nobody else gives a damn about you," says Cesar Leal, the former owner of the defunct Rattler's Den restaurant. "To survive, we are forced to tolerate the guy who has the money. We can't afford to make a bad face."

There is also a political incentive. In a place with such a labyrinth of familial alliances, a candidate who crusades against the dopers or rejects their contributions not only loses the support of the shady characters but also risks alienating many of their friends and relatives, even the ostensibly law-abiding ones. For the sheriff, being both a politician and a cop, that equation is twice as tricky. "You start locking up people's fathers and brothers and sisters, and you're going to have a tough time getting reelected," says Ball, the former DEA chief. "There's such a small population, and so much involvement, directly or indirectly, that you're hurting yourself as a politician when you pursue them."

Prosecuting them is tougher still. Since getting elected in 1988, the district attorney has taken just 11 drug cases to trial here; six ended in acquittals. The problem, Silva says, is culling an impartial jury from Starr County's populace. No matter how big a pool he starts with, it always comes down to the same question. "I generally ask how many have had a close relative or somebody in their house prosecuted for a drug offense."

So many hands shoot up that he is unable to disqualify them all.

"They're not sympathetic to violent crime . . . but they can relate to necessity," says Silva, who labored as a farm worker during his teenage years, mutilating the nail on his left ring finger in a cotton gin accident. "As long as you, up north, continue to make the drug trade lucrative, somebody down here is going to take advantage of it."

Birthplace of a Legend

The house is about six miles west of Rio Grande City, out Highway 83 and past the first ring of melon fields, up Alvarez Road, behind a 9-foot-tall cinder-block perimeter and through a black wrought-iron gate topped with fat block letters spelling out "Falcon."

Made of brick with stone columns, it is a one-story, 3,000-square-foot "rambler" design, with three bedrooms and two baths. There are trappings of luxury--a mirrored gym and a wide-screen TV inside, an 8-foot-deep swimming pool and horse stables out back. Yet the feel is less opulence than rustic comfort. A bobcat and a pheasant, stuffed and mounted, peer out the front window from behind peach curtains. A pair of 10-point trophy bucks, one shot by Falcon and one by his wife, Cynthia, hang from a kitchen wall. Nearby, there is a lacquered carving of the Last Supper and, on the upright piano, a Spanish songbook opened to "Cielito Lindo."

"People who don't know where I live, they hear of a 'ranch spread,' they think it's some kind of elegant place where a millionaire lives," Falcon says.

The Falcon legend begins with the house. Since he moved in 13 years ago, it has become Starr County's version of a Rorschach test: proof of his venality, proof of his victimization, proof of nothing at all.

Although old-timers remember it as the LaGrange home, built in the '50s by the founders of Starr County's premier produce company, it is renowned today for the few years it fell into criminal hands. From early 1981 to late 1982, the house was owned by the wife of Ramon Garcia Rodriguez, then reputed to be one of the most prolific transporters of marijuana between Mexico and the U.S. After a year and a half, the Garcias sold the house to a Mexico City couple, who held on to it for three years, until Falcon bought it from them in 1985. The U.S. government would later indict Garcia on racketeering charges, alleging he had been smuggling tons of pot into Texas since the 1970s. Bribery was his favored tactic. Falcon insists he knew none of that at the time.

"I didn't make a deal with Ramon Garcia," says Falcon, who paid $90,000 for the house, which had an appraised value of $135,000. "I hadn't met Ramon Garcia. I didn't even know who Ramon Garcia was." As for his finances, Falcon adds, they should be nobody's business but his and the Internal Revenue Service's, which he says has audited him twice. He does allow that he has padded his income over the years by moonlighting--as a hunting guide, a ranch foreman, a breeder of ostrich chicks--and by making "some lucky investments."

If Starr County could live with that, Texas' largest newspaper could not. In 1990, the Dallas Morning News dispatched a team of reporters. Its front-page article, "Profiles in Suspicion," suggested that there was nothing coincidental about the sheriff's house.

Four months before Falcon bought the property, the newspaper reported, gunmen had ambushed Garcia's car on U.S. 83. The sheriff was the first officer on the scene, personally taking the kingpin in for questioning. A year later, Falcon was charged with murder in Mexico, accused of storming the Hospital Civil de Reynosa and executing a prisoner handcuffed to a bed. Although the witness who identified Falcon later recanted, the Dallas Morning News implied that the sheriff had a motive; the victim, whom Falcon had, in fact, interrogated a few days earlier, was a drug dealer Garcia reportedly wanted dead. "He is a dangerous man," the newspaper quoted one of Falcon's former deputies as saying.

Falcon was incensed, and not just because it was his reputation being attacked. For decades, journalists had parachuted into Starr County, then beaten a trail out. Sometimes, the stories were flatly wrong: A Houston TV crew once came to film Starr County's drug mansions and instead showed the home of supermarket magnate Pete Diaz Jr., a former education advisor to President Reagan. Even accurate coverage tended to be unflattering--when not focused on drugs and corruption, then on killer bees, grave robbers, diabetes and welfare. The way Falcon saw it, only a place as distant and powerless as Starr County would be subjected to such treatment or expected to put up with it.

