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Lawmen get prison time

Hidalgo-County-SealThe courtroom full of loved ones sat in silence, with the exception of the occasional sob, sniff or gasp, as one-by-one members of the Panama Unit and their cohorts were sentenced to federal prison.

“There are no words that I can say that can undo the wrong that I have done,” said Alexis Espinoza, former Mission police officer, as he asked for leniency. “I have let everybody down, especially the court. I have a 5-year-old little girl I’m not going to see grow up—all because of greed.”

He was one of the last of nine law enforcement officers and two drug traffickers sentenced this week as a result of the corruption of the Panama Unit, a narcotics task force headed by the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office and housed out of the Mission Police Department.

Two Mission detectives were caught up in the scandal—Espinoza and Jonathan Treviño, son of former Sheriff Lupe Treviño.

U.S. District Judge Randy Crane sentenced Espinoza to 14 years in prison, taking into account the fact that the former officer helped the government convict other law enforcement officials.

The judge reserved the harshest sentence for Treviño, who was pegged as the leader by his co-defendants. Treviño was sentenced to 17 years.

“It seemed like easy money, and it was just intoxicating to all of you. That’s what fueled this terrible lapse of judgment,” Crane said. “It’s because of this spiral effect that this conspiracy had that y’all began doing more brazen things, busting into the homes of people without consent. … It’s fortunate that it did come to an end before somebody got hurt.”

The list of offenses ranges from escorting drug loads to stealing cash and selling stolen narcotics.

Crane said Treviño and other members of the Panama Unit lured other law enforcement officers, like Fabian Rodriguez, into the corruption by living extravagant lifestyles with trips to Las Vegas and nice clothes.

Prior to sentencing, Roberto Yzaguirre, Treviño’s attorney, argued there was no single ringleader in the group; it all started when members of the Panama Unit agreed collectively to take a portion of money seized from a criminal.

It wasn’t until Rodriguez came to Treviño and said he had connections to drug traffickers Fernando Guerra Sr. and Fernando Guerra Jr. that things started to grow, he said.

“If my client is the leader, why is he not getting paid for everything?” Yzaguirre asked. “I think what happened here is every time we have a case like this, we try to look around for who is the leader. But what happens sometimes is four or five people are talking together, and nobody leads them. They lead themselves as a group.”

But fellow co-defendants testified they feared for their jobs because of the influence Treviño had with his father, who was sheriff at the time of the incidents. Former sheriff Lupe Treviño pleaded guilty to money laundering last month in a separate incident.

Treviño also took the stand Wednesday morning to testify he should not face a higher sentence because of the use of body armor during several of the raids. He testified that his bulletproof vest issued in 2006 expired in 2009, so it stayed in a box under his desk. The bulletproof vest issued by the sheriff’s office was given to co-defendant Claudio Mata, he said. He bought a tactical vest, but never placed armor inside of it, so it did not meet the guidelines, Treviño said.

Four co-defendants in the courtroom each stood up at the request of Judge Crane and indicated Treviño had multiple vests with body armor he used during the raids. Treviño’s attorney dropped the motion.

Treviño changed tactics when it was his turn to speak before sentencing.

“I take responsibility for what I’ve done,” he said. “I blame nobody but myself. My father had no idea. He never would have allowed it.

“Thank you all for arresting us now before somebody got hurt or killed. You caught us at a young age, rather than 10-15 years from now when we’d never change.”

Before sentencing Treviño, Crane warned him that his punishment would be harsh as a deterrent to others considering abusing their positions as law enforcement officials.

“The damage that this group did to the community’s confidence in this law enforcement institution … is probably not going to be repaired for years if not longer,” Crane said. “Citizens of this community have a lot of pride in the community, and what y’all have done is disgrace us.”

Jorge Garza

Garza, a former sheriff’s deputy, conducted fake traffic stop to trick drug owners into believing their drugs were being seized. Garza’s attorney successfully argued there was no evidence that any of the traffic stops were being conducted while he was on duty, and thus he shouldn’t be held responsible for holding a firearm during the conspiracy.

