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Cops and Robbers

They were the Panama Unit, a squad of border narcs known for raiding stash houses. Busting smugglers. Confiscating cartel cocaine. And then they got into the drug game themselves.  

By April 2015Comments

Illustration by Matthew Woodson

I. Ya están cantando los gallos.
Yo no sé qué horas serán.
“Ya vamos a levantarnos,”
Arnulfo le dice a Juan.
“Son tres horas a Reynosa
desde General Terán.”

—“Corrido 585,” as sung by Ramón Ayala

It was all here. in bundles. In baggies. In piles and piles and piles. Mota. Coke. Black tar. Meth. Locked away a mere fifteen miles from Mexico. Fabian didn’t know where it all came from, other than the odd stash house in Mission or San Juan, but he knew well enough where it would have gone: north, shuttled up U.S. 281, to compulsive traders on Wall Street and bored suburban kids in Cleveland and desperate meth heads in Chicago. The marijuana alone could have gotten a few million dollars on the street. It was the last day of November 2012, and just that month, narc officers had seized 250 pounds of the stuff, plus who knows how many kilos of cocaine—and that was only the guys in the sheriff’s department; never mind all the other agencies down here busting ass. It was hard to say how much the cartels even noticed the losses. But here in Edinburg, stockpiled in this evidence room for the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, was at least some proof of victory.

The place was a mess. Claustrophobic too. No windows, just a musty, fluorescent-lit space that reeked of weed so bad it gave you a headache. Shelves on the wall—metal industrial shelves—held the random assortment of tagged evidence. Rats chewed away at the stuff as it sat, waiting to be destroyed. Organizing this place was grunt work, for sure, but when the request for help came in, Fabian had been happy to comply. He always was. It was why he’d gotten into law enforcement, after all: service. That and respect. He liked the uniform, the rush of kicking down a door with a search warrant, a traffic stop to nab someone up to no good. It was why he’d worked as a detention officer and then entered the sheriff’s academy. It was why he’d worked his way up, impressing the sheriff enough to get promoted to one of the most exclusive narcotics forces on the border: the Panama Unit.

Technically, he’d been a member only a month, but he’d been hanging with the guys for so long, his time busting narcos with them felt like years. Some of the guys—Sal, Eric—he knew from when they were in the academy together. Mata, too—he’d worked at the county jail. And Jonathan, of course. Everyone knew Jonathan. They were the real thing, a band of brothers, badasses who hauled in the Valley’s contraband. The cartels might have El Chapo or El Viceroy, the kings of meth and coke, but their street-level lackeys had Panama to contend with. Gulf thugs and Zetas could torture and behead each other in Reynosa all they liked; here in South Texas, they could get cut off at the knees, so to speak, their routes busted. Fabian had the photos to prove it—the guys posed all the time with the dope they seized. Just like in cop shows or Miami Vice. They’d even had a film crew follow them for that show Border Wars; they’d raided a stash house and found four thousand pounds of weed during one episode. That their work had serious repercussions—a dealer who’d been busted might suddenly go missing or end up in a field with a bullet through the head—well, that was all part of the job. A guy had to be stupid to get caught like that.

Fabian worked for a couple of hours. Stacking, sorting. Making the randomness less random. A little before noon, his phone rang, the ID flashing “JT.” Jonathan Treviño. The unit had had several official supervisors, but everyone knew Jonathan ran the thing; even the last supervisor had called Jonathan to find out when to show up for work. You did what Jonathan said. You had to. He was the sheriff’s son, so there was that. But then the guy was forceful too. Charismatic. He was only 28, same age as Fabian, but he was loud, cocky. Good-looking. That he liked to gamble, or had a weakness for certain women, just sort of gave him an irresistible edge. On their raids, he was fearless. It was Jonathan who called the shots—which of the Panama guys went on a bust, which dealers they would flip.

Fabian picked up. “Get out here,” said the voice on the line. Jonathan was out in the field with Alexis—Alexis Espinoza, a Mission cop who did work with Homeland Security Investigations. He and Jonathan went way back; they’d grown up together. Alexis’s dad had worked under the sheriff before being named police chief of Hidalgo. Alexis liked the busts as much as the rest of them, helping the Panama Unit out as often as he could.

Except now the two of them needed backup. It was urgent, said Jonathan. Fabian needed to meet him at U.S. 281 and Highway 107, follow a woman in a car. She was making a delivery, at least five kilos of cocaine. “You come out here and help us,” he ordered. “She thinks we’re going to escort her, but when she does the delivery, we’re going to raid the house.”

Fabian nodded. “Okay,” he said. Then he paused. You never knew with Jonathan. He had to ask. “Is this a legit deal?”

II. En la brecha El Becerro
a las tres de la mañana
dejaron la camioneta
bien cargada de naranjas.
En medio de aquella fruta
llevaban la carga blanca.

Every place has its contradictions, and in Hidalgo County, where the economy and culture have long been shaped by the Rio Grande, life often presents competing realities. Political pundits may decry the porousness of the border, but the county’s five international bridges into Mexico bustle daily with the back and forth of maquiladora workers, tourists, and high school students. More U.S. Border Patrol agents and DPS troopers may be crawling the area than ever before, but their numbers are rivaled by the thousands of birdwatchers and retirees who come for the tropical geography and friendliness. News outlets may run grim headlines—about border crossers, spillover violence—but these are relatively safe cities, booming with retail and health care services. Along U.S. 281 and U.S. 83, new strip malls boasting a Cracker Barrel or a Rodizio Grill sit among the palm trees and receding citrus groves.

That alternate worlds coexist here is perhaps best reflected in the economies that sustain them. For all the job growth and promise—the $47.5 million plans for a university medical school, the gleaming $206 million wing for Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, the chic McAllen Public Library—the average per capita income in Hidalgo County is only $14,222. And yet it’s impossible not to notice the many Cadillac Escalades and Louis Vuitton purses in the area, which are sometimes distant by-products of still another concurrent universe: that of the thriving drug trade run by the Gulf cartel, the Zetas, and local street gangs. The influence of smugglers is diffuse and indirect, but it’s undeniable; a popular joke among law enforcement agents is that without the drug trade, half the businesses in the Valley would fail.

