Almost every top official in the remote South Texas town known as Crystal City was arrested Thursday facing accusations that they took bribes from contractors and sent city workers to help an illegal gambling operator nicknamed “Mr. T.”
The mayor, city manager, mayor pro tem, one of three current councilmen, and a former councilman were all arrested under an indictment obtained by the U.S. attorney’s office in San Antonio.
Another councilman was charged in a separate case dealing with smuggling Mexican immigrants. That leaves just one councilman not facing federal charges in in the town of about 7,100 people near the U.S./Mexico border.
“What happened is nothing to celebrate. It’s something sad that happened to us,” said the lone remaining councilman, Joel Barajas, on Thursday. “By all means, we need to move forward.”
The indictment accuses the men of using their positions “to enrich themselves by soliciting and accepting payments and other things of value.” Also charged was Ngoc Tri Nguyen, a man alleged to be an operator of illegal gambling rooms, who was nicknamed “Mr. T.”
The town’s Mayor, Ricardo Lopez, took $6,000 from Nguyen to buy a vehicle, according to the indictment. In return, he supposedly waived some taxes for Nguyen and had employees close competing casinos that violate state law, but exist informally throughout South Texas. Allegedly, Lopez told city employees inspecting Nguyen’s property to “make it easy.”
City Manager William James Jonas and Mayor Pro Tem Rogelio Mata are accused of giving a contractor a $12,000 payment in exchange for payments and things of value.
Lopez, Rogelio Mata, current councilman Roel Mata, and former councilman Gilbert Urrabazo are all accused of voting to keep Jonas as city attorney and city manager at a salary reported by local media exceeding a whopping $200,000. In exchange, Jonas would provide payments and other illegal benefits to the four leaders.
When that lone Councilman, Barajas, was elected to the council last year, he tried to have Jonas’ contract suspended, the rest of the council members boycotted the meeting so it couldn’t mpve forward.
He says that the city had nearly $2 million in unpaid bills and was facing bankruptcy.
Councilman Marco Rodriguez was accused of smuggling three Mexican immigrants in the back of a pickup truck last month.
Residents interviewed Thursday said the arrests are painful but necessary.
“Crystal City is a good town,” said 67-year-old Maria Sanchez Rivera, a lifelong resident. “If you do wrong, you have to face your consequences. We’ve got laws for everything and we’ve got to abide by what the law says.”