Alonzo Rafael Peña dreamed of becoming an elite track coach. The fate of The University of Texas-Pan American alumnus, however, took him on an entirely different route.
Peña rose through the ranks of federal law enforcement and became a trailblazer in the colossal mission of keeping America's borders safe. Hard work would eventually lead him to the second highest spot in the nation for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
He grew up in Falfurrias where he and his siblings were raised by a strict father who had served in the military. Peña's mother died when he was young and resources were limited. He said attending college was going to be nearly impossible. Fortunately, Peña was a standout runner at Falfurrias High School and earned a track and cross country scholarship from then Pan American University.
"My dad was a postman and he didn't really have a lot of money to send me to college. Two of my siblings were already going to college, and so the scholarship was a life saver for me," Peña said.
The schedule was challenging. Track and cross-country spanned the entire year.
"Being in the University and having a real demanding athletic schedule plus the academics really instilled in me that you have got to put forth effort to succeed," Peña said. "It taught me not to settle and be mediocre."
Peña graduated in 1978 with a bachelor's degree in physical education with a minor in history.
"You have to have good professors and good coaches and I had that," Peña said. "They set a great foundation. I was very blessed with great role models at Pan Am."
Peña's first coaching job was in Mathis, Texas, but he didn't even finish the year out. His Pan Am track coach recommended the 23-year-old for a job at Monterrey Tech University in Mexico. He coached there four years before the peso devaluation in the early 80s forced him back home.
"My salary was cut in half and bills were mounting. I realized it was time to come back to the United States," he said.
That is when Peña decided to explore a different career.
"I was kind of spoiled coaching at the college level in Mexico. I had people on my team who were competing on Mexico's Olympic team. I didn't want to come back and start over," the South Texas native said. "I also had a very fond desire to be in law enforcement so I started applying."
Peña started his law enforcement career in 1982 as a state trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety. Two years later, he joined the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and was sent to California.
"When I was a trooper in Alice, we had a house and a new car and we lived OK. We moved to California and I couldn't afford a house. I had to rent an apartment and my wife had to go back to work just for us to make ends meet. The cost of living was incredibly high," Peña said.
As soon as he had a chance to transfer, Peña moved from ATF to the U.S. Customs Service in Corpus Christi, and in 1995, was promoted to U.S. Customs resident agent in charge in Brownsville. It would be another step in a meteoric rise in the law enforcement field.
"When I got there, there was an explosion of activity in Brownsville," Peña said. "We made great cases and the agents working with me were great. We built a great reputation for that office."
In 1999, he was once again promoted, this time to deputy special agent in charge (SAC) of the customs office in El Paso, but his time there was short-lived. Tragedy forced him to ask for a transfer to Houston. Peña's middle son, who was in remission from bone cancer, had a relapse. Peña needed to get his son treatment at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
"Customs was very generous and they transferred me there. My son was 12 at the time and so I ended up as the deputy agent in charge in Houston. The doctors told us he needed long-term intensive treatment."
After three years, Peña's son lost his battle with the deadly disease.
In the meantime, Peña's career gained even more momentum. In 2003, after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created, customs merged with the Immigration and Naturalization Service resulting in the creation of ICE. Peña was selected to serve as the SAC in San Antonio, one of ICE's largest offices.
"It was the highest level of service. I'd wake up and pinch myself and was just in disbelief that I was the agent in charge of this whole district. It was a dream come true," he said.
There, Peña orchestrated and launched ICE's Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST) initiative, a series of multiagency task forces developed as a widespread approach to combat cross-border crime.
"This was trend-setting," he said. "I was recognized for creating this coalition and it really launched my career because, for the first time, I proposed that we include Mexico in our law enforcement efforts. It became a national model and now there are 21 of these task forces across the country."
Peña continued this line of attack in Phoenix, where he was reassigned to the nation's busiest human smuggling corridor.
The BEST initiative and Peña's success in Arizona catapulted the top law officer into national recognition, and in 2009 he became ICE's deputy director.
"It was a great honor to be the highest career person. I started out as an agent and now I am overseeing an agency of over 20,000 employees and $5.7 billion budget. The only guy above me is the director who is appointed by the president," Peña said.
All ICE executives, agents in charge and field office directors reported directly to Peña. On several occasions, he briefed White House staff and delivered congressional testimony regarding ICE issues.
After 28 years of devotion to a career he adored, Peña retired in December 2010.
"I felt that I had accomplished change and improved things in Washington, D.C., so I figured it was time to end a great career and come back to Texas," the 57-year-old said.
Peña received numerous honors during his outstanding law enforcement career. However, he says being named one of UTPA's Pillars of Success, a celebrated award given to outstanding alumni, is the pinnacle of all those accolades.
"I am so humbled and honored to be selected for this recognition by the school I attended. It is one of the highlights of my adult life," he said.
Peña will be inducted into the Pillars of Success, Feb. 17. The University will recognize the new inductees during its UTPA Alumni Ball.
"Pan Am is a great University. I got a great foundation and it was a great experience and a great opportunity for me so I couldn't be more pleased," Peña said.