SEBASTIAN — Along this tiny farm town’s narrow streets, cars pull into dusty parking lots, neon flashing against stark windowless buildings.
For years, residents like Joe Salinas have dubbed this town “Little Las Vegas.”
Now they call it “Sin City,” he said.
Just north on Business 77, Lyford’s the new “Little Las Vegas,” he said.
From across the Rio Grande Valley, players have been driving here for years, pumping millions of dollars into the game room industry that has turned this town into an eight-liner mecca.
“You should see it on Saturday night,” Salinas said. “You see cars going from one game room to another like they’re bar hopping.”
Game rooms grinding in wheels of justice
Five years after Sebastian game rooms challenged Willacy County’s toughened law in court, eight-liner arcades are doing big business here.
Now, the cases are being settled, Robert Flores, the attorney representing the La Victoria, Silver Star, Silver Express and Silver Outpost game rooms, said Wednesday.
“They’re in the process of being settled,” he said, adding he did not have a timetable for the settlement. “They’re negotiating paying penalties to the county and what the civil penalties will be.”
In 2018, years of complaints led Willacy County commissioners to pass an ordinance regulating game rooms in the county’s vast unincorporated areas, requiring the arcades to re-apply for permits to operate.
After some game room owners argued the county unfairly rejected their applications, they filed lawsuits claiming they were denied their due process rights.
Soon, a judge was granting their requests for temporary restraining orders, allowing them to stay in business.
Ever since, their lawsuits have been grinding in the wheels of justice while eight-liner arcades rake in millions along the county’s southern edge.
“They keep stalling and asking for continuances,” Salinas, a radio station technical director, said. “It’s irritating to see it going on for years and nothing’s been done.”
Still waiting for judge’s ruling
Today, six game rooms are operating along Sebastian’s narrow streets, while five arcades are open in Lyford, with another under construction.
While some residents complain of blaring noise and car lights blasting into their windows late at night, others tell stories of players crossing their yards walking to game rooms closing at 3 a.m.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Joe Salazar said he is waiting for judges to rule on the lawsuits.
“We’re pretty much just waiting so we can enforce the ordinance,” he said.
In his department, his short staff is hard pressed to conduct undercover investigations to stage raids.
“Personnel — that’s definitely the issue,” Salazar said.
In Sebastian, residents are counting on the ordinance to drive game rooms out of town.
The ordinance, which requires new game rooms be located at least 300 feet from schools, churches and homes, also sets them at least 2,500 feet from other arcades, on highway frontage roads with direct access to highways.
While calling for fines of $10,000 per day for each violation, the ordinance also requires game rooms to limit operations between 10 a.m. and 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursday and from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
On Tuesday, Willacy County District Attorney Annette Hinojosa referred questions to Rene Oliveira Jr., the county’s lead attorney in the game room cases.
Oliveira did not respond to messages requesting comment.
In Sebastian, a steady stream of players drives into town every day, pumping thousands of dollars into dark, smoky rooms full of glowing eight-liner machines.
“We have a lot of traffic here in town — they’re open all day, seven days a week,” Salinas said. “The potential for criminal activity is always there. Who knows what’s going on in those windowless buildings all over town.”
State law makes it illegal to operate eight-liner machines awarding players with cash or merchandise valued at more than 10 times the price to play the machine, or $5, whichever is less.
“It’s naive to think they’re handing out $5 gift cards,” Salinas said. “They all pay out money. They want to open up in Sebastian where there’s no police department. Game room owners are capitalizing on that.”
Lyford game room numbers growing
Just north of town in Lyford, city commissioners lifted the city’s cap on game rooms from five to six after an arcade filed a lawsuit about two years ago, arguing it remained open following a federal raid, City Attorney Rick Hoffman said.
Now, the former El Toro game room is under construction, planning to expand, City Secretary Benito Estrada said.
At the police department, Chief Armin Martinez, the only officer on the force, said he is too hard pressed to launch undercover operations.
“It boggles my mind they’re still in operation,” he said, adding his full-time police officer left to take a job with the sheriff’s department two weeks ago.
“I’m pretty sure there is criminal activity out there but I haven’t been able to prove criminal activity,” he said. “It’s not that we’re turning a blind eye. We’d have to do an undercover op but I’m the only officer working right now. It boils down to funding. With our resources, it’s hard to shut them down.”
Raymondville drives arcades out of town
In Willacy County, Raymondville helped lead the charge, winning its fight against game rooms.
In 2016, city commissioners passed a tough ordinance, driving eight-liner arcades out of town.
Ever since, police raids have kept them out.
“We just abide by the law,” Mayor Gilbert Gonzales said. “They open up, they get raided and they go somewhere else. We do undercover. The PD sends people to play. If they get paid more than they’re supposed to, we get everything together. If they’re violating the law, we raid them.”
The story brings hope to Sebastian.
“We’ve never given up on the idea of trying to get these things out of town,” Salinas said.