The South Texas Fajita Bandit Has Finally Been Caught

It took nine years for him to meat his match.

Illustration by Anna Donlan

Since 2008, the Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department has been paying for fajita deliveries. There’s just one problem: The facility’s cafeteria doesn’t serve fajitas.

In August, that discrepancy was cleared up. According to the Brownsville Herald, on August 7, the Labatt Food Service attempted to deliver 800 pounds of fajitas to the facility’s kitchen. The kitchen staffer who received the shipment informed the driver that they didn’t serve fajitas. The driver told the staffer that he’d been making such deliveries for the past nine years to an employee of the facility, suspected to be Gilberto Escamilla.

“The receiver of the call rushes off to the supervisor and conveys to her the discussion that had been had, and that breaks the case,” [Cameron County District Attorney Luis V.] Saenz said. “When Mr. Escamilla reports to work the next day, he is confronted with the discussion and he admits he had been stealing fajitas for nine years.”

He was fired Aug. 8 and arrested Aug. 9 after the DA’s Office Special Investigations Unit obtained a search warrant. When officers searched Escaramilla’s house, they found packets of fajitas in his refrigerator.

The story is wacky, but Escaramilla isn’t just suspected of tucking the fajitas in his fridge for grilling on the weekends. According to investigators, the fajita thief is alleged to have been responsible for stealing $1.2 million worth of the cut of meat, setting himself up as a black-market dealer of rogue beef skirt throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

After gathering documents from Labatt Food Service and the CountyAuditor’s Office, which included invoices, vouchers and purchase orders, the investigations unit concluded that Escaramilla had stolen $1,251,578 worth of fajitas.

“He would literally, on the day he ordered them, deliver them to customers he had already lined up,” Saenz said. “We’ve been able to uncover two of his purchasers, and they are cooperating with the investigation.”

Escaramilla, who was arrested last week on first-degree felony charges, hasn’t been convicted in the case of the fajita bandit. But he’s also not the first person to find his name in stories about stolen meat—he’s just the one who’s accused of stealing the largest amount, and doing so directly from taxpayers. But even as we marvel at the business ingenuity and criminal instincts of someone who allegedly ran a nine-year fajita delivery ring as a side-hustle while working within the juvenile justice system (or, given the amount of meat he was moving, maybe the juvenile justice job was the side-hustle), it’s worth noting that meat theft is a surprisingly common crime in the state of Texas.

What does that say about us? We’ll leave that debate to the vegetarians and cultural anthropologists. But in Texas, a Google search of basically any cut of meat with the word “bandit” after it is fairly certain to turn up results. “Brisket bandit”? Check. In 2015, a San Antonio man was arrested after loading up trash cans full of brisket (and beer, naturally) from multiple local smokehouses. A suspect was captured after a high-speed chase, leading to felony charges.

“Steak bandit”? Yep. Last year, a Longview man led East Texas police in a high-speed chase after being suspected of stealing steaks from a local Walmart. (During his attempted getaway, he’s alleged to have thrown the meat at the police cars in pursuit.)

Indeed, Escaramilla isn’t even the first suspected fajita bandit to pop up in headlines in the Rio Grande Valley in recent years. In 2012, a pair in Weslaco made news after security cameras captured footage of them shoplifting fajitas from a local meat market over several nights. One of the suspected thieves turned herself in a month later, after the images circulated over social media. The man suspected of being her accomplice, however, remained at large for another ten days, bringing his total time on the run to over a month.

All of this sounds silly—and it is, to some extent—but meat theft is also a serious issue. Spiking meat costs in recent years have driven the crime, and there was a run of brisket thefts in 2015, as beef costs were at an unusual high. Sam Hart wrote about the issue for Texas Monthly at the time, noting that Austin police launched a special sting operation (called “Operation Meat Locker,” incredibly) to catch the thieves.

Operations like the one brought down in Brownsville over the summer are rare—most thieves (who get caught, anyway) limit themselves to as much meat as they can carry (or stuff in their pants). But when one considers the receipts attached to the Brownsville fajita ring, it makes sense why someone might attempt to take the longstanding tradition of Texas meat theft big time.

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