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Defendant Pleads Guilty in Webb County Water Trial

On the fourth day of a criminal trial involving undrinkable water in two border communities, one of the two defendants pleaded guilty to all charges against him.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
El Cenizo and its neighboring border town of Rio Bravo in South Texas have a brand-new water treatment plant that was supposed to provide nearly 10,000 people here with clean drinking water. But it’s never been run properly, critics say.

On the fourth day of a criminal trial involving undrinkable water in two border communities, one of the two defendants pleaded guilty to all charges against him. 

Luis Camacho, who oversaw operations at the Rio Bravo Water Treatment Plant until June 2014, admitted to four felony counts — three for tampering with government data and one for engaging in organized criminal activity. 

At the heart of the case are problems with the treatment plant, explored in the Texas Tribune series Undrinkable.

The trial is a result of a criminal investigation that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and later the Texas Rangers, began in 2013. The probes led to felony indictments last fall against eight current and former water plant workers for falsifying water quality reports. Two of those defendants — Camacho and Johnny Amaya, his former boss — were on trial this week.

On the witness stand, Camacho said he changed numbers on water quality records sent to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to hide the fact that the water produced by the plant didn't meet health standards. He said he did so for years, including during the summer of 2013. 

That's when complaints from the two border towns of Rio Bravo and El Cenizo led to discovery of E. coli bacteria in their drinking water. The 8,000 residents of the two neighboring border towns were then forced to boil their water for weeks. 

But Camacho said he did all of that on strict instructions from Amaya, the former Webb County Water Utilities director and a well-connected Laredo politician. Camacho said Amaya told him that in reports sent to the state, the readings recorded for turbidity — a measure of the cloudiness of the water — had to be below 0.30 units, which is the maximum allowable health standard. 

"He would tell me to change the numbers, to lower them ... so we wouldn't get into any trouble with TCEQ," Camacho said. 

Fausto Sosa, Amaya's lawyer, pointed out that Camacho had just accepted a plea bargain with the prosecutors. He pleaded guilty in exchange for 10 years' probation, including probationary fees of $60 a month, a lighter sentence for such felony charges. 

"Basically, you're here because they offered you a plea bargain," Sosa said while cross-examining Camacho on Friday. "You're testifying the way they want you to testify."  

"No, I'm here to tell the truth," Camacho said. 

Amaya maintains that he is innocent of all charges. Sosa has argued that his client is the "fall guy" for Webb County, which owns the water treatment plant, and the state of Texas, which regulates all water plants. 

The trial will continue next week. 

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