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Editor’s note: The photo accompanying this article has been updated to remove a person who posed for a photo with members of the Panama Unit but wasn’t accused of any wrongdoing.
A federal judge reduced prison sentences Tuesday for drug traffickers and former lawmen convicted in the Panama Unit scandal.
U.S. District Judge Randy Crane approved sentence reductions for nine lawmen and two drug traffickers Tuesday. Many had filed motions for sentence reductions after the government adopted new guidelines for drug crimes.
“If the courts want to be lenient on law enforcement officers who are duty-bound to protect us — and they decided to be the criminals — then everything else really becomes screwy in the criminal justice system,” said former Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra, who added that he considers corrupt cops worse than regular criminals.
The Mission Police Department and the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office created the Panama Unit to target street-level drug dealers in western Hidalgo County.
On paper, the Sheriff’s Office and Mission assigned supervisors to monitor the Panama Unit. In practice, though, members answered to Jonathan Treviño, the son of former Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño.
Without any meaningful supervision, the Panama Unit slowly went bad.
Members started stealing cash and drugs from smugglers. They pocketed the money and sold the drugs for profit.
Rumors about the Panama Unit reached the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations, a division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Agents started making arrests on Dec. 12, 2012.
The case eventually ensnared nine Hidalgo County lawmen. Eight pleaded guilty; a jury convicted the ninth.
After they went to prison, however, the U.S. Sentencing Commission changed the federal sentencing guidelines for drug-related crimes. Inmates flooded the court system with requests for sentence reductions.
“It’s happening in thousands of cases all over the country, where people are getting their sentences reduced,” said attorney Eric Jarvis of McAllen, who represents Rodriguez, the former sheriff’s deputy.
The judge reduced 11 prison sentences Tuesday:
> Former Mission police Inv. Jonathan Treviño’s sentence dropped from 204 months to 166 months.
Jonathan Treviño, 35, is the son of former Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering in a separate case.
> Former Mission police Inv. Alexis Espinoza’s sentence dropped from 168 months to 134 months.
Mission assigned Alexis Espinoza, 35, to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement task force. He is the son of former Hidalgo police Chief Rudy Espinoza.
> Former Hidalgo County sheriff’s Deputy Fabian Rodriguez’s sentence dropped from 156 months to 126 months.
Fabian Rodriguez, 34, of Edcouch once considered running for Precinct 5 constable.
> Former Hidalgo County sheriff’s Deputy Gerardo Mendoza-Duran’s sentence dropped from 96 months to 80 months.
Mendoza-Duran, 36, worked at the Hidalgo County Courthouse.
> Former Hidalgo County sheriff’s Deputy Salvador “Sal” Arguello’s sentence dropped from 144 months to 115 months.
The Sheriff’s Office assigned Arguello, 40, to the Panama Unit.
> Former Hidalgo County sheriff’s Deputy Claudio Mata’s sentence dropped from 140 months to 113 months.
Mata, 40, worked an off-duty security job with Arguello. The Sheriff’s Office assigned him to the Panama Unit.
> Former Hidalgo County sheriff’s Deputy Eric Alcantar’s sentence dropped from 120 months to 96 months.
When he applied for the job, Alcantar listed Jonathan Treviño and Claudio Mata as references. The Sheriff’s Office assigned Alcantar to the Panama Unit.
> Former Hidalgo County sheriff’s Deputy James Phil “J.P.” Flores’ sentence dropped from 120 months to 97 months.
Flores, 52, served as the Hidalgo County Crime Stoppers coordinator from 2001 to 2012.
> Former Hidalgo County sheriff’s Deputy Jorge Garza’s sentence dropped from 121 months to 97 months.
Jorge Garza, 65, is the brother of attorney Alma Garza, who ran against former Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra in the Democratic Party primary.
> Drug trafficker Fernando Guerra Sr.’s prison sentence dropped from 180 months to 147 months.
Guerra and his son, Fernando Guerra Jr., purchased stolen drugs from members of the Panama Unit.
> Drug trafficker Alvaro Gilberto DeHoyos’ prison sentence dropped from 90 months to 80 months.
DeHoyos worked for the Guerra drug trafficking organization.
The only player in the Panama Unit scandal who didn’t receive a sentence reduction Tuesday was Fernando Guerra Jr., who was released from prison in 2017.
“It’s part of the system,” said former Hidalgo County sheriff’s Deputy Miguel Flores, who provided information about the Panama Unit to prosecutors. “I guess everybody is entitled to this reduction.”
Working with the federal government cost Flores dearly.
Just weeks before agents arrested Jonathan Treviño, the corrupt cops attempted to smear Flores. Mendoza-Duran accused him of working with drug traffickers.
The Sheriff’s Office placed Flores on administrative leave. After the investigation, which didn’t find any links to drug traffickers, the Sheriff’s Office punished Flores for a policy violation and transferred him to patrol.
Frustrated by the situation, Flores eventually quit. He now works for the La Joya Police Department.
“We all deserve second chances in life,” Flores said. “And it’d be great if they can come back to their families, use those years — and make a difference.”
This story was updated on March 20 with information about seven additional sentence reductions.