Lupe Treviño has served in law enforcement in the Rio Grande Valley for four decades. He’s been a popular political figure, serving nine years as Hidalgo County Sheriff—until he resigned on March 28th, amid corruption charges. Those charges came to a head yesterday, when Treviño pled guilty to money laundering in federal court.
This is not a small deal for a part of Texas where corruption has long been a problem. Attorney General Greg Abbott, while campaigning for Governor, controversially compared South Texas’ corruption to “third-world practices,” and the fact that the fall of a popular figure like Treviño was so sudden—from an investigation into some of his officers last August, to a quick and immediate resignation in late March, to a guilty plea in mid-April—only highlights those concerns. Here’s what you should know about the plea, and why it matters:
What He Pled Guilty To:
Treviño pled guilty to money laundering for accepting campaign donations from alleged drug trafficker Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez, of Weslaco. Those donations were reportedly made in cash to former sheriff’s office Commander Jose Padilla, who then gave them to Treviño in campaign accounts that, The Monitor reports, were modified to conceal the money.
The amount of the money he accepted from Gonzalez, according to prosecutors, is somewhere between $70,000-$120,000. The charge that Treviño pled guilty to was conspiring to conduct financial transactions involving the proceeds of illegal activity. He could face up to 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine—but that won’t be settled until his sentencing in July. In the meantime, the ex-sheriff was released on $30,000 bond, though he wasn’t required to put money down to secure his release, as prosecutors consider the long-time Valley resident to be a minimal flight risk.
What He Didn’t Plead Guilty To:
There were other accusations against Treviño in his time in office. The Texas Observer’s Melissa del Bosque documented some of them in a March 2013 story, though it’s worth noting that these allegations were made by former employees of the department.
There was tumultuous change in the agency as soon as Treviño took office in 2005, says Vela and two other former deputies who asked to remain anonymous because they feared retribution. The new sheriff stopped basing promotions on written exams and years of service as his predecessor Henry Escalon had done, instead leaving promotions up to his personal discretion. Suddenly, rookies—many of whom had ties to politically connected families in the county—were getting coveted positions that used to take years to acquire. Treviño also began pushing deputies to sell fundraising tickets to pay off his campaign debt. “Experience didn’t count anymore,” Vela says, when it came to promotions. “Only who you knew and what you had done to please the sheriff.”
The other two deputies, who asked to remain anonymous, backed Vela’s claims that they were forced to buy fundraising tickets and campaign for the sheriff’s re-election or suffer demotions and harassment. The deputies say they were instructed by Commander Joe Padilla—Treviño’s right-hand man—to sell the fundraising tickets. What they didn’t sell they would have to buy, Padilla told them. Some deputies even took out loans to buy tickets and meet their quotas and win favor with the new sheriff. “The environment that he’s built is nepotism, favoritism and cronyism,” Vela says.
Padilla, of course, is the same officer alleged to have helped the sheriff launder the money in the El Gallo case. He’s currently awaiting trial after being arrested in December of last year on seven counts of drug trafficking and money laundering. The charges of cronyism and nepotism (which Treviño vociferously denied to del Bosque last year) weren’t a part of his plea arrangement.
What Else Was Going On:
It seems likely, based on Treviño’s guilty plea and the other accusations surrounding his department—not to mention the other indictments—that there were a lot of other things going on in the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office. Cronyism is one thing; accepting bribes from cartel traffickers is another. Still, a border sheriff is in an inherently difficult position when offered bribes by organizations as well-funded and powerful as the drug cartels based on the other side of the border—accept the bribes and you’re corrupt, refuse the bribes and you may be placing yourself, your family, and your region in danger of violence. But the other charges against people in Treviño’s department make it hard to be sympathetic to the way he ran his organization.
The Monitor reports on the indictments handed down in late 2012 to the “Panama Unit,” a corrupt anti-drug task force within the department:
[N]ine lawmen and three drug traffickers would be charged in a wide-ranging conspiracy to steal, possess and distribute marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines from January 2009 to December 2012, the month after Treviño won re-election. The unit would conduct drug raids and rather than turn in the seized narcotics the drugs would be sold to another drug trafficker who would sell them on the side.
Throughout the Panama Unit investigation, Treviño maintained that he knew nothing about the actions of rogue members of his agency, comparing himself to a person whose spouse was cheating on him – and saying he was the last to know about the criminal actions.
Those denials carried a bit more weight when Treviño was merely an embattled law enforcement officer in a difficult job. Now that he’s pled guilty to charges that make it apparent that he took money from cartels, it’s harder to assume that he’s telling the truth about the scope of what he knew of the corruption inside his department—especially since one of the members of the Panama Unit was Treviño’s own son. All but one of the indicted members of the unit pled guilty last August.
What Happens Next:
Treviño will be sentenced on July 17th, and he’s out on bond until that date. Padilla awaits trial. The interim sheriff in Hidalgo County is Eddie Guerra, who was appointed after Treviño’s resignation, but an election for the office has been called for in November. Candidates will be identified by party chairs over the summer.
Ultimately, the entire Treviño affair is a rough blow to the integrity of law enforcement in a place that didn’t really need more to worry about. The Monitor expresses that point well in a shell-shocked editorial that opines that “no one wanted to believe that corruption is real and once more taints our region.” But it’s apparent that it dos, and that—at least during Treviño’s time in office—it went all the way to the top.