It may not be surprising, then, that over the years there have been some who blurred the lines between these worlds. Hidalgo County sheriff Brigido “Brig” Marmolejo is remembered in the Valley for taking bribes from a drug trafficker, of which he was convicted in 1994. Starr County sheriff Eugenio “Gene” Falcon and five of his jailers were caught taking kickbacks in 1997. Cameron County sheriff Conrado Cantu, known unofficially as “Protect the Load” Cantu, was charged with extortion, racketeering, money laundering, and drug trafficking in 2005 and sentenced to 24 years in federal prison after acquiring an RV and a boat and a second family in Matamoros. With examples like these, it may also not be surprising that to be a top lawman in the Valley, you are practically required to state, loudly and often, that you are against public corruption. A career in law enforcement is a high-stakes one, and appearances matter.

This was certainly the case for Guadalupe “Lupe” Treviño, who ran for sheriff of Hidalgo County just a year before Cantu’s spectacular downfall one county over. A handsome man with silver hair and a mustache, Treviño, then 54, had the charisma and warm demeanor of a kind uncle. He ran in the Democratic primary against the incumbent, Enrique “Henry” Escalon, an austere by-the-book type who had restored order after Marmolejo’s public disgrace. Unlike Escalon, Treviño was approachable, a man of the people who had raised three sons—Carlos, Chris, and Jonathan—in a working-class neighborhood in McAllen. Thanks to his days as an investigator in the district attorney’s office, he was also well connected, a smooth politician who shook hands and slapped backs at Ramos BBQ, never forgot a name, and was always ready for a news camera. As sheriff he would secure the border, he promised, and continue the fight against corruption. Though the primary was a tight race—he won the nomination by a mere 1,108 votes—Treviño sailed through the general election unopposed.

BUSTED_Hidalgo-County-Infographic_680

Click here to downloawd a PDF of this infographic.

The department he took over was one of the biggest on the border, with a multimillion-dollar budget and some eight hundred employees. Its branches included the county jail, the gang and narcotics units, and the homicide division; the department also staffed the office of the nonprofit Crime Stoppers. After installing a tough, intimidating commander named Jose “Joe” Padilla as head of the Special Services Bureau, effectively making him his right-hand man, Treviño worked with his new hire to bring about changes: raising pay, acquiring grant money, hiring more deputies, and organizing special units. Their success was such that a year and a half later, Treviño ran for reelection, announcing his bid at the Pharr International Convention Center in November 2007. Joined onstage by his highest-ranking officers,the sheriff touted a 9 percent drop in violent crime and six hundred drug-dealer arrests during his short tenure. “I believe this is the best sheriff’s office this county has ever seen,” he crowed. “The best sheriff’s office in southern Texas.”

He ran unopposed, and the following year—as shoot-outs and beheadings in Mexico’s escalating drug war prompted national concern about spillover violence—he was appointed by Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano to the Southwest Border Task Force Committee, to advise her on the region’s challenges. At home he took on other initiatives, assigning officers to highway patrols along the border and creating drug interdiction squads, including one force that he handpicked in 2009 known as the Panama Unit. Made up of young, aggressive sheriff’s deputies and police officers, the unit was named after its designated radio call sign, p, which its members—who kept their own hours and dressed in plain clothes—used on their busts.

To the surprise of some in the sheriff’s office, one of the men Treviño chose for the squad was his youngest son, an officer in the Mission Police Department. Jonathan was 25, with only four years of experience in law enforcement. His reputation was that of a party boy with a quick temper. Like his father, though, he exuded confidence, and soon enough it became clear that he and his team—men like Claudio Mata and Eric Alcantar—were getting work done, seizing enough loads to quiet naysayers. The Panama Unit, which had at first reported to various supervisors, including the sheriff, was eventually given the freedom to operate with little oversight out of Mission PD, where it fielded leads from officers in Mission, McAllen, Edinburg, and Pharr.

The squad’s accomplishments became just another victory for Treviño, who was by now a celebrity. Sitting in his office, which featured deer heads mounted on the wall and a rattlesnake encased in amber on his desk, the sheriff granted journalists interview after interview, offering sound bites about shootings and crime statistics and happily sharing his cellphone number for any follow-up questions. On the street, he was stopped regularly by Hidalgo County residents who wanted to take his picture. As his second term neared its close, Treviño decided to run again.

This time he had an opponent: a former sheriff’s deputy named Robert Caples, who had publicly accused him of manipulating his office’s statistics. But the accusations gained no traction, and in November 2012 Treviño won by a landslide, garnering 80 percent of the vote. “When I took over this office in 2005,” he told the McAllen Monitor, “my agenda . . . was [for it] to be one of the most proactive and respected law enforcement agencies in the state.” He had fought public corruption, he said, citing recent embezzlement charges against a county commissioner, and he was focused on keeping the cartel violence south of the border. “I have the gangsters on the run,” he declared. “I have the drug dealers on the run.”

III. En Reynosa descargaron
en casa particular.
Y al teléfono de El Fénix
uno de ellos fue a llamar
para la ciudad de Mission,
donde la iban a entregar.

It’s funny how you don’t think of the money when you’re a kid, how a regular paycheck can’t make up for the tedium. How you might end up answering phones for $40K a year. But service, public service—it ran in Fabian’s blood. His uncle Domingo was a city councilman and a member of the Edcouch-Elsa school board, and he’d seen what it took: the promises, the problem solving, the favors that kept a community going. He’d thought of going into politics himself, at 24, and had run for the school board too. But he’d lost, and there were bills to pay and a seven-year-old to support. That’s how he’d ended up a tire salesman, then a jailer in the East Hidalgo Detention Center, and finally, a deputy in the sheriff’s office. A career his boy could respect. The kid lived with his mother now, but Fabian doted on him, took him to Six Flags in San Antonio when he got the chance. Maybe one of these days he’d make enough to enroll him in summer football camp.

It had been a dream job at first. Commander Joe Padilla had welcomed him like a son, and the connections alone were great; if a friend landed in county with a DWI, Fabian could get him bonded out fast. It was his specialty, being helpful. And he liked how kids on the street stared at him with awe, eyeing his six-foot frame in uniform. In 2011 he’d landed at the Crime Stoppers desk, fielding the calls that came in to 668-TIPS. But then, after a while—well, he’d started to feel bored. He got tips, sure, but they were for other officers to respond to, the ones on the street. What action did he see at a desk job? At night, when he went home, he’d make the rounds at his apartment complex—he ran security in exchange for free rent—and then sit, lights on, in his living room. Restless.

