McALLEN — Federal authorities have arrested four local law enforcement officers accused of guarding drug loads in a multi-agency corruption probe that has rocked the family of Hidalgo County’s top cop.
Jonathan Treviño, 28, turned himself in a second time to FBI agents in McAllen on Thursday — less than a day after agents let him walk free as a fellow Mission narcotics investigator already was in handcuffs — admitting to guarding narcotics traffickers’ loads through Hidalgo County, federal authorities said. The son of Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño is set to appear in federal court Friday morning to face charges of conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute cocaine.
Formally charged Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dorina Ramos was Alexis Espinoza, 29, a partner of Jonathan Treviño at Mission PD. Both men served on the Panama Unit, a joint narcotics task force between the department and the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, a criminal complaint states.
Espinoza is the son of Hidalgo police Chief Rudy Espinoza, who took the job in October after serving as a captain at the Sheriff’s Office. None of the charges revealed Thursday involve Hidalgo police.
Also arrested in the case Thursday were Fabian Rodriguez, 28, of Edinburg and Gerardo Duran, 30, of Pharr. Both men are Hidalgo County sheriff’s deputies on the Panama Unit and are expected to face the same federal charges in court Friday.
“As sheriff of this county, I am obligated to do the right thing for my constituents,” Sheriff Treviño said after his son went into FBI custody Thursday. “We are fully cooperating with the investigation, but as a father, I have a duty to my son and my family.”
The sheriff said he learned of the investigation into his son and deputies Wednesday afternoon.
Mission police Chief Martin Garza said Thursday afternoon that both narcotics investigators employed by his department have been indefinitely suspended, without pay.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement led an internal investigation into Espinoza, who was most recently assigned to an ICE task force at Mission PD, law enforcement officials said.
The other three suspects were under investigation by the FBI, which specializes in public corruption cases.
TAINTED TASK FORCE?
Earlier this year, FBI agents learned that members of the Panama Unit were involved in distributing narcotics, court documents state.
Two criminal complaints went public Thursday, detailing several instances of the officers escorting loads of cocaine across Hidalgo County and as far north as past the Falfurrias checkpoint along U.S. 281.
In August, the FBI learned of the Panama Unit helping distribute narcotics, a criminal complaint states. In September, a confidential source told agents that a drug trafficking organization was looking for corrupt cops who could escort drug loads, the complaint states.
ICE launched its investigation into Espinoza in late August, after learning he had been involved with stealing drug loads with other law enforcement officers, a criminal complaint states, though no specifics of narcotics thefts are detailed in the records.
That month, The Monitor learned of a possible home invasion involving the task force that occurred in July. Several men who identified themselves as the “Hidalgo County Police Department” raided a Pharr house at gunpoint and seized jewelry from the homeowners. FBI agents asked a Monitor editor to cease its pursuit of the case so agents could build an investigation into the narcotics task force.
Between late August and late last month, federal agents built their case against the four task force officers, setting up drug escorts with confidential sources and delivering cash payments.
During each drug escort, the task force officers would provide guard for what they believed were cocaine deliveries in exchange for between $1,500 and $6,000 each trip, which were conducted between September and November, criminal complaints state.
In early November, ICE agents set up an undercover operation where the source drove a car loaded with cocaine from McAllen to Weslaco. Espinoza, in a Mission police vehicle, and Duran were supposed to escort another drug load.
Espinoza was paid another $1,500 for his role. After that escort, agents said Espinoza and Duran met at Sam's Club along Jackson Road in McAllen, where they received another $2,000.
On Nov. 30, Treviño and Espinoza met with an informant and agreed to provide a cocaine load from McAllen to Edinburg, the complaint states. That day, Treviño, Espinoza and Rodriguez moved 7 kilograms of cocaine, and the informant paid $6,000 to move the load, the complaint states.
Espinoza was arrested and questioned Wednesday, and he admitted to federal agents that he had escorted drug loads, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in McAllen.
Judge Ramos formally charged him with one count of possession with intent to distribute 9 kilograms of cocaine and one count conspiracy with intent to distribute more than 5 kilograms of cocaine. Bond was set at $100,000.
During the hearing, Espinoza asked Ramos for a court-appointed attorney, saying he didn't have enough money to defend himself. Ramos denied his request, saying he had enough money to pay for a lawyer.
