In this Rio Grande Valley town of trailer parks and weedy lots eight miles from the Mexico border, people call them runners or politiqueras — the campaign workers who use their network of relatives and friends to deliver votes for their candidates. They travel around town with binders stuffed with the names and addresses of registered voters, driving residents to and from the polls and urging those they bump into at the grocery store to support their candidates. Despite rumors that some politiqueras went over the line in encouraging voters, the tradition continued in Donna and other border towns and cities, and campaigns for nearly every local office or seat have paid politiqueras to turn out the vote in contested races. But in recent weeks, the suicide of the school board president here and accusations of vote buying against three politiqueras have rocked the system. The charges may threaten the existence of politiqueras in Donna, an impoverished community of 16,000, where politics and jobs are inseparable. The school system is the largest employer, and city government is the second largest; local politics rivals high school football as a favored pastime.
Three women working as politiqueras in the 2012 elections in Donna were arrested by F.B.I. agents in December and accused of giving residents cash, drugs, beer and cigarettes in exchange for their votes.
According to court documents, the typical payment to a voter was $10, a sign of the extreme poverty in the Rio Grande Valley, which is home to some of the poorest counties in America. Two of the three women — Rebecca Gonzalez and Guadalupe Escamilla — are accused of paying some voters as little as $3 for each of their votes. One voter was given a pack of cigarettes. Others were taken to buy drugs after they received cash for voting for a politiquera’s candidate.