‘Not a powerful man’: After rise from street cop to local political elite, Treviño questioned in corruption trial - News - The Monitor

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‘Not a powerful man’: After rise from street cop to local political elite, Treviño questioned in corruption trial

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Nathan Lambrecht | The Monitor

Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño.


McALLEN — Facing 10 years to life inside federal prison, former Hidalgo County sheriff’s Deputy Jorge Garza appeared bored Friday afternoon.

Garza sat stone-faced inside U.S. District Judge Randy Crane’s packed courtroom. He fiddled with a pen, but didn’t mark his yellow legal pad. Next, Garza idly looked around, glancing at the jury, the walls and the ninth-floor windows overlooking downtown McAllen.

Garza looked anywhere but the witness stand — where everyone else was raptly watching Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño testify about campaign contributions, the inner workings of the Sheriff’s Office and a pair of boots he accepted from a drug trafficker.

Allegations from several witnesses had transformed Garza’s trial into the seemingly unrelated inquisition by Friday afternoon. Leaving the Bentsen Tower, Treviño summarized the situation with an offhand comment: “Who’s the one on trial?”

The courtroom testimony barely mentioned Treviño’s lengthy law enforcement career, which started at the Edinburg Police Department in the early 1970s. And the testimony hardly scratched Treviño’s impact on Hidalgo County’s largest law enforcement agency.

“But that’s the job of the defense lawyer, to divert the jury from the real truth,” said Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra.


In 1973, Treviño joined the Edinburg Police Department, according to an official resume distributed during his most recent re-election campaign.

Attempts to track down officers who served with Treviño were unsuccessful Friday, and the department doesn’t have Treviño’s personnel records from the era.

In an August 2007 interview, though, Treviño recalled his first job and learning from then-Sgt. Fernando Castañeda — the son of Claudio Castañeda, Hidalgo County’s first Hispanic sheriff. Both men helped Treviño learn about law enforcement.

The elder Castañeda “was one of my mentors,” Treviño said. “In a sense I learned how to teach people from him.”

After 18 months with the Edinburg Police Department, Treviño moved to Austin. He graduated from the Austin Police Academy and became a patrolman on Jan. 5, 1975. The job paid $4.57 an hour.

Treviño joined the Austin Police Department amid its transition from a largely Anglo force enmeshed in the “Good Old Boy System” to a modern police force. Austin started recruiting more Hispanic and black officers, and people with college degrees.

“We entered into, probably, the first stage of the modern law enforcement era,” said auto theft Det. Earl Bolls, the Austin Police Department’s second-longest tenured officer.

Treviño spent three years on patrol before being reassigned to the Special Services bureau, according to his Austin Police Department personnel file. On Jan. 6, 1980 — five years and one day after joining the department — Treviño earned a promotion to sergeant and was transferred to Internal Affairs.

By 1988, Treviño had been working for the Austin Police Department for 13 years. He’d also married a teacher, Maria F. Treviño, and had three sons: John Carlos, James Christopher and Jonathan Christian.

“I wanted my sons to grow up in the Rio Grande Valley,” Treviño told County, a magazine published by the Texas Association of Counties.

Treviño resigned and moved back to the Valley, becoming chief investigator for the Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra, a distant relative — Treviño’s father is related to Guerra’s father-in-law.

“I think he’d probably had enough of Austin traffic jams,” Guerra said.



Treviño spent the next 12 years at the District Attorney’s Office, first as chief investigator and later running the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force.

His professionalism and experience, along with plenty of charisma and political savvy, caught the attention of Guerra, then-County Commissioner Norberto “Beto” Salinas and other elected officials.

After federal agents arrested Sheriff Brig Marmolejo for accepting bribes from a drug trafficker in 1994, Guerra and other political players backed Treviño for the job.

The push wasn’t successful and Enrique “Henry” Escalon became the new sheriff instead.

Ten years later, though, Treviño challenged Escalon with backing from several county power brokers. County Judge Ramon Garcia backed Escalon, setting up a tight race. Whoever won the March 2004 Democratic primary would almost certainly win the general election.

To kick-start his campaign, Treviño borrowed $203,000. And by March, he’d vastly outspent the incumbent sheriff.

“Everyone kept telling me that I’m going to wipe him out, but you have to show him respect,” Treviño said in a March 2004 Monitor interview. “He has his supporters. I had an uphill battle. I worked this campaign like I was always behind. And I was.”

Treviño narrowly defeated Escalon and ran unopposed in November.

