updated 3/13/2008 7:48:51 PM ET 2008-03-13T23:48:51

When the Duval County sheriff said he would lock up reporters from local newspapers if they kept "interfering" in his business, no one took the threat lightly.

For 20 years, Sheriff Santiago Barrera Jr. had done what he pleased. He decided who sat in his jail and when they were released. Sometimes it was before a judge got involved and other times it was after.

"I brought the sheriff's department from nothing to what it is right now," said Barrera, 67, who is likely in his last year in office after losing a primary challenge.

That's why journalists are on edge about Barrera's recent threat to an Alice Echo-News Journal reporter.

Story on son’s arrest
Christopher Maher wrote a front-page story about the arrest of the sheriff's 42-year-old son, Miguel Barrera, on charges of public intoxication and resisting arrest. According to the newspaper, when Maher interviewed the sheriff at the jail about another story, Barrera said, "If you guys keep interfering with my business, I'm going to have you arrested."

Nicole Perez, managing editor of the Echo-News Journal and The Freer Press alerted the county attorney.

"I am bringing these remarks to your attention in the hope that they will remain as such, just remarks," Perez wrote to Duval County Attorney Ricardo Carrillo. "However, considering the volatile political atmosphere in Duval County I have no doubt that Sheriff Barrera would carry out such a threat."

Sheriff acknowledges remarks
Santiago Barrera confirmed he made the remarks to the reporter and acknowledged the newspaper's story about his son's arrest upset him.

"To me that was bad," Barrera said this week. "Of course, what can you do to them?"

The sheriff is accustomed to things being done his way in a part of South Texas where elected officials don't easily fade into the woodwork.

Map: Duval and Jim Wells counties
One of his predecessors, George Parr, is widely believed to have been behind the legendary stuffed ballot box in neighboring Jim Wells County that swung a tight U.S. Senate race to Lyndon Johnson in 1948.

Even the sheriff's threat to local reporters was mild compared with the actions of a Jim Wells deputy sheriff in 1949, who shot and killed radio reporter W.H. "Bill" Mason.

Barrera's tough tactics extended to politics. The sheriff arranged the demotion of the commander of a tri-county drug task force to patrol officer in December after the commander, Romeo Ramirez, announced his primary campaign against Barrera for sheriff in the county of about 12,000 people.

Ramirez won last Tuesday's primary, but Barrera has made allegations about irregularities with mail-in ballots. So far, only one incorrectly addressed ballot has been brought to the district attorney.

Asked how Barrera had managed to stay in office for 20 years, the county attorney cited the lawman's friendliness and charisma.

"He's a great politician and a terrible sheriff," Carrillo said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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