October 29, 2008

Drug bust charges 41 people, nabs $22 million

McALLEN, Texas (AP) — Federal authorities said Wednesday that 41 people had been indicted for their role in a drug trafficking and money laundering operation stretching from Mexico and South Texas to Georgia.

The two-year investigation dubbed "Operation Pay Cut" yielded $22 million in drug proceeds, 223 kilograms of cocaine and more than 16,000 pounds of marijuana, authorities said.

Three indictments naming the participants were unsealed in federal court in Atlanta on Tuesday, but many of those arrested were in the Rio Grande Valley.

"This is another case of a major cartel-related Mexican organization that processed huge amounts of illegal drugs and money through metro Atlanta to many other parts of the country," U.S. Attorney David Nahmias said in a statement.

Jerry Robinette, special agent in charge for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in San Antonio, said the indictment of so many would seriously disrupt operations.

FIND MORE STORIES IN: Atlanta | Georgia | Mexico | San Antonio | Customs Enforcement | Mercedes | Drug Enforcement Administration | Immigration | South Texas | Rio Grande Valley | Mission | Gulf Cartel
"There's a level of frustration that's increasing," Robinette said. He would not name the cartel those indicted were associated with, but said that an organization of this size with such complex operations indicate a connection to one of the major Mexican cartels. The most prevalent in the Rio Grande Valley is the Gulf Cartel.

One of the major cash seizures came in January 2007, when then-Hidalgo County sheriff's Deputy Emmanuel Sanchez was pulled over in Georgia with a pickup full of heavy equipment. Sanchez, of Mission, allegedly showed his badge hoping to end the stop, but officers found $950,000 in cash hidden in the truck. Sanchez, 48, is no longer a deputy.

Sanchez faces three charges related to money laundering and drug possession with intent to distribute. It was not immediately clear Wednesday if Sanchez had an attorney, and a phone number for him could not immediately be found.

Six months later, Georgia authorities found $13.7 million hidden in a large truck hauling livestock. A father and son from Mercedes, Texas, were driving.

Federal authorities also seized numerous properties and bank accounts from those believed to have benefited from drug proceeds. Two auto sales and auto parts businesses in Texas allegedly laundered much of the drug money.

Numerous federal and local law enforcement agencies including ICE, the IRS, FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration participated in the investigation.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Residents indicted in Georgia money laundering case

By Jeremy Roebuck, The Monitor

A former Hidalgo County sheriff's deputy is among several Rio Grande Valley residