Hidalgo man pleads not guilty in cash smuggling case

Docs: More than $1M found in vehicle bound for Reynosa

McALLEN — U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers discovered more than $1 million in U.S. currency last month following a search of a Hidalgo man’s vehicle as he attempted to cross into Mexico, records show.

Alberto Hernandez Gallegos was formally indicted by a federal grand jury earlier in February on federal cash smuggling charges in connection with his January arrest, court records show.

On Thursday, Hernandez, a 50-year-old U.S. permanent legal resident, stood before U.S. Magistrate Judge Juan F. Alanis for his formal arraignment hearing, where he pleaded not guilty to two charges.

Hernandez’s Jan. 25 arrest at the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge came after U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers asked him to declare any currency during his attempt to travel into Reynosa, Mexico. Hernandez allegedly reacted by pointing to the back of his vehicle.

“The (officer) asked for a declaration of currency over $10,000 and (Hernandez), before the CBPO could finish speaking, nodded and answered yes,” the complaint against him read. “(Hernandez) pointed towards the rear of the vehicle and stated unknown subjects had placed the currency there.”

Hernandez “seemed surprised” by the outbound inspection and appeared to be “shocked” when he was asked about declaring the currency in his vehicle, the document stated.

CBP officers discovered $1,081,415 in bulk currency within a speakerbox in the trunk that had two separate concealed compartments during an inspection of the vehicle.

During a subsequent interview with federal agents, Hernandez said he did not know how much in currency was inside the hidden compartment and admitted to negotiating with “unknown subjects” a $1,000 payment in exchange for smuggling the currency into Mexico.

He told agents with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations that he planned on going through the bridge without declaring the currency in his vehicle.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, it is not illegal to carry more than $10,000, but it is a federal offense not to declare currency or monetary instruments totaling $10,000 or more to a CBP officer upon entry, or exit from the U.S. or to conceal it with intent to evade reporting requirements.

“(Hernandez) was aware the speaker boxes contained hidden compartments and observed subjects place the currency in them,” the complaint read. “(Hernandez) stated he intended to smuggle the currency into Mexico without declaring it and only admitted to possessing the currency because he was afraid subsequent to being stopped.”

The defendant said although he did not know how much cash was inside the vehicle, he assumed it was a large quantity, and “suspected” it was money from the proceeds of drug sales because the people he negotiated with offered to sell him drugs.

Hernandez was arrested twice by Pharr police, once in November 2008 in connection with possession of controlled substance, and again in September 2012 in connection with driving while intoxicated, Hidalgo County jail records show.

County court records show Hernandez, who pleaded guilty to the possession charge on June 17, 2009, was granted a deferred sentence of five years, 120 hours of community service, and a $250 fine, as part of his deal with prosecutors.

On the driving while intoxicated charge, Hernandez pleaded guilty to the count on May 13, 2013, and subsequently served 60 days in county jail, and was placed on probation for 12 months, records show.

If convicted of the federal charges, Hernandez, who will remain in federal custody pending his trial, faces up to five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.

In addition, Hernandez could also lose his status as a legal permanent resident, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Jury selection for his trial is tentatively set for April 2.