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Brownsville Texas Border Corruption Continues

Coronado Cantu took over the Cameron County Sheriff's office in January 2001. He took up residence inside the Texas jail in June 2005. Cantu was charged with heading a crime ring that included drug trafficking, extortion and prostitution of female prisoners.

Animo was Cantu's watchword.   Defined as spirit or enthusiasm, his mantra graced his speeches and embossed his business cards.  The naive crowds loved him.   In November 2000 they elected him sheriff over the incumbent Omar Lucio.

There were a lot of people mesmerized by this guy, said county commissioner and Cantu critic David Garza. Hes a very charismatic individual.  He portrayed himself as a nice guy, said county Judge Gilberto Hinojosa who originally
supported Cantu. No one expected him to get into bed with drug dealers.

But its not as though there werent early warning signs that Cantu was headed for trouble. Soon after being elected he asked for a consultant to help him manage his new office. County officials scoffed at the request.  "I guess he wants a cookbook -- How to Run a Sheriffs Office," chided County Auditor Mark Yates.

It appears now that Yates and other officials who denied Cantu's request should have looked deeper at the problems of the ex-plumber turned top-cop. Cantu's early tenure included escapes assisted by guards, stolen prisoner property, drug sales by guards and guards having sex with female prisoners. His chief administrator was arrested and accused of organizing a jailhouse harem.

Anthony Knapp, history professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville points out that violent drug gangs frequently corrupt police in and around the border city. Professor Knapp, coauthor of several books on border problems, bases his comments on history of more than a decade of corruption of the South Texas border. Cantu is the fourth sheriff since 1994 to be convicted on federal corruption charges.

Commissioner Carlos Cascos expressed his embarrassment saying,  "As far as what it cost the county, its something money cannot replace. Its more than a black eye; our faces got bashed in. W'ell be looked at for a long time as a county of ineptitude and a haven for corruption."

That Cantu was a prime candidate for corruption is a matter of record. Former District Attorney Yolanda de Leon investigated charges that Cantu was fixing hot checks for friends when he was still a constable. In 2003 Cantu's administration suffered a scathing report issued by a county grand jury investigating $16,000 stolen from prisoners' jail accounts. The report charged Cantu with allowing an environment of permissiveness to develop without oversight on his part. The grand jury also noted that untrained guards with disciplinary problems were being promoted, by Cantu's office, to supervisory positions.

It's not a pretty picture at all, and this just didnt happen at the end, said de Leon. The conduct that is in the federal indictment went back at least two to three years, and the special treatment because of personal friendships went back almost to the beginning. De Leon's original investigation was submitted to the El Paso District Attorney's Office but charges were never filed.

Cantu lost the ensuing election to the man he previously unseated. Lucio immediately fired 75 of the jail guards, many of whom had criminal records. Other guards were fired because they didn't take or couldn't pass the state qualifying exam for jail guards. Cantu himself was a high school dropout.

The U.S. Marshals Service relocated hundreds of federal prisoners because of Cameron County's and Cantu's corruption. Cost to the county was $1.5 million in Federal funds. Lawsuits file by workers fired for reporting sexual misconduct in while Cantu ran the jail has cost the county $200,000 in settlements and $200,000 in legal fees.

In July 2005 Cantu pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering and heading a criminal enterprise. Prosecutors requested a life sentence with animo.

On December 13, 2005, Cantu, 49, was sentenced to 290 months in federal prison for his many offenses. He was also fined $5,000 and sentenced to five years supervised release. Geronimo Garcia, 33, the former operator of the Cameron county Jail Commissary was sentenced to 114 months in prison after being convicted on racketeering charges.

Source: Houston Chronicle

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