Border Law Enforcement Scandal Grows With Recent Arrest

Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño and his sons Juan Carlos (left) and Jonathan.
Photo from Sheriff Trevino’s Facebook page.
Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño and his sons Juan Carlos (left) and Jonathan.

In Hidalgo County, when it comes to law enforcement corruption,  the feds like to make their arrests right before the holidays.

On Christmas Eve, Commander Jose “Joe” Padilla, right-hand man to Sheriff Guadalupe “Lupe” Treviño was arrested on a seven-count indictment for drug trafficking and money laundering. Padilla’s arrest makes it increasingly difficult for Treviño—the county’s top lawman—to continue to deny any knowledge of wrongdoing by his deputies, his own son and now a top commander who many say worked as his chief enforcer within the border’s second largest law enforcement agency.

For months, rumors had swirled about Padilla’s imminent arrest. It was December 2012 when federal agents from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI arrested the sheriff’s son Jonathan Treviño, Alexis Espinoza, son of the City of Hidalgo police chief, and two other deputies who were part of the now defunct Panama Unit narcotics task force. The remaining three members were indicted in March of 2012.

Jonathan Treviño was assigned as leader of the task force at age 23 and he staffed the Panama Unit with his close friends. Multiple law enforcement sources say the Panama Unit brazenly ripped off local drug dealers for at least six years until their arrests in December 2012. The news that the sheriff’s son had run a corrupt task force shocked Hidalgo County, but more arrests were announced and it appeared that the corruption in the department ran even deeper. Shortly after the Panama Unit bust, James Phil “JP” Flores, who ran the sheriff’s crime stoppers program, and 47-year-old warrants deputy Jorge Garza were also indicted along with Aida Palacios, an investigator with the district attorney’s office. According to federal indictments, the drug conspiracy centered on local drug dealers Fernando Guerra Sr. and his son Fernando Jr.—also indicted—who helped set up fake drug stings with the corrupt cops to rip off other local dealers and then sell their drugs.

One by one they pleaded guilty and avoided trial—all except Jorge Garza. Instead of taking a plea agreement and risking 10 years to life in prison, the former Hidalgo County deputy wanted his day in federal court. He got his wish, over several days in August, and South Texas followed every minute of the trial over social media as the web of corruption in the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department slowly unraveled.

At the center of the damning testimony was Padilla, painted as the sheriff’s top enforcer who struck fear into deputies underneath him. On the witness stand, indicted Panama Unit member Fabian Rodriguez described Padilla’s role within the sheriff’s department. “Padilla has free rein and he puts the fear in people. I feared him even though I was part of his inner circle,” Rodriguez told the jury. “I’m afraid as I’m testifying right now.”

Rodriguez also testified that Padilla would send deputies to shine his shoes, pick up his dry cleaning and pay his taxes while on county time. Padilla would also tell deputies to alter their time sheets to say they had worked overtime. Then they would use the comp time to work for the sheriff’s campaign. “Padilla wouldn’t put his name on it [the time sheet] because he didn’t want it coming back to him. He would tell someone else to do it,” Rodriguez told the jury.

When Garza’s attorney subpoenaed Padilla, it was the talk of the town. Padilla strode into the courtroom in uniform, then promptly asserted his Fifth Amendment rights rather than answer any questions before a judge and jury. U.S. District Judge Randy Crane informed the jury that Padilla was being investigated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Despite the revelation, Sheriff Treviño said he would keep Padilla on staff.

Months passed until this week’s announcement of Padilla’s arrest. The unsealed indictment links Padilla with suspected drug dealer Tomas Reyes Gonzalez, known as El Gallo (the Rooster). The indictment alleges that Padilla provided protection for El Gallo and his associates. During the trial in August, witnesses testified that the alleged drug dealer was also a political donor to Sheriff Treviño.

The most fascinating piece of the case is the sheriff. With nine indicted lawmen—including seven sheriff’s deputies and his own son—Treviño has maintained on the witness stand and in the media that he had no idea his deputies were colluding with drug dealers. When contacted by The Monitor after Commander Padilla’s arrest on Tuesday, he told the newspaper, “Unequivocally, there’s absolutely no way I had any knowledge whatsoever about the allegations, if they are true, any more than I did about the Panama Unit.”

But clearly, federal investigators aren’t done yet with Treviño. Neither are former employees—who say the sheriff retaliated against them for failing to work his campaign re-election in 2012—and residents who say they were victimized by his son’s drug task force. Both parties have filed civil lawsuits against the sheriff. More damning evidence and testimony will undoubtedly come to light—and at this rate, it wouldn’t be surprising if the feds delivered another unsettling Christmas present next year.

Melissa del Bosque is a staff writer and a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.

Published at 6:03 pm CST
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