From acts of God to acts of greed, small town heroes whose legends tower like the shadow of a giant, to national news made local in the microcosm of our own backyard, the last 12 months have been full of more than just eye-catching headlines; they’ve been full of stories that matter in ways both large and small.
Big news happens in small towns, and as 2019 came to a close, several big themes emerged as those headlines evolved week by week. Below, you’ll find a recap of the top five story makers through the Mid-Valley over the course of the last year.
Public corruption was perhaps one of the most frequently reported news items throughout the Rio Grande Valley, from former state district judge Rudy Delgado being found guilty of bribery in federal court, to Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina being accused of orchestrating an elaborate voter harvesting and voter fraud scheme. And allegations of public corruption have abounded in the Mid-Valley, as well.
In late March and early April, news broke that the FBI had been investigating a host of former Weslaco and Rio Grande City public officials for allegedly participating in a multimillion dollar bribery scheme involving the rehabilitation of Weslaco’s water treatment facilities.
First, then Rio Grande City municipal judge Leonel Lopez Jr. pleaded guilty to one count of federal programs bribery on March 22. Not long after, Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla, who was then the District 4 Weslaco commissioner, also pleaded guilty to one count of federal programs bribery in relation to the scheme.
Days after Tafolla’s plea, four more men were charged in connection with the scheme: former District 2 Weslaco commissioner John F. Cuellar, former Hidalgo County Precinct 1 commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar, Weslaco businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla, and then-Rio Grande City school board trustee Daniel J. Garcia. The two Cuellars are cousins.
Federal prosecutors laid out a total of 74 charges against the four men in a 34-page long superseding indictment that was unsealed on April 8. All four men originally pleaded not guilty to the litany of charges, though in August John Cuellar reached a deal with prosecutors, changing his plea to guilty on one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud.
In October, another former Weslaco public official, former Commissioner David Fox, pleaded guilty to perjury, admitting he had lied during grand jury testimony he provided during the investigation.
Later that month, Quintanilla was linked to another bribery conspiracy when federal prosecutors charged him in connection with a hotel development bribery scheme along with McAllen hotelier Sunil Wadhwani.
In the 14-page indictment of that case, the government alleges Quintanilla served as the facilitator of bribes between Wadhwani and unnamed co-conspirators.
Tafolla and Garcia, who were still serving public office at the time the allegations became public, are no longer.
A judge temporarily suspended Garcia from his seat on the Rio Grande City school board pending the resolution of a complaint alleging separate bribery concerns in that city. Meanwhile, Tafolla stepped down from his seat on the Weslaco City Commission in late May.
Tafolla’s resignation from the Weslaco City Commission left a void that the city charter mandated be filled via a special election. The mid-July race drew interest from four candidates, some of whom ran on a platform of anticorruption and of increased transparency.
The four candidates included Humberto “Beto” Chavez, Roy Hernandez Jr., Guadalupe “Lupe” Garcia and Adrian Farias. When no single candidate managed to win more than 50% of the vote, the race was sent to a runoff between the two hopefuls who had run for office before: Farias and Garcia.
Farias, who had mounted a campaign against current Weslaco Mayor David Suarez in 2013, ultimately emerged victorious in the summertime special election for District 4.
But Weslaco wasn’t the only place that saw citizen activists looking to effect change through political runs or by increasing their community involvement.
Elections for two spots on the Mercedes City Commission also drew a bevy of political hopefuls, with a total of eight contestants vying for people’s votes.
Longtime incumbent Ruben “Chano” Guajardo faced his former colleague on the commission, Jose Gomez, during a runoff for Place 4. Gomez won the race with just over 56% of the vote.
Meanwhile, newcomer Leonel Benavidez had roundly staved off the other three challengers who sought to fill the Place 2 seat vacated by former Commissioner Howard Wade, who decided not to seek re-election this spring.
Gomez and Benavidez campaigned on platforms of increased transparency between public officials and the community, as well as financial accountability. The pair quickly began making inquests into the city’s spending and administrative leadership, but faced resistance from the majority on the commission.
As part of the political shakeup, several top members of the city’s administration resigned or retired their posts, including longtime Police Chief Olga Maldonado, and City Secretary Arcelia Felix.
At the same time, a group of Mercedes residents who had been advocating for change and had supported Commissioners Gomez and Benavidez during their campaigns became increasingly vocal in expressing their concerns about the city’s leadership.
Things came to a head on Sept. 17, when four people were arrested during a raucous commission meeting during which dozens of residents and even some members of the media were prohibited from entering the building to attend the meeting.
The four included resident Velda Garcia, her two children, Aileen Luna and Noel Rodriguez, and resident Dalia Peña. Peña was taken into custody after making a public comment critical of newly installed Police Chief Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez, during which she called the chief a drunk.
Nearly three months later, a fifth person was arrested in connection with the September meeting.
