Would you want this man as sheriff?

The corrupting power of Mexican drug traffickers is finding its way into the police forces of the southern United States. An investigation by the Dromomanos collective, winner of the Ortega y Gasset Journalism Awards, published in El Universal, reveals drug traffickers have bribed a large number of sheriffs, border patrol officers, and customs officials in Texas.

When Jose Perez returned to his house on the afternoon of July 26, 2012, six police broke into his home.

"Where are the wetbacks?" they shouted.

The officers were members of the Pamana Unit, a group created to combat drug trafficking in Hidalgo county in southern Texas. They began to inspect the house, looking for migrants. When they didn't find any, they began to get more angry.

"Where is the money?" they yelled.

During their search Perez says they took $4,000, as well as jewelry and perfumes belonging to Perez's wife.

But it wasn't enough for them.

"Where are the drugs?" they shouted.

According to Perez, after another fruitless search, they threatened him.

“Call someone who sells drugs. If you don't, we are going to take you somewhere," one of them told him. "You know what I'm talking about.” 

This story is excerpted from an article that originally appeared in El Universal and was translated and reprinted with permission. See original article here

Perez called a contact.

“This is the border, everyone here knows someone who sells,” he said, while in his garden at his house in Pharr, a small city of 70,000 people, close to McAllen.

A few minutes after he made the call, the drug dealer parked his car in front of a store. As soon as he opened the trunk, the police arrested him: He was carrying two kilos of cocaine and $50,000. According to a complaint Perez filed to a federal court, the Panama Unit claimed they had only seized a few of the cocaine packages. 

The civil complaint Perez filed was dismissed, but it marked the beginning of the end for the Panama Unit. In December 2012, the FBI arrested the majority of the anti-drug unit, and in April 2014 nine agents were convicted on conspiracy charges for drug trafficking, in addition to three drug traffickers who were working with the police force.

According to the court files, the Panama Unit stole drugs from warehouses along the border, and worked for drug trafficking groups by guarding freight trucks carrying drug shipments northward. On one occasion, FBI informants followed the leader of the anti-drug unit, Jonathon Treviño, while he and other members of the unit protected a truck reportedly transporting seven kilos of cocaine. The drug traffickers paid the police $6,000 to escort the truck. 

But the Panama Unit is not an isolated case. An investigation conducted by El Universal revealed that a large number of law enforcement officials -- including sheriffs, border patrol officials, and customs agents -- working in southern Texas have been bribed by criminal organizations. According to authorities and local reports, seven drug cartels are active along the border with the United States, most notably the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, and the Zetas.

The Gulf Cartel Influence 

The Panama Unit primarily worked for Tomas "El Gallo" Gonzalez, a man who led a double life as the owner of a transportation business and as one of the biggest drug bosses in the region, with ties to the Gulf Cartel. El Gallo, who was also arrested and convicted, trafficked drug shipments of between 360 kilograms and three tons of marijuana, and several hundred kilograms of cocaine, at a time.

SEE ALSO: Gulf Cartel News and Profile

A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report published this year revealed that approximately 2,000 police and other law enforcement officials are under investigation for their involvement in organized crime. The DHS is currently investigating public officials who have received bribes to protect criminals, facilitate drug trafficking, escort drug shipments, and traffic the Mexican cartels' drugs.

The latest report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicates that 144 border patrol agents were arrested between 2005 to 2012 for corruption. Many of the cases were drug-related. Forty-eight of those arrested worked in Texas.

“Southern Texas, specifically the Rio Grande Valley, is the most corrupt area along the border, ” said Guadalupe Correa, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Brownsville.

Corrupt Police

Corruption scandals have emerged in most of the 14 border counties between Brownsville and El Paso. Border agents and local police -- as well as judges and politicians -- have taken drug money. In Cameron, former Sheriff Conrado Cantu is serving a 24-year sentence for leading a criminal group involved in drug trafficking, money laundering, and extortion. In Starr, former Sheriff Reymundo Rey facilitated drug shipments from Tamaulipas and maintained ties with the drug boss Jose Carlos Hinojosa and his partners in the Gulf Cartel

In early October, Robert Maldonado, a former Hidalgo county deputy sheriff, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for laundering $40 million for the Gulf Cartel. Gaudalupe Treviño in Hidalgo county -- who had an 80 percent approval rating -- was the latest sheriff in the region to fall. He is the father of Jonathan Treviño, the former head of the Panama Unit.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Police Reform

The elder Treviño was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to laundering $10,000 during his re-election campaign for sheriff in 2012. When they arrested his son for his illegal activities during his time with the Panama Unit, several agents revealed that the Sheriff forced them to give him a portion of their drug trafficking earnings. 

Treviño's former right-hand man, Jose Padilla, is one of the key witnesses testifying against him; he is currently being protected by the FBI. Padilla claims Treviño has had ties to El Gallo since 2012. Even today, in the capo's house, a mansion in the middle of a modest neighborhood, there are two campaign posters of the former sheriff. Treviño, who is currently appealing his sentence, denies involvement in the drug trade. 

[...] 

A year and a half after the Panama Unit's intrusion into his house, Jose Perez says he still has to see a psychiatrist, and has begun smoking again despite having heart problems and suffering from episodes of paranoia.

“Let's call things what they are," he said. "That was an invasion, a robbery, and a kidnapping.”

*This article was written by Jose Luis Pardo and Alejandra Inzunza for Mexican newspaper El Universal, as part of an investigation by the journalist collective Dromomanos on organized crime along the US-Mexico border. See original article here. Follow the team on Twitter at @Dromomanos, and see more of their work at http://www.dromomanos.com

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador's prison system is the headquarters of the country's largest gangs. It is also where one of these gangs, the MS13, is fighting amongst itself for control of the organization.

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

Special Agent David LeValley headed the criminal division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Washington office until last November 8. While in office, he witnessed the rise of the MS13, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) and other smaller gangs in the District of Columbia as well...

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

Local police and justice officials are convinced that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) has strengthened its presence along the East Coast of the United States. The alarm follows a recent spate of violence -- of the type not seen in a decade -- which included dismembered bodies and...

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

Guatemala's Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

Guatemala's Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

Former Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla -- a decorated war hero and a longtime US ally -- finds himself treading water amidst a flurry of accusations about corruption and his connections to drug traffickers. López Bonilla is not the most well-known suspect in the cases against...

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

Throughout the continent, the debate on whether or not the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang is working with or for drug traffickers continues. In this investigation, journalist Carlos García tells the story of how a member of the MS13 entered the methamphetamine distribution business under the powerful auspices...

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

In July 2011, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) attended a meeting organized in California by a criminal known as "Bad Boy." Among the invitees was José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as "Dreamer," who had gone to the meeting hoping to better understand what was beginning to...

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

José Adán Salazar Umaña is the only Salvadoran citizen currently on the US government's Kingpin List. But in his defense, Salazar Umaña claims is he is an honorable businessman who started his career by exchanging money along the borders between Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. He does...

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Following Guatemala's long and brutal civil war, members of the military were charged, faced trial and sentenced to jail time. Even some members of a powerful elite unit known as the Kaibil were put behind bars. Among these prisoners, none were more emblematic than Captain Byron Lima...