Part of it was the fund-raising, for the sheriff. That had gotten old fast. Lupe was gunning for his third term, and his deputies were expected to bring in campaign donations, beat the bushes around town. Sometimes they had to sell tickets—to a dinner dance in Pharr, say—other times just meet a quota, cough up the money themselves. Hundreds of dollars. Joe would make the rounds, hound everybody, even higher-ups like J. P. Flores, Fabian’s Crime Stoppers supervisor. Half the damn job was fund-raising—and then it wasn’t even all for the campaign. “Let’s buy the sheriff a boat,” Joe had announced one time. Was he kidding? But you had to pay up if you were going to keep your job, stay in good with the bosses. One guy had even taken out a loan to make his numbers. J.P. ribbed Fabian about the endless demands, said his honeymoon was over. “Time to pay up!”

Fabian had contacts from his uncle’s campaign days—lawyers, doctors, business guys—so it was easy at first, coaxing out money. He was good at squeezing people. Think Lupe liked that? Yeah. Joe had bragged on him too, how the rookie did more than the veterans. But with the sheriff always needing money, Fabian’s sources had started to dry up. There were only so many big dogs in Hidalgo County who could give, after all—that was simple math. This wasn’t New York or L.A. But that left just one other source of cash: dealers. There were plenty of those around town. You didn’t know they were dealers, exactly, but how to explain their Rolexes, their ranches? Anyway, it didn’t matter. If a guy was prepared to give you a grand for a campaign event or to donate fajita meat for the sheriff’s pachanga, you didn’t go busting him.

That’s how he’d met Fernando Guerra Sr. He was one of J.P.’s campaign contributors, owned a company called Astro Trucking. J.P. had introduced them at a fund-raising barbecue. A good guy—big smile, firm handshake, sizing you up to see if you were de confianza, trustworthy. He’d turned some little brick house into his office, put in marble floors and fancy furniture. Wore Lacoste shirts embroidered with his logo. Owned a bunch of land, like that little spread on Lake Delta with the two-story house. And he was generous, always shelling out for Lupe’s causes. It was such a relief, his willingness to help, that it hadn’t taken long for Fabian and J.P. to start visiting Guerra together. They’d talk politics, Fabian sipping a Rockstar, and Guerra would promise $1,000 for Lupe here, $1,000 there. Then he’d give the guys a few hundred bucks. Lunch money.

Only thing was, how long before they’d have to find more people to squeeze? It made Fabian stressed just thinking about it. He knew guys who weren’t fazed by this fund-raising crap—like the Panama Unit. He’d started to hang with them, meet for a beer after work, head to the clubs sometimes, and just hearing their stories was a thrill: the time they’d dragged in 7,500 pounds of weed, the time they’d confiscated $150,000 in illegal cash. They seized three vehicles a week, they said. Real police work. They lived the life too: Burberry, Hugo Boss, and Prada shirts. Three-hundred-dollar shoes. Wads of bills to spend at the bars in McAllen. Bet they didn’t have to take out loans to sell tickets.

They were cool guys. He’d taken a few of them to hunt at his family’s ranch, in Zapata, and they’d started inviting him to their weekend barbecues, where they sat on their tailgates, drinking beer while a pig or deer or nilgai roasted, arms around their beautiful wives or girlfriends. Eric, short and short-tempered—like a bulldog, quick to squabble with the biggest guys out there. Mata, the muscle, big and bald and serious; he was the one Jonathan leaned on to get things done. Sal Arguello was a big dude, hard worker. Very religious. I mean, they all thought they were religious, but Sal was more religious than his own father, a preacher. Jonathan, best party host because he lived at home, where the sheriff had four pits in the backyard. He was determined to become narcotics officer of the year, at his dad’s urging—the dude was aggressive. And then the guys like Fabian, hangers-on: Alexis, quiet and inseparable from Jonathan; Gerardo Mendoza-Duran, from warrants, funny and passionate about his cumbia and norteño music. Always up for anything, no matter the task. “Fuck it, I’ll do it,” he’d say.

It was these guys Fabian wanted to work with, so he made himself useful. Wasn’t that his specialty? If they had a need, any need—a sprinkler repaired, a party catered—he offered to take care of it. Didn’t matter what it was, he came through. The fixer. Yeah, Jonathan brushed him off at times, but Fabian could tell he liked the help; he’d call for Crime Stoppers tips or ask him to come out with a marked vehicle when Panama needed one to execute a search warrant. And he could tell the guys had fun when, as a favor to Fabian, Guerra let them party at his lake house, with its long pier and fridge stocked with Miller Lite.

Pretty soon the guys were asking him out hunting or to Cowboys games or to go gambling—in Lake Charles, even Vegas. Jonathan had his favorite casinos: Caesars Palace, Wynn, Bellagio. He also liked sports bookies. And hookers, a lot. Female attention. Sometimes, in the middle of the fun, it’d been hard not to notice how he flirted with someone’s girlfriend, crossed the line—but what were you supposed to do, call him out on it? The guy was always covering their $700 bar tab or the $2,000 bill for their steak dinners. Fabian had wondered where all the cash came from. Maybe it was overtime. Maybe Panama just paid better. He’d fish for answers sometimes, ask jokingly if they’d ever thought about taking a cut of the spoils from their raids. The guys would just shrug, make a crack. “Well, we do have drug-dealer friends.” A good joke.

But see, he knew it’d be so easy for Panama to rip drugs off the dealers, sell the dope themselves. He wasn’t stupid. After about a year, in January 2012, he’d stumbled on a way to get the truth—he got a tip. A dirty one. A guy called him from Mission one day, said the Panama Unit was raiding a house behind a movie theater at that very second. He knew there was a safe with $20,000 in the house, the guy said—could they take it for him while they were there? Fabian said it wasn’t like that, there wasn’t anything he could do, hung up. But then, just to see, he’d called Jonathan. Told him. The reply—well, it was so straightforward, Fabian couldn’t believe he’d waited this long for his break. “So is he going to give me something or what?” said Jonathan. A few hours later and Fabian had a cut of the plunder: $3,000.

