EL PASO, Texas -- A new county commissioner was sworn into office this week. She's a 36-year-old Yale educated attorney who will temporarily replace former commissioner Willie Gandara Jr. He is currently facing federal drug trafficking charges and has pleaded not guilty.
Gandara, 37, represented the southernmost portion of El Paso County, often referred to as the 'Lower Valley' or 'Mission Valley'. The area has a rich history as an active smuggling corridor for drugs and people.
Sheriff Deputy Manny Marquez has patrolled this part of El Paso County for 29 years. The historic region is where Spanish settlers built three Catholic missions nearly 400 years ago.
Today, the area is populated by mainly low-income families and pecan farmers. When Marquez was a kid, he remembers families from both sides of the border picnicking on the banks of the Rio Grande River. Day laborers would regularly cross from Mexico into the United States and back. But that's not all that crossed.
"This area was very lucrative for smuggling," Marquez said. "Not just, you know, smuggling of people, smuggling of narcotics…in some places you could drive a vehicle across loaded with drugs and make it across, no problem."
Now an 18-foot-tall, rust colored border fence keeps much of that traffic out. But a strong economic incentive means the culture of smuggling persists.
"There's a lot of people that live in these areas and have lived here forever, that you might say are career smugglers," Marquez said. "And it's passed down from family to family, generation to generation."
Gandara calls himself a native son of this vast and rural area of the county. Up until late February, he represented it as county commissioner. But Gandara resigned after being arrested and charged with trafficking more than 100 pounds of marijuana. The day he bailed out of jail, a crowd of reporters was waiting for him.
Gandara, unshaven and wearing a white V-neck shirt, only muttered four words.
"Talk to my attorney. Talk to my attorney," he said.
The Gandara name is well-known in his hometown of Socorro, Texas. The family owns land and has a prosperous recycling business. A Gandara currently sits on the town council. Willie Gandara Jr. and his father are both former mayors. Before his arrest, Willie Gandara Jr. was running for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives.
It's a kind of power structure El Paso Community College Professor Leon Blevins has seen before.
"There has been a tradition in that area and all along the Mexican border of the ‘patrone system,’" Blevins said. "One person or a few people within one family dominate the political system over a long period of time."
And as is often the case, power breeds corruption. Blevins has witnessed it in at least a dozen former students who went on to public office. Some include former county judges, police officers and school board trustees.
"Some of these people get greedy. They want more… And they perhaps invest in a house or a car or sending their kids to college,” Blevins said. “And then sometimes, they sell their souls."
Lately, the Gandara name has suffered. Willie Gandara Sr. was indicted in 2010 on corruption charges while serving on the local school board. When he was mayor, a council member was charged with selling drugs to undercover cops in front of a local pizza place. A third Gandara faces corruption charges as the former superintendent of a school district in Chula Vista, California.
Current Socorro, Texas Mayor Trini Lopez says locals often come to him asking for favors, like pardoning a traffic ticket. To keep himself honest, Lopez says he keeps two front-page newspaper clippings on his wall. One is of former El Paso County Judge Anthony Cobos when he was indicted on bribery charges. The other is from the day Willie Gandara Jr. was arrested.
"Some people think that because I have this position, that I can do whatever I want. That's not true," Lopez said. "I have to follow the rules. I have to follow the law."
A judge has sealed most of the evidence in the case, including recordings that allegedly show Willie Gandara Jr. discussing marijuana storage with an informant.
His attorney says his client has a clean record, and a long history of community service. A new county commissioner will be elected in May during the primary election.