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2 former UPS drivers plead not guilty to federal drug trafficking charges

Two former UPS drivers pleaded not guilty to federal drug trafficking charges Wednesday.

Orlando Candelario Almanza, 48, of Edinburg and Fidencio Salinas Jr., 51, of Pharr pleaded not guilty Wednesday afternoon, when they appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Nadia S. Medrano for arraignment.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Garcia, who is prosecuting the case, said Almanza and Salinas participated in a conspiracy to transport cocaine.

“We are aware of the incident involving two UPS employees and we’re cooperating with the investigation,” Becky Pace, a spokeswoman for UPS, said in a statement. “As this is an ongoing investigation, we are not able to make additional comments at this time, but instead defer to investigating authorities.”

Other people charged with participating in the conspiracy include Enrique Bernardo Gamez, 46, of Hidalgo, who provided the UPS drivers with packages of cocaine, and Jose Felipe Lozano Salazar, 58, of Edinburg, a former correctional officer who provided fraudulent labels for the packages.

The bare-bones indictment against them contains few details about the case.

When the former UPS drivers appeared for arraignment on Wednesday afternoon, Medrano said a news release issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas contained more details than the indictment.

When the investigation started remains unclear.

In July 2022, though, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration received a tip that someone planned to steal drugs from Gamez’s house.

“We had information from a source that we work with that there was going to be a possible theft of illegal drugs that were stored at this residence,” DEA Special Agent Tyler Klassen said in August 2022, when he testified during a court hearing.

Gamez lived with his girlfriend and at least one child.

“And so, for the safety of the public and for the safety of Gamez, we decided to approach the residence if we saw Mr. Gamez there at the house,” Klassen said. “And try to give him a heads-up on what was going on.”

Agents also requested permission to search Gamez’s house.

The DEA hadn’t obtained a search warrant. Gamez allowed Klassen to search the house anyway.

In the master bedroom, they found a cardboard box that contained half a kilogram of cocaine. Agents found another 62 kilograms of cocaine hidden in the attic.

Gamez had also stashed about $21,000 in a bathroom cabinet.

After they found the cocaine and the cash, Gamez agreed to speak with DEA agents.

Gamez met with agents that night and the next day, Klassen said. The DEA, in turn, decided not to arrest him right away.

At some point, however, Gamez stopped cooperating.

Prosecutors charged Gamez with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine. The charge, a federal felony, is punishable by a minimum of 10 years in prison.

Medrano, the magistrate judge, ordered Gamez held without bond. While in jail, Gamez apparently decided to start cooperating again.

“Undersigned counsel would show that the Government emailed counsel on November 27, 2022 as to bringing in Mr. Gamez for an additional debriefing,” according to a motion filed by his attorney, Daniel Longoria of Edinburg. “This can positively impact the sentencing of Mr. Gamez should the information lead to additional arrests.”

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