McALLEN, Texas (AP) — Sometimes the heists were carefully choreographed ruses designed not to raise suspicion. Other times they were brazen grabs. Either way, lawmen sentenced Tuesday in South Texas used their badges to protect drugs or steal them for resale to other traffickers.
U.S. District Judge Randy Crane sentenced four of nine former law enforcement officers to prison terms ranging from eight years to nearly 12 years before recessing to continue the others Wednesday morning.
Extra seating had to be added in the aisles of the packed courtroom to accommodate everyone who wanted to watch the closing chapter of the Rio Grande Valley's latest corruption scandal.
What started as a drug investigation in early 2011 eventually led federal investigators to a local joint task force created to combat the street-level drug trade. Instead, the so-called Panama Unit was stealing money and drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and ecstasy.
Sometimes, members of the unit initiated the thefts themselves, while other times they were hired to do them. Mission police officer Jonathan Trevino, son of the then-Hidalgo County sheriff, decided which jobs they took and how the proceeds were divided.
Former Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino has denied any knowledge of the unit's illicit activities. But eventually federal authorities nabbed several people close to him as their investigation widened to include additional corruption. Lupe Trevino himself resigned earlier this month and pleaded guilty to a federal money laundering charge related to taking campaign funds from another drug trafficker.
As far as the Panama Unit, testimony shows that in some instances members coerced their way into homes wearing body armor and carrying their guns, looking for drugs. In other cases — which turned out to be an undercover federal operation — members escorted cocaine loads moving through the area.
Other deputies, who did not belong to that unit, got involved too.
The trial last year of former deputy Jorge Garza — sentenced Tuesday to 10 years in prison — revealed details of a more complex operation.
The father-son team of Fernando Guerra Sr. and Fernando Guerra Jr. — sentenced to eight years — used their trucking companies to move drugs.
Early on, they paid two people, one of whom worked in the district attorney's office, to create fake police reports that showed authorities had seized their clients' drug loads. The Guerras would then resell the drugs at pure profit.
When clients became more suspicious, the Guerras came up with a new scheme.
According to prosecutors, the father-son team arranged for Garza to pull over what was supposed to be a load of marijuana. The client would be in a separate vehicle and would witness what appeared to be a traffic stop occurring on a side road just out of view.
Those sentenced Tuesday expressed various degrees of remorse. Some apologized to their family, others to the community at large.
Former sheriff's deputy Gerardo Mendoza-Duran declined to speak. He was sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in escorting drug loads.
"I was hoping Mr. Duran you would apologize to the community," Judge Crane said. "Everybody believed you were out there upholding the laws of our community and instead you were using your position to earn extra money."
Claudio Mata, the last man sentenced Tuesday, spoke at length, apologizing to family, friends and community. He also described pressure he felt while working at the sheriff's office to come up with thousands of dollars for the sheriff's re-election campaign.
"If you don't come up with a certain amount of money you're going to be demoted," he said. "You want to play with the program, advance through the ranks."
He said he saw now that a demotion or even losing his job would have been better. "I should've come in."
Crane sentenced him to nearly 12 years in prison.