“Escalon shied away from publicity,” Guerra said, recalling how Escalon rarely attended Commissioners Court meetings. “And, ultimately, it cost him the election. He always sent someone else. Lupe is always upfront.”



After taking office on Jan. 1, 2005, Treviño quickly started reshaping the Sheriff’s Office.

With backing from the Commissioners Court, Treviño substantially increased pay for deputies, which helped reduce turnover. The Sheriff’s Office created a new narcotics division, deployed mobile substations and built an employee parking lot.

Deputy pay jumped from $31,486 to $34,060, which improved morale, according to an April 2005 Monitor article, and salaries have increased since then.

Some Escalon loyalists, though, started sounding the alarm about increased political favoritism at the Sheriff’s Office and accused Treviño of ushering in an era of “moral decline.”

Escalon had a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol, which Treviño suspended after taking office. The policy change sparked controversy two years later, when a deputy tested positive for marijuana and wasn’t immediately fired. When the incident became public, Treviño reversed course and reinstituted the zero-tolerance policy.

“In my 35-year career, I have never made such a big mistake — the biggest mistake, the grand-daddy of mistakes,” Treviño said, according to a June 2007 Monitor article. “I will never, never, never make that mistake again.”

Treviño remained popular, running for re-election without an opponent in 2008. While Treviño attracted both a Republican and Democratic challenger last year, he cruised to victory with 80 percent of the vote.

About a month later, the Panama Unit scandal would upend Treviño’s world and rock the Sheriff’s Office.



In August 2012, amid Treviño’s re-election campaign, federal agents began investigating the Panama Unit, a special anti-narcotics squad. Officially called the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office-Mission Police Department Local Level Drug Unit, the unit focused on low-level drug activity in western Hidalgo County.

The Sheriff’s Office assigned a sergeant and four deputies to the Panama Unit. The only person assigned to the Panama Unit who didn’t work for the Sheriff’s Office was Mission police investigator Jonathan Treviño, the sheriff’s son.

After receiving a tip, the federal agents discovered the Panama Unit had started playing both sides of the law, according to court records. In addition to making legitimate arrests, the Panama Unit and other corrupt cops had started stealing narcotics and escorting drug shipments.

FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Jonathan Treviño and three other corrupt cops on Dec. 12, about a month after Election Day. Eventually, the investigation would widen to nine lawmen — seven from the Sheriff’s Office and two from the Mission Police Department — and three drug traffickers.

Sheriff Treviño said the scandal caught him completely by surprise and compared the arrests to his personal 9/11.

“On that day, it was said that America would never be the same,” Treviño said last month at the Country Omelette restaurant. “After 12/12, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office will never be the same again, and neither will I.”

Treviño disbanded the Panama Unit and announced several policy changes, including the creation of a so-called “quality control” squad and better internal screening processes.



The Panama Unit scandal unfolded slowly during the next eight months. One by one, the lawmen and drug traffickers pleaded guilty. Few details emerged beyond the initial criminal complaints and the incident slowly faded from the news.

Then former Deputy Jorge Garza, a small player in the overall conspiracy, opted for trial. Witnesses have testified his primary role involved conducting bogus traffic stops and guarding drugs for traffickers. Garza’s contact with the Panama Unit appears minimal.

In court, though, the testimony has shifted from the allegations against Garza to how the Sheriff’s Office operated.

Former Deputy James Phil “J.P.” Flores testified extensively about how Treviño’s command staff, especially Commander Jose “Joe” Padilla, who reports directly to the sheriff, pressured deputies to sell raffle tickets for the 2012 re-election campaign.

On Thursday, Judge Randy Crane said the U.S. Attorney’s Office had informed him Padilla was “the target of an investigation.”

Suddenly, the Panama Unit scandal looked much closer to the sheriff.

Under oath, Treviño repeatedly said he didn’t handle the day-to-day campaign work or fundraising activities. Treviño said nobody approached him with concerns, despite an open door policy. He declined to answer questions Friday, saying he was still under oath and is set to testify further on Monday.

Defense Attorney Lilly Ann Gutierrez suggested rank-and-file deputies may have been intimidated by Treviño and assumed his top commanders — who double as campaign coordinators — were acting on his behalf.

“But you understand you’re a powerful man?” Gutierrez asked Treviño, underscoring the possibility of intimidation.

“It’s a title that belongs to the people,” Treviño said. “I am not a powerful man.”

 Metro Editor Jared Taylor contributed to this report.


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Nathan Lambrecht | The Monitor

Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño.