On Sept. 15, when they heard the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had arrested Justice of the Peace Roel Valadez, the men at Star Barbershop couldn’t believe it.
The owner, Jessie Cesar, had known Valadez since high school. After he became a barber, Valadez would stop by for haircuts.
“I would never charge him because he was the judge, you know what I mean?” Cesar said. “Not because he was a drug dealer and I was scared of him. Because he was the judge who helped everybody out.”
Valadez handed out Christmas presents in Las Lomas, where some parents struggled to afford toys. When the school year started, Valadez purchased supplies for students. And perhaps most importantly, Valadez had a reputation for picking up the phone when people called.
“I know my truth may not seem like the truth to you,” Cesar said. “But he wasn’t the capo of Rio Grande City.”
After he graduated from high school, Roel Valadez Jr., 31, of Rio Grande City — known to many simply as “Role” — went into business with his father.
“They would tow cars,” Cesar said. “And they would also fix cars at his dad’s shop.”
Valadez built relationships with local power brokers, including former Rio Grande City school board Trustee Leonel J. Lopez Jr. and Rio Grande City Municipal Judge Basilio D. Villarreal Jr.
In 2018, he challenged Starr County Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace Martin “M&M” Martinez Jr. in the Democratic Party primary. Valadez defeated Martinez in the runoff and ran unopposed that November.
“He didn’t fit the Rio Grande City narco-slash-politician” stereotype, Cesar said.
Valadez planned to run for county commissioner, Cesar said, and had started lining up supporters.
“Why be a drug dealer when you’re trying to climb up the political ladder?” Cesar said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
The DEA, however, saw a different side of Valadez.
Garza smuggled marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine through Starr County from July 2020 to September 2021, according to the indictment. He pleaded not guilty.
The indictment charged Valadez with participating in the conspiracy but didn’t explain what, exactly, he did. More details surfaced last week, when Valadez appeared in court for a detention hearing.
“He’s been willing to do favors for individuals such as Ignacio Garza who he knows to be — or admitted to the agents that he knew to be — a drug trafficker,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Cook Profit. “And he provided them with sensitive law enforcement information.”
Valadez helped the drug trafficking organization identify vehicles used by law enforcement officers, Profit said. Valadez also provided the drug trafficking organization with information about court proceedings.
After they arrested him, agents questioned Valadez about Garza.
“He indicated that Ignacio Garza supported his campaign by buying chicken plates,” Profit said. “But Ignacio Garza has said that he fully funded his campaign.”
Attorney Carlos A. Garcia of Mission, who represents Garza, didn’t agree with that characterization.
“I don’t know where the government’s getting its facts,” Garcia said. “Just because someone donates to a campaign doesn’t mean that someone’s funding anything.”
Attorney David L. Flores of Edinburg, who represents Valadez, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
How much Valadez spent and who funded his campaign may remain a mystery.
Valadez didn’t submit a single campaign finance report when he ran for justice of the peace, according to the Starr County Elections Department.
Along with assisting smugglers, Profit said that Valadez had negotiated drug deals himself.
“We have Title III intercepts that put him negotiating for a substantial amount of marijuana, hoping that he could bring it to Houston,” Profit said. “We have him negotiating and selling other quantities of marijuana — small quantities of marijuana.”
The government started monitoring Valadez’s phone calls in February, according to a criminal complaint filed against Javier Eden Gonzalez Jr., 37, of Rio Grande City on Sept. 16.
The FBI logged “about 116 wire interceptions” between Valadez and Gonzalez during the investigation. After they arrested Valadez, agents questioned him about Gonzalez.
“During the interview VALADEZ Jr. admitted to FBI Agents that on several occasions GONZALEZ Jr. provided VALADEZ Jr. with high grade marijuana,” according to the criminal complaint.
During one phone call, Gonzalez said he “got a whole one” for 230.
The FBI concluded that meant “GONZALEZ Jr. is advising VALADEZ Jr. that he, (GONZALEZ Jr.) got a pound of hydroponic marijuana valued at $230.00 in his possession, with the intent to distribute to VALADEZ Jr.,” according to the criminal complaint.
Attorney Douglas A. A’Hern, who represents Gonzalez, said he believed the conversation actually referred to an ounce of marijuana, not a pound.
“There’s no ‘there’ there,” A’Hern said. “There’s nothing there.”
Valadez isn’t the only member of his family with links to drug trafficking, Profit said, adding that “the government has information that, for periods of time, his father has been involved in trafficking cocaine.”
His father couldn’t be reached for comment.
After weighing the arguments, U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Scott Hacker set bond at $100,000 and required Valadez to post a $5,000 cash deposit.
By the time he posted bond, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct had already suspended Valadez.
Starr County Attorney Victor Canales Jr. watched the hearing on Zoom, curious about the charges.
“A man of the people, that’s the best way I can describe him. He did what he could for the community,” Canales said. “A lot of people are very surprised and shocked by the allegations.”
Valadez is charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana; and possession with intent to distribute marijuana. He pleaded not guilty.
If convicted on the conspiracy charge, Valadez faces 10 years to life in federal prison.
Cesar, the barber, said he wished Valadez the best.
“I don’t think he did it,” Cesar said. “But I’m not the judge. He’s going to be judged by 12 people.”