Local activist-turned-mayoral-candidate Israel Coronado was arrested during a Dec. 3 city commission meeting. Coronado had attended the meeting and had left city hall to buy a pizza while the commission was in closed session. He never returned to the chamber, however, as officers arrested him in the parking lot of the eatery.
FLOODS AND DRAINS
One of the issues that drew so much ire from Mercedes residents over the last year has been how city leaders have responded in the wake of devastating flooding in June 2018. Those tensions resurfaced in June 2019 when — almost a year to the day later — the city was once again inundated with record rainfall that quickly submerged Mercedes’ low-lying neighborhoods.
But it wasn’t just the Queen City that suffered. The Delta area was particularly hard hit by the June flood redux. Parts of Elsa, Edcouch, La Villa, and particularly the rural community of Monte Alto experienced catastrophic devastation from the June 24 rains. The home of one woman, Angelica Sanchez Millan, was ripped to shreds by the storm’s strong winds. With few resources, the single mother of three found herself living in her car in the Elsa Walmart parking lot for weeks afterward, before the community stepped in to help her.
And while locals rallied around each other in their mutual time of need, local officials also got to work trying to address the drainage issues which exacerbated the flood damage.
Following in the footsteps of Hidalgo County voters at large, who overwhelmingly approved a $190 million drainage improvement bond election in November 2018, Weslaco voters similarly approved a drainage bond election for their city.
The $10 million Weslaco bond election passed by a 2-to-1 margin during the May 2019 special election.
And though city leaders were grateful for the public’s go-ahead to take on the new debt, they had wasted no time in addressing what priorities they could before the bond passed. That included the purchase of heavy machinery to clear ditches and drains, a concerted effort to clean up drainage plugs, and a massive community outreach effort to solicit input on how best to address the issue.
As that took place, county officials got started on their own priority list of projects thanks to the countywide bond election, including over 30 which are slated to be completed throughout Precinct 1.
Nationally, a debate has raged — and has been waged — about the future of the United States’ immigration policies.
President Donald Trump, whose campaign promises included toughening border security through a multipronged approach of increasing the number of border immigration officials and judges, as well as the construction of a permanent wall along the entire length of the country’s southern border, has implemented a number of new or revised immigration policies to try to accomplish those goals since taking office in January 2017.
And the Valley has been at the center of some of the largest headlines throughout the years-long saga.
In the spring of 2019, federal officials announced they would be reconstructing and reopening a tent facility just south of Donna for the temporary housing of migrants. Originally built to hold 500 men, women and children, the facility was soon expanded to house 1,000.
Other facilities throughout the Valley were similarly filled to capacity as the summer drew on, due in large part to a sudden influx of Central American migrants coming to the Texas-Mexico border in search of asylum. Over the course of just a few months, several hundred thousand migrants found themselves placed in Texas detention facilities like the one in Donna.
The concentration of migrants arriving in the Valley sparked reactions from both sides of the political aisle, prompting visits by a score of big-name politicians. Vice President Mike Pence, along with a coterie of Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee visited in mid-July. As part of their visit, Pence toured the Donna facility, as well as the Ursula detention center in McAllen.
A week later, Senate Minority Leader Charles “Chuck” Schumer, the Senate’s top Democratic member, brought a similar delegation of Democrats to the region for a visit of migrant facilities.
Top brass for the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other agencies also made visits to the Valley in 2019, including the three most recent heads of DHS: former Secretary Kirstjen Nielson, who visited in March, former acting Secretary Kevin McAleelan, who visited several times, and acting Secretary Chad Wolf, who visited in November.
Wolf, in particular, who sought a tour of new border wall construction occurring south of Donna, held a news conference in front of the two small panels that have thus far been erected there.
The Mid-Valley experienced its share of celebrations, as well.
City leaders in Edcouch and Elsa were ecstatic to announce grant funding aimed at improving the quality of life in the rural communities.
In April, Elsa announced it had been awarded three grants to construct a multiuse park on old railroad land. The $1.8 million park will include play structures, exercise trails, a skate park, beach volleyball courts and other amenities.
Meanwhile, Edcouch announced they had also been awarded $1 million, which will go towards creating a virtual library and revitalizing the city’s swimming pool.
Further south, the city of Donna celebrated the culmination of more than a decade of effort to expand their international trade capabilities when city leaders announced that the $60 million expansion of the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge.
The expansion will allow commercial traffic to utilize the bridge, and will include two southbound and two northbound lanes, as well as state-of-the-art inspection technology.
But perhaps the biggest celebration of all occurred in the city of Weslaco, which celebrated its centennial anniversary in December.
The city celebrated with a week-long, city-wide birthday bash that included museum exhibits, theatrical performances, dances, luncheons, and a whole host of other events. The party culminated in a festive, history-themed Christmas parade, followed by a massive block party on the streets of downtown on Saturday, Dec. 7.
A fireworks show at Bobby Lackey Stadium on Dec. 10 provided a delightful denouement.