They were dirty after all, these guys. They’d started in late 2010, Jonathan told him, when they’d pulled over a drunk driver and discovered the man had cocaine in his mustache and $50,000 sitting in the passenger seat. Looking at the cash, just sitting there, the guys had made a calculation. This was drug money, not anything the driver had worked for. And wouldn’t it be better to take a bonus than see it go to waste on government bureaucracy? They’d skimmed off $10,000 to split and turned in $40,000. After that, it’d been easy. They’d raid a house and not report the bust; pressure someone in jail for his contacts, go raid them. They stole cocaine, meth, and marijuana—hydroponic being the best and most expensive. The only trick was selling the drugs. How to find the right person, who wouldn’t rat them out? Who could move drugs out of the county quickly, pay them on the spot—cash? So their side deals were sporadic. You had to be careful.

Fabian wanted in. He knew how he could prove himself too. Jonathan had suggested at one point that he call Guerra—“He’s a drug dealer,” the sheriff’s son said when he first saw the lake house—and so Fabian did, that May. It was tricky, broaching the subject, but sure enough, Guerra was interested, even offering a deal: he’d buy fifteen kilos of cocaine off the Panama guys  for $15,000 each, so long as they threw in one kilo for free. That easy. Fabian had found someone the squad could trust; now he was the go-between. The guys gave Guerra a code name: Delta. After the lake.

And with that, Fabian was one of them. The sheriff wouldn’t grant his official transfer request to the Panama Unit until October, but as far as his daily routine went, he was a narcotics guy, with all that came with it: the raids, the stakeouts—the partying afterward. Jonathan called him every day. Sometimes for a job that was legit, sometimes for one that wasn’t. The Panama guys still brought in honest numbers like the badasses they’d always been—except now, thanks to Guerra, they were raking it in for themselves too, whenever they could. Ripping traffickers off every other week. Getting paid by dealers to escort smugglers’ cars on the highway, so that other cops wouldn’t pull the loads over. Following up on dirty tips, even from Guerra himself, who once told Fabian he’d heard about eight hundred pounds of mota just sitting, unguarded, in a warehouse in Donna. The thrill. And the money. Fabian could buy the guys drinks now, if he wanted. Heck, he could take his son to Disney World five times a year, pay for any summer camp he wanted.

He felt nervous sometimes, but the key was trust—sticking with guys you knew. “Stay inside the line” was how Guerra put it. Hay que quedarse en la línea. Lose a load, flaunt your wealth, snitch, and you could end up with a bullet in your head. Unless the feds got you first. You had to stay a step ahead, like in that lilting narcocorrido Jonathan liked to play in his car, the one sung by Ramón Ayala, about two mules heading north through Hidalgo County from Mexico. “Corrido 585” it was called. He’d play it to motivate the guys, get them amped before a bust. Vuela, vuela, palomita. Fly, fly away.

IV. Número 585
La operadora marcaba,
y un agente federal
discretamente observaba.
Le hizo una seña a la dama,
que captara lo que hablaban.

Not all lawyers or federal agents in the Valley are natural skeptics. But some, like James Sturgis, seem to have had that mind-set since birth. Growing up in Weslaco, he’d learned early on that good guys can sometimes transform into the enemy, like shape-shifters; he’d seen it on the news all the time as a kid. And while this understanding of human nature might have served him anywhere, there was no better place to employ it than the Valley; after earning a law degree from Texas Tech University, in 1994, he’d moved to McAllen to work as a prosecutor. It was a busy scene, the kind of place that got your adrenaline going, and for years Sturgis had heard federal investigators—in the FBI, the DEA, the HSI—testify in court about the underworld. Now, as the assistant attorney-in-charge at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the regular tales of scandal and fraud did little more than add a few gray strands to the 45-year-old’s otherwise brown hair, and when reports reached him about another dirty agent or politician, he’d simply roll his eyes. There wasn’t much that was new.

But the rumors about a certain narcotics task force led by the Hidalgo County sheriff’s son intrigued him. It was early in the summer of 2012, and the Panama Unit had been active for about two years, but according to the gossip being picked up by several federal agents, some things about the squad weren’t adding up. Why did they keep such strange hours? How were they able to go out partying so often? Word was that one Fernando Guerra Sr., the owner of a trucking company, had started running drug deals with dirty cops. There was also a rumor that dealers had authorized hits on a few narcotics officers for busting them—or was it for something else?

This was all just hearsay, however, until July 27, when a rattled 62-year-old named Jose Perez, a homeowner in Pharr, arrived at the FBI office in McAllen to lodge a complaint. The previous day, Perez told federal agents, he and his wife, Maria, had been returning to their little yellow house when several SUVs pulled up behind them and six armed officers in plainclothes got out. After the startled couple agreed to a drug search, the officers had ransacked the house, overturning furniture and dumping out drawers until they’d discovered a secret compartment in the floor, where they claimed to have found some cocaine. The leading officer had then leaned in to Perez and issued a threat. “You piece-of-shit motherfucker,” Perez recalled the man saying. “I give you exactly five minutes: you tell me who sells drugs or you know what we’re going to do to you.”

Perez had laughed at that, he said, because he’d found the demand so ridiculous. “You piece of shit,” said the officer, who had started to sweat. “You make me crazy, motherfucker.”

Though small and thin, Perez was not easily intimidated. “You make me crazy, motherfucker,” he’d retorted.

“Two minutes,” replied the officer.

Perez had scrambled then, locating his Nextel radio and calling someone he knew who sold drugs; he arranged for an immediate delivery of two kilos of cocaine. (He wasn’t a dealer himself, he insisted to the skeptical agents as he told his story. “We live in South Texas. Who do you think knows who sells drugs in South Texas? Everybody!”)

Then, Perez claimed, he and Maria had been handcuffed and forced into an officer’s white Chevy Tahoe to go meet the drug deliveryman at Matt’s Cash and Carry, three and a half miles away. After more threats, the officers had let them off on the side of the road (“You turn around or use the phone, and we’ll be watching you,” Perez claimed they said). They’d then arrested the deliveryman on the spot, confiscating the two kilos that Perez had called for.

