Photo: Ilana Panich-Linsman /NYT
Editor’s note: 2020 has been filled to the brim with notable news, and it’s not just all related to the coronavirus pandemic. LMT will be taking a look at the top stories of the year — both related to COVID-19 and not at all — in a four-part series. We’ll start with Part 1 of 4, first discussing the top non-COVID stories of the year in its own two-part series.
For years to come, 2020 will be marked with an asterisk. It’s been a year unlike any other in a century, defined by one thing: the COVID-19 pandemic.
But even as the pandemic wreaked havoc on all our lives, Laredoans kept working, fighting and making headlines. In fact, a great deal of news happened this year that had little or nothing to do with COVID-19.
Below are some of the highlights from a busy 2020 unrelated to the pandemic:
One of the most important and overarching stories of the year was the progress the Trump administration made on the border wall in Webb and Zapata counties. And although Joe Biden’s election likely means the wall will not be constructed in Laredo for at least these next four years, the project came extremely close to fruition in 2020.
Four construction contracts were awarded this year to build the wall, roads and lighting along 70 miles of the Laredo Sector for a cost totaling over $1 billion.
Many landowners, environmentalists, politicians and advocates fought the wall’s progress in various manners: through protests and marches, a street mural and online petitions. But there is also a fight in the courts. Dozens of landowners resisted the government’s request to access their property in order to conduct surveys and tests to determine the exact alignment of the border wall, so the Department of Justice filed suit against them.
Then there were a spate of arguments that dug deeper into the issue. The City of Laredo proposed that the money to construct the wall has not been expressly congressionally authorized in the Laredo sector. Zapata County landowners sued the Trump administration alleging that the government’s actions in pursuing the border wall, considering Trump’s rhetoric surrounding Mexico, violates the Fifth Amendment. And another landowner argued in court that the perfunctory $100 compensation the government offers for the right of entry to a property is not just, and thereforeit is unconstitutional.
In the spring, the Department of Homeland Security waved 27 federal laws — from the Clean Water Act to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act — in order to expedite border wall construction along these 70 miles of riverfront in the Laredo Sector.
In October, Laredo Sector Border Patrol Chief Matthew Hudak said the federal government has been granted the right of entry for more than 90% of the riverfront property they have sought access to for determining where the border wall will go in Webb County, and that they are on track to begin construction in January 2021.
The first elections of 2020 – the March primary – occurred mere days before COVID-19 erupted across the country. The runoffs and general election that occurred throughout the rest of the year were conducted with COVID-19 protocols in place: voters wore masks, stood in line six feet apart or voted by mail if they qualified to do so.
In spite of all these obstacles, plus the general fear of the virus, Webb County had record voter turnout in the November general election. Three new City Council members were borne of this election, two of whom defeated incumbents, in a year with a record number of women candidates. Among them was Alyssa Cigarroa, the first write-in candidate to not only win an election but to even force a runoff. And in another race, a former Laredo Mayor in Betty Flores ran for District VII but lost to Vanessa Perez.
And the March primary brought national attention to Laredo, as the area’s incumbent congressman, Rep. Henry Cuellar, fought off a progressive challenger from the left, Jessica Cisneros. The latter was backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and several prominent labor organizations, but she lost to Cuellar by about 2,700 votes.
Cuellar also beat his Republican challenger, Sandra Whitten, with 58% of the vote in the November election. Whitten afterwards cited election fraud in defeat.
And the 2020 presidential election led to Republicans and Democrats each celebrating their respective candidates. Multiple events for supporters to caravan throughout the area supporting their candidate — dubbed the Trump Train and Ridin’ with Biden, respectively. And the heavily Democratic area of Webb County once again stayed blue, although Trump did pick up votes compared to the last election while also surprising many by outright winning Zapata.
City manager selection
The day following the March primary election, Laredo City Council voted 6-2 to select Robert Eads as the city manager.
This was the final step in a yearlong process to find the next leader of the city’s administration, which had been without a permanent head since Horacio De Leon resigned in January 2019. De Leon was the third city manager of Laredo in four years.
In an effort to separate themselves a little from the selection process, council created an ad-hoc committee to seek out, interview and rank candidates for the position. The committee ranked Eads highest.
But Eads’ selection was not a smooth process. Several council members and the mayor were intent on finding a candidate from outside Laredo and resisted his appointment.
In the month leading up to Eads’ selection there was extensive discussion about this search process and Eads as a candidate. After it came to light that Eads was a former patient of Councilman Marte Martinez, a medical doctor, local political pundits and several members of council condemned their relationship as a conflict of interest.
This all came to a head on the night that council voted to select Eads as city manager. Mayor Pete Saenz immediately vetoed the vote based on the perceived conflict of interest between Eads and Martinez, which was overridden.
