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Sheriff dissolves Panama Unit amid investigation

A special task force designed to target narcotics trafficking in Hidalgo County known as the Panama Unit, was dissolved this week according to the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office. The Panama Unit has been under investigation by the FBI since last August.

The Sheriff’s Office stated in a press release Monday that the unit would cease its operations. The original intent of the cooperative unit, which was housed at Mission Police Department, was for the Sheriff’s Department to assist with drug investigations in the area. The agreement was made between former Mission Police Chief Leo Longoria and Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño, and continued under current Mission Police Chief Martin Garza.

Garza said the unit was a supplement to their current narcotic investigations. The unit targeted street level narcotics from Mission and west to Sullivan City.

According to Garza, an officer from the Sheriff’s Department was supervising the task force, which had been housed at the Mission Police Department for about three years.

Garza said street-level narcotics investigations were not something new for the department, but the added resources the county brought in were a great help. During the time the unit was there, narcotic investigations were ongoing, and will still continue even without the Panama Unit.

“To this day we still have resources,” said Garza. There are officers assigned to FBI and DEA task forces. The department also has their daily investigators, and other departments that will continue to investigate local street-level narcotics.

“Just because the Panama Unit has been dismantled at this point, does not mean that these types of investigations are going to cease within our organization,” continued Garza. “We are going to continue every effort that can be made to conduct investigations to reduce the amount of narcotics that are within our city limits.”

If the issue is outside the Mission city limits, said Garza, they still have law enforcement agencies they can work with to resolve the issue.

“Sharing resources plays a great success to the arrests that are made in narcotic investigations,” said Garza. “We have had many successes working with multi-agencies. This was unfortunate.

“We will continue as demand might require it,” said Garza about their own narcotic investigations.

All individuals assigned to the Panama Unit have either been fired or resigned. Sheriff’s Office command staff will be meeting at a later date to determine where the five deputy slots will be assigned to best meet the needs of Hidalgo County, said the press release.

Two Mission police officers and two deputies with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office were arrested and later released on bond last month. All four of the officers worked for the Panama Unit. Complaints against the officers say they were involved in a drug conspiracy, using their positions as law enforcement personnel to escort and protect loads of narcotics and were paid for their services.

The two Mission police officers are Jonathan Treviño – son of Sheriff Lupe Treviño, and Alexis Espinoza – son of Hidalgo Police Chief Rudy Espinoza. The sheriff’s deputies involved are Fabian Rodriguez and Gerardo Duran.

According to the complaints filed, federal agents received information in reference to the officers being involved in escorting drugs on August 22, 2012. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Office of Professional Responsibility and the Federal Bureau of Investigation proceeded with an investigation shortly after by using confidential sources and conducting an undercover operation.

According to court documents, the officers escorted cocaine shipments from August through November. During one operation in November, Espinoza is said to have been driving a Mission Police Department vehicle. The vehicles, believed to contain seven to 30 kilograms of cocaine, were escorted from McAllen to Weslaco, McAllen to Edinburg, McAllen to north of Falfurrias checkpoint, and from Mission to an area north toward the Falfurrias checkpoint. They received payments of up to $6,000 for their services, said the court documents.

Espinoza was arrested December 12. Treviño, Rodriguez and Duran were arrested December 13. All four were either fired or resigned from their positions shortly after.

All four individuals were given a $100,000 bond. They will not be able to work in law enforcement unless they are cleared of the charges.

Espinoza was charged with possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance and conspiring to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance.

At the December 14 arraignment, Treviño, Rodriguez and Duran were charged with similar charges. They were also put on house arrest, had to turn in passports if they had any, undergo a medical and psychiatric evaluation, refrain from possession of firearms, controlled substances and alcohol, limited travel, and were put on GPS monitoring devices.

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CoverageAreaThe Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.

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