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Tamps. police boss, cousin of ex-governor, appears in court

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Posted: Thursday, April 12, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 4:33 pm, Thu Oct 24, 2013.

McALLEN — A Mexican police commander and Brownsville resident with family ties to Tamaulipas’ former governor appeared in federal court Thursday — likely the last time he will be seen publicly in Texas before he is moved to the nation’s capital.

Gilberto Lerma Plata, 50, stood at a hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter Ormsby in federal court in McAllen.

Federal agents detained Lerma at the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge on April 6 after he was indicted under seal in the District of Columbia in May 2011, alleging a drug conspiracy that moved at least 5 kilograms of cocaine and 1,000 kilograms of marijuana into the U.S. since 2006.

Lerma is the cousin of Manuel Cavazos Lerma, who was governor of Tamaulipas in the 1990s and is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party — commonly known as the PRI. He is the PRI candidate for senator from Tamaulipas in the upcoming July election.

Lerma was working as the Tamaulipas State Police commander in Miguel Alemán, across the border from Roma, a former federal agent said. Prior to holding that post, he worked in the same capacity as Reynosa’s top state cop.

An identity and bond hearing had been set for Thursday in McAllen. But Lerma’s lawyer, Noe Garza Jr., of Brownsville, waived the identity hearing, which would verify whether agents arrested the correct person — a common move in federal courts — and asked to delay his detention hearing until it may be moved to a courtroom in Washington, D.C.

Garza said he intends to represent Lerma in the D.C. case, but he has not been formally retained.

Lerma stood in silence before the judge at the court hearing, clad in a black collared, long-sleeved shirt and blue jeans. More than a dozen relatives watched from the gallery.

A 2002 report in Mexican newspaper El Universal named Lerma as a Gulf Cartel member who used his police ties to share information on authorities’ movements to help the cartel. The report cited Mexican government intelligence that outlines how Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the former Gulf Cartel leader now serving a federal prison sentence in the United States, had direct contact with state and federal police commanders across Tamaulipas state.

Lerma is the second Mexican official with ties to a prominent PRI politician — and former Tamaulipas governor — indicted in U.S. District Court this year.

Federal authorities arrested Antonio Peña Arguelles in February in Laredo. In a criminal complaint filed in federal court in San Antonio, Peña is accused of funneling cash from the Zetas drug cartel to former Tamaulipas governor Tomas Yarrington, a PRI member who succeeded Cavazos, serving from 1999 to 2004. 

Yarrington has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing or ties to drug cartels.

Because he is a U.S. citizen, Lerma has the opportunity to be awarded bond in his case. But in order to make an argument for bond, details from the prosecution’s case that includes Lerma’s background will have to be presented in open court.

Beyond Lerma’s relatives, representatives from Mexican newspapers attended the hearing.

Following the hearing, Garza said he did not want to disclose any details about his client or the case. The Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration, which investigated the case, have also declined to comment.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss his background,” Garza said. “I’d rather not.”

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Jared Taylor covers courts and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at jtaylor@themonitor.com and (956) 683-4439.

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