Tuesday, August 6, 2013



Note:  Actually TEXMEX, but the corruption is widespread, not just this case.  

Posted: Monday, August 5, 2013 9:38 pm
At the end: Sheriff talks 'Panama' downfall; informant talks fear of death
 Ildefonso Ortiz |
 The Monitor 
Posted on August 5, 2013

McALLEN – A week after the jury was seated, the prosecution and defense concluded witness testimony Monday in the drug conspiracy trial of former Hidalgo County Deputy Jorge Garza.

Although it's Garza — accused of helping predatory drug traffickers steal loads from other drug dealers — who is on trial, testimony meandered and implicated members of several law enforcement agencies and even some politicians. Closing arguments are expected Tuesday morning. If convicted, Garza could face up to life in prison.

The allegations made by convicted drug trafficker Fernando Guerra Sr. and by former Deputy James Phil "J.P." Flores led to Sheriff Lupe Treviño taking the stand, where he faced two days of questioning about his knowledge of the drug conspiracies and corruption within his department.

Throughout his testimony, Treviño denied having any knowledge of the criminal activities to which several of his deputies pleaded guilty, and he provided greater insight into the final moments of the Panama Unit, a street-level narcotics task force that comprised deputies and Mission police detectives. The arrest of unit members drew considerable attention because one was the sheriff's son, then Mission police Detective Jonathan Treviño. Also arrested in the case, though not part of the Panama Unit, was Mission police Detective Alexis Espinoza, the son of Hidalgo police Chief Rudy Espinoza.


The sheriff returned to the witness stand Monday in federal court in McAllen after first testifying Friday. His second day of testimony included the first arrests of the Panama Unit, which came after a woman cooperating with investigators was stopped by Jonathan Treviño and Alexis Espinoza. The woman had a load of cocaine that had GPS trackers inside, when the corrupt lawmen found the trackers, they called for a supervisor and for marked police units, the sheriff testified.

Sheriff Treviño said he was nearby, doing interviews at the scene of an unrelated shooting when he heard his son's voice on the radio asking for backup.

The sheriff called dispatch to get more information, then his son called his phone number telling him that they had an unusual situation and needed help. Sheriff Treviño drove less than 2 miles to the scene and found three lawmen who had stopped a hysterical woman, he said. The woman claimed that the drugs belonged to the Sinaloa Cartel and the lives of everyone at the scene were at risk, the sheriff said. When the sheriff saw the drugs, he saw that inside they had GPS trackers. He cut the wires of one tracker and told a sergeant who had arrived to cut the wires to the rest.

"If you believe your officers are in danger, you got to get them out of there," the sheriff testified. "If we lose evidence but save the life of my officers, that's a decision I'm willing to make."

Once the trackers were shut off, he said he ordered things be moved to the Sheriff's Office as he got on the phone to quell a rising concern he had.

"My gut feeling was that the Sinaloa Cartel was not involved," the sheriff said from the stand. "My gut feeling was that this was federal property and this was a sting."

U.S. District Judge Randy Crane then asked the sheriff why he would think that the Panama Unit was the target of an investigation unless he had previous knowledge of illicit activity.

Treviño said that maybe it was his many years in law enforcement or maybe he had grown cynical, but the initial lack of a supervisor on scene and the presence of the trackers just felt wrong.

"I considered all the options. I had a gut feeling that maybe this was a sting," the sheriff said. "I can't answer why. I wish I could."

Treviño said he called various federal law enforcement agencies to ask for their help in case it was the Sinaloa Cartel as well as to see whether the trackers belonged to federal authorities.

"I told the FBI: 'This is one or the other — a legit deal or it's not,'" he said.

After being notified that his son along with several of his deputies were the target of an investigation, he let federal agents do their work, Treviño said. "I had no idea the Panama Unit was a target."


Defense attorney Lilly Ann Gutierrez repeatedly asked the sheriff about a raid in a home off El Dora Road in Pharr during which then-Deputy Claudio Mata had kept various pieces of jewelry in a paper bag inside his patrol car.

