Fund suspension will cost Starr Co. HIDTA task force $300,000

The Starr County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force will lose out on about $300,000 in federal grant money following notice of the suspension of those funds from July 1 until the end of the year.

For the entire year, the Starr County HIDTA task force received a grant of over $600,000 for the year, according to Tony Garcia, the director of South Texas HIDTA. The total amount is a combination of the funds granted to the county and to Rio Grande City.

In a letter dated June 8, Board Chairman of South Texas HIDTA Christopher H. Combs notified city and county officials that the executive board voted to suspend their funds effective June 30 through Dec. 31 after which the suspension would be reassessed.

Combs added that under the grant agreement, HIDTA funded equipment must be made available to the executive board for the use by other HIDTA participants. Collection and storage of that equipment will be done by the executive director or another designated individual, the letter stated.

Attached to the letter was a list of such equipment. It includes:

Three GPS tracking devices; 10 OptiPlex computers with software; A server; Two firewalls; A Synology Rack Station; A phone system and 24 handsets, voice and video; A police records management system, fixed asset software, scanner, and tag gun; A security surveillance system; Several cellphones; and five vehicles including a 2019 blue Chevrolet Silverado, a 2018 Silver Chevrolet Silverado, a 2012 Bronze Golded Ford F-150, a 2011 Summit White Chevrolet Silverado, and a 2012 fiery red Ford F-150.

“Task force management will be notified of the date and time when property will be inspected and gathered for storage and safe keeping,” the letter stated.

The executive board made the decision to suspend funding during a meeting on June 3 but the reason behind that is still not publicly known.

“The decision was made by the executive board which is the governing body of the South Texas HIDTA,” Garcia said. “They made that decision in executive session so I’m not privy to the items of discussion that were covered so therefore I could not comment and, quite honestly, neither could they.”

229th District Attorney Omar Escobar, whose office oversees the Starr County HIDTA task force, did not return requests for comment.

However, incoming District Attorney Gocha Ramirez, who defeated Escobar during the March Primary elections, had issued a statement over the weekend stating he started reaching out to local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies with the hope of restoring those funds next year.

“We can assume that there were things that were happening that were not appropriate and there was some mismanagement,” Ramirez said of the task force, though he was clear he did not know the actual reason why the funds were suspended.

Ramirez also stressed that there was a distinction between a suspension and a complete defunding.

His goal, he said, was to work with the executive board to let them know that he was “ready to correct the mistakes under this administration.”

“There’s going to be proper oversight and they are going to do what they are supposed to,” Ramirez said.