Skip to comments.Rise and Fall Former sheriff in shackles after term of scandal, controversy (South Texas)
Posted on 06/12/2005 7:34:21 AM PDT by SwinneySwitch
In the public eye, Conrado Cantu had it all.
The former Cameron County sheriff was often described as charismatic, a man with a firm handshake and a popular catchphrase Animo meaning cheer and encouragement that became synonymous with his own name.
He had politicians by his side, voters on their feet, a badge and a fleet of law enforcement officials at the ready.
But the brass badge that adorned his chest was used to shield political allies and drug traffickers, federal investigators are alleging. It helped the former lawman collect a percentage of drug profits and shake down dealers who gave up a cut in exchange for Cantus protection. And some in his administration were in on the scam, investigators say.
Animo will not help him in federal court, said Tony Knopp, a social sciences professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College.
Knopp suggests that with last weeks federal indictment, the dynamics have changed for Cantu, who counted many supporters in county offices.
He said compadrismo, meaning friendship or cronyism, wont have a place in federal court as Knopp suspects it did in state district courts. A federal grand jury indicted Cantu on Monday, charging him with two counts of racketeering, two counts of extortion, and one count each of money laundering, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
Cantu, 49, remains under federal custody and a bond hearing will be held at 1:30 p.m. Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Felix Recio.
His co-defendants are his 50-year-old former captain Rumaldo Rodriguez, now a Pct. 1 deputy constable, former jail commissary contract-holder Geronimo Jerry Garcia Jr., 33, plumber Reynaldo Uribe, 41, and restaurant owner Hector Solis, 40.
Unlike the undocumented immigrants also brought into federal court on Thursday, a shackled and cuffed Cantu was spared the orange prison-issued jumpsuit marked Federal Inmate on the back and faced the judge in plain clothes.
Some of the men that shared the docket with him that day likely will be returned to their home country for their crime.
If convicted, Cantu would be stripped of his peace officer license and right to vote. He faces 10 years to life in prison and upwards of $4 million in fines, according to information provided by the U.S. Attorneys Office.
Today, the men share similar accommodations in a county facility the kind of place he was once charged with safeguarding.
FROM THE BEGINNING
Cantus rise to the countys top law enforcement post was meteoric by most standards. He had limited experience and less education than the sheriff he unseated in 2000. Omar Lucio reclaimed the office in 2004.
Cantus descent to handcuffs and leg irons began just prior to his debut in an elected office.
Last weeks indictment cites information from surveillance and undercover operations dating back to 1998 through the end of his term as sheriff in December 2004.
In the last four years Cantu deflected at least three known criminal investigations and has maintained his innocence throughout.
He began his single term as sheriff in 2001 during an ongoing state investigation into allegations that he hampered prosecution of several criminal cases by hiding the files from then-District Attorney Yolanda de Leon.
De Leon recused herself from that case, citing a conflict of interest.
She said last week that Cantus federal arrest brings an element of vindication for her.
I took a lot of criticism as did this office as a whole for our investigation, said De Leon, who lost her re-election bid to Armando Villalobos in 2004.
De Leon said it had been difficult to prosecute Cantu because employees and witnesses were afraid to testify.
The fact that you have a federal indictment shows the merit of the grand jury, she said.
The investigation De Leon handed off in 2001 went to special prosecutor Jaime Esparza, who also served as district attorney in El Paso.
Texas Rangers told The Brownsville Herald in October 2001 that Esparza declined to prosecute Cantu though Esparza maintained that the inquiry continued. No charges were brought against the sheriff in that case. In July 2003, Cantu sidestepped an indictment from a grand jury investigation into his activities, but not a condemning public report of its findings.
Our investigation finds that Sheriff Conrado Cantu allowed an environment of permissiveness to develop without oversight on his part of those directly under his supervision or the functions they performed, the grand jury found. This resulted in flagrant abuses, some of which were criminal in nature and others which at a minimum placed our county in peril of civil liability.
Cantu fired back that the jurys public report was a personal attack.
It is unfortunate that District Attorney Yolanda De Leon has injected herself into the sheriffs campaign under the cover of the grand jury, Cantu stated in an undated press release. Once again she is using her office for political purposes.
In 2004, De Leon secured a grand jury indictment against Cantu, charging him with a misdemeanor offense of abusing his office, but the charge was dismissed this year because the wording in the indictment was defective.
Scandals laced Cantus administration from his first month in office to the end of his term in December 2004 and include documented escapes, sexual contact between guards and inmates in the jails, jailhouse drug operations, theft and unchecked spending.
Employees who spoke out against the alleged corruption have said they were ignored or fired, provoking litigation against the county for retaliation and costing tens of thousands of dollars in litigation and out-of-court settlements.