He sued the Dallas Morning News for libel. Vowing to defend its 1st Amendment rights, the Morning News, and its parent, the A.H. Belo Corp., marshaled an army of lawyers from at least nine firms, at an estimated cost of $1 million. The battle dragged on for three years. How the stalemate was broken says a lot about Falcon.

The Morning News' state editor, Donnis Baggett, had been summoned to Starr County to observe a round of depositions. During a break, Falcon struck up a conversation. They talked about ranching, their kids, the things in life that really count. Falcon suggested they get away from the lawyers. His daughters were playing softball that night, and he was the coach. "You expect him to be this sort of larger-than-life bad guy," says Baggett. As they bantered into the evening, those labels began to dissolve. "He seemed more human . . . pretty mild-mannered and soft-spoken . . . not as threatening or as arrogant as I had expected."

Within two months of their meeting, the case was settled. The Dallas Morning News would admit no error. But it did agree to part with $90,000--half to the sheriff's lawyer and half to establish the first Boys & Girls Club in Rio Grande City. For Falcon, it was the vindication he had been seeking, for himself and for his county.

Baggett saw the sheriff in more conflicted terms, the product of a culture that may not be inherently bad but that "sometimes leads to bad things." Like Starr County itself, there is a part of Falcon that can be grounded and appealing. He asks people not to call him "sir," even as he insists on addressing others in formal Spanish. In all his years as sheriff, only once did he shoot at another person; his bullet struck a mesquite tree. But that same part of Falcon can also work against him, leaving him vulnerable to those who might seek to manipulate his authority. He has a hard time saying no, of not reciprocating--a trait that is at once ingratiating and self-destructive.

"I think, at heart, he's a good guy, a nice guy," says Baggett, now the publisher and editor of The Eagle in Bryan-College Station, Texas. "But one who's been taken advantage of, who's been taken in by that underworld, probably to a much deeper level than he acknowledges himself."

Falcon's 72-year-old mother tries to put it more charitably. "I know Gene is weak," says Emma Falcon, a retired kindergarten and first-grade teacher who raised four boys on her own after their father, a junior high principal, died unexpectedly in 1972. "His daddy was that type--muy confiansudo, as we say in Spanish. Too kindhearted. Too trusting."

When the subject is broached with Falcon, he looks confused. "I don't think," he says, "a person can be too generous or too helpful."

Obsession With the Chase

That Falcon would end up behind bars now seems almost inevitable, another function of the territory. What is not so clear about the events that landed him there is this: Was he the roper or was he the catch?

The rituals of pursuit shaped Falcon's world from the moment he was elected sheriff. Every night after work, he would retreat to his backyard arena, releasing big-horned Mexican corrientes from a metal chute and taking chase on a white- and brown-spotted gelding, a part appaloosa, part quarter horse named Chap. With just a squeeze from Falcon's thighs, Chap would explode from zero to gallop, a half-ton of muscle and instinct charging across the dirt, until the horse was on the steer's left hip, rating the fleeing animal, matching every dodge and duck.

Riding high in the stirrups, Falcon would grip the leather reins in his left hand, along with his coil of rope, a soft nylon weave, three-eighths of an inch in diameter. Before reaching his quarry, he would already be rotating the other end in his right hand, building his loop, twirling it clockwise, feeding more rope through the honda with each spin--one, two, three--head up, elbow raised, index finger extended, then heave. The lasso would sail through the air and, if timing and trajectory merged, it would catch the steer's far horn before flopping back over the near one. Falcon would pull out the slack, wrap the rope around his saddle horn and tug the steer to a halt--then release it and start all over again.

"When you're roping right . . . it feels like . . . you feel like you're on top of a cloud," says Falcon, who rode Chap in competition for nearly a dozen years, until the horse fell ill in 1994 and had to be destroyed. "You got power, power under your legs, and you're controlling it, concentrating. . . . It gets you a little high, I guess."

It was just around the time he lost Chap that Falcon decided to stop roping too. "I was overdoing it," says Falcon, whose legacy includes the Sheriff's Posse Arena, an equestrian show ground for youngsters. "I had to rope every day. I was neglecting my family and my job. It had become an obsession. I guess you could call it being like a ropaholic." At home, he would practice until 2 or 3 a.m. under the glare of floodlights. Weekends, he would disappear with his trailer, gunning for a few bucks and bragging rights on the South Texas rodeo circuit.

Near the end, Falcon even took to removing his gold wedding band, fearful that a rope might snag on it. "I'm one of those blessed guys," he says, splaying his thick fingers.

