BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS -- Charm poured out from under his 10-gallon hat as he strummed a Spanish guitar at political picnics and campaign rallies.
His charisma helped propel Conrado Cantu from the cotton fields of the Rio Grande Valley to the high-backed leather chair in the county sheriff's office. They pinned the badge on him in 2001.
But last December, the big hat was gone. Defeated and disgraced, he stood before a federal judge and admitted leading an extortion and drug trafficking ring at the U.S.-Mexico border. He was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
"They put so much pressure on me," he said in his first prison interview, blaming the drug traffickers as he sat on a folding chair at the U.S. penitentiary in Talladega, Ala.
He once ran a $12-million-a-year sheriff's budget and supervised 96 deputies. Today he works in the prison cabinet shop. When he plays guitar, it is in the prison chapel.
Cantu's story is emblematic of the corruption that increasingly straddles the border. Like others -- U.S. Border Patrol agents; an FBI supervisor; a Laredo, Texas, anti-drug official -- Cantu succumbed to the lure of la mordida, the bribe.
But few in recent years have been convicted of so much wrongdoing or drawn so severe a sentence as Cantu. He was so entrenched on both sides of the river that he had two families -- one in Brownsville, the other in Matamoros, Mexico.
"It's a border town and you have people coming in from all over, through Mexico, a lot of people always trying to tempt you," Cantu said. "They knew I was real popular. They knew I was getting stronger. They looked at me like a prizefighter with whom they can make some money."
But Cantu knows this too: "I should be punished for what I did wrong."
Brownsville has always felt as much like Mexico as the United States. The muddy Rio Grande goes unnoticed as a cultural barrier, Spanglish is widely spoken, and everyone seems to know someone on the other side.
Cantu's appeals lawyer, Jon D. Brooks of Corpus Christi, Texas, called it a place unto itself.
"It's generally regarded as a fairly corrupt government down there at all levels," he said. "And I know that the U.S. attorney's office wants to send a message to other elected officials throughout the Rio Grande Valley that they are watching."
Cantu was born near here in 1955, the sixth of 11 children. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade to join the Army. Then he worked around Texas as a plumber. He sold used cars. He ran a taqueria. He returned to Brownsville in 1983 and married a schoolteacher. They raised three children.
Cantu ran for constable in 1992 and lost. He ran in 1996 and won. He delivered court papers and enforced solid-waste laws. It paid $35,000 a year. "For the valley," Cantu recalled, "that was real good."
But the Cameron County sheriff made $70,000, and Cantu was encouraged by local politicos to aim higher. Soon he was out strumming his guitar at fundraisers, running as a Democrat. He took on incumbent Sheriff Omar Lucio, a lawman for 35 years, and won.
Before long, there was talk of sexual favors for prisoners at the county jail, of marijuana for inmates. Rumors arose about Cantu's repeated trips to Mexico. In the county prosecutor's office, staffers began to mock him as "Protect the Load" Cantu. Soon the community was abuzz over signs of Cantu's accumulated wealth: an RV, a boat, a new addition on his home.
He was heavy into tequila, spending afternoons in a local bar, Cantu recalled. "I didn't need the money," he said. "It's just I was down and beat up and all the stress that came with it. And the people I was drinking with, they just kept coming around and coming around
Said Lucio, "The traffickers wanted him. And they got him."
A federal sting operation caught him in a church parking lot agreeing to protect a car laden with $13,000 in narcotics. His fee: $4,000. Soon after, in 2004, voters threw him out and returned Lucio to office.
"He had an enormous amount of energy," County Judge Gilbert Hinojosa said of Cantu. "He came out of nowhere. But the job went to his head. People gave him gifts, silver belt buckles and ceremonial weapons, and he didn't have the character to withstand all that."
Lucio recalled of Cantu: "When you meet him for the first time, you like him. He's like a sweet pumpkin, a dulce calabaza. But if you eat too much of it, you'll vomit."
The indictment came down a few months after his reelection defeat. Cantu was arrested in June of last year, along with his former captain, his jail commissary vendor and two others. He was charged with extortion and money laundering, as well as the release of a prisoner.
After taking office as sheriff, the indictment said, "Cantu began soliciting and accepting payments from persons he believed to be drug dealers and money launderers, in exchange for protection of their illegal operations. These payments, in total, were in the tens of thousands of dollars."
Soon after his arrest, officials disclosed that Cantu had a "second family" in Matamoros -- a girlfriend and their infant son. Lane checks at the border crossing showed him at the wheel of his white Ford pickup about 24 times a month.
Cantu said he was trying to do right by supporting the child and mother.
In jail, Cantu says, he contemplated suicide. But then, he said, "I found the Lord.... You can see the light when you are in the dark."
In December he pleaded guilty. He asked for leniency, telling the court, "There's a lot of temptation out there all the time.... It just overwhelmed me.... I should have stopped but I couldn't."
Prosecutors saw him differently. Said Asst. U.S. Atty. John Kinchen, "The defendant essentially created a thoroughfare for drugs and drug proceeds right down the middle of Cameron County."