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Four Texas police officers arrested in cocaine smuggling probe

December 14, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • Martin Garza, police chief in Mission, Texas, announces that four law enforcement officers have been accused of helping drug smugglers ship cocaine into the United States from Mexico.
Martin Garza, police chief in Mission, Texas, announces that four law enforcement… (Joel Martinez / The Monitor…)

HOUSTON -- Four South Texas law enforcement officers, including the sons of a local police chief and sheriff, are accused of taking thousands of dollars in bribes to guard shipments of cocaine that were smuggled across the border.

Alexis Rigoberto Espinoza, 29, a police officer in Mission and the son of Hidalgo Police Chief Rodolfo "Rudy" Espinoza, appeared in federal court in McAllen on Thursday on two counts of cocaine possession with intent to distribute.

Fellow Mission Police Officer Jonathan Trevino, 29, whose father is Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino, was due in court Friday with two Hidalgo County sheriff’s deputies, Fabian Rodriguez, 28, and Gerardo Duran, 30.

The trio was arrested Thursday when federal prosecutors announced charges against them.

The case is being investigated by the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Texas Rangers and the Justice Department, according to a statement released by federal prosecutors.

The four were members of the "Panama Unit," a task force of officers from the two departments created three years ago that was supposed to fight drug trafficking. Instead, the complaint alleges the officers did the opposite.

On Thursday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Dorina Ramos set Espinoza's bail at $100,000 and placed him under house arrest with electronic monitoring if he makes bail.

Espinoza's father, the Hidalgo police chief, did not respond to phone calls Friday.

“I am in support of federal agencies as well as any local police units that are involved in the federal probe related to allegations of police misconduct within a special task force for the Mission Police Department,” he said in an earlier statement to KGBT in Harlingen. “It is unfortunate that a close family member is involved in these proceedings.”

Sheriff Trevino was out of the office Friday morning and did not return calls.

On Thursday, he told the McAllen Monitor that he was cooperating with the federal investigation and conducting an internal review.

“As sheriff of this county, I am obligated to do the right thing for my constituents. We are fully cooperating with the investigation, but as a father, I have a duty to my son and my family,” Trevino told the newspaper.

FBI agents went to Trevino’s office at 3 p.m. Wednesday to notify him that his son and two deputies were targets of an investigation, he said.

The federal investigation started after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials received a tip in August about the younger Espinoza and another member of the Panama Unit stealing drugs, according to the complaint.

Federal investigators responded by setting up a sting. A confidential source for the government told Duran in September that drug traffickers he worked with were looking for police willing to escort drug loads. On Oct. 19, Duran and another person allegedly helped smuggle 20 kilograms of cocaine 75 miles north from the border town of McAllen to the Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias. Duran was allegedly paid $4,000, prosecutors said.

The complaint said the officers earned thousands more for escorting four additional cocaine shipments in November that were tracked as part of the federal sting.

According to the complaint, when Espinoza was interviewed Wednesday, "he admitted he in fact escorted these loads of controlled substances and that he was paid to do so."

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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