His Starr County compatriots--whether less absorbed or more obstinate--continue to rope, even those without all of their digits. For them, the choreography never changes, run and chase, catch and release, function transformed into sport. The routine is not unlike Washington's pursuit of Starr County's dopers: In the 1970s, it was called Operation Wishbone; in the '80s, Operation Vaquero; in 1996, the entire riverfront village of Fronton was sealed off while agents served warrants on a 179-count indictment. Thousands of suspects have been arrested, millions of dollars have been confiscated, tons of marijuana have been seized--and, as former DEA chief Ball admits, "it never seems to have an impact."

A Question of Judgment

At what point Falcon landed in the U.S. government's sights is difficult to gauge. "For 17 years, they've been looking at me, trying to find a violation," he says. He believes this partly because the dopers would tell him so: "Can you give us the sheriff?" they would be asked by federal agents during their interrogations. The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas, James DeAtley, rejects that claim. "I deal in the world of facts," DeAtley says. "Bring me facts. If there is proof of a crime, I prosecute it. The rumors, the innuendoes--that had nothing to do with this particular prosecution. We prosecuted him on the evidence we had."

It was evidence provided by Homero Arturo Longoria, who had recently opened Linda's Bail Bonds in Rio Grande City. To help him get started, Falcon agreed to a meeting. "This is a guy I've known all my life," says Falcon. "He comes from a good family." The government alleges that Falcon demanded cash from Longoria; Falcon argues that Longoria kept urging him to take it. In either case, the FBI was looking and listening. Over the course of a 10-month investigation that also nabbed a Starr County sheriff's sergeant, four jailers and a justice of the peace, agents recorded Falcon accepting about a dozen payments from Longoria--ranging from $500 to $2,000--in exchange for steering inmates his way.

Falcon had been set up by a pro. The man putting the marked bills in his hand had earned $109,439 as a confidential informant since 1980, assisting the DEA, IRS and U.S. Customs Service in at least 210 investigations.

"I took the bait," says Falcon, driving around town with a Diet 7-Up pressed between his knees and a gospel cassette humming from his tape deck. "I'm disappointed in myself. I let my community down. But there was no crime here until the government came in and created one. . . . They wanted to put a feather in their cap so bad."

When the FBI came for him, Falcon had one request--a professional courtesy, really. He asked the agents to give him the handcuffs. They did. Falcon put them on himself.

"I don't buy the fact that all wrong is wrong," says Mario Jimenez, a physician who works with Falcon's brother. "You will find errors, basically, wherever you focus your attention. So where do you draw the line? Who do you decide to apply the criteria to? Is it justice to focus attention on, basically, people who are good just to prove that there was an error?"

Falcon, himself, became consumed with that question, much as he did at the end of his fixation with roping. It is a recurring theme in his assessment of his life--indeed, in that of many of Starr County's natives--the loss of perspective, the tug of the past, the embrace of home, no matter the cost. Not long before his arrest, Falcon gave up bourbon and tobacco, deciding simply that "enough was enough." He also swore off shooting whitetail deer, convinced that if he did not deny his fervor for the hunt he would eventually "become a poacher."

After his arrest, he stopped eating and sleeping. "I couldn't breathe," says Falcon. "It's like I turned from a rock into Jell-O. Something happened. I just melted." His two oldest daughters, 17-year-old Michelle and 15-year-old Melissa, accused him of bringing shame to the family. Cindy, his wife of 19 years, told him their marriage was in peril. "All my life, I thought prisons were for bad people . . . yet here I am, I must be a bad person," Falcon remembers thinking to himself. "I must be a criminal. I must be wicked . . . I never tried to hurt anybody, but now people say, 'He's a con.' Does this make me worse than anybody else?"

His doubts spiraled. He called a funeral home and made arrangements to be cremated--ashes scattered over the family ranch--then got in his truck and drove. He reached for a pistol and put it in his mouth. He closed his eyes. His hand shook. His finger gripped the trigger.

"I don't know what kept me from pulling it," he says.

Since Sept. 14, he has been at the minimum-security Federal Prison Camp in Oakdale, La. His brother calls it a blessing. "I think the sheriff's position was killing him, in terms of the amount of stress involved," says Tony Falcon, who is a year older than Gene but is occasionally mistaken for his son. "I think he'll add 15 to 20 years to his life, honestly, now that he's not there anymore. I hated to see his career end this way, but at the same time I'm glad it ended."

Just about the time Falcon was facing his darkest moment, Bea Baxter bought another round at Chucho's horseshoe-shaped bar. Chemita Alvarez, the Democratic boss, and Juan Mills, the ex-county clerk, would be there later, drinking beer and grilling lamb, telling lies into the night. Baxter offered a toast.

"There are five things you can't predict about Starr County," she said, ticking them off on her wrinkled fingers. "The river . . . the weather . . . the women . . . and the politics."

She mentioned only four, but nobody seemed to notice.

Times researcher Lianne Hart contributed to this story.

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