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Former sheriff’s deputy pleads guilty to federal drug trafficking charge

A former Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office deputy confessed Friday to staging a bogus drug bust in exchange for $10,000.

Baldemar Cardenas, 36, of Mission pleaded guilty Friday afternoon during a hearing before U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa.

“It’s one of those unfortunate mistakes that happens to officers — anybody, you know,” said attorney Rick Salinas of Mission, who represents Cardenas. “You need money, and you do something stupid. And really, his involvement was very minuscule.”

As part of his plea, Cardenas admitted that he staged a bogus drug bust in January 2020.

Drug smugglers had received “multiple kilograms of cocaine” from a supplier, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. The smugglers wanted to steal the cocaine, but they needed to cover up the theft.

Baldemar Cardenas

Former Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Baldemar Cardenas. (Photo courtesy of the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office.)

They apparently took a small amount of cocaine, mixed it with another substance and created bundles of “sham” cocaine, Lopez said. Tests conducted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration revealed the bundles of sham cocaine were just 1.5% pure.

Cardenas, meanwhile, contacted another law enforcement agency, which seized the sham cocaine.

The smugglers told their supplier that police officers had seized the cocaine — and provided the supplier with documents from the bust as proof. In reality, though, they had stolen the cocaine.

Cardenas said he was promised $10,000 to stage the bogus drug bust.

“Literally, he was doing a job. Calling it in,” Salinas said. “But he just probably knew a little bit more than what he needed to know.”

Baldemar Cardenas Cantu was born in Mexico and moved to the United States when he was a child.

At some point, his family settled in Hidalgo. Cardenas attended Valley View High School and graduated in 2003.

Months after graduation, Cardenas moved to San Antonio. He found a job at Walmart, where Cardenas handled loss prevention at a store near Balcones Heights.

He returned to Hidalgo in 2005.

Cardenas spent the next decade moving between San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley.

During that period, Cardenas studied kinesiology and criminal justice at the University of Texas-Pan American but left without a degree.

In 2010, after working a series of retail jobs, Cardenas graduated from the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council police academy. Armed with a peace officer license, Cardenas launched his law enforcement career.

The Alton Police Department hired Cardenas in January 2011, according to personnel records. Cardenas moved back to San Antonio less than two years later.

He became a bouncer for the Coco Chocolate Lounge and Bistro, and worked security at a Ross Dress For Less store, according to personnel documents.

Cardenas also became a reserve officer for the Helotes Police Department, according to Texas Commission on Law Enforcement records.

How often he worked in Helotes remains a mystery. The city of Helotes said his personnel records had been destroyed.

Cardenas left San Antonio in 2014, when he accepted a full-time job with the city of Hidalgo Police Department.

After a brief stint in Hidalgo, he applied for a job with the Sheriff’s Office and became a deputy in September 2015.

Documents released by the Sheriff’s Office show Cardenas became a patrol deputy, but they don’t provide any other details about his assignments. Personnel records don’t show any commendations or disciplinary action during the next five years.


Baldemar Cardenas Internal Affairs Case Photo

In response to a public information request, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office released documents on former Deputy Baldemar Cardenas. The documents included a black-and-white photo of a patrol car, which may be part of an internal affairs investigation. (Photo courtesy of the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office.)


In March 2020, the Sheriff’s Office suddenly placed Cardenas on administrative leave.

“This letter is to inform you that effective immediately you are being placed on Administrative Leave with pay due to an internal investigation,” according to a memo dated March 10, 2020. “You are required to turn in your badge, credentials, all issued firearms, keys and access card during the administrative leave period.”

Cardenas resigned six days later.

“I would like to thank each and every one of you all for giving me an opportunity to work for the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office,” Cardenas wrote to his supervisors. “Resignation will take effect immediately as of Monday, March 16, 2020.”

The Sheriff’s Office refused to release documents from the internal affairs investigation and requested a decision from the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

“In this instance, you state, and provide documentation demonstrating, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations (‘HSI’) objects to the release of the information at issue because it relates to a pending criminal investigation being conducted by HSI,” according to a letter from the Attorney General’s Office to Hidalgo County dated June 16, 2020. “Based upon this representation, we conclude the release of the information at issue would interfere with the detection, investigation, or prosecution of crime.”

Cardenas never worked in law enforcement again. He resurfaced in federal court Friday wearing a black suit and blue surgical mask.

“This case has been lingering for a while,” Salinas said, adding that COVID-19 caused the delay.

Cardenas pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a substance that contained 500 grams or more of cocaine.

Sentencing is scheduled for June 14. Cardenas faces a maximum of 40 years in federal prison.

“He may get punished a little more than we would like to see,” Salinas said. “Only because he was an officer.”

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