Katy Vine has been a staff writer for Texas Monthly since 2002. In that time she’s written on topics from food to sport to criminal justice. In the magazine’s current issue, she traces the rise and fall of a criminal enterprise run by crimefighters. Her seamless narrative style required hours of tedious prison interviews. Vine told us about the people and process behind “Cops and Robbers.”

Your story focuses on a sheriff’s deputy named Fabian Rodriguez, who seems to be the perfect subject. He’s a sympathetic character, and by the end he appears remorseful. Was your decision to focus on him a matter of access, the kind of person he is or something else?

The decision to focus on Fabian Rodriguez came very early in the reporting. I was in contact with all but one of the Panama Unit members, and they were very responsive to my questions, so access wasn’t much of an issue. What I needed was someone central to the action, someone who could show us both the world of the Panama Unit and the world of their drug contact, Fernando Guerra, Sr. As the Panama Unit’s intermediary, taking the stolen drugs and selling them to Guerra, Fabian had key insights that none of the other characters could provide. That was important. And as you pointed out, he’s also sympathetic, which was crucial since it would be difficult for readers to care about a main character who was both a crook and a jerk. I considered other characters to provide the main narrative, but none of the other guys worked as well as Fabian. Since Jonathan Treviño was a bully, he would have been too problematic in the center. I also considered following an agent (I interviewed the three agents mentioned in the story), but an agent would have taken the focus off of the unit.

You are virtually invisible in this story. It’s told in limited third person, and it characterizes Fabian’s thoughts and feelings with very few hints that a reporter is mediating them. The tone is so familiar, we don’t even learn Fabian’s last name until almost the end. To write so confidently takes a ton of reporting — what went into it?

To be honest, I’m not always crazy about this style, but in this case, the central characters had either pleaded guilty or been found guilty and the key parties were willing to talk, so I thought, OK, all these statements can be corroborated, let’s just recreate the scenes. You’re right that it took a ton of reporting and time, but most of all it required patience on behalf of my interview subjects — Fabian in particular. Fabian had to endure the most nitpicky questions that sound so stupid — “You’re a big guy; when you get into the car, do you hunch down a little bit?” — but those questions are necessary, right? People don’t always have the time to answer those questions, even if they want to be helpful. Someone who is serving 13 years in prison has that time.

Do you think true crime can have a direct effect on policy, or do you tell stories this way for some other purpose?

Certainly, there are true crime stories that can bring attention to an issue and shape the national dialogue, if not policy itself — take the media’s attention on the recent murder of Walter Scott, for example. But I never fantasized that a story about the Panama Unit would spark public debate for two reasons. First, the local media covered the arrests when they occurred a few years ago, so the initial shockwave passed before I even started my reporting. Second, corruption is nothing new to that area, sad as that is. (Texas Monthly has published its share of corrupt border sheriff stories.)

I wrote this story because I felt it was important to document the most sprawling, egregious corruption case the Valley has seen in many decades — if not ever. All the agents I spoke with said they had busted corrupt officials before; what was new in this case was an entire dirty unit whose downfall bolstered other ongoing investigations. The domino effect resulted in more revelations of corruption: It included the sheriff, the sheriff’s commander, the sheriff’s chief of staff, a bail bondsman, a district attorney investigator, and on and on. In one article, I could capture a stage in Hidalgo County history when the curtain was pulled back and true depth of the corruption was exposed.

The most treacherous thing about rogue cops on the Mexican border is that they’re undermining their colleagues. Are police outraged about this?

Some of the officers were surprised, but others sensed trouble years ago when the unit was formed. There was a notion that the Panama Unit was Jonathan Treviño’s playground for him and his buddies; it was a terrible situation from the get-go. No doubt, the Panama Unit’s renown in the Valley has hurt law enforcement’s reputation, and all the officers who resist temptation daily have got to be angry about that. They should be.

In some ways, this kind of police work is like plugging a dam with a finger; drugs will find a way to Wall Street, Cleveland and Chicago. Is a sense of futility part of these officers’ temptation?

I’m sure that if a massive raid in Pharr resulted in some headline like “Border Bust Results In Less Heroine For Hard-Up Junkies,” the reward would feel more tangible. Still, there are officers who look at their daily arrests and feel a sense of accomplishment, so that sense of futility must be a very small portion of the motive for going rogue.

From what I’ve been told, the lure to stray from the path stems from accessibility, old-fashioned greed and a sense of invincibility. And that third element is significant. The Panama Unit members told me that other officers who had the same inclination to go rogue stayed clean because they were afraid of getting caught. What made the Panama Unit unique is they felt they had cover — they had that sense of invincibility — and, just like all the law enforcement before them that went to prison, they never suspected they were being watched. As extraordinary as it sounds, Jonathan Treviño told me he thought they’d never get caught.

Cops and Robbers,” Texas Monthly, April 2015.

Further reading:

None Dare Call It a Conspiracy,” GQ (first published online April 2015 by Longform.org), September 2009. “It is a riddle that lies at the very heart of the modern Russian state, one that remains unsolved to this day. In the awful events of September 1999, did Russia find its avenging angel in Vladimir Putin, the proverbial man of action who crushed his nation’s attackers and led his people out of a time of crisis? Or was that crisis actually manufactured to benefit Putin, a scheme by Russia’s secret police to bring one of their own to power?”

The Chair,” Guernica, February 2015. “With fewer Tibetans escaping, there are fewer voices to contradict the reports published by China’s state-sponsored media. … To see Tibet from afar thus requires intimate acts of imagination. You have to fill in the gaps between ‘not been confirmed’ and ‘bloodshed.’ You have to guess what it means when the ‘whereabouts and wellbeing’ of a protestor are ‘unknown.’”

The Incredible True Story Behind the Toronto Mystery Tunnel,” Maclean’s, March 2015. “First reported by CBC News last month, the mystery tunnel made international news: 10 m long, more than two metres high, and expertly constructed, braced and camouflaged, it featured water-resistant electric lights and drew power via underground wiring from a generator in a soundproof, subterranean chamber nearby.”

“‘This Man I Call Father,’” Foreign Policy, April 2015. “To most of the world, the name Idi Amin carries dark connotations. The annals of history place the late Ugandan leader alongside Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and Slobodan Milosevic in the pantheon of vicious madmen. … To Jaffar, he was ‘great as a father.’”

Ben Wolford
Ben Wolford is editor of Latterly. His reporting has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere.