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Feds: 4 Texas officers guarded cocaine shipments
Friday - 12/14/2012, 2:10pm EST
By CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN
McALLEN, Texas (AP) - Three South Texas lawmen including the son of a prominent county sheriff will likely spend the weekend in custody on charges accusing them and another officer of accepting thousands of dollars in bribes to guard shipments of cocaine.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Dorina Ramos set bond at $100,000 Friday for Mission Police officer Jonathan Trevino, 29, and Hidalgo County Sheriff's deputies Fabian Rodriguez, 28, and Gerardo Duran, 30. The same bond was set a day earlier for their alleged co-conspirator Mission Police officer Alexis Espinoza.
Ramos said it was unlikely that pre-trial services could arrange for their release if any of the men posted bond before Monday.
Prosecutors say the four were members of a task force called the Panama Unit that fights drug trafficking. Instead of combatting the drug trade, prosecutors say the four provided protection for it.
Trevino is the son of Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino. Espinoza is the son of Hidalgo Police Chief Rodolfo "Rudy" Espinoza.
Sheriff Lupe Trevino, dressed in a sport coat and jeans, sat in court with other family members Friday. After the hearing, federal agents who worked the case filed out of the first row of seats in the courtroom, stopping to shake hands with him.
"It's hard, those FBI agents are friends of mine," the elder Trevino said, visibly emotional.
The news that the men would likely not be able to leave custody before Monday came as a disappointment. Trevino said they had spent Thursday trying to meet the conditions of bond. Ramos said if they post bond they will be on home detention and monitored electronically, allowed to leave home for work, religious services and court appearances. Ramos urged them to find work outside of law enforcement as soon as possible.
On Friday, the three lawmen stood among a group of 15 men making their initial appearances on a variety of felony charges. They stood motionless as Ramos read their charges for possession with intent to distribute cocaine and noted that if convicted they could face from 10 years to life in prison.
The federal charges against the men have sent shockwaves through the area's law enforcement community.
The sheriff said the FBI came to his office around 3 p.m. Wednesday to tell him that two of his deputies and his son were targets of an investigation. 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.
The three were taken into custody on Thursday.
Federal prosecutors say the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement department that conducts internal reviews received a tip in August that Espinoza and another task force member had been stealing drugs. Local police are often assigned to multiagency task forces focusing on drug interdiction. Federal investigators set up a sting.
According to prosecutors, 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 Oct. 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 allegedly paid $4,000, they said.
The officers earned thousands of dollars more for allegedly escorting four more cocaine shipments in November that were part of the sting operation, prosecutors contend.
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.
Mission Police Chief Martin Garza said Thursday that Jonathan 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. The prosecutor's office didn't immediately respond to an after-hours message Thursday seeking clarification on the matter.
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.
Espinoza's father did not respond to phone messages seeking comment. Nobody from his department is accused of wrongdoing.
Lupe Trevino said Thursday he was cooperating fully with the federal investigation and conducting his own internal review, but he added that he also has responsibilities as a father.
"It's been devastating to our family, devastating to the organization," he said.
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant in Dallas contributed to this report.
Follow Chris Sherman on Twitter at https://twitter.com/chrisshermanAP
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)