Perez had been terrified, he said—and then livid. Who were these goons, and how dare they treat him like this? Even worse, when he and his wife had finally returned home, they’d discovered that there was jewelry missing. Several gold bracelets, rings, earrings, and pendants had been stolen. Furious, Perez had called his lawyer and then alerted authorities; officers from the Pharr Police Department and deputies from the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office had shown up to assess the damage. One of the officers, walking the perimeter of the house, had noticed a security camera and asked Perez to inspect the footage. As several deputies stood by, Perez brought up the images on his computer. Watching the screen, one of them had pointed at the ringleader, who wore jeans and a yellow T-shirt with “TREVINO” printed on the back. “That looks like Lupe’s son,” he’d said.

For the federal agents listening to Perez’s story, the incident was a revelation. At Mission PD, the report filed by the Panama Unit that day had noted the arrest of a Pharr man for a small quantity of cocaine, but there was no record of the two kilos. Had the narcotics squad orchestrated a flip—scaring a small-time dealer into revealing a bigger player—only to seize the cocaine for themselves? When Sheriff Treviño learned of the footage, he questioned the Panama officers himself, and Jonathan claimed they’d ransacked the house on a legitimate tip. The next day, Mata confessed to taking the jewelry, saying he’d had a lapse in judgment, and he was quickly demoted off the unit. But as far as the agents could tell, that was the extent of the inquiry. Where were the two kilos? Why was there no investigation? Did the sheriff know something they didn’t?

To get their questions answered, the federal agents began to run some covert operations the following month, including a cash drop of $15,000, to see if the Panama guys would steal it. (They did.) Shortly after the feds had begun to implement these plans, an informant fell into their lap: a sheriff’s deputy named Miguel Flores, who contacted Lyle Fattig, of the DEA, to say that he’d been approached by one of the Panama guys, Duran, who was looking for street-level contacts who might be useful to the squad. (As Duran had put it, “We don’t arrest them, we take their shit.”) Duran had told Flores that the group was protected by Jonathan, Padilla, and the sheriff himself, sharing enough details about the operation that Flores, fearing for his life, had seen no alternative but to agree to help. Fattig sent Flores to the FBI office, where agents there proposed he wear a wire and infiltrate the group.

Two weeks later, agents got a second break when one of Fattig’s many informants volunteered that he knew Jonathan and could confirm that Guerra was involved in selling Panama’s stolen narcotics; he agreed to record himself calling the squad, offering them false tips and arranging to sell their drugs. Then a third lead surfaced. Working their sources, two other agents, J. P. Reneau, of the HSI, and Eric Barker, of the FBI, had homed in on a local madam named Betty, a stocky woman with long blond hair who had gotten to know the Panama Unit rather well. After some leveraging, Betty agreed to set up the guys on several fake drug escorts. She would pay Jonathan to follow her on the highway and make him think she was also interested in colluding to steal the loads.

As the agents compared notes, trying to figure out their best opening, Sturgis wondered where the investigations would take them. They would have to keep their efforts quiet, because Alexis sat directly behind Reneau’s cubicle at the HSI, with a view of his computer. If they could nab him or just one of the Panama guys, they’d probably all start talking. Who would be the first to go? The informants were set like mousetraps. It was simply a matter of which one would spring first.

V. Los agentes federales
sitiaron aquel lugar.
Y a las once de la noche
se cansaron de esperar,
porque los contrabandistas
cambiaron hora y lugar.

Nice to get a break from the weed stench in the evidence room. It was sunny outside, in the eighties. One of those clear days that always come after Thanksgiving. Fabian found his sunglasses, turned on the two-way radio in his Hummer. Rolled down the window. He drove through downtown Edinburg, past the cash loans, the taquerías, the yerberías, the barbershops, and turned onto U.S. 281, where—there. He spotted them. Alexis and Jonathan, headed north in separate cars.

“It’s the black Kia four-door,” radioed Jonathan. Fabian could see it up ahead, between their two unmarked cars. “She thinks we’re going to stop escorting her, and then she’ll make her delivery. But you stay back and keep following her. We wanna see where she’s making the drop.”

“Okay, so this is legit?” he asked again.

“Just follow my lead,” barked Jonathan.

They reached Highway 490, and Jonathan and Alexis peeled off. Now it was up to him to follow this poor fool, whoever she was. Alexis would trail from a distance, give directions. Easy enough.

Except—wait. Was she speeding up? Fabian pressed on the gas. “You’re too close,” radioed Alexis. “Back up!” But Alexis was too far behind to see what Fabian could see: that she was pulling off the highway, going even faster. He was sure now—she’d spotted him. Only way to keep her in his sights was to match her speed. The Hummer was a tank. He hit the gas again.

“Stay back!” shouted Alexis. Fabian let off the gas, but the woman was making a U-turn under the highway now, veering wildly, trying to lose him. He sped up again, made the turn after her, past a Love’s gas station. And—shit. Where was the Kia? Shit. No, no, no. Fabian circled back, drove down a street, then another. Come on, come on.

Alexis showed up in his car, then Jonathan. The three drove around for 45 minutes. Nothing. The woman had disappeared. “Meet me at Love’s,” radioed Jonathan. “Northeast corner.” Fabian knew what was coming, knew the second he parked and saw Jonathan’s face. “Pendejo!” he yelled as Fabian got out of the Hummer. “Can’t you follow a fucking car? Are you stupid?”

He shrugged it off. Jonathan was always getting excited for reasons he didn’t understand. It wasn’t like the escort job was a dirty one—he’d have gotten a cut if it was, right? Except apparently not, because a week or so later at a barbecue at Alexis’s place, Jonathan was giving him shit again about losing the car and let it slip. “Ah, don’t worry, partner,” he said, laughing. “Me and Alexis, we still got paid three grand for that deal.”

Jackass. Jonathan was always doing this, cutting people out. Yeah, band of brothers and all that, but as the year wore on Fabian had figured out how Jonathan was always so generous: he took the biggest cuts. Sometimes almost half the profits, leaving the rest for the guys to split. If you thought your share was short, well, there wasn’t exactly a complaints department for rogue ops. One time he’d asked Fabian to distribute the cash after a job, and Fabian ignored his orders about how much to dole out to each guy, giving everyone the same amount. When Jonathan found out, he called him, screaming, “That’s the last time you do something like that!”