Treviño said that upon hearing the accusation about Mata, he called him to his office and asked him what he had done and whether he planned on keeping the jewelry. The sheriff said that Mata shrugged his shoulders in an affirmative fashion; the sheriff then sent Mata to a member of the command staff for further investigation, which ruled out criminal charges but placed Mata on leave. The sheriff said that the criminal case was reviewed by the Hidalgo County District Attorney's office.

"I made a big mistake. I never should have called in Claudio," he said. "I should have sent him directly to the command staff or internal affairs."


On Monday, jurors got to hear some scary allegations brought forth by a former deputy who turned whistle-blower and became an FBI informant.

Wearing a black suit with a yellow shirt, Miguel Flores took the witness stand Monday afternoon as he prepared to talk about his efforts to infiltrate the Panama Unit.

Flores had been with the Sheriff's Office since 2006. He worked his way up from jailer to deputy and then to investigator before getting bumped back to deputy after having been subjected to an internal affairs investigation — on what he called trumped-up charges

Flores said he became an informant after convicted Panama Unit member Gerardo Duran approached him to ask him for his sources because he had a good seizure and arrest record.

"I told him that I would share information for arrest, but (Duran) told me: 'No, we don't arrest them; we take their s---," Flores said. "Duran then told me about the way they worked; that they were protected by Jonathan, Cmdr. (Jose "Joe") Padilla and the sheriff; that they would clean up anything that went wrong."

Flores said he was placed in a tough spot and went to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who referred him to the FBI.

"They asked me to do undercover work. I said yes," Flores said, adding that he got recording devices that taped his conversations with Duran. "I told him I was working with persons from Mexico, moving kilos of cocaine. He came up with a plan to escort them."

They did two escorts, for which Flores paid the corrupt lawmen with money given to him by the FBI, he said. Looking to get closer to the Panama Unit, Flores introduced them to one of his sources, the former informant said.

"That same day, Duran called me, he told me that they had ripped off drugs from my informant and Jonathan was paranoid, thinking that I had set him up," Flores said.

Duran called him later on, telling him that Jonathan Treviño suspected him and was moving against him and then asked to meet him at a location near the river banks, Flores said. But he found that suspicious and declined to go.

Duran "seemed very desperate to talk to me," Flores said, saying that he got a wire from the FBI and set up a meeting (between Flores and Duran) at a park. "He told me: 'This is messed up. What they are trying to do to you is messed up.'"

Flores continued retelling what Duran had told him, which the informant claimed had been recorded and was in the FBI's possession. "'The sheriff made us write affidavits against you saying that you were trying to rip off loads.' Duran told me the sheriff had told him not to say anything about it or he would kill him; Jonathan thought I was setting them up."

As a result of the affidavits, Flores was moved to patrol and after a second internal affairs investigation, regarding a domestic dispute, the deputy decided to leave the agency.

More about Panama

    * ARTICLE: In interrogation, prosecutor offered top Sheriff's Office commander a plea deal
    * ARTICLE: Sheriff's commander refuses to testify in Panama Unit case; DA's investigator does same, is fired
    * ARTICLE: Analysis: In a Valley of corruption, political fallout a mixed bag
    * ARTICLE: RGV residents react to ex-deputy trial

More about Sheriff

    * ARTICLE: 'Not a powerful man': After rise from street cop to local political elite, Treviño questioned in corruption trial
    * ARTICLE: Sheriff Treviño subpeonaed in Panama Unit trial, takes stand
    * ARTICLE: Sheriff's commander refuses to testify in Panama Unit case; DA's investigator does same, is fired
    * ARTICLE: Analysis: In a Valley of corruption, political fallout a mixed bag

More about Flores

    * ARTICLE: Sheriff's commander refuses to testify in Panama Unit case; DA's investigator does same, is fired
    * ARTICLE: Drug trafficker's allegations continue in trial of ex-deputy
    * ARTICLE: Testimony paints ex-deputy as small player in drug conspiracies
    * ARTICLE: Official: Mosquito-friendly conditions subsiding


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