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Election Signs for the Cuellars
The Cuellar family built a formidable political machine in this border community. Veronica Cardenas/Reuters

‘The Patrón’: How Henry Cuellar and His Family Control Webb County, Texas

The congressman, his brother and his sister wield unusual power in South Texas. Documents and interviews with more than 25 local officials, business leaders and residents show just how far it stretches.

WEBB COUNTY, Texas — Long before he was indicted, Rep. Henry Cuellar was considered the “King of Laredo.” And as he rose to power and prominence in South Texas, he brought his sister Rosie and brother Martin with him.

Along the way, his siblings have faced questions about self-dealing and political influence-peddling. NOTUS found that Rosie Cuellar was appointed to a judgeship for which she heard no cases, in a town with no courthouse. Under Martin Cuellar’s leadership, the Webb County sheriff’s office has drawn the scrutiny of the FBI. Prosecutors are probing a cleaning company owned by a man who was at the time assistant chief in the sheriff’s office and have asked for documents about Martin Cuellar as part of that investigation. In addition, sources told NOTUS that Martin Cuellar and his allies pressured staff to promote his and his family’s political careers.

The children of immigrant farmworkers with five other siblings, the three Cuellars built a formidable political machine in Webb County, a poor, predominantly Hispanic border community that’s an important trade hub with Mexico. From his perch on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Henry Cuellar helped deliver millions in federal money to the region. And his siblings controlled the levers of local power: Martin Cuellar has served as the sheriff in Webb County since 2008, while Rosie Cuellar has held positions in local government as a judge and tax assessor and is hoping to be elected to the statehouse in the fall.

Their political fortunes were intertwined: When Henry Cuellar faced a competitive primary challenge in 2022, his brother bused Webb County sheriff’s department employees to San Antonio to block-walk for him, three former department employees told NOTUS. If a Cuellar held a fundraiser, sheriff’s deputies were expected to help sell tickets and pay out of their own pocket for those they didn’t sell, five former employees said.

“That is not a question,” one former employee said. “We have to go. If we don’t, we get on the blacklist.”

Both Martin and Rosie Cuellar have received donations from Henry. This cycle, Rosie benefited the most, receiving more than $65,000 in in-kind donations to support her bid for the statehouse.

Henry Cuellar
Rep. Henry Cuellar is running for reelection despite a federal indictment. Eric Gay/AP

Henry Cuellar has pleaded not guilty to a raft of federal bribery, money laundering and foreign influence charges leveled against him and his wife, Imelda Cuellar. But federal prosecutors are probing matters in Webb County as well: The FBI searched the sheriff’s office last year, according to local media reports, and federal prosecutors are scrutinizing at least one business registered to Martin Cuellar, according to a subpoena reviewed by NOTUS and interviews with locals. Martin Cuellar and the Webb County sheriff’s office declined to comment for this story.

Henry Cuellar said in a statement that any allegations against his siblings were “clearly politically motivated and released conveniently before next week’s election.”

“My brother Martin and my sister Rosie have served the Laredo community with honor and dignity,” the congressman said. “South Texas voters know my family’s record and will see this for what it is — a partisan political hit job.”

NOTUS interviewed more than 25 local officials, business leaders and residents and reviewed court records, police reports, corporate filings, financial disclosure reports and documents obtained through public records requests to uncover how the Cuellars have exerted their influence in Webb County.

The indictment may rock Henry Cuellar’s political career here, but the family still has plenty of sway, according to locals.

“This thing going on with Henry, that’s gonna affect them,” a former sheriff’s employee said. “They’re still strong, though. They still can get to you, one way or another.”

***

Rio Bravo is roughly 15 blocks long and three blocks wide, starting at Highway 83 and backing up to the Rio Grande. It has just over 4,000 residents and feels even smaller. Its municipal government is run entirely out of a small warehouse by a mayor and two city commissioners.

The city is clearly struggling. Most houses are in various states of disrepair, and the streets are crumbling. When an unfamiliar car drives by, residents turn and watch.

One former Department of Homeland Security official said the town is a “very interesting place, kinda like the DMZ meets an episode of ‘Narcos.’”



“Kinda like the DMZ meets an episode of ‘Narcos.’”


Rosie Cuellar was paid an undisclosed amount for what appeared to be a make-work role as a municipal judge, according to interviews with both the current and former mayor of Rio Bravo as well as financial disclosures filed by Rosie Cuellar as part of a run for statewide office. Rosie Cuellar did not respond to requests for comment.

Rio Bravo did not respond to public records requests filed by NOTUS for its municipal budget, its spending records or for any information about how Rosie Cuellar was selected for the position. The city’s refusal to hand over documents about its finances makes it impossible to know how much she was paid. Though meeting minutes are supposed to be public by law in Texas, the city does not post them publicly and would not make them available. NOTUS sent multiple requests by email and visited the city’s town hall in person to try to get access to information.

