PHARR — Guns drawn, two men approached the home on East Eldora Road.
Both men belonged to a special anti-narcotics squad called the Panama Unit, which targeted street-level drug dealers. They had arrived driving an unmarked maroon SUV and wearing bulletproof vests.
What they didn’t have was a plan or any meaningful supervision — and it showed.
Records obtained from the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office and Mission Police Department provide troubling details about the July 26 incident, which blurred the line between a legitimate law enforcement search and armed robbery.
First, the Panama Unit investigators searched the house. They pushed over the stove, flipped over the bed and knocked over a cabinet, according to homeowner Jose G. Perez, 62, who filed a sworn statement about the incident. After an hourlong search produced nothing, they handcuffed Perez and his wife.
Apparently frustrated, the Panama Unit investigators placed Perez inside a white SUV and began driving toward the Hidalgo County Jail, according to Perez’s statement, before suddenly making a U-turn.
“Then the male subject pulled over to the side of the road and told (sic) to call someone that sold drugs or else,” according to Perez’s statement. “He told me that if I didn’t call someone right away, he was going to take us somewhere and ‘You know what I’m talking about.’ By this time, I knew that I had to call someone or we were going to get hurt or die.”
Investigators found 7.3 grams of cocaine and a blue jewelry bag containing a diamond-studded gold bracelet during the operation, according to Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office records. The jewelry, though, wasn’t logged into evidence and temporarily went missing.
The July 26 incident sparked an internal investigation by the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office. Based on the findings, the Panama Unit’s sergeant received a verbal reprimand and a deputy was suspended without pay and re-assigned to patrol duty.
If the search-gone-wrong chastened the Panama Unit, the impact was short-lived.
Months later, federal agents charged four local lawmen, including two assigned to the Panama Unit, with accepting bribes to guard cocaine shipments. The Panama Unit’s remaining members resigned.
While federal court documents don’t mention the July 26 incident, the botched search exposed an underlying problem.
Ostensibly, the Panama Unit answered to both the Sheriff’s Office and Mission Police Department. In reality, the narcotics task force operated without any meaningful supervision.
“I think that, maybe, both of us made some mistakes. I think some of our supervisors and some of their supervisors made some mistakes,” Sheriff Treviño said. “It was almost a perfect storm of chaos on how not to do this ever again — under those circumstances, anyway.”
The Panama Unit — officially called the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office-Mission Police Department Local Level Drug Unit — was created about six years ago, said former Mission Police Chief Leo Longoria.
When, exactly, isn’t clear.
The Monitor filed a public information request for records documenting the Panama Unit’s creation, but the Mission Police Department responded it didn’t have “any formal agreement or memorandum of understanding or other record” establishing the Panama Unit.
Typically, multi-agency task forces have written agreements dictating how they will operate and what individual agencies will contribute. For example, an agreement might describe how the agencies will split property and cash seized from convicted criminals.
Neither Interim City Manager Martin Garza, who headed the department after Longoria retired, nor Interim Police Chief Robert Dominguez, who took over on Friday, could explain the lack of paperwork.
“I’ve never seen an agreement and I don’t know of any agreement that exists,” Garza said.
The Panama Unit was created shortly after the Mission Police Department hired Jonathan C. Treviño, the sheriff’s son.
Jonathan Treviño tested poorly, earning a 77.78 on Mission’s civil service exam, according to records from the Mission Police Department.
The low score wasn’t unusual for Jonathan Treviño, who graduated from McAllen Memorial High School with a 71.93 grade point average, on a scale of 100. He attended South Texas College, but failed several classes and had a 2.33 GPA when he applied for the Mission Police Department job.
Unlike many other candidates, though, Jonathan Treviño had a peace officer license. He also attended the Sheriff’s Office academy for new recruits and received awards for academic and physical excellence during the 2005-2006 year.
Jonathan Treviño also had stellar references, including Hidalgo County Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe Flores, Sheriff’s Office Capt. Rudy Espinoza, and Sheriff’s Office administrator Pat Medina.
The Mission Police Department hired Jonathan Treviño in April 2006, and he quickly moved from patrol duty to the Criminal Investigations Division. Before long, he was assigned to the newly created Panama Unit.
Other Panama Unit members included Deputy Claudio A. Mata, who had been disciplined several times for poor conduct. Mata couldn’t be reached for comment at addresses listed on his driver’s license and voter ID card.
In May 2006, a woman filed a report with the Edinburg Police Department, alleging Claudio Mata pointed a handgun at her and made repeated calls to her phone. The woman later decided not to press charges.
The same day, a man filed a report with the McAllen Police Department, alleging Mata assaulted him.
The Sheriff’s Office investigated both incidents and ordered a five-day unpaid suspension, a mandatory domestic violence awareness class, eight hours of community service at Mujeres Unidas and three months of probation.
In March 2010, the Sheriff’s Office disciplined Mata again, this time for causing trouble at a McAllen nightclub. Mata showed his badge and threatened to have someone ejected from the club, and later kicked the man’s truck, according to Sheriff’s Office records.
And after the July 26 incident in Pharr, the Sheriff’s Office suspended Mata without pay and re-assigned him to patrol duty.
“You had also seized a blue bag containing jewelry, but you failed to include the jewelry on the inventory list of seized property,” according to Sheriff’s Office records. “And you failed to transfer custody of the jewelry to the investigator in charge for safekeeping.”
The Panama Unit’s supervisor, Sgt. Roy Mendez, also had past disciplinary action, according to his personnel file. Mendez didn’t respond to messages left at the Sheriff’s Office and with his brother.
In September 2005, Mendez accepted a voluntary demotion to investigator after unspecified “officer misconduct.” No further details are included in Mendez’s personnel file, and Sheriff Treviño wouldn’t say what prompted Mendez’s demotion to investigator.