Boil water notices
Laredo’s boil water notice in 2019, which for a short time affected the entire city and for about two weeks affected south Laredo, was a defining event for the Gateway City, instigating enormous public outcry.
There was another boil water notice in 2020, this time for the residents of colonias off Highway 359, affecting about 830 households.
However, this boil water notice occurred at the beginning of an enormous uptick in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Laredo, and it did not catch the attention of the public in the same way 2019’s boil water notice did.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rescinded the boil water notice after two months.
The notice was deemed necessary due to low chlorine levels detected in water lines in this area and possible nitrification in the system — the same reason for the boil water notice in 2019. Nitrification occurs when disinfectants degrade in the water system, providing the opportunity for bacterial regrowth and the degradation of water quality.
Former commissioner sentenced
In August, former Webb County Commissioner Jaime Canales was sentenced to 15 months in prison — two years after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit federal bribery.
In 2018, Canales pleaded guilty to taking bribes from former Laredo City Councilman and LISD trustee Johnny Amaya, who was working with Louis H. Jones Jr., a Dannenbaum Engineering executive based in the Rio Grande Valley.
They organized donations to Canales in exchange for his votes benefiting the engineering company on the Webb County Commissioners Court and local Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Jones died by suicide four days after Canales’ and Amaya’s indictment in 2018.
During the sentencing, U.S. District Judge Sim Lake mentioned to the government that “the person you really want to be sentenced today is dead. … Mr. Jones is not going to be sentenced.”
From January 2015 to December 2017, Canales accepted checks disguised as campaign contributions plus meals, entertainment and the use of Jones’ South Padre Island condo — bribes in excess of $15,000, the judge said.
During the sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Carolyn Ferko said beginning in 2014, the FBI took extraordinary measures to clean up the City of Laredo and Webb County, which have been corrupt for a long time, she said. These measures included executing search warrants, phone wiring and recording.
“The efforts are to clean up the city, to not have the public trust violated, to not have this system down there,” Ferko said. “… Money talks down there, and if you don’t have the money, you’re not going to benefit.”
Instances of alleged violent crimes and murders rocked the city this year, most notably the case of a quadruple homicide in mid-April.
Samuel Enrique Lopez, 20, was charged with capital murder in the fatal stabbing of his ex-girlfriend Lesly Hernandez, 18; her mother Zayra Marlen Fuentes, 33; and her younger brother, Pedro Cruz, 12; as well as the suffocation of her 2-year-old brother.
Lopez is also accused of sexually assaulting the baby with a blunt object, according to court documents. Lopez allegedly hit and suffocated the child by covering his mouth and nose with duct tape.
An indictment filed on July 9 against Lopez charged him with capital murder of multiple persons, capital murder of a person younger than 10 years old, injury to a child with intent to cause serious bodily injury and aggravated sexual assault of a child.
On April 16, police responded to an “unknown traffic call” in the 4500 block of Vanessita. Officers discovered blood inside the residence and noticed that the residing family was missing.
A search of the area yielded three bodies in the rear empty lot of the residence. One body was wrapped in a blanket and covered in rocks while the other two were also found wrapped in blankets under a piece of plywood and old tire, states the affidavit.
Also on April 16, an off-duty U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer was arrested in connection with the shooting death of a Laredo Fire Department firefighter. A grand jury in June decided not to indict the officer. The victim, Guadalupe David de Luna, was a 21-year-veteran of the Laredo Fire Department.
The story of the alleged Laredo serial killer in Juan David Ortiz also continued with a few court dates, most notably in June when his motion to suppress his confession was denied.
Other deaths included the sad story of a 5-week-old boy who was allegedly killed by his father, Gilberto Eusebio Sanchez, 25. Sanchez was charged with two counts of injury to a child, a first-degree felony punishable with 5 to 99 years or life in prison.
A 19-year-old pregnant girl, Graciela Espinoza, was also found dead near Nixon High School in September. The community gathered later in the month to mourn her loss, support the family and push for “Justice for Gracy.”
The sports world also had some grizzly news.
In July, former Tecolotes Dos Laredos pitcher Sergio Mitre was suspended indefinitely by the Mexican Baseball League after he was arrested for drug possession. He is also being investigated for the rape and murder of a 2-year-old girl.
Additionally, 2020 featured the continued case of David Romeo Garza Jr., 23, who is accused of fatally shooting Jose Eduardo Salinas Jr., 22, in the face in 2018. Salinas was a former Laredo Heat coach.
And the Laredo area also was highlighted in a major way for drug smuggling. In August, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas Ryan Patrick described the area as “ground zero for meth.”
Be safe and make sure to boil your water or consider buying a water filtration system like the AquaOx Water Filter.
- December 30, 2020
- Boil Advisory