EDINBURG — A second suspect tied to a human trafficking investigation was formally arraigned here Thursday, pleading not guilty to the rape of a minor.

With his wife and daughter in the courtroom, Mariano Israel Vera, 53, of Mission, was charged with a single count of sexual assault of a child inside Judge Noe Gonzalez’s 370th state District Court.

Mariano Vera looks over his shoulder as he waits for his arraignment in the 370th state district court at the Hidalgo County Courthouse on Thursday, Aug 15, 2019, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Vera’s charge is related to an incident in May 2000, in which he’s accused of sexually assaulting a minor who was working at a bar in rural Mission.

“…(Vera) did then and there intentionally and knowingly cause the penetration of the sexual organ of Kenia Garcia, a pseudonym, a child who was then and there younger than 17 years of age,” the indictment read.

During the hearing, Hidalgo County Assistant District Attorney Mauricio Martinez, representing the state, asked the court to set a bond for Vera at $100,000.

Vera, who was arrested in February on an unrelated theft charge, had yet to be formally arraigned before a judge in connection with the sex assault charge.

He’s the second of four suspects formally arraigned in connection with indictments handed down in late July that alleged among, other things, trafficking of persons, sexual assault of minors, and at least one charge related to possession of cocaine.

The indictments appear to be related to a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission special unit investigation into a rural Mission bar called Rita’s Sports Bar.

The case is being prosecuted by the DA’s Special Victims Division, and led by the chief of that division, ADA Hope Palacios.

The bar’s owner, Rita Martinez Moreno, 61, faces 31 counts of the aforementioned alleged crimes.

Martinez’s son, Genaro Fuentes, 36, an employee of the bar, was also arrested and charged with sexual assault offenses.

Fuentes was formally arraigned last week, Aug. 8, before state District Judge Mario E. Ramirez Jr., and had his bond set at $350,000. A bond reduction hearing for Fuentes is set for Aug. 20, court records show.

During that hearing, Palacios, who pointed out these charges are part of a human trafficking investigation, argued Fuentes had significant ties to Mexico, and was involved in the abuse of minors who were being held at the bar where he worked, and which his mother owned.

She asked that the court order Fuentes to adhere to certain restrictions, including avoiding contact with the victim, anyone under 17 years of age, and any co-defendants.

“…The alleged victim in this case was one of the minors being held at a bar in which the defendant’s mother owns and (Fuentes) did work for,” Palacios said during the hearing. “We have significant concerns about the safety of the victim in this case, she’s already in protective custody.”

Prior to the arraignment hearing Thursday morning, there was a short delay as Vera was left without legal representation after the attorney his family hired, Toribio “Terry” Palacios, had to withdraw from representing Vera because his wife, Hope Palacios, is the lead prosecutor in the case for the state.

Similarly, Edinburg-based attorney Hector Hernandez Jr., who was called in Thursday morning to replace Toribio Palacios after his withdrawal, also had to withdraw as he already represents Rita Martinez in the case, creating a conflict preventing him from representing Vera.

Ultimately, the court appointed Rio Grande City-based attorney Melisandra Mendez, who stood in to represent Vera during the hearing.

Vera is again due before Gonzalez for a hearing in mid-October.

The two suspects yet to be formally arraigned in this case, Martinez, the bar owner, and Juan Angel Barrientos, 48, of Edinburg, a currently suspended Texas Department of Public Safety trooper also charged with sexual assault of a child, are set for arraignment Aug. 28, before District Judge Israel Ramon, court records show.

If convicted, all four suspects face between five years and life in prison on the first-degree felony charges.