SEBASTIAN — Eight-liner arcades are turning parts of Willacy County into a casino mecca.
Resident Joe Salinas says he has never seen so many game rooms operating in this rural community.
He is not alone in his opinion.
Salinas said eight game rooms are now in business in this unincorporated area of about 1,900 residents.
“We’ve never seen it this high and it’s growing fast,” Salinas said yesterday as he pointed to game rooms along Sebastian’s main streets.
“This is a family area, with kids walking down the streets and traffic is real bad,” Salinas, a radio technical director, said. “We want them shut down.”
After a tough Raymondville ordinance pushed most eight-liner arcades out of that town last year, more are opening in unincorporated areas such as Sebastian, where Willacy County does not have an ordinance to regulate them.
“It’s never been a problem the size it is right now,” said Sheriff Larry Spence, who took office in 1985. “It’s got more traffic downtown than I’ve ever seen.”
Now, Spence is calling on Willacy County commissioners to approve an ordinance regulating these eight-liner arcades.
“They need some regulation,” Spence said. “The county has nothing, so everyone is going into the county to open these things.”
County Judge Aurelio Guerra did not respond to messages requesting comment.
Lyford game rooms
Just up the road in Lyford, a fifth game room is preparing to open in the town where an ordinance limits the number of eight-liners to five.
“It concerns me that we have that many,” Police Chief Andres Maldonado said.
Like many residents, Salinas is concerned the game rooms will bring crime to the area.
Last November, authorities arrested three Brownsville men after they allegedly tried to rob Sebastian’s Silver Outpost amid gunfire.
“These small, quiet residential areas are a thing of the past because of the eight-liners,” Salinas said.
Spence said he is concerned organized crime could enter the area.
“It’s the possibility of something going wrong — an armed robbery, someone getting hurt, drugs,” Spence said. “In some, there’s more going on than playing eight-liners. They could be connected to cartels, money–laundering.”
Most cars parked outside game rooms have out-of-town license plates, Spence said.
Players are coming to Willacy County’s game rooms instead of taking longer drives to legal casinos.
“The majority of them come from out-of-town — there are some locals,” he said. “Instead of people going to Eagle Pass or Louisiana, they just drive over here.”
Like Salinas, residents are calling on the county to shut down the game rooms.
That would take a big operation, Spence said.
“I’d like to close them as much as anybody else,” he said. “I catch all the blame. It’s an issue always on the back of your mind. In the office and at church, when somebody mentions eight-liners, I just cringe.”
Spence said he wants to work with new District Attorney Annette Hinojosa to help launch operations aimed at shutting down eight-liners.
But undercover operations are costly and complicated, he said.
“It takes manpower and time — setting it up, getting intelligence and trying to keep it quiet,” said Spence, whose department lost funding as a result of budget cuts stemming from the February 2015 closure of the Willacy County Correctional Center.
“Just trying to find out who the real owners are is time-consuming,” he said. “When you figure it out — the people with the (eight-liner) machines and the connections they have, you wonder if you can ever do something.”
In Lyford, Maldonado runs a department consisting of him, a full-time officer assigned to work at a drug treatment center and reserve officers.
“I don’t have the manpower to conduct surveillance,” Maldonado said. “We try to investigate any complaints.”