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Man charged in ‘Operation Ice River’ pleads not guilty

A man accused of sacrificing animals to protect drug shipments pleaded not guilty Wednesday.

Hector Reyes, a man in his mid-30s from Rio Grande City, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to smuggling drugs and violating the federal Endangered Species Act.

Attorney Jose Maria “Chema” Garza Jr. of Rio Grande City, who represents Reyes, declined to comment.

Reyes is charged in “Operation Ice River,” which targeted a drug trafficking organization allegedly headed by Ignacio “Nacho” Garza, 51, of Rio Grande City.

The organization smuggled marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine through South Texas in 2020 and 2021.

Prosecutors brought charges against more than 25 people, including Garza’s wife, Melissa, who served as city secretary for the city of Rio Grande City; and Justice of the Peace Roel “Role” Valadez Jr.

Reyes recruited drivers to transport drugs, according to Patrick Zaruba, a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who testified during a hearing in May. Reyes also conducted quasi-religious ceremonies to “bless” the drug shipments.

The ceremonies involved candles, prayers and animal sacrifices.

“Before a narcotic load would be brought from, for example, from McAllen to San Antonio or Austin or other locations that we’ve learned from our investigation, they would do these rituals,” Zaruba said.

In one instance, according to an indictment against Reyes, he acquired a five-week-old female jaguar “intended for sacrifice.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confiscated the jaguar, which survived.

Reyes lived in Sharyland with his girlfriend, Liliana Resendez-Garza, who owned a tax preparation business.

After the government started making arrests, Reyes apparently fled the country, according to a motion filed by the government. Reyes remained on the run until April 30, when he was “found in Mexico, and deported to the United States through Tijuana.”

How the government located Reyes remains unclear. Reyes, however, was arrested after meeting with Resendez-Garza in Cancun.

The U.S. Marshals Service believes Resendez-Garza left the United States on April 19, said Pedro Ramirez, a special agent with the Criminal Investigation division of the IRS, who testified during a hearing in May.

The Marshals Service obtained a photo of Reyes and Resendez-Garza together at the Monterrey airport.

Reyes was detained on April 30, transported to Tijuana and deported to San Diego, where he appeared before a federal judge. Resendez-Garza, meanwhile, was arrested when she attempted to cross the Anzalduas International Bridge.

U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Scott Hacker ordered Reyes held without bond.

Reyes is charged with one count of conspiracy to possess marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine with intent to distribute; one count of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute; two counts of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute; and one count of violating the federal Endangered Species Act.

If convicted on the drug conspiracy charge, Reyes faces a minimum of 10 years in federal prison.

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