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La Salle’s new sheriff reinforces community relations
Anthony Zertuche knew well during the 2020 primary elections that he would face steep challenges if he was to defeat a popular incumbent to become La Salle County’s new sheriff.
He prevailed in the March primaries by a narrow margin, only hours after falling behind in the tally, when victory had already been announced for Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez. A clerical error in the county elections office, however, corrected the tally and the onetime sheriff’s corporal was named the Democratic Party nominee before midnight on primary election day.
Zertuche coasted through the general election in November with no Republican, write-in or independent challengers and was sworn into office as the county’s top law enforcement officer on January 1.
Today, he has finished assembling a team of 13 officers, including Chief Deputy Armando Romo and Captain Juan Mireles, both veterans of the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office and both experienced in South Texas law enforcement. Among its long-serving officers, the agency also has two sergeants, Elvira Gonzales and Enrique Velez; Sergeant Investigator Esmeralda Gonzalez, and Investigator Homar Olivarez.
Together, the officers make up a team of which Zertuche can say he is proud, and he believes the cohesiveness with which all his staff work will be key to taking on the task that lies ahead.
Zertuche is a Cotulla native, raised in the community and graduating from the local high school in 2002. He married within the year and – after starting a family – enrolled in the Southwest Texas Junior College Law Enforcement Training Academy at Uvalde, where he earned his peace officer certification in 2009. Within days he had been hired as a patrol deputy by La Salle County Sheriff Victor Villarreal and remained with the agency for more than nine years.
Zertuche left La Salle with the rank of corporal in 2018 and traveled north sixteen miles to work with the Dilley Police Department, where, in the summer of 2020, he was named interim chief of police. It would be a short-term position, as he had already won the primary election to be La Salle County’s new sheriff, and the city of Dilley was looking for a long-term officeholder to lead its police department.
When Dilley hired Homer Delgado as its chief of police, Zertuche stepped aside and worked with his new boss on continuing his signature brand of community policing, a mixture of strong and lasting public relations with a reassuring and active law enforcement presence effected by a team of officers working closely together toward a common goal.
It is the same mission and work ethic that he brings to his new office as sheriff of La Salle County.
“I think the biggest challenge facing us is rebuilding the community’s trust, and we can go from there,” Zertuche says. “Not to take anything away from my predecessor, but I feel that we have some work to do in bringing the public back into the fold. It’s something that I really set as a priority. We have to let the community understand that we are all here to help them. We have to establish a positive relationship with the public.”
The sheriff takes an active role in his agency’s law enforcement work, joining officers on patrol and being on hand at crime scenes and domestic calls, and keeps close tabs on the many ongoing investigations that his officers conduct each day.
“There was a gradual separation, I feel, over a period of years, when the sheriff’s office was administered from here and the team was out there,” he adds. “There was a perception that a wall had gone up, between the heads of the department and the officers on the street. That had to change if we were going to be effective in revitalizing this law enforcement agency.
“This isn’t just about patrol and answering calls in Cotulla,” Zertuche says. “This is about all the residents of our county, from Fowlerton to Artesia Wells and Encinal, to Gardendale and Millett. Everybody counts, and everybody deserves the same attention.
“Once we can re-establish that positive relationship, it will make our job that much easier,” the sheriff says. “From property theft and traffic accidents to major crime investigation, the people of La Salle County need to and will feel encouraged to talk to us, because we cannot establish a successful investigation without that trust.”
Zertuche admits that La Salle County has its share of crime and challenges, not least of which is an increase in the narcotics trade and related crimes of opportunity and desperation. The burgeoning proliferation of cheap methamphetamine drugs, he says, has changed the face of the county, and while he does not place the blame squarely on the long-term effects of the recent energy industry boom, he knows that the two are connected.
“When you can get a methamphetamine hit for twenty dollars, cheaper than cocaine, and not need another hit until the next day because its effects last longer in the body, we have a problem growing fast,” Zertuche says. “We are seeing an increase in thefts of valuables that can be pawned or fenced for the amount of money needed to sustain a methamphetamine habit. These are the crimes that hurt our residents daily.
“I’m not saying that the entire community has a meth problem,” he adds quickly. “I’m saying that there are many families that have been affected by it in one way or another, and many are battling it on a daily basis. That’s the reality.
“The oil boom brought something to our community that the people had not seen before,” Zertuche says. “It left its mark. The changes in the economy, in the population, in commercial traffic, brought new points of contact, new accessibility to narcotics.
“Even though I do see the issue of thefts stemming from narcotics, I am confident that my staff, that the experience this administration has, will match the task at hand,” the sheriff says. “I know that we will be able to disrupt and push out this narcotic element.”
The sheriff’s office recently took delivery of five new patrol vehicles, paid for by the county on approval from the commissioners’ court, and expects soon to receive three more vehicles, fully equipped for patrol. The purchases were applied for by the previous administration. Officers recently attended a training course given by the Texas Rangers and hosted by the 81st Judicial District Attorney’s Office on crime scene and report writing; and training courses are being scheduled for updates on roadside contacts, search warrants, and other procedures. In addition, La Salle County has received federal funds through Operation Stonegarden to help support salaries of officers working extended hours on the interstate and in border-region security.
Zertuche believes that keeping his officers up to date on all the training, procedures and practices available to the agency will improve their effectiveness. He acknowledges that this will also include new training and general education in what he and his chief deputy see as a prevailing threat in South Texas, namely the Mexican drug cartels.
“We have some new officers who need to understand how much effect the cartels have up here,” the sheriff says. “From transport to storage and distribution of narcotics along the IH-35 corridor, it has a huge impact on South Texas. We are responsible for intercepting that, either the narcotics themselves or the currency that is flowing south from the narcotics traffic.”
Chief Deputy Romo has been tasked with searching for and securing grants that will help the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office buy new equipment to meet the challenges that the 21st Century brings to South Texas. The Stonegarden funds are one such avenue; Zertuche believes there will be more.
“Whatever we may need, we’re going to try and find a way to get it,” he says.
As a family man with roots running throughout the community, Zertuche feels a personal stake in the safety and overall wellbeing of La Salle County. He takes it as personal that the residential neighborhoods he calls home will be safer for the families who are all his neighbors, for their children who go to school with his children, for those who work and do business at the county’s many places of employment, and for the grandchildren who will be raised in the community.
It is because of that sense of belonging, of being a son of Cotulla himself, that Zertuche makes a point of what he describes as leading by example, “not from behind closed doors.” He will be on scene, day and night, at all manner of emergency calls.
“We will work together as a team,” he says. “That’s what I instill in my officers every day, and they are reminded of it before they go out on patrol.
“They are not alone,” Zertuche says of his patrol officers, sergeants and investigators. “They will be supported. We work together for the goals that we have set for the community. Our community.”