Rio Bravo officials said Rosie Cuellar helped with paperwork to get a court set up and visited schools, though she never heard a case. Gilberto Aguilar, the former mayor who was involved in hiring Rosie Cuellar, said she was paid roughly $18 an hour for her work, although he couldn’t remember the exact figure. Neither he nor the current mayor, Amanda Perez Aguero, who was a city commissioner at the time, could remember how much Rosie Cuellar worked, though they both estimated it was around 20 hours a week.

When Rosie Cuellar was hired, Aguilar was also one of Martin Cuellar’s employees at the sheriff’s department — a center of political power in Webb County. He did not respond to a set of emailed questions sent by NOTUS.

According to locals, the department is one of the largest employers and provides some of the highest-paying jobs attainable for those without a college degree, who make up more than 80% of the county’s workforce.

Former Commander Juan Hernández said he and others initially supported Martin Cuellar when he was first elected 16 years ago because they thought he would change things. Hernández had worked in the department for decades under multiple sheriffs and felt it needed fresh leadership. In South Texas, public corruption has been a persistent issue, but Hernández said Cuellar promised “no politics.”

Now, Hernández says, the corruption and culture are worse than ever.

“I started to lose faith in what he was doing,” said Hernández, who said he quit roughly nine months into the sheriff’s first term. “I started to really see a side of him that I did not know.”

In June 2023, the FBI searched the Webb County sheriff’s office. Martin Cuellar has said he is not the subject of an FBI investigation. A spokesperson for the Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Martin Cuellar, Rosie Cuellar (Texas Observer)
Martin Cuellar and Rosie Cuellar at a campaign launch event. Justin Miller/Texas Observer

Separately, a subpoena reviewed by NOTUS shows that a federal grand jury last year requested information about both Martin Cuellar and an entity called Eagle One Business Ventures LLC, along with a cleaning company owned by one of Martin’s former employees. Texas corporate records show that Martin Cuellar owns a company called Eagle 1 Business Venture LLC.

The federal investigation and the search of the sheriff’s office appear to be related, at least in part, to COVID-era cleaning contracts, according to the subpoena and a statement from the Webb County sheriff last year. In the statement, Martin Cuellar acknowledged he was questioned about “employees going to daycares, churches, and County buildings to disinfect.”

The cleaning company, Disinfect Pro Master, was given a contract in 2021 by the United Independent School District, which runs schools in Webb County. According to disclosure forms, the company was owned by one of Martin’s then-assistant chiefs, Ricardo Rodriguez, who was simultaneously a member of the school board. The school board position is unpaid, according to a source. Rodriguez also had a job in Rio Bravo as an associate judge, according to an online bio. (Other allies of the Cuellars similarly hold overlapping positions in numerous government entities. Aguilar, the former Rio Bravo mayor, is also on the school board in addition to his job in the sheriff’s department.) Rodriguez owned the company while working for the sheriff’s department and serving on the school board but retired from the sheriff’s department after the FBI search.

Rodriguez’s company was offering to charge half of what the nearest competitor bid to clean most of the district’s schools. The total contract was worth more than $500,000, according to records provided to NOTUS by the school district in response to an open records request.

On-duty sheriff’s personnel performed cleanings at district schools using sheriff’s equipment, according to people familiar with the matter. Martin Cuellar acknowledged last year in a statement that sheriff’s deputies were cleaning county buildings but denied that they were there on behalf of Disinfect Pro Master, calling it a separate service provided through the sheriff’s department.

Through an attorney, UISD said in a statement that Rodriguez’s company “was deemed to provide the best value for these services” and that “all legal requirements were met, including required conflicts of interest disclosures.”

After receiving complaints about the conflict of interest inherent in awarding a cleaning contract to a company owned by a board member, the district hired an independent external auditor, the attorney said. “The external auditor’s review concluded that the selection of the vendor was appropriate and done in compliance with state purchasing regulations and UISD’s policies and procedures,” according to the attorney.

***

Like many cities in South Texas, Laredo was once dominated by what locals refer to as the “patrón system,” where powerful politicians or business owners used their influence to control politics and enrich themselves with bribes and contracts. Henry Cuellar rose from the ashes of the previous system, serving in the statehouse for more than a decade before eventually winning his seat in Congress in 2004. In that election, he narrowly lost in the first vote count. He called for another count and 500 new ballots were found, leading him to beat the incumbent by 58 votes.

Remnants of the patrón system remain in Webb County — including at the sheriff’s department, both before and during Martin Cuellar’s tenure, according to interviews with six former employees.