Two of six such lawsuits are still pending resolution in state district courts.
Lt. Hilda Treviño filed the first Whistleblower lawsuit against the county and Cantu in December 2002, just days after she was fired for reporting sexual activity between guards and inmates.
Treviño said Saturday that three things led her to report the wrongdoing: Morality, ethics, and the fear of God.
You see something wrong, you report it. For me it is normal, Treviño said. She described her life after December 2002 as a living nightmare.
I was harassed and followed. I felt like an outcast. I was treated like I was the one doing wrong, like I was a criminal, she said.
Treviño returned to the Sheriffs Department under Lucios administration this April after reaching an agreement with the county.
She said she feels compassion for Cantu. No matter what, you dont want to see someone suffering. But its a choice that he made. I even pray for him, the lieutenant said.
In 2002, during which time Cantu was allegedly taking money from drug traffickers in exchange for protection, Cameron County Judge Gilberto Hinojosa was assessing Cantus first year in office.
In the end, Conrado Cantu will be considered a great sheriff not only in our county, but across the state of Texas, because he treats every person the same way: with kindness, courtesy and the respect and dignity that they deserve, the county judge said in a June 21, 2002, press statement.
Since taking office last year, Sheriff Cantu has built on the fine tradition established by the Cameron County sheriffs office, honoring the legacy of previous Cameron County sheriffs.
The professionalism demonstrated by Sheriff Cantu . . . and the cooperative manner in which he has worked with the Commissioners Court proves what everyone else has been saying: that Conrado Cantu is doing a great job as Cameron County sheriff.
The statement was made during a year when three inmates escaped, a jailer was charged with smuggling marijuana to inmates, and chief jailer and former Lt. Joel Zamora was placed on leave, accused of having sex with female inmates. He was later convicted of fondling two female inmates.
Last week, the judge said he felt angry and fooled by the sheriff.
U.S. Marshals intervened at the county jails in 2004, following bold escapes from facilities.
The agency started removing federal inmates from county protection in January of that year, taking more than $2 million in reimbursement funds with it and leaving about 40 jailers without work for about three months. The inmates and federal contract revenues were returned in August 2004.
De Leon said her office and other law enforcement agencies had long suspected that Cantu was leaking information to criminal suspects while serving as sheriff.
There was a distancing on what kind of information we shared with the sheriff, De Leon said of her office.
Of the federal agencies decision to bring their evidence to a Houston grand jury, instead of one in South Texas, De Leon said, Strategically . it makes sense.
You want to be able to present your facts, she said, and not have them tainted.
Conrado Cantu Timeline
1995: Served as deputy constable under then-Pct. 6 Constable Juan Antonio Mendoza Jr. 1997-2000: Served as Pct. 2 constable. 2000: Defeated Sheriff Omar Lucio. 2001: Began a four-year term as sheriff with his right-hand men Juan Antonio Mendoza Jr., Robert Lopez, Rumaldo Rodriguez and Joel Zamora. Jan. 2001: An inmate escaped, but was caught. Sept. 2001: Two Mexican political parties demanded Cantus expulsion from Mexico after he appeared at a rally for a mayoral candidate in Matamoros. Nov. 2001: Another inmate escaped. His body was found in the Rio Grande in 2002. Nov. 2001: Jailers find a cell phone and marijuana in a cell. May 2002: A federal inmate jumped off the roof of the jail and was captured. June 2002: Two inmates escape from the new $19 million Carrizalez-Rucker maximum-security detention facility by picking a lock with plastic spoons. Oct. 2002: Jailer Robert Dalzell was charged with smuggling marijuana to inmates. Dec. 2002: Chief jailer and former Lt. Joel Zamora was placed on leave, accused of molesting female inmates. He was later convicted of fondling two women. Dec. 2002: Drugs found at Carrizalez-Rucker. July 2003: A Cameron County grand jury falls short of indicting Cantu, but issues a scathing report against him and his administration. July 2003: A Cameron County grand jury indicted Sheriff Capt. Harry James Stevens Jr. for exposing himself in his office at the Sheriffs Department with the door open when a secretary was present. He later pleaded guilty and was placed on probation and deferred adjudication. July 2003: A county in-house audit shows $16,800 missing from the accounts of inmates. Sept. 2003: Jailer Juan Antonio Mendoza III, son of Mendoza Jr., was convicted of stealing from inmates. Oct. 2003: Cantu asked jailers for their help with his re-election bid. He is heard on audiotape asking jailers to campaign with him in San Benito. Oct. 2003: Following an FBI investigation, jailers Adalberto Bennett and Guillermo Hernandez were charged with helping an inmate escape. Nov. 2003: Jailers were paid about $120,000 in overtime within a six-week period. The annual budget was $4,800. Dec. 2003: Rumaldo Rodriguez and a second deputy sued District Attorney Yolanda de Leon alleging that she defamed Cantu. Jan. 2004: Three inmates escape. Jan. 2004: A former jail employee demanded $30,000 from Commissioners Court alleging that she had a sexual encounter with Cantu expecting continued employment with the county. The amount was paid by an undisclosed source. Jan. 2004: The U.S. Marshals Service begins to pull out federal inmates from county facilities. Feb. 2004: A Cameron County grand jury accuses Cantu of abusing his official capacity in connection with the campaign meeting with jailers. Feb. 2004: Three federal inmates escape using a mop to chisel a hole in a bathroom ceiling. March 2004: U.S. Marshals Service removes all federal inmates from county jails following escapes. Dec. 2004: An inmate escapes after a bathroom break. Jan. 2005: Cantu replaced by Sheriff Omar Lucio. March 2005: The abuse of official capacity charge against Cantu is dismissed because the indictment was defective. May 2005: Pct. 1 Constable Saul Ochoa asked Commissioners Court to approve Cantu as a reserve deputy constable. The court tabled action. June 2005: Cantu and others are charged with extortion, bribery, obstruction of justice, money laundering, conspiracy to distribute cocaine and racketeering before and during his term as sheriff.