Mendez eventually received another promotion to sergeant.
Assigned the radio call sign “P” the special narcotics squad became commonly known as the Panama Unit. Privately, some Mission policemen called it the “Primo Unit.”
The Panama Unit had a Sheriff’s Office sergeant, who supervised day-to-day operations. And Jonathan Treviño reported to the Mission Police Department’s investigations supervisor, who also managed lawmen assigned to federal task forces.
Who ultimately oversaw the unit’s operations wasn’t clear.
Both retired Mission Chief Longoria and former Mission Chief Garza said the Sheriff’s Office supervised the Panama Unit.
“Operationally, the Panama Unit — since its inception — has always been supervised by a sheriff’s sergeant,” Garza said, and the sergeant reported to the Sheriff’s Office.
Typically, the agency that assigns a supervisor to a task force provides oversight. An April 2011 memo assigning two Sheriff’s Office employees to the Panama Unit appears to follow that practice.
“The Mission Street Level Drug Task Force will directly answer to the Sheriff,” according to the memo, obtained through a public information request.
Asked about the memo, Sheriff Treviño said the Panama Unit was loaned to the Mission Police Department, which ultimately supervised day-to-day operations. The memo, Sheriff Treviño said, only applied to administrative matters.
“If you notice, their offices, their desks, everything was at the Mission Police Department,” Sheriff Treviño said.
Almost all the Panama Unit’s cases went through Mission, along with law enforcement paperwork, including operational plans and search warrants. While the narcotics squad had a Sheriff’s Office sergeant, who was charged with making sure deputies followed county regulations, the unit reported directly to the Mission chief, Sheriff Treviño said.
“Believe me. I’m not trying to wash my hands of anything. I have accepted responsibility for what happened as far as my men that have been arrested,” Sheriff Treviño said.
In theory, multi-agency task forces bring police, federal agents and other law enforcement officers together to crack tough cases that cross jurisdictions. Effectiveness, though, often depends on solid management.
“I never was much of a task force person because of the lack of supervision,” said former Hidalgo Police Chief Vernon Rosser.
Hidalgo assigned an investigator to the regional Immigration and Customs Enforcement task force, angling for a larger share of forfeiture funds, but generally avoided the practice. Officers often self-report hours and their investigative work, Rosser said, leaving the department a thin paper trail.
“You have to take their word for it (that) they’re even working,” Rosser said.
In McAllen, the Police Department carefully selects recruits to prevent corruption later, said Chief Victor Rodriguez. McAllen conducts background checks, polygraph exams and interviews with all applicants before hiring new officers, who must pass random drug tests throughout their careers.
“Hiring is step one, and one of the more important steps,” Rodriguez said. “Step two is supervision.”
Everyone who works for the McAllen Police Department, including investigators assigned to task forces, report to an in-house supervisor, Rodriguez said.
“We don’t have our people farmed out, so to speak,” Rodriguez said.
Corruption can’t be completely eliminated, Rodriguez said, and law enforcement will always have bad apples. Careful selection and supervision, though, helps reduce the potential for improper conduct.
“You can’t wait for smoke to turn into fire to do something,” Rodriguez said. “If you see it, sense it or feel it, you need to get out in front of it.”
On Nov. 21, the Panama Unit’s supervisor, Sgt. Roy Mendez, received a promotion to lieutenant. Mendez was transferred to the Special Services Bureau-Tactical Division and replaced with Sgt. Rudy Salinas, who joined the Panama Unit on Dec. 5.
Three weeks after Mendez left, federal agents arrested Jonathan Treviño and Deputy Fabian Rodriguez, another member of the Panama Unit. Together with Mission police Investigator Alexis Espinoza, who had been assigned to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement task force, and Deputy Gerardo Duran, they were charged with accepting bribes to guard cocaine shipments.
Federal courts records describe a sting operation, which caught all four lawmen accepting bribes from confidential informants to guard drug shipments.
>> On Oct. 19, Deputy Duran accepted $4,000 to escort a vehicle containing 20 kilograms of cocaine from McAllen through the Falfurrias checkpoint.
>> On Nov. 2, Investigator Espinoza, driving a Mission Police Department vehicle, and Deputy Duran escorted a vehicle containing 9 kilograms of cocaine from McAllen to Weslaco. Espinoza received $3,000 from a federal informant.
>> On Nov. 9, Investigator Espinoza and Deputy Duran escorted another cocaine shipment from McAllen to Weslaco. They received $4,000.
>> On Nov. 30, Jonathan Treviño, Investigator Espinoza and Deputy Rodriguez escorted a vehicle containing 7 kilograms of cocaine from McAllen to somewhere north of Edinburg. They received $6,000 from a federal informant.
Mission Police Department records detail a similar case, which hasn’t become part of the federal indictment.
On Dec. 12, Jonathan Treviño called then-Mission Chief Garza with a problem.
A woman had attempted to bribe Jonathan Treviño to escort 10 kilograms of cocaine, and he “went along with it,” according to Garza’s written recollection of the conversation. Jonathan Treviño later found tracking devices inside the drugs.
Hours later, FBI agents visited the Mission Police Department and told Chief Garza about the sting operation. Federal agents arrested the four lawmen that night.
The next day, the unit’s remaining members — Deputy Salvador J. Arguello, Deputy Eric M. Alcantar and Deputy Claudio A. Mata — resigned. They admitted no wrongdoing when they resigned and haven’t been charged with any crime.
Federal prosecutors have said they expect a superseding indictment to be returned Tuesday.
Dave Hendricks covers McAllen and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (956) 683-4452 or on Twitter, @dmhj.