McALLEN — Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño says the department’s troubled “Panama Unit” — a special narcotics squad now under federal investigation for playing both sides of the law — will be dissolved Monday.
Treviño ordered an internal investigation into the narcotics squad after federal agents caught two deputies and two Mission police officers, including the sheriff’s son, accepting bribes to guard drug shipments, according to court records.
On Monday, Treviño said he’ll meet with command staff to discuss the findings and formally dissolve the Panama Unit.
“We’re not going to revive the unit,” Treviño said, and manpower assigned to the narcotics squad will be re-assigned.
The federal investigation started in August, when FBI agents received a tip the Panama Unit was “involved in the distribution of narcotics,” according to court records.
An informant met with Deputy Gerardo Duran, who accepted $4,000 to escort a vehicle carrying 20 kilograms of cocaine from McAllen through the Falfurrias Border Patrol checkpoint, according to court records. Federal agents conducted several sting operations, which showed other lawmen had become involved:
>> Mission police Investigator Jonathan C. Treviño, 28, the sheriff’s son, who was assigned to the Panama Unit.
>> Mission police Officer Alexis R. Espinoza, 29, who was assigned to an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement task force. Espinoza’s father, Rudy Espinoza, left the Sheriff’s Office in October to become Hidalgo’s police chief.
>> Deputy Fabian Rodriguez, who was assigned to the Panama Unit.
Federal agents took them into custody during mid-December, essentially gutting the Panama Unit. The next day, Sheriff Treviño asked several other deputies, who haven’t been charged with any crime, to resign effective immediately. All three agreed.
The Monitor obtained their resignation letters through a public information request. They are:
>> Deputy Salvador Arguello, who was assigned to the Panama Unit.
>> Deputy Eric Alcantar, who was assigned to the Panama Unit.
>> Deputy Claudio Mata, who was suspended without pay and removed from the unit for failing to property store evidence, Treviño said.
At Monday’s command staff meeting, Sheriff Treviño said the department will divvy up the Panama Unit’s resources and consider what, if any, disciplinary action should be taken against the unit’s supervisor, Sgt. Roy Mendez.
“We’re continuing to investigate internally,” Sheriff Treviño said, broadening the focus to include all special units. “I am not going to leave any stone unturned. We are conducting a very thorough internal probe to see if anything or anybody else was involved.”
To weed out bad apples, Sheriff Treviño said the department will start a “suitability evaluation program” for deputies assigned to special units.
Deputies will answer questions about their on- and off-duty activities, Sheriff Treviño said, and be quizzed about the answers during a polygraph exam. Initially, Sheriff Treviño said the process will include both current and former members of special units.
Anyone who doesn’t pass the exam will face discipline, including possible termination, Sheriff Treviño said, describing the system as a “proactive self-cleansing internal mechanism.”
In addition, Sheriff Treviño said he’ll continue the department’s aggressive drug testing program.
Deputies assigned to specialized units must pass four random drug tests annually, Sheriff Treviño said.
To start 2013 fresh, Sheriff Treviño said about 360 deputies took drug tests before starting or leaving work on Thursday. The department’s remaining employees will take drug tests during the coming weeks.
Dave Hendricks covers McAllen and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (956) 683-4452.
Under house arrest, sheriff’s son asks permission to drink
On Dec. 27, Jonathan C. Treviño, 28, petitioned the court for permission to drink alcohol while under house arrest.
Defendant has not exhibited an alcohol abuse problem and respectfully requests (the conditions) be amended to prohibit excessive use of alcohol,” according to the court filing.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Dorina Ramos denied Treviño’s request on Friday.