The extent to which the Texas border is affected by Mexican drug cartels is the subject of ongoing, and often quite politicized, debate. But according to a federal investigation that officially became public on Thursday, there's at least one thing that the Rio Grande Valley has in common with the other side: some of the good guys might be bad guys.
As Jared Taylor and Ildefonso Ortiz of the Monitor reported, four Rio Grande Valley police officers are facing federal drug conspiracy charges, including the son of three-term Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño (pictured above at a press conference for one of his own investigations last spring).
Wrote Taylor and Ortiz:
Mission police officer Alexis Espinoza, 29, of Alamo, was arrested Wednesday evening and appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dorina Ramos this morning. Espinoza is the son of Hidalgo police Chief Rudy Espinoza, who was hired from the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office in October.
Also charged is Jonathan Treviño, 28, a Mission police officer and son of Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño. Treviño went into federal custody Thursday evening and was released, authorities said, before returning to custody this afternoon, when he was placed under arrest.
Mission Police Chief Martin Garza said Thursday afternoon that Treviño and Espinoza both have been indefinitely suspended without pay.
Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño confirmed to the Monitor on Thursday that his son is the target of an FBI-led investigation. He said he learned of the probe about 3 p.m. Wednesday.
“I was advised by the FBI that there is a federal probe, an investigation, into several police officers, one of them being my son,” the sheriff said. “As sheriff of this county, I am obligated to do the right thing for my constituents. We are fully cooperating with the investigation, but as a father, I have a duty to my son and my family.”
Also formally charged are Hidalgo County sheriff's deputies Fabian Rodriguez, 28, of Edinburg; and Gerardo Duran, 30, of Pharr. Both men were arrested this afternoon and are expected to appear before Judge Ramos on Friday.
Three of the suspects worked on the Panama Unit, a joint anti-drug task force between Mission and Hidalgo County, while Espinoza was assigned to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement task force.
Taylor and Ortiz also published a more detailed story Thursday night that is the stuff of FX cable crime drama.
The officers are accused of escorting cocaine for drug traffickers "across Hidalgo County and as far north as past the Falfurrias checkpoint along U.S. 281," they wrote. Espinoza allegedly used a Mission police vehicle for one escort, from McAllen to Weslaco, that was part of an ICE undercover sting. The officers were paid between $1,500 and $6,000 for each job. One payoff took place in the parking lot of a Sam's Club in McAllen.
Taylor and Ortiz also reported that as many as seven officers could ultimately face charges.
The Monitor even had an inadvertent role in the investigation--the paper had been working on a story about an alleged home invasion involving suspects who identified themselves as Hidalgo law enforcement officers, but "FBI agents asked a Monitor editor to cease its pursuit of the case so agents could build an investigation into the narcotics task force," Taylor and Ortiz wrote.
Taylor's initial Monitor story, published on Wednesday, included anonymously-sourced quotes alleging that Jonathan Trevi ño “has gone unsupervised since the get-go" and that "they should have kicked Jonathan out years ago.” Taylor also reported that "widespread allegations of wrongdoing involving Jonathan Treviño have circulated among local police departments for years. . . ."
A Huffington Post headline on an Associated Press story erroneously stated that Lupe Treviño himself was among the officers arrested. The sheriff, who won re-election with more than 80% of the vote last month, spoke at greater length to the AP's Christopher Sherman, who wrote:
"It's been devastating to our family, devastating to the organization," said Lupe Trevino (sic), who as sheriff has accused certain state officials of making Texas's border region sound like a 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 (sic) said. "Nothing is being covered up. I'm being very open with everything."
Mission police chief Garza told Sherman there could also be a "domino effect," endangering the status of any cases that the accused officers had worked on.
“It’s just going to get real, real nasty, real, real quick,” an "area law enforcement investigator" said to Taylor in Wednesday's Monitor.