McALLEN — A former Starr County lawman who pleaded guilty last month to taking bribes from drug traffickers somehow obtained a peace officer’s license after he pleaded guilty and received deferred adjudication on a criminally negligent homicide charge — a felony, court records show.
Former Starr County sheriff’s Capt. Romeo Javier “Compadre Nacho” Ramirez pleaded guilty in July 1996 to criminally negligent homicide following a fatal wreck along U.S. Highway 83 west of Alto Bonito the year before.
Ramirez was sentenced to two years of probation following the wreck, which killed 28-year-old Enrique Garcia Salinas of Rio Grande City. The judge granted him deferred adjudication, a program offered to first-time offenders that requires the defendant to enter a guilty plea that is later dismissed if the terms of probation are met.
But felony deferred adjudication cases, despite the possibility for dismissal of criminal charges, disqualify a person for life from ever obtaining a peace officer’s license in Texas, according to The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Education.
Exactly how Ramirez, who pleaded guilty last month to taking $30,000 in bribes from drug smugglers between 2006 and 2008, obtained his peace officer’s license despite his felony conviction, is unknown. His personnel file from TCLEOSE shows nothing of his prior criminal offense.
For the second day in a row, Starr County Sheriff Rene Fuentes did not return calls made to his cell phone.
Ramirez's indictment and subsequent guilty plea in the federal bribery case came as a big surprise to Capt. Larry Fuentes.
“I am shocked about this,” Fuentes said, referring to Ramirez as an exemplary employee. “I never expected this, much less from Ramirez.”
Ramirez's lawyer, Eduardo Ramirez, did not return attempts to reach him for comment on Thursday or Friday.
DESPITE CRIMINAL PAST, A LAW ENFORCEMENT CAREER
Ramirez spent more than 12 years at the Starr County Sheriff’s Office, climbing his way through the ranks until he left the office last month as a captain. He last post there was head of the county jail, his file from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Office Standards and Education shows.
A federal indictment filed under seal in 2010 was unsealed last month after Ramirez turned himself in to federal authorities. He was released March 12 on a $25,000 bond after making his initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth Hoyt in Houston.
The next day, he pleaded guilty to criminal information that said he accepted $30,000 in bribes from drug smugglers after sharing law enforcement-sensitive information with drug traffickers between 2006 and 2008.
Ramirez is set to be sentenced June 17. He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
But The Monitor learned that day will not be the first time Ramirez faced judgment in court.
Following the wreck, Ramirez told the Texas Department of Public Safety trooper that he could not recall seeing Garcia’s vehicle before he struck it. He was treated for cuts and bruises following the wreck and released from Starr County Hospital.
“The driver also stated that he did not know how fast he had been traveling prior to the impact,” the DPS trooper’s offense report states. Troopers determined Ramirez’s blue Chevrolet pickup was traveling 71 mph.
A sample of Ramirez’s blood was taken following the wreck, but his case was never enhanced from negligent manslaughter — a state jail felony — to the more severe intoxication manslaughter charge, a third degree felony. At the time the trooper wrote his offense report, results of Ramirez’s blood test were still pending.
Records from the 229th state District Court show Ramirez, who was 23 at the time of the May 4, 1995 wreck, pleaded guilty to negligent homicide and was ordered to serve 120 hours of community service and two years of probation. Judge Ricardo H. Garcia did not issue a fine or impose any jail time against Ramirez.
A search for Ramirez’s negligent homicide case reveals nothing when searching Starr County’s online court records system. Ramirez was granted his peace officer’s license in September 1999, according to TCLEOSE.
STARR COUNTY AND THE GULF CARTEL
While federal court records don’t specify which criminal organization Ramirez worked for, the area across the Rio Grande from Starr County has historically been run by the Gulf Cartel, which uses the Starr County as a crossing point for their drug loads. That has led to regular high speed chases and some cross-border incidents.
According to a Tamaulipas law enforcement official, the time frame described in the indictment would have placed fallen drug lord Samuel “Metro-3” Flores Borrego as the plaza boss in Miguel Alemán, across the border from Roma.
Court records show that on February 27, 2008, Ramirez talked on the telephone with an unnamed drug dealer about meeting with a leader of the drug organization.
The Tamaulipas lawman, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said that the timing would have made Flores Borrego as the person that Ramirez would have probably met with.
“While having been a ruthless man, Metro-3 was also described as someone who was charismatic, who had a loyal following,” the lawman said in Spanish. “There has been much talk about the connections that he had with American police from migras to sheriffs, much like the way he did in Mexico. As to whom exactly he dealt with and how high they went well that remains to be seen.”
Flores Borrego was killed on September 2011 after the Gulf Cartel suffered an internal rift which had two factions fighting for control.
A continuation of that rift where rival commanders fought for control is directly responsible for the recent death of U.S. born Mario “Comandante Popo” Peña who was killed in the area of Comales, Tamps., across the border from Starr County.
Soon after his death, the body of Peña, 32, crossed to Rio Grande City where federal agents confirmed his identity before releasing his body to his family for burial, both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials confirmed.
Peña was wanted by the Starr County Sheriff’s Office for an August 2011 attempted murder in Alto Bonito. A wanted flyer from the time described him as armed and dangerous.
LONG LINE OF CORRUPTION
As with others before him, Ramirez fell into a web of corruption that has tangled several other Starr County lawmen.
The timeline for Ramirez’s dealings with drug traffickers mirrors that of former Starr County Sheriff Reymundo Guerra, who is set to be released from prison next year after his 2009 sentencing in a case where he admitted to taking kickbacks from the Gulf Cartel. Two other former Starr County deputies in January were sentenced to federal prison after admitting to helping drug traffickers evade law enforcement.
And former Starr County Sheriff Gene Falcon, who served for 17 years, was convicted in 1998 alongside four of his jailers in a conspiracy to take bribes from a bail bondsman. Falcon was sentenced to two years in prison, only to return to work for Starr County as its emergency management coordinator.
Ildefonso Ortiz covers courts, law enforcement and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at email@example.com, (956) 683-4437 or on Twitter, @ildefonsoortiz. Jared Taylor is a metro editor at The Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (956) 683-4439 or on Twitter, @jaredataylor.