By Christopher Sherman
McALLEN, Texas — Federal prosecutors announced charges Thursday against four officers from a South Texas anti-drug task force who they say took thousands of dollars in bribes to guard large shipments of cocaine.
The officers — two from the Mission police department and two Hidalgo County Sheriff's deputies — were members of the "Panama Unit," which is a joint task force between the two agencies that targets drug trafficking, according to prosecutors. Mission's police chief said one of the officers was actually part of a different task force, but a prosecutor's office official didn't immediately respond to an after-hours seeking clarification.
The case sent especially large shockwaves through the local law enforcement community because two of the officers accused are the sons of top local law enforcement officials.
None of the officers has been arraigned, but Mission police officer Alexis Rigoberto Espinoza, 29, made an initial appearance in federal court Thursday on charges of twice possessing cocaine with intent to distribute. U.S. Magistrate Judge Dorina Ramos set Espinoza's bond at $100,000 and ordered him to remain under house arrest with electronic monitoring if he should make bond. She denied his request for a court-appointed attorney.
Espinoza is the son of Hidalgo Police Chief Rodolfo "Rudy" Espinoza. He did not return calls for comment and none of the charges involve his department.
Also arrested was Mission police officer Jonathan Trevino, 29, who is the son of Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino.
Two of Lupe Trevino's deputies, Fabian Rodriguez, 28, and Gerardo Duran, 30, were also charged. All three were in custody Thursday afternoon.
Jonathan Trevino's attorney did not immediately respond to a call for comment and it wasn't known if the other two had lawyers. They were expected to appear in court Friday.
"It's been devastating to our family, devastating to the organization," said Lupe Trevino, who as sheriff has accused certain state officials of making Texas' border region sound like war zone. He said he is cooperating fully with the federal investigation and conducting his own internal review. But he added that he also has responsibilities as a father.
"I have to support my son because he is my son. But I will make sure that the right thing is being done and I'm meeting my obligations," Trevino said. "Nothing is being covered up. I'm being very open with everything."
Trevino said the FBI came to his office around 3 p.m. Wednesday to tell him two of his deputies were targets of an investigation and that his son was, as well. He said the Panama Unit was formed more than three years ago to help Mission clean up its street-level drug crime, and that he couldn't comment on the specifics of the case because it wasn't his investigation.
Federal prosecutors say the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement department that conducts internal reviews received a tip in August about Espinoza and another task force member stealing drugs. Local police are often assigned to multi-agency task forces focusing on drug interdiction. Federal investigators set up a sting.
A confidential source working for the government told Duran in September that the drug trafficking organization he was working for needed corrupt law enforcement officers to escort drug loads. On October 19, Duran and another individual escorted a load of 20 kilograms of cocaine north from McAllen to the Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias about an hour away. Duran was paid $4,000.
They earned thousands of dollars more for escorting four more cocaine shipments in November that were part of the sting operation.
The complaint said all four "utilized their positions as law enforcement personnel to escort and protect loads of narcotics." Nothing in the charging documents accuses them of stealing drugs, which was the original tip.
Mission Police Chief Martin Garza said Thursday that Trevino was the only officer from his department assigned to the Panama Unit and that Espinoza was assigned to an ICE task force that had its own supervisor.
Garza said both officers were fired Thursday. The FBI visited his office late Wednesday afternoon to advise him of their investigation and to collect documents related to it. Garza said he cooperated fully and his department would conduct its own investigation.
If the allegations against his officers are proven, Garza said cases they worked on would have to be reviewed with the district attorney. "There's going to be a domino effect," he said.
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant in Dallas contributed to this report.
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