Rio Grande City man who failed to show up for sentencing in major drug case pleads guilty
A man who failed to show up for sentencing in a major Starr County drug case struck a deal with prosecutors on Monday.
Ricardo Hinojosa, 51, of Rio Grande City — who confessed to smuggling thousands of pounds of marijuana through Starr County — didn’t show up for sentencing in October 2020.
Hinojosa apparently slipped across the border and spent more than two years in Mexico. In March, however, Border Patrol arrested him near Roma.
“Why he came back is: His daughter was getting married,” said Dina Garcia-Peña, a journalist from Starr County who knows Hinojosa. “He never told me that, but his daughter was getting married that weekend.”
Attorney Randall Barrera of Corpus Christi, who represents Hinojosa, declined to comment on why his client didn’t show up for sentencing or why he came back.
Hinojosa returned to court Monday, when he pleaded guilty to failure to appear. The charge, a federal felony, is punishable by a maximum of 10 years in prison.
In exchange, prosecutors agreed to drop another drug charge against Hinojosa.
The case against Hinojosa is part of a federal investigation that revealed links between the Gulf Cartel, the Texas Chicano Brotherhood and Starr County drug smugglers.
Prosecutors also discovered two Rio Grande City police detectives, Ramon “Ramey” De la Cruz Jr. and Noel Peña, had protected drug shipments.
The investigation started in January 2013, when a sheriff’s deputy stopped an old Ford F-350 towing a horse trailer on U.S. 59 in Victoria County.
Along with two horses, the trailer contained about 600 pounds of marijuana. The driver said he picked up the marijuana from a ranch in Starr County owned by the Beltran family.
From the ranch, members of the Beltran family managed a drug trafficking organization that smuggled marijuana to buyers in Dallas, Houston and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Homeland Security Investigations, a division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, estimated the Beltran family transported 60,000 pounds of marijuana from 2007 to 2013.
The family also forged connections with the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas and the Texas Chicano Brotherhood.
Prosecutors indicted more than 30 people, including Hinojosa, who confessed to supplying the Beltran family with marijuana.
“Mr. Hinojosa would get his marijuana from certain members of the Gulf Cartel — some of them have already been killed,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Hubert Booth said in 2016, when Hinojosa pleaded guilty, according to a transcript of the hearing. “That was his connection or his source for the marijuana that he then paid the Beltrans to transport.”
Witnesses told prosecutors they would pick up bundles of marijuana at the Mesquite Grill & Country Store, a restaurant owned by Hinojosa’s wife.
“And then take it to the Beltrans’ ranch where it would be cut up and pressed,” Booth said. “And made in special formations so that it could fit in different compartments.”
Hinojosa pleaded guilty in September 2016. While he awaited sentencing, Hinojosa kept smuggling marijuana.
Prosecutors secured a second indictment against Hinojosa, which accused him of participating in a conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 2,200 pounds of marijuana from October 2018 to January 2019.
The indictment was filed less than a month before Hinojosa was scheduled for sentencing. He decided not to show up.
“And he fully understands the consequence,” Barrera told the judge, according to a transcript of the hearing.
Sentencing is scheduled for August.