It’s why Mata had stolen that jewelry from Perez—the guy was taking care of himself, making something extra. He’d almost blown their cover, though, and Jonathan shut Mata out after that, quit talking to him. That was the thing—you didn’t cross Jonathan. He could always call his dad, get you fired. “I put you guys here,” he’d say. “If you cross me, your ass will be sent to patrol—if you’re lucky. If not, I get rid of you.”

But the guy was being so greedy, taking all that cash and just blowing it. Especially on the gambling now. He’d take $10,000 or $12,000 to Lake Charles and then lose it, as if he liked to lose, as if it motivated him somehow. He’d also started complaining to Fabian about Guerra, how he paid less, like $9,000 for a key of cocaine instead of the $13,000 you could get on the street. That was the cost of doing business—they got less in exchange for a quick sell, in cash—but Jonathan got in Fabian’s face, told him he should renegotiate. “We’re the ones taking all the risk,” he snapped. Whatever. The guy had become insatiable.

Fabian couldn’t sleep. The stress. Jonathan was getting sloppy, and some of the guys were too; a couple of them had shown up drunk to a raid. Fabian could see the trust eroding, suspected the side deals that were starting to happen. Every man for himself. Alexis and Duran, setting up their own drug escorts. Sal, bugging Fabian about finding a separate gig for the two of them. No, Fabian said. You stick with who you know, and he wasn’t about to do anything without Jonathan. It was the only way for them to stay safe—if something went bad, the sheriff would be there to fix it.

Because the dangers were real. From every side. Some pissed-off dealers had already put hits out on Jonathan—threatened to pick him up, take him to Mexico. He drove with a pistol and a machine gun in his seat, scouted rooftops before he got out. The threats couldn’t be from the cartels; they weren’t so stupid as to kill a sheriff’s kid. But the local gangs? You never knew. In any case, it was unnerving how word got around—like what about that anonymous phone call Sal got that one day? “Quit your shit, the feds are on to you,” the guy had said. Or that time when Jonathan was at a Stripes, putting gas in his Tahoe, and that lieutenant in the Tri-City Bombers gang had walked over to him. “I heard about the jewelry, and that Perez went to Pharr PD and the FBI,” the guy told him. “You need to watch it. Stop whatever you’re doing.” This, at a damn gas station.

Were the feds on to them? Lupe had called Fabian to ask about Guerra. “The government is watching him, and I don’t want you around him at all,” the sheriff had ordered. No lake house, no hunting, no nothing. Fabian couldn’t tell what the sheriff knew, and Jonathan had said not to worry about it—he’d handle his dad. Then there was that deputy Miguel Flores, the one Duran had recruited. He’d told Duran that sure, he’d suss out some dealer names for them, but when he finally came through with one and the Panama Unit went to the guy’s house, they realized they already knew him—because they’d stolen three hundred pounds of weed from him last year. What the hell, man.

Jonathan had panicked then, sensed a setup. But nothing happened, and the fear didn’t last. Eric and Sal made some noise about cleaning things up—they didn’t get enough money to justify the risks, they said—and Fabian, too, was wondering how to pull out. Maybe he’d just lie, tell Jonathan that Guerra didn’t want to work with them anymore. Or maybe tell him that he’d work only the Guerra deals—stay inside the line. But when the topic came up and the guys proposed scaling back, Jonathan talked like the gambler he’d become. “One more deal and then we’ll stop,” he said. Again. And then again. Just one more deal.

VI.  El apache Beto y Pancho
recibieron otra vez.
La carga ya va volando
allá por la 83.
Parece que hay un expendio
allá por la milla 3.

It would be one of the most impressive stings the Valley had ever seen: a coup involving the eventual downfall of more than 25 people, one that federal agents would later refer to as a career high. After months of collecting evidence, investigators decided in the first week of December 2012 that the time had finally come to bust the Panama Unit. Barker and Reneau had had a close call a few days earlier, when officers Jonathan Treviño and Alexis Espinoza had unexpectedly put Deputy Fabian Rodriguez on Betty’s tail during an escort operation. Had he managed to catch up with her, he would have discovered that the Kia, which the feds had outfitted with surveillance cameras, had no load. Fortunately, she’d escaped.

December 12 offered a new opportunity, when Betty got Alexis and Jonathan to agree to another escort job. Her load was bigger this time, she told them; if they helped her stage a rip, they could all split the proceeds. The two officers met up with Betty at around eleven a.m., flanking her car on U.S. 83 for several miles. Meanwhile, Fattig met with Reneau, Barker, and dozens of other agents in the command center at the FBI office, where they settled in to monitor Betty’s progress using the surveillance in the car. This time, they’d placed ten kilos of cocaine in Betty’s trunk.

Jonathan had been ambivalent about the job at first; he’d just scored $6,000 the night before and was feeling lazy. Besides, he told Alexis, Betty was making him suspicious. But when Alexis had pressed, telling him he was paranoid, Jonathan acquiesced. Fine, he said, they’d agree to the escort, so long as they really went ahead with the rip. Now, as Fattig and Barker and Reneau tracked every move, Jonathan turned on his lights in the middle of Donna, forcing Betty to pull over. Acting as if they didn’t know her, he and Alexis asked for her driver’s license, then moved to the rear of the Kia to pop the trunk.

The agents had placed the bricks of coke in a box and wrapped the package in Christmas paper, tied up with a bow. Jonathan picked up the package, ripped off the paper, and pulled out a brick, giving it a twist to feel the contents. But instead of taking the brick to his SUV, he paused, feeling along one end. Something wasn’t right. As Alexis watched, Jonathan discovered what the agents had hoped he’d overlook: a GPS tracker, the size of a small candy bar, fastened to the brick with black tape. Jonathan inspected the tracker more closely, the color draining from his face. As he would later explain, he’d noticed the device had a serial number. The cartels don’t use serial numbers.

