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Former Starr County attorney pleads not guilty to bribery, extortion and theft charges

When he appeared in federal court on Monday, former Starr County Attorney Victor Canales Jr. looked at his family and fought back tears.

Canales had spent Easter at the East Hidalgo Detention Center in La Villa. After swapping his orange jail uniform for street clothes, Canales appeared in court Monday for arraignment on bribery, extortion and theft charges.

“Not guilty,” Canales said, while his wife and daughters watched from the gallery.

Victor Canales Jr., 49, of Rio Grande City represented Starr County from 2005 to 2022.

Canales advised the Starr County Commissioners Court, handled litigation and prosecuted misdemeanor cases.

Under his administration, the County Attorney’s Office worked with other Starr County law enforcement officials to create the Special Crimes Unit, which tackled public corruption, shut down eight-liner establishments and investigated cold cases.

Victor Canales Jr. (Photo courtesy of Starr County.)

Canales also represented the Rio Grande City Grulla Independent School District and the El Tanque Water Supply Corp., among other clients.

In April 2022, however, Canales abruptly resigned without explaining why. He returned to private practice but kept a low profile.

The case against Canales is linked to a federal drug trafficking investigation dubbed “Operation Ice River,” which targeted Ignacio “Nacho” Garza, 51, of Rio Grande City.

Along with Garza, prosecutors also charged his wife, Melissa, who served as the city secretary for Rio Grande City; Starr County Justice of the Peace Roel “Role” Valadez Jr. and more than 20 other people.

A federal grand jury indicted Canales on April 5, 2023 — nearly a year after he resigned.

The indictment charged Canales with one count of violating the federal Travel Act, four counts of theft and four counts of extortion.

Canales allegedly embezzled property worth at least $5,000 from the County Attorney’s Office every year from 2018 to 2021.

“Victor Canales would convert funds destined for the Starr County’s Attorney’s Office for fines and fees, by requesting payment in cash or money orders, and then depositing the cash or money orders into his personal accounts,” according to the indictment.

The indictment also charged Canales with four counts of extortion.

Canales improperly obtained property “under color of official right” on four occasions in 2021, according to the indictment. Prosecutors typically use the extortion charge when a public servant takes an official act in exchange for money.

Each incident apparently involved a different person or entity. Prosecutors identified them with initials.

The first incident, which took place on July 6, 2021, involved “COA.” The second incident, which took place on Sept. 2, 2021, involved “FLV.” The third incident, which took place from Sept. 3 to Sept. 7, 2021, involved “JVO.” And the fourth incident, which took place on Oct. 4, 2021, involved “LG.”

The indictment doesn’t reveal what, exactly, Canales allegedly did or what he received in return.

When he appeared in court on Monday morning, U.S. Magistrate Judge Nadia S. Medrano set bond at $100,000 with no cash deposit required.

If convicted on the most serious charge against him, extortion, Canales faces a maximum of 20 years in federal prison.

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