Jurors find former police chief guilty in drug trafficking case

McALLEN — After three hours of deliberations Thursday, jurors convicted a former lawman on drug trafficking charges after a little more than three days of testimony.

Geovani Hernandez, a law enforcement officer of nearly two decades and former La Joya police chief, showed little emotion during the ruling and looked toward the juror’s box as the foreman read the guilty verdict.

Jurors found that the government had proven through evidence that Hernandez had provided his services in exchange for money to a man he believed was working with Gulf Cartel members.

Hernandez, prosecutors said, on two occasions in July 2017 agreed to provide safe passage to what he believed was a vehicle loaded with cocaine traveling from Progreso to Pharr.

Prosecutors further argued that Hernandez and the man he thought was a Gulf Cartel associate, but who was actually a government informant, “sweeped” the streets of Progreso to assure the vehicle got through with the cocaine.

The verdict comes nearly two years to the day when that informant, a Pharr man who ran an illegal casino business, met a U.S. Homeland Security Investigations special agent to cooperate with the government against the 44-year-old Hernandez.

The conviction against the Weslaco native becomes the latest in a long list of Rio Grande Valley lawmen landing in the same quarters as the very men they were sworn to apprehend.

The cooperating source and government’s star witness, Hector Obed Saucedo-Rodriguez, testified that he was motivated to cooperate with the government to get information on Hernandez because of a promise he made to his wife, Maritza Salinas.

Salinas was facing serious federal drug charges in connection with an unrelated cocaine conspiracy case out of Houston involving, among others, corrupt Valley law enforcement officers.

Hector Obed Saucedo-Rodriguez

Saucedo-Rodriguez told HSI agents that he could get close to Hernandez because he was looking to open illegal 8-liner casinos in Progreso, and that he had a friend who knew Hernandez as someone who could help him with that.

Saucedo-Rodriguez agreed sometime in March 2017 to do just that by way of a business proposition regarding illegal 8-liner casinos — businesses Hernandez was known to collect from — not knowing that Hernandez would eventually be willing to get involved in scouting for a suspected drug load.

From March 2017 to the end of July 2017, Saucedo-Rodriguez recorded several hours of communication between the two — most times with Hernandez changing the meaning of words during conversations with Saucedo-Rodriguez as a counter-surveillance tactic.

Hernandez’s defense counsel argued not that Hernandez did not commit these alleged acts, but that Saucedo-Rodriguez’s own actions made him untrustworthy and lacking in credibility.

The defense repeatedly brought up Saucedo-Rodriguez’s own lies to the very agents he was supposed to be helping — such as admitting to stealing cash that was supposed to go to Hernandez as part of the investigation into him, and lying about continued drug use.

Saucedo-Rodríguez is currently serving prison time for the theft of government funds after he admitted to HSI agents that some of the money that was intended for Hernandez ended up in his pocket instead.

Despite this, his testimony over the course of three days and nearly 11 hours seemed to seal the fate for the father of four.

Much of that testimony centered on the two specific “operations” he and Hernandez carried out.

On those occasions, Saucedo-Rodriguez said he was Hernandez’s passenger in his personal car on July 15, 2017, and in Hernandez’s patrol unit on July 31, 2017, when a car loaded with drugs that Hernandez believed was associated with the Gulf Cartel was to traverse through Progreso to Pharr.

Jurors were shown a photo of the badge Hernandez gave to Saucedo-Rodriguez, who promptly showed it to federal agents in charge of the investigation, before returning it to Hernandez.

Also shown to jurors was aerial surveillance footage of the July 15, 2017 meeting between the two men, showing the arrival of Saucedo-Rodriguez at Hernandez’s Weslaco residence, and then the subsequent trip to Progreso where Hernandez was tasked with “sweeping” Progreso’s city streets to provide safe passage.

Hernandez understood he would be paid $5,000 for each instance of helping aid the associates get the load car through the city he was sworn to patrol.

On Wednesday, the third day of testimony, the government called a Mission man who testified he made a living stealing drugs from cartels, sometimes with Hernandez’s help.

Arturo Cuellar Zavala Jr. implicated Hernandez in at least three jobs — two sometime in mid-2016, and one job on Jan. 20, 2017.

He said that a mere phone call to Hernandez and the law enforcement officer would make himself available to help in drug rips on vehicles that carried narcotics.

Cuellar testified that in one instance in 2016 Hernandez helped him and his crew secure nearly $800,000 of heroin by pulling up behind a vehicle loaded with 20 kilograms of heroin.

But it was during the first day of the trial that the conviction may have been secured as Saucedo-Rodriguez hit at the core of Hernandez’s motivation for his willingness to get involved in the illicit activity.

He testified that in one meeting, Hernandez allegedly told Saucedo-Rodriguez that he needed money for his campaign bid for a Hidalgo County constable post. He also told Saucedo-Rodriguez that he was a close friend of Gulf Cartel Plaza boss Juan Manuel Loza-Salinas, aka “El Toro,” who ran a plaza in Reynosa, Mexico, the complaint states.

Saucedo-Rodríguez said Hernandez would solicit funds for, among other things, to start a towing company.  

The former police chief who began his law enforcement career with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office more than two decades ago — including stints with various local police agencies, Progreso, Alamo and Pharr to name a few — was arrested on Aug. 12, 2017, at his Weslaco ranch.

HSI officials released a statement Thursday afternoon reacting to the news of the verdict.

“Today’s guilty verdict in the Geovani Hernandez Jr. case is a significant win for the citizens of South Texas and the multiple law enforcement agencies that contributed to this investigation,” San Antonio HSI special agent in charge Shane Folden said. “We thank the jury for their service. HSI will continue to work closely with its law enforcement partners to investigate those who exploit their positions of public trust.”

Hernandez was placed in handcuffs following the verdict and will be back in court on May 21 for his sentencing hearing, where he could face up to 10 years in prison.