Source: Herald archives
Cameron County Ping!
Please FReepmail me if you want on or off this South Texas/Mexico ping list.
To the writers of this article. Stop with the translations. Either write it in Spanish or English. Cut the Spanish lessons.
"Unlike the undocumented immigrants also brought into federal court on Thursday, a shackled and cuffed Cantu was spared the orange prison-issued jumpsuit marked Federal Inmate on the back and faced the judge in plain clothes."
Why does he rate the consideration? The man strikes me as being even worse than a common criminal for betraying the public trust.
I gathered as much, because the reporters didn't mention what party he was in. And, of course, because he was a crook.
Criminal Number 18F
It always frost me when these "upstanding" citizens get caught in their illegal activities, and yet their "special" treatment continues. Yeah I know some will argue that innocent until proven guilty, but does that apply only to well connected politicos.
The corruption of Mexican public officials is notorious. A simple border will not stop it. You 'ain't seen nothin yet!'This corruption case is the reality of "The Big Tent," "Room at the Table," "Our Diversity is Our Strength!"
Yep....there is the law as it applies to us.....and the law as it applies to them.
If you were a smart drug lord and had to smuggle large quantities of drugs across a border, wouldn't one of the smartest things you could do be to corrupt local and US officials? Maybe even finance them into elected office or get your people into place in the Customs.
Lead or silver? They know it works.
It occurred to me many years ago when the C&I agencies were adding lots of recruits, that it wouldn't be difficult to insert 'clean' family members of the local drug gangs into the intake program.
Ahh, people who object to "law enforcement" corruption like this are just a bunch of criminals and cop-haters.
Cameron County Ex-Sheriff Cantu indictment
I think this might be just the beginning of the dirt to come. An interesting side story has to do with the county auditor, Mark Yates. Sherrif Lucio requested an audit of the sherrif's department as soon as he was elected and before actually taking office. Mr. Yates is now taking heat for not passing the results of his audit on to the proper authorities, one being the sherrif. Mr. Yates audit found there was a weapon missing from the sherrif's dept. arsenal. This info was only passed on to some low level figure in county government instead of being passed onto the sherrif and the county commissioners. This missing weapon was found in the raid of former sherrif Cantu's home. I'm thinking Mr. Yates has something to hide.
I recall the 2000 sherrif's election. Terry Vinson was the Republican candidate. At some point during the vote count the county computer went down. Vinson was ahead by a wide margin, about 20,000 votes, if I recall correctly. When the computer came back online about an hour later, Vinson was behind by about the same margin of 20,000 votes. Cantu became sherrif.
I'm happy to see the details of Judge Hinojosa's comments. Judge Hinojosa was a big supporter of Cantu during the 2000 election and beyond. Hinojosa is now trying to distance himself from Cantu, bigtime. I'm hoping for a grandjury indictment in Judge Hinojosa's near future.
Also, the constable who was trying to get Cantu a position as a volunteer for the constable's office is sqawking loudly over Cantu's indictment. He is chapped because no one told him Cantu was under investigation before the constable nominated him for the position before the county commissioners. I think this constable is trying to wipe the egg off his face and perhaps, crime off his hands.
The term for such bought-off or implicated cops and other officials is deditos, *little fingers.*
It's a mainstay of the way the cartels have done business, up to and including a couple of the top Administrators at DEA. And occasionally, higher.
Update: Cantu held without bond. Considered a flight risk due to his having a mistress and infant child in Matamoros, Mexico.