Jonathan got on the radio and called for backup as Alexis stood by, frozen. Within five minutes, Fabian and Sal had arrived, followed by the sheriff. As the men approached the car, Betty began to put on a show. “This is Sinaloa cocaine!” she wailed, growing hysterical as she pretended that the cartel was guarding the shipment. “We’re in danger!”

Springing into action, Lupe instructed the team to cut the tracker’s wires—in case it was Sinaloa’s, he told them—and take Betty to the sheriff’s office for interrogation. They would sort this out there, he said, returning to his car and driving off. Meanwhile, Alexis, thinking he might give the stop legitimacy, dialed his supervisor at the HSI. He had found ten keys of cocaine with a GPS tracker, he said. Did the HSI want to take it on as a federal case?

Fattig, Reneau, and Barker looked at each other. They’d anticipated the rip, but not this. They knew they had to secure the coke as evidence and, more important, protect Betty, who could end up in danger if her cover was blown. Improvising, Fattig and Reneau hopped in a car, devising an excuse for being on the scene as they drove to Donna: they’d tell the Panama Unit that the DEA had been on a wire investigating the cartels and heard the traffic stop. Barker would stay at headquarters to avoid suspicion.

But when they arrived, Jonathan handed Fattig his cellphone and said, simply, “Will you talk to my dad?”

“Sure,” said Fattig, surprised.

The sheriff knew the tracker could mean only one of two things. Either the load was the cartel’s, as Betty had said, or his son was the target of a sting operation—and had just been caught. He bombarded Fattig with questions: Who was running the surveillance? Was this a Sinaloa shipment? Were federal authorities involved? Who did the GPS belong to? Fattig explained that Jonathan and Alexis had unwittingly intercepted a shipment that was part of a DEA investigation. He couldn’t share the details on the side of the road, but he’d appreciate some assistance; maybe Fabian and Sal, in their official department vehicles, could help him and Reneau transport the cocaine back to DEA headquarters.

Since he didn’t have a choice, the sheriff agreed. Fabian and Sal headed to Fattig’s office, where they answered his and other agents’ queries about the morning, looking increasingly uncomfortable. Fattig, under the guise of filing federal charges against Betty, asked for a written statement from the two. The minute the two Panama deputies were done, they rushed out to their cars, where, as Fabian would later admit, he desperately dialed Sal, Duran, and Guerra in an attempt to line up their stories about the unit.

Back at the sheriff’s office, Jonathan had followed Betty into an interrogation room. He was reeling, clearly furious. But just as he began badgering her with questions, a sergeant interrupted. “Take this lady to the front,” he instructed. “The feds want her.” Sucking in his breath, Jonathan escorted Betty to the lobby, where other agents from the FBI, the DEA, and the HSI were waiting. As they led Betty out, one of them turned to Jonathan. “Your dad wants to see you in his office,” he said.

The sheriff had called a lawyer for his son. He then handed him over to the FBI for interrogation; by nightfall, Jonathan was in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where the grilling continued. Agents from the HSI, meanwhile, questioned Alexis. The others—Fabian, Sal, and Eric—were summoned to the FBI office for more interviews. “Did you plan on stealing the dope?” the agents demanded. “Do you have a history of doing this?” By the following morning, when a judge began issuing warrants for their arrest, the fate of the Panama Unit was clear. One by one, its members turned themselves in.

And just like that, their run was over. That the sheriff’s son and his friends had been running dirty ops was dumbfounding enough; more shocking still would be the domino effect of their takedown. Agents first detained Fernando Guerra Sr., as well as his son, who, it turned out, had been colluding with his father on a series of drug deals. From the Guerras, investigators learned of other dirty officers, which led to more arrests: Fabian’s old supervisor, J. P. Flores, had also been helping Guerra steal drugs, with the assistance of sheriff’s deputy Jorge Garza. In a related scam, Guerra and a dealer named Julio Armando “Nandy” Davila were found to have been stealing more drugs and using falsified paperwork drawn up by Davila’s girlfriend—an investigator in the district attorney’s office named Aida Palacios—to pass these thefts off as government seizures.

The sheriff, who had just celebrated his third-term election victory, expressed his dismay to anyone who would listen. He’d had no idea, he told the press, that his deputies—or his own flesh and blood—had been dishonest. “I have to support my son because he is my son,” he said. “But I will make sure that the right thing is being done.” As the Panama guys filed their guilty pleas the following spring, however, questions about his integrity began to swirl. To quell the rumors, Treviño staged an appearance at the Country Omelette, but when he disavowed knowledge of his deputies’ doings and claimed not to have noticed his son’s extracurricular activities—despite living under the same roof—his listeners grew frustrated. (“The spouse is always the last one to find out,” he’d insisted. “I was like that spouse.”) By August 2, 2013, when he was called as a witness at the trial for his former deputy Garza—the only defendant to plead not guilty—his vague explanations about the inner workings of his office were suspect. Sturgis, working for the prosecution, was relentless in his questioning. Could the sheriff explain why he hadn’t prosecuted Mata after the jewelry theft? Could he say when he’d first heard the name Fernando Guerra Sr.? Had he been aware that Guerra gave campaign donations to Padilla? Leaving the courthouse afterward, the sheriff was heard to mutter, “Who’s the one on trial?”

That same day, as Treviño was testifying in court, Fattig’s team happened to arrest a produce and trucking businessman named Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez, for drug trafficking. Gonzalez turned out to be a cartel henchman, and in the days that followed—as Garza’s trial ended in a conviction—federal agents learned that Gonzalez had given tens of thousands of dollars in donations to Padilla, who then put most of the money into the sheriff’s campaign coffers. Four months later, on December 20, Padilla and Gonzalez—as well as ten others—were indicted on drug trafficking and money laundering charges. (Padilla eventually admitted taking between $70,000 and $120,000 from Gonzalez.) Before long, the trail of wrongdoing led to Treviño himself: that spring, his chief of staff, Pat Medina, confessed to falsifying election records as a way of hiding traffickers’ donations, and the sheriff was officially charged with money laundering. On April 14, 2014, he pleaded guilty.