Espinoza later retained attorney Al Alvarez, who filed a motion to reduce bond in the case or release him with an electronic monitor, saying he is not a flight risk. Alvarez could not be reached on his cellphone Thursday night.
Treviño’s lawyer, Roberto Izaguirre, could not be reached for comment on Thursday. It was unclear whether the two sheriff’s deputies had retained legal counsel.
‘A DARK DAY’
Whether more arrests will be made in the corruption probe was unclear.
Law enforcement officials have told The Monitor that as many as seven officers were targeted in the investigation, though the U.S. Attorney’s Office made no mention of further defendants targeted in the case in a statement released Thursday afternoon.
But the probe’s possible effects on other criminal cases investigated by the Panama Unit already were being felt, as Garza, the Mission police chief, said at a news conference late Wednesday night that the arrested officers’ work would be reviewed.
San Juan police Chief Juan Gonzalez echoed that sentiment Thursday, saying his department would reopen any cases in which the Panama Unit participated to ensure evidence or the investigation had not been tainted.
One such case involved an Oct. 23 marijuana seizure from a tractor-trailer carrying 7,000 pounds of the drug among a load of avocados, Gonzalez said. Gunmen toting assault rifles seized the truck along Expressway 83 before it was torched north of Edinburg.
“Information that has been recently provided to us including the vehicles used leads us to believe that this unit might have been responsible for this,” Gonzalez said. “We’re going to conduct a very thorough investigation into this.
“This is a dark day for the law enforcement community in the Rio Grande Valley.”
Rumors of wrongdoing surrounding the sheriff’s son and the Panama Unit have circulated among area investigators for years. Gonzalez questioned how the investigators could have been tainted to now face federal charges.
“If you start a unit, you are ultimately responsible for their attendance, performance and conduct,” Gonzalez said. “At least now we know that the sheriff had a drug unit working for the cartels.”
Court records show Espinoza admitted his role in the conspiracy to ICE’s internal investigators. No confessions from the other three officers were detailed in the FBI’s criminal complaint, which was made public shortly after their arrests Thursday.
Sheriff Treviño said he is “absolutely not involved in this” alleged wrongdoing and had “no knowledge of anything involving my son.”
But the case involving the sheriff’s son, his deputies and the Hidalgo chief’s son puts all affected in a precarious situation, with the taint of Hidalgo County’s latest public corruption case now very close to home, with his sheriff’s son sharing the same McAllen address as his father, records show.
‘YOU VIOLATE EVERYTHING’
Corruption has long dogged law enforcement agencies along the U.S.-Mexico border and the Rio Grande Valley.
The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office and McAllen Police Department are the county’s two biggest law enforcement agencies in terms of total peace officers employed. The former has tallied 25 deputies who had their peace officer’s licenses revoked or suspended between 2006 and 2011, according to Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education records.
Those numbers show the Sheriff’s Office has had deputies in trouble more than eight times as often in that six-year time frame as McAllen police, which reported three such instances.
Most deputies who find themselves on the wrong side of the law have made the headlines — a hallmark of the sheriff, who regularly distributes news releases to local media chastising the offenders.
Prior to Thursday, Sheriff Treviño most recently publicized the firing of 13 deputy cadets in training after investigators found they had cheated on an upcoming exam, leading The Monitor to offer an editorial endorsement of the sheriff’s move.
All of Sheriff Treviño’s employees also participate in a mandatory ethics class intended to fight corrupt practices.
The Monitor profiled the class in a 2008 story that featured the elder Espinoza, now the Hidalgo chief, as he taught the class.
The profile came after a commissary clerk had been fired from the Hidalgo County Jail after selling stolen products to other employees.
The initiative, entitled “Honor the Badge,” was put in place by the sheriff when he first took office in 2005, with the intention of rooting out petty offenders before corruption builds into something far worse — like drug trafficking.
“He violated the trust of the people,” Sheriff Treviño said of the fired clerk in 2008. “If you violate that trust, you violate everything.”
Ildefonso Ortiz covers law enforcement and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at email@example.com and (956) 683-4437.
Jared Taylor is a metro editor at The Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (956) 683-4439.
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Follow Ildefonso Ortiz on Twitter: @ildefonsoortiz