He was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

“It’s unfortunate that you did get involved in this because everything I did read about you indicated that you were a fine, upstanding person,” Crane told Garza, who was the only defendant to take the case to trial rather than plead guilty. “It’s a shame that the lure of this … easy money … got you involved.”

Fernando Guerra Jr.

Guerra Jr. and his father, Guerra Sr. are drug traffickers that bought loads of drugs from members of the Panama Unit and their cohorts. Guerra Jr. operated the stash house in a warehouse where he also operated a trucking company.

He was sentenced to eight years in federal prison.

James Phil Flores

Former deputy Flores brokered the deals between the Guerras and the members of the Panama Unit.

Before he was sentenced, Flores apologized for tarnishing his badge and his attorney pointed out the biggest hurt is he’ll miss seeing his 6-year-old granddaughter grow up.

“Your involvement, although it appears you had a piece of everything, was really sort of background,” Crane told him. “Obviously what you did was illegal, immoral and has brought lack of confidence in law enforcement in the community.”

Flores was sentenced to 10 years. He was the only defendant allowed to self-surrender, and that was because of serious health issues, Crane said.

“You’re going to be a decade older when you get out,” Crane said. “Your granddaughter will be about 16 years old. There’s still a lot of life ahead of you.”

Gerardo Mendoza-Duran

Former deputy Mendoza-Duran was the only defendant who did not speak for himself before sentencing. He was involved in escorting loads in unmarked police units and was paid $3,000 per load.

“I would hope, Mr. Duran, that you would apologize to the community,” Crane said. “Everybody believed that you were out there upholding the laws of our community.”

Crane sentenced Mendoza-Duran to eight years.

Claudio Mata

Mata was a member of the Panama Unit, though he was suspended from the unit at one point because he stole jewelry during a raid. Mata was placed on patrol as a punishment. He said he was told to keep his mouth shut, but superiors wanted to fire him for something other than the jewelry theft.

Wednesday, Mata said he succumbed to pressure to raise money for the sheriff’s political campaign. Also, he said, he was told he could buy promotions for his wife by contributing to the campaign.

“I cheated the system, cheated the community,” Mata said. “In the end, I’m responsible for my own actions. I’m embarrassed and ashamed.”

He was sentenced to nearly 12 years.

Eric Michael Alcantar

Alcantar, too, was a member of the Panama Unit. His attorney attempted to argue Alcantar did not have a major role in the conspiracy, but Crane said the former deputy was involved in so many of the incidents, he obviously was a major component.

Alcantar said he attempted to stop what was going on, even approaching Jonathan Treviño to ask him to stop. At one point, Alcantar said he was told if he wanted to stay in the unit, he’d have to pay $5,000.

“I want to apologize to law enforcement in general,” Alcantar said before he was sentenced. “I hope others learn from my mistakes, not just adults, but kids as well.”

Crane sentenced him to 10 years in prison, adding that he does believe Alcantar is remorseful.

Salvador Arguello

Arguello, a member of the Panama Unit, said he feared he’d lose his job when he learned about the conspiracy. He was told to keep his mouth shut, and that’s what he did, Arguello’s attorney said.

“At one point, we did try to get him (Treviño) to stop,” Arguello said before he was sentenced. “Once we were there, it was hard to go against the grain. The ultimate fear was that we’d be here standing before the court waiting for a sentence to be handed down.”

Crane sentenced Arguello to 12 years in federal prison.

Fabian Rodriguez

Rodriguez was a deputy who helped the Panama Unit find connections to sell stolen drugs. He also gave the Panama Unit tips on possible cash or drug seizures. According to Assistant U.S. District Attorney James Sturgis, Rodriguez was trying to work his way into the unit.

“I was surrounded by a bunch of bad apples,” Rodriguez said Wednesay. “And I chose to take a bite of that bad apple.”

He was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison.

Fernando Guerra Sr.

Guerra Sr. hired Flores and Garza to steal the drug loads that he was supposed to be driving north. He told the judge before sentencing that he is remorseful and he’s since helped the government convict several corrupt law enforcement officials.

Crane pointed out that because Guerra Sr. is not a citizen, his residency status in the United States will be revoked when he is released from prison and he will be deported to Mexico. The government also seized his properties.

Guerra Sr. was sentenced to 15 years.

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