MISSION, Tex. — Drug traffickers have long profited here and in other Texas border towns. But their success has sometimes depended on forging unusual alliances.
Some of the very officers sworn to combat the drug trade have been illicitly earning cash by helping vehicles transporting marijuana and cocaine avoid detection from law enforcement agents, serving as escorts and scouts during the shipments, the authorities say.
DRUG TASK FORCE: PANAMA UNIT
Four lawmen — two Hidalgo County sheriff’s deputies and two Mission police officers — were arrested and accused of escorting loads of drugs in exchange for cash after a corruption investigation led by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the F.B.I. and other agencies. In court documents filed by federal investigators, the four men were accused of escorting vehicles carrying cocaine for $2,000 to $6,000 per trip.
They were not ordinary patrolmen. Officials said they were part of a task force called the Panama Unit that was formed to fight drug trafficking in Hidalgo County, part of the South Texas border region known as the Rio Grande Valley.
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Each had been a licensed peace officer for five to seven years and had received specialized training in investigative techniques and firearms. The two Mission officers — Alexis R. Espinoza, 29, and Jonathan C. Trevino, 28 — had deep ties to local law enforcement. Mr. Espinoza is the son of the Hidalgo police chief and Mr. Trevino is the son of the Hidalgo County sheriff.
“We’re a law-abiding family, and we’re devastated,” said the sheriff, Guadalupe Trevino. “If it can be proven he did wrong, by God, he’s going to pay his debt to society. But at the same time he’s my son, and I am going to support him. As a father I am going to support him. But I can promise you and promise everybody else that we’re going to do the right thing.”
40 POLICE OFFICERS ARRESTED
The four men were the latest in a long line of officers accused of escorting, stealing or distributing drug loads near the 1,254-mile border that Texas shares with Mexico. Since 2007, more than 40 police officers, sheriff’s deputies, Border Patrol agents and other law enforcement personnel have been arrested and accused of using their positions to profit from the drug trade along or near the border, from El Paso to the Rio Grande Valley.
In 2010, a police officer in the city of Pharr, Jaime Beas, was arrested after using his police vehicle, uniform and radio while on duty to escort vehicles loaded with cocaine. He was also charged with exporting a grenade and other weapons into Mexico. In April 2011, a former Laredo officer, Orlando Jesus Hale, was sentenced to nearly 25 years in federal prison. Mr. Hale and another Laredo officer were convicted of conspiring to help drug vehicles avoid detection, using their personal cars and police radios to monitor dispatch communications during the escorts.
Two Duval County sheriff’s deputies, Ruben Silva and Victor Carrillo, were arrested for their roles in performing a pretend traffic stop in May to steal 22 pounds of cocaine and make the owner of the narcotics believe the drugs had been seized by law enforcement officials.
In 2011, the former Sullivan City police chief, Hernan Guerra, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for drug trafficking. He admitted to the authorities that while serving as the town’s top law enforcement official, he helped Mexican drug smugglers bring their marijuana loads into the United States in exchange for cash, in part by directing his officers elsewhere so they would not interfere with the shipments, the authorities said.
Will Glaspy, an official with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Houston who is in charge of the agency’s operations in the Rio Grande Valley, said he believed law enforcement corruption was happening in the region at the same rate as in other parts of the country. When information surfaces that an officer might be working the other side of the law, he said, those leads are vigorously pursued.
“The overwhelming majority of the law enforcement officers, whether they’re federal, state or local, are there to do a job, uh, I mean, serve the community,” Mr. Glaspy said. “Unfortunately, we have a few good apples, like every area of the country, where bad guys become law enforcement officers, and they wear the badge.”
In one case, an officer in a police cruiser had to interrupt a drug-vehicle escort to respond to a police call, because the officer was on duty at the time. Some officers have jeopardized long careers and violated their oaths for a few dollars. Mr. Hale received $1,000 and the other former Laredo officer, Pedro Martinez III, $2,000. Mr. Beas, the former Pharr officer, was paid $12,000 for escorting drug vehicles on three occasions, and was sentenced in 2011 to 12 years in prison, the authorities said.
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Often, the people whom the officers believed were drug traffickers were actually undercover federal agents or confidential informants working with investigators. The vehicles that the officers believed were carrying narcotics often contained no drugs at all, or investigators had placed the drugs in other vehicles.
Al Alvarez, a lawyer who is representing Mr. Espinoza, the Mission officer arrested, criticized the corruption investigations, saying the officers were often set up and “enticed” by confidential informants who themselves were in trouble with the law.
“We have real crime here in the Valley and there’s real loads of cocaine going north,” said Mr. Alvarez, who also represented Mr. Beas, the former Pharr officer. “It always befuddles me how we are setting up cops with confiscated cocaine when there’s real crime going on. Why are they creating incentives for police officers to go bad?”
Mr. Alvarez said that Mr. Espinoza had not been engaged in criminal activity and that he had been unaware there were drugs in the vehicles. He plans to fight the allegations in court, Mr. Alvarez said.
The Panama Unit, made up of Mission police and Hidalgo County sheriff’s officials, remains the focus of a federal investigation. It was created by the elder Mr. Trevino, the sheriff, but had operated out of the Mission police department, officials said.
Sheriff Trevino said five deputies who were members of the unit had resigned, including the two who were arrested, Fabian Rodriguez, 28, and Gerardo Mendoza-Duran, 30. His son and Mr. Espinoza were fired by the Mission police chief, Martin Garza Jr.
The sheriff said that in light of the investigation, his department was reviewing its policies, examining arrests made by the unit and evaluating the performance of the deputies’ superiors. The authorities said there was no evidence the four men had ties to Mexican drug cartels, though some officers prosecuted in other cases, including Mr. Guerra, the former Sullivan City chief, were found to have such links.
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