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Crystal City, dubbed the most corrupt city in America, gears up for new election

There’s not much a town can do when the mayor, four of the five council members and the city manager are all facing various federal charges and yet remain on all official stationary and, some say, keep exerting their influence on local matters. One of them is even on the ballot for an election set for May.

Add to that an announcement by the Texas Education Agency regarding the possible closure of the school district after it failed to reach state academic standards for the third year in a row. If that were to happen, students will need to be bused every day to the next town over, 40 miles west.

I’m not here to judge anyone. I’m not a hero. I came in with a purpose to help the community.

- Joel Barajas, only councilmember not indicted

In Crystal City, Texas, everything is all but crystal clear these days. With a modest population of 7,500 – of which 94 percent are Hispanic and 44 percent live below the poverty line – the town has been running headless since February, when almost every top official of the city got arrested in an FBI raid. According to the indictment, they took bribes from contractors and provided city workers to assist an illegal gambling operator, Ngoc Tri Nguyen.

The Washington Post said the city “might be the most corrupt little town in America.”

Mayor Ricardo Lopez, city attorney William Jonas, council members Roel and Rogelio Mata, and former councilman Gilbert Urrabazo are free on bond pending trial, while Councilman Marco Rodriguez was already charged in a separate case involving the smuggling Mexican immigrants.

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Only one councilman, Joel Barajas, is free of federal charges. He calls the exposure of years-long corruption “in a way a victory,” but also a “sad day.”

“I’m not here to judge anyone,” he told Fox News Latino. “I’m not a hero. I came in with a purpose to help the community,” said Barajas, who also runs a fire extinguisher business.

Barajas still shows up at city council meetings though most of the indicted city council members out on bond skip the hearings.

Just 120 miles southwest of San Antonio, Crystal City was once the site of school walkouts and protests over discrimination against Mexican-Americans. Many call it the heart of the Chicano movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it became the birthplace of the now defunct La Raza Unida party.

Being from Crystal City used to be a point of pride for Jose Mata, a former town mayor and Vietnam vet. Now, he says, he finds it “embarrassing” to be from here. “It really hurts to say this,” he said recently to FNL.

Mata said he was one of the concerned citizens who called state officials to expose alleged corruption in the city, including allegations that the former city manager listed the town’s vacant caboose —a relic that now sits along the main street and houses the town’s Christmas decorations — as his place of residence on his voter registration card.

Mata said he wants to see “a movement of our community so we can come together again.”

Meanwhile, the indicted mayor sees the recent arrests – excluding his own – as an opportunity for the city to start anew, with him possibly at the helm.

A former anesthesiology technician who now sells used cars he buys off Craigslist, Lopez moved to the town shortly after marrying a Crystal City native.

“I’m staying here,” said Lopez, viewed by many as a dapper-dressing outsider from Austin. “We’re trying to better this town.”

He says his political ambitions aren’t quashed, even with the looming charges — his name is on the ballot. “I might have a very good chance of winning,” he told FNL.

His opponents include former mayor Frank Moreno and a political newcomer and school teacher Roberto Aldape, who claimed last month that his truck was vandalized by people who oppose his run for mayor.

In Crystal City, much of the news in town is retold online, in the aisles of the local H-E-B grocery store or under the shaded kiosks around town where retirees, mostly men, gather and wait and talk about the upcoming elections.

“We think we're gonna change it,” said a Mr. Rodriguez, 85, no first name. “But we don’t know what we're gonna get.”

“I think a lot of us are wanting to get things fixed already,” said Annie Lee–Garcia, editor of the Zavala County Sentinel, which has seen a lot of breaking stories lately.

But Lopez insists that he is the solution Crystal City needs and views the arrests as a wake-up call for elected officials at all levels of government to pay more attention to small-town corruption.

“In my heart I did what I was able to do,” said Lopez, who blames much of city’s problems on the city manager.

“I want to reach for higher politics,” he said, adding that he could see himself running for lieutenant governor or governor, shedding light on the plight of small Texas towns that lack economic development and resources.

“There’s a lot of small cities like this and no one wants to pay attention,” said Lopez. “Who’s gonna step in? Who’s gonna fix them?”

Joanna Cattanach is a freelancer based in Dallas, Texas.

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