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The Tarnished Star of Starr County

The fall of a popular Texas sheriff in the nation's poorest county did nothing to ruin his reputation. In fact, his constituents now consider him a martyr, misunderstood by an outside world that will never comprehend their ways.

January 30, 1999|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STARR COUNTY, Texas — 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

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