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In context: Greg Abbott on third-world corruption near the Texas-Mexico border
By W. Gardner Selby February 11, 2014

Outlining his plan for keeping Texas safe and secure, Republican gubernatorial aspirant Greg Abbott expressed concern Feb. 4 about criminal activities near the Texas border with Mexico. Abbott, the Texas attorney general, touched nerves by making a "third world" reference to the border region.

The Oxford Dictionaries define third world as the "developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America." The entry goes on to say that the term originated from tiers monde in French, which was first used in the 1950s to distinguish the developing countries from the capitalist and communist blocs.

The day that Abbott spoke, Rebecca Acuña, Texas press secretary for Democrat Wendy Davis’ gubernatorial campaign, said in a written statement emailed to reporters: "Abbott even went as far as comparing the Texas border to a third world country." And in a letter published Feb. 9 by the McAllen Monitor, Davis subsequently called for Abbott to apologize for "his offensive and erroneous comment."

Abbott elaborated on his remark in a commentary posted on the Monitor’s website Feb. 10, stating: "My comments about ‘corruption resembling third-world country practices’ are as true today as when I said them last week. My goal is to make them untrue tomorrow... It does not matter where public corruption occurs in Texas; it must be stopped. Texans deserve better, no matter their ZIP code."

We thought it might be useful to present Abbott’s Feb. 4 third-world reference in context.

About 19 minutes into his speech, which was livestreamed from Dallas by the Texas Tribune, Abbott referred to law enforcement misdeeds in two border counties, saying: "Increasingly, we are seeing corruption among local, state and federal law enforcement officers themselves.

"A former Starr County sheriff’s deputy was sentenced last year for accepting bribes to protect drug dealers and their smuggling routes," Abbott said. "Members of a drug enforcement task force and other law enforcement agents in Hidalgo County are awaiting sentencing for money laundering and drug smuggling. A former state district judge was convicted for accepting money in return for favorable rulings in a public corruption investigation that included a former district attorney and a former state representative.

"This creeping corruption resembles third-world country practices that erode the social fabric of our communities and destroys Texans’ trust and confidence in government."

What activities was Abbott citing?

A Feb. 5 Monitor news story on his speech said his comments "referenced the cash-for-favors scandal, which rocked the Cameron County judicial system, and the Panama Unit scandal, which ensnared Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño’s son."

Let’s unpack that.

In August 2013, a former state district judge was sentenced in Cameron County, home to Brownsville, to six years in prison for his role in a cash-for-favors scheme that implicated a dozen individuals, the San Antonio Express-News said in an Aug. 22, 2013, news story. The story said that U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen sentenced Abel Limas on a single count of racketeering and ordered him to pay restitution of more than $6.7 million. A life-long resident of Brownsville, Limas practiced criminal and family law before he was elected in 2000 to the 404th District Court in Cameron County, where he served until losing the Democratic primary in 2008.

In 2011, Limas pleaded guilty to racketeering as part of an investigation that uncovered how the ex-judge received $257,300 in bribes in return for court favors. Among other defendants, the newspaper said, former state Rep. Jim Solis was sentenced to nearly four years in a federal prison for his role in the bribery scandal. "This case and the sentencing today serves as a reminder that this behavior will not be tolerated in the Southern District of Texas," U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson said after Limas’ sentencing.

Bribes also figured into other investigations referenced by Abbott.

According to a September 2013 Monitor news article, a Houston-based federal judge then sentenced a former Starr County sheriff’s captain, Romeo Javier "Compadre Nacho" Ramirez, to a year and a day in prison after Ramirez pleaded guilty to taking bribes. The Monitor said that according to court records, from January 2006 to September 2008, Ramirez accepted about $30,000 from drug traffickers in exchange for the location of Texas Department of Public Safety troopers.

In Hidalgo County, concerns about the sheriff’s Panama Unit — which garnered that name based on its police radio call sign — went public nearly 14 months ago, the Monitor summed up in a Feb. 9, 2014, news story. That’s when federal agents arrested four members, including Jonathan Treviño, the sheriff’s son, and Alexis Espinoza, the Hidalgo police chief’s son, accusing them of stealing drugs from traffickers only to sell them to other narcotics dealers. In the months following the initial arrests, the newspaper said, nine law enforcement officials had pleaded or were found guilty in the case, including the head of the sheriff’s crime stoppers program.

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Our Sources

Video, Greg Abbott speech on safety and security plan, livestreamed by the Texas Tribune, Feb. 4, 2014

Letter to the editor, "Wendy Davis responds to Greg Abbott's third-world comment," the McAllen Monitor, Feb. 9, 2014

Commentary, "Third-world comments not directed at RGV," Greg Abbott, the McAllen Monitor, posted online Feb. 10, 2014

News stories, "Former Starr County lawman sentenced to prison," the McAllen Monitor, Sept. 24, 2013; "Is Rio Grande Valley corruption a third-world problem?" the Monitor, Feb. 5, 2014; "Two decades after sheriff’s indictment, corruption cases still dog Rio Grande Valley cops," the Monitor, Feb. 9, 2014

News story, "Ex-judge is headed for prison," San Antonio Express-News, Aug. 21, 2013 (Nexis search)

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In context: Greg Abbott on third-world corruption near the Texas-Mexico border