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The People's Choice

Three years after a crackdown that resulted in federal conspiracy charges against Laredo's former police chief, the city's electronic gaming parlors are back — most tucked in nondescript strip malls. Their resurgence owes to their popularity, says state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, who has offered a solution: Let the voters decide.

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In Laredo, electronic gambling machines and the parlors that house them are akin to the reptile’s tail that grows back after being cut off.

In 2007, the city’s former police chief and two other high-ranking officers were convicted of federal conspiracy charges after taking bribes from operators of the amusement centers. The officers knew many establishments were paying out more than the state-allowed limit of $5 in cash or prizes, and they accepted payments to let it continue. The city cracked down, seizing cash and machines, known there as “maquinitas,” or eight-liners.

Now the makeshift casinos — most tucked in nondescript strip malls — are back. In truth, some never left. Their resurgence owes to their popularity, says state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, who has offered a solution: Let the people decide. Raymond has filed legislation that would put the issue to voters, similar to the way municipalities decide where liquor is sold.

“I have a lot of people that have come to me on this, from law enforcement to owners to people that play and pastors who don’t like it,” Raymond says.

The proposed legislation would initially shut down the centers, then allow voters to petition to reopen them via popular vote. A separate bill would determine the prize amount. About 40 establishments have permits to operate as amusement centers, a city official says.

Carlos Maldonado, Laredo’s current police chief, is not weighing in on the issue, preferring instead to let the Legislature decide. Jose E. Baeza, the police department's spokesman, says the authorities are doing their best to curb the illegal activity but the parlors continue to proliferate.

“They are taking thousands and thousands of dollars from people,” Baeza says. The manpower it takes for a sting also works in the operators’ favor, he says: An officer must pose as a player, establish trust and gather evidence, all for a misdemeanor gambling charge.

The office of Isidro “Chilo” Alaniz, the district attorney of Webb and Zapata counties, has had 14 successful operations that led to forfeitures or raids in two years, he said. But he admits the resources could be better spent on crimes with harsher penalties.

Many people “are willing to risk the penalties,” Alaniz says. “It’s a slap on the wrist.” The current system also invites more serious crimes, he says, like money-laundering for larger criminal organizations.

Alaniz also favors putting the issue to a vote — with one caveat. “I am a proponent of increased penalties” if the voters approve the measure, he says. “It could have a more deterring effect."

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