They allege that Martin Cuellar used the sheriff’s department to shore up votes, financially support his campaign and boost the family’s political pursuits.

To get hired, deputies had to prove they could bring out voters, and to get promoted, they had to be devoted to the sheriff, the former employees alleged. They said they were asked to function as politiqueras: a Spanish term that once referred to people hired by political bosses to turn out votes but now is more widely used to include plugged-in community members who bring in voters.

“Kiss ass and give money,” one former employee said.



“They would tell you, ‘You need to vote for this person. You need to back up the boss’ brother, the boss’ sister.’”


He said he’d tell people he brought to the polls — mostly his family members — to put on a good face for Martin Cuellar.

“A lot of employees, including myself, I would tell them, ‘Hey, I know you don’t want to vote for him, but tell them you’re voting for him, and that’s it. You vote for whoever you want,’” said the former staffer.

“They would tell you, ‘You need to vote for this person. You need to back up the boss’ brother, the boss’ sister,’” another said.

Four former employees said they felt pressure from Martin Cuellar’s inner circle to donate to his campaign. Two upper-level staff said they were expected to donate $1,000 to Martin’s campaign every year, and four said that on his birthday, every employee was expected to contribute money as a gift.

“They would write your name and say, ‘Hey, sheriff. These are the people that gave you money for your birthday. These are people that gave for your campaign,’” a former employee said.

Four sources said sheriff’s department personnel were also expected to support Martin Cuellar’s siblings’ campaigns.

“They kill three birds with one stone because they’re block-walking for all three of them,” the same former staff member said. The perspective from many employees is, “My job’s on the line. He’s asking me, so I gotta go,” he added. “They can’t say no.”

“They would pretty much say, like, ‘This is the sheriff’s brother, this is the sheriff’s sister, so you know what you’re expected to do,’” another former employee said. “Go and stand for rallies, go and participate in their campaign, you know, pick up people to go vote.”

Five former employees said they felt there was a culture of fear at the sheriff’s department. Civil servants are protected by some laws that make it difficult to fire them, but that doesn’t mean there’s no way to retaliate. Even for those not working in the department anymore, it’s difficult to speak out. They fear the long reach of a family with so many connections.

“He’s a sheriff, and he’s the congressman. The sister was a municipal court judge, and so they still got the power,” a former employee said.


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Jose Garza Jr., who said he worked at the department from 1985 to 2016, initially supported Martin Cuellar but became frustrated when he felt the department was run on political favors. Other sources confirmed that Garza spoke up when he disagreed with the sheriff.

Garza said he served for years without a single disciplinary action against him. But around 2016, he racked up dozens, according to an interview and paperwork he shared with NOTUS.

Other than two alleged job violations in 2013, one in 2014 and one in 2015, the form said he had over 55 counts of insubordination and over 25 counts of failure to perform his duties. All the itemized sanctions on the document occurred in 2016: 11 for being on his cell phone and the rest for allegedly not checking the perimeter of the jail or not staying within the guard shack.



“They would pretty much say, like, ‘This is the sheriff’s brother, this is the sheriff’s sister, so you know what you’re expected to do.’”


Garza ultimately retired. He’s proud of his service in law enforcement, but the sting from the perceived unfairness still comes through when he talks about his time at the department.

“I’m already tired; I don’t want to do this,” he remembers thinking after agreeing to step away.

Four other former employees NOTUS spoke with felt they were unfairly punished or pushed out of the department.

“It came to the point of being a hostile work environment,” one said.

***

The Cuellars are still well-liked by many in Webb County. Residents described two very different versions of the family. In one, the Cuellars are revered for the money and investment they’ve brought to the area and rightfully lauded for serving the community. In the other view, the family is corrupt and has used its influence to enrich itself at the expense of the constituency.

All three Cuellars’ popularity will be tested at the polls. Martin Cuellar is in a competitive runoff for his seat against former employee Wayo Ruiz, and Rosie Cuellar is in a competitive runoff for the Democratic nomination for a state Legislature seat. Both elections will be held May 28, while Henry Cuellar will face a general election in November, though his Republican challengers (who are in a runoff) aren’t expected to topple him.

When the siblings’ campaigns align, they support one another. When Rosie Cuellar was elected to a Webb County position in 2018, Henry swore her in. One photo from December 2019 shows Martin and Rosie Cuellar together at a campaign launch event for the family. Attendants in the background hold signs for each sibling.

The trio has come a long way. Hernández sees the Cuellars as yet another family who started from the bottom and reached the top by stepping on others, reinforcing the same old political systems that disenfranchised the region for decades.

“This was a community controlled by the patrón system,” Hernández said. “The patrón still lives.”


Casey Murray, a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow, reported on the ground in Texas. NOTUS reporter Byron Tau reported from Washington, D.C.