The sentencings for the Panama Unit and their associates took place two weeks later, in McAllen’s eleven-story federal courthouse. In a nearly five-hour hearing attended by a crowd of reporters, lawyers, and relatives, Sturgis and Reneau laid out the unit’s dirty exploits before district judge Randy Crane. Though the defendants were visibly contrite, Crane chastised them for the irreparable harm they’d caused in Hidalgo County. “What you all have done is disgrace us,” he told the men. “And sentencing you to prison isn’t ever going to [undo] the damage that has been done to our community and what people think of the sheriff’s office and law enforcement.” He sentenced most of the deputies to between ten and fourteen years, reserving his stiffest judgment—seventeen years—for the ringleader, Jonathan.

Two and a half months later, in the same courthouse, Treviño would stride into a packed gallery for his own sentencing, where this time Sturgis described how the sheriff had pocketed money from dealers before district judge Micaela Alvarez. Wearing a black suit and a red-and-blue-striped tie, Treviño apologized (“Our last name will always be synonymous with what happens here today”), but Alvarez showed little sympathy, handing down a sentence of five years. He would serve the time in the same federal prison where former sheriff Marmolejo had been imprisoned, twenty years before.

Before he left the courtroom, Alvarez voiced the deep disappointment felt across South Texas. “Mr. Treviño, I might be more understanding, but when we have known drug traffickers giving money to the sheriff?” she said. “It’s a very sad day here today for Hidalgo County.”

VII. Vuela, vuela, palomita
por Houston, Mission y Pharr.
Anda a decirle a los narcos
que se acaban de escapar
diez kilos de carga blanca,
que los vayan a alcanzar.

Thirteen years. and for what, really? It’s not like he’d made that much money in the end. Enough to pay bills, buy some nice things, not have to fund-raise as much or work overtime. He remembered the last days he’d seen the guys, together in the East Hidalgo Detention Center, and they’d agreed: they’d really screwed up, with nothing to show for it. Now here he was, behind bars in Missouri. More than nine hundred miles from home, from his son. Wearing this damn khaki uniform.

That had been the hardest part, telling the boy. The kid was in middle school now, almost a teenager. Fabian hadn’t wanted him to learn the truth from Google; he’d wanted to tell it to him straight, like a man. But explaining was awful. Fabian’s eyes still watered, thinking about it. He’d cried at sentencing, asked the judge for mercy—couldn’t believe he’d be missing such a crucial time in his son’s life. Thirteen years.

Of course, he could have thought of that sooner. There was a reason you never saw old drug dealers or kingpins: no one in the business survived that long. A few months after the arrests, a local narcocorrido singer with connections to El Gallo—a guy named Chuy Quintanilla—was found dead in a grapefruit orchard, shot twice in the head. So who knows what might have happened to Panama if the feds hadn’t caught up. Jonathan, at least, was probably glad to be in the slammer, instead of dead in Mexico somewhere.

Jonathan. His lawyer had tried to argue that he wasn’t the ringleader, that Fabian had been just as powerful because of the Guerra connection and all. Judge didn’t buy it. Fabian wasn’t holding grudges, though; before being shipped out their separate ways, the guys had made their peace with one another, taken responsibility for their choices. He missed them now—the friendship, the legitimate busts. One of the last weekends before they got caught, they’d gone out to Zapata again, to his family ranch. These days, they emailed one another sometimes. Wrote about God and regret.

Life was predictable at least, for a change. Wake up at 6:45. Work at the prison hospital. Eat. Exercise. Read. Eat. Email. Call family. Watch the news. Attend classes. He’d taken some engineering courses while out on bond. Hoped to go back for the degree. Because, yeah, he’d be going back to Hidalgo County. Where else would he go? It’s where his family was, his life. Jonathan and Lupe would go back too—they all would. Even old Marmolejo had returned after doing his time. Lived in a little white house in Edinburg now.

There was a new sheriff in town, of course: J. E. “Eddie” Guerra. Former precinct constable. He’d won the four-way race for the job in November 2014, promising to restore the department’s tarnished image; one of the first things he’d done was dissolve the sheriff’s partnership with Crime Stoppers. Still, it was hard not to be cynical. There were plenty of good deputies who worked their asses off—Fabian knew that—but they all had mouths to feed, all faced the same temptations. How long before someone else like him cracked? Local headlines in early 2015 were publicizing the arrest of a warden who’d supposedly helped bribe Jose Ismael “Melo” Ochoa, a justice of the peace, for the conditional release of a jailed drug smuggler; lawyer and state representative Terry Canales had filed the bond reduction, though he denied any misconduct. It made Fabian tired thinking about it.

What would he be doing now if he hadn’t been such an idiot? So greedy? Kicking down doors, maybe. Handing out search warrants. God, he’d loved his job. He’d so wanted to be a role model too, someone his boy could look up to. Now—well, now he was just glad the kid liked computers, because it might actually keep him from following in his old man’s footsteps.

Fabian thought back to the last time he’d seen him. He’d been at a loss for words, trying to impart some sort of wisdom before their goodbyes. Stay with the right people, he’d told the boy, stay clean. Then he’d hugged him, hoping his son would remember. Looked him in the eyes. “Never let anyone tell you that you’re above the law.”

“Corrido 585”
The roosters are crowing.
I’m not sure what time it is.
“Let’s get up now,”
Arnulfo tells Juan.
“It’s three hours to Reynosa
from [the city of] General Terán.”

On the El Becerro dirt road
at three in the morning
they loaded up the pickup
with oranges.
Among all that fruit
they were hauling the white cargo.

In Reynosa they unloaded
at a private residence.
And using the phone at El Fénix [pharmacy]
one of them went
to call Mission,
where they’d be making their delivery.

Number 585
dialed the operator,
as a federal agent
was watching, discreetly.
He gestured at the woman
that she catch what they were saying.
The federal agents
surrounded the place,
but by eleven that night
they got tired of waiting.
The smugglers
had changed time and place.

Apache Beto and Pancho
got receipt once again.
The cargo is now off and flying
along [U.S.] 83.
Seems there’s a corner store
there around mile 3.

Fly, fly, little dove
through Houston, Mission, and Pharr.
Go tell the narcos
that this has just escaped:
Ten kilos of white cargo
they should go catch up with.

Lyrics courtesy of Luna Negra Music Publishing Corp., on behalf of Editora Centenario Musical, S.A. de C.V. Original lyrics by Juan Avila Diaz. Adapted by Ramón Ayala.

 

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