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Starr County officials announce crime task force

February 23, 2017 GMT

RIO GRANDE CITY — Starr County law enforcement, county and city officials announced the formation of a task force to deal with an increasing criminal element in county.

Standing inside the old Rio Grande City Hall, police Chief Noe Castillo announced Wednesday afternoon a local multi-agency task force that would focus on, among other things, a growing drug problem in Starr County.

But hours after the task force was announced, 229th Judicial District Attorney Omar Escobar said in a prepared statement sent via email that he would not accept cases from a task force he had no knowledge of.

“As the county’s chief felony prosecutor, my office makes the final determination as to which cases are prosecuted. I have no knowledge of any additional task force in our area or under what legal authority they operate,” Escobar said. “My office doesn’t prosecute cases from agencies we know nothing about. I don’t think any district attorney does.”

Alongside County Attorney Victor Canales, Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal, and representatives of the different law enforcement agencies in the county, Castillo said the team would focus on issues affecting the local municipalities.

Castillo said a growing drug influx throughout the county was part of the reason the unit was put together, saying that they’ve identified at least 20 drug houses operating in the municipalities.

“It is a countywide problem — you see the synthetic marijuana, cocaine, crack cocaine — there’s a lot of stuff here. This is what’s targeting the interior of our cities and county,” Castillo said. “And it’s affecting our children, the youth of the community — we need to remove that element; this is our focus.”

The chief, who was appointed as the unit’s director, said the idea is to combine the agencies to take advantage of combined resources. He said the old model of each agency taking on its own operations has proven inefficient to thwart illegal activity in the respective municipalities.

“If I had to work an undercover operation within our jurisdiction, it takes five to six guys to do it. And you multiply that by the cases we get in any given year, that really ties up our budget,” Castillo said.

Villarreal called the unit’s approach “Good ole’ law enforcement,” meaning the unit would identify an issue and deal with it “swiftly.”

“The Starr County Special Crimes Unit’s focus is to work cases that would otherwise impact agencies’ budgets and deplete resources for a single agency,” Villarreal said. “As a multi-agency unit, each individual agency can identify the issues in their specific areas of operation.”

A board of directors that includes the heads of the agencies, and Canales, will lead the unit, the chief said.

Canales said new task force will not cost taxpayers a “single dime,” as each agency will pay for the officer assigned to the unit from their allotted budget, Canales said.

The board of directors will also keep residents informed of the task forces’ activity with monthly summary reports, the county attorney said.

“The commitment from each law enforcement agency sends a tremendous message that we do want a safer Starr County,” Canales said.

Castillo said the task force has already started to make an impact.

In its first operation last Wednesday, the unit made several arrests and seized nearly 200 grams of cocaine within city limits at an illegal game room and two known drug houses, the chief said.

“We want to make our community safer, we may have different uniforms, different jurisdictions, different policies and guidelines, but we have the same goal in common,” the chief said. “We want to protect and serve the communities we live in, and this is giving us a better opportunity to serve the community as a whole.”

In response to Escobar’s questioning of the task force’s legitimacy, Castillo said the unit is a working agreement between the local agencies.

“We do not know what statute the DA would be looking for. (But) police agencies assist each other all the time. We are combining our resources by agreement. All the investigators assigned to the Special Crimes Unit have countywide jurisdiction through either the (Starr County) sheriff or the County Attorney,” Castillo said. “We are going to provide relief to our communities from drugs and drug related crimes. We are going to do our job. What we cannot do is decide for the DA whether he is going to do his, or not.”

lzazueta@themonitor.com