MERCEDES — Police here acknowledged one of their own Friday by elevating her to among the highest of ranks within the department. Blanca Sanchez, a Mercedes resident and 22-year veteran law enforcement officer, was officially named as the department’s assistant chief.

It was a first in a town with a history of firsts.

Sanchez has become perhaps the first woman in Hidalgo County to be named an assistant police chief, and follows in the footsteps of former Chief Olga Maldonado, who was one of the first women in the Rio Grande Valley to head a police force.

“Today is a very exciting and great day for the city of Mercedes,” said police Chief Jose Macias during a pinning ceremony held for Sanchez at the Mercedes Civic Center on Friday.

Macias himself is new to a leadership role within the department, having been named chief late last month. Previously, he served as assistant chief under former chief Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez.

The COVID-19 pandemic kept the ceremony small, but it was nonetheless attended by Mercedes police officers, city staff and members of Sanchez’s family.

Newly appointed interim City Manager Kevin Pagan was also on hand, and quipped at his and the chief’s own newness on the job before congratulating the two officers.

“But on behalf of the city manager’s office and the entire city management team, I want to congratulate chief on his appointment, and congratulate (Sanchez),” he said, adding that her résumé was “very, very impressive.”

Moments later, Macias made it official by affixing assistant chief rank pins to Sanchez’s lapels.

“I want to say thank you for all the support, everybody that’s here — my family, my friends, my coworkers,” Sanchez said. “I’m honored. I’m honored.”

Sanchez, 53, has a master police officer certification and comes to the position with more than two decades of experience in law enforcement. She has served stints with the Mercedes Police Department and at Mercedes ISD as a school resource officer.

In 2008, she became a deputy constable with the Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office, where she was later promoted to chief deputy constable. She served at that rank for more than 14 years before returning to the department where her career had begun.

Sanchez started out as a records clerk in 1987 — a position that had become vacant when a young Olga Maldonado transitioned over to the municipal court, Sanchez said.

Being among only a small number of women who at the time worked in law enforcement, Sanchez said she and Maldonado endured similar challenges in a male-dominated career.

“She struggled, as all females do, but she overcame all her challenges, as have I. And it’s an awesome feeling, an awesome feeling,” Sanchez said after the ceremony.

For Macias, Sanchez’s experience within the department and community at large is what made her the perfect candidate to be assistant chief. Her being a woman is an added bonus.

“I’ve worked with great women in law enforcement. And we need them in law enforcement like we need them in other professions,” Macias said, adding he thinks Sanchez will serve as a beacon to young women and girls who are thinking of becoming officers.

Sanchez also shares his goal of restoring the community’s trust in the department. It’s something she spoke of to reporters Friday.

“The past administrations used to have very different things, but I think we’re gonna focus on our PR,” Sanchez said.

She and Macias plan to do so by holding more community meetings and events, pandemic permitting, in order to reconnect with residents.

“Being able to communicate — not talking down to people — talking with people, talking to people. Explaining. … I believe communication among all of us is very, very, very important,” she said.

Already, relationships between the department and the community — and between other departments — is improving.

One person present at Friday’s ceremony was Weslaco police Chief Joel Rivera, who came to congratulate the woman who once served as his mentor.

“She took me under her wing and taught me almost everything I know about administration and operations,” Rivera said.

The relationship between their two departments had become strained late last year, when Weslaco abruptly moved to cancel a contract to house Mercedes prisoners at the Weslaco jail.

The cancellation came about after Weslaco officials became concerned over Mercedes’ non-payment of the contract, as well as what the mayor referred to as “ethical concerns.”

But early last week, Weslaco reversed course and renewed the contract for a year.

Rivera said that’s due in large part to the change in leadership. With Macias and Sanchez now in charge, his previous concerns have vanished, he said.

“I think the city of Mercedes is well on its way to becoming a jewel in the law enforcement community,” Rivera said.

“She’s an incredible person, and she’s an incredible administrator. That community is now going to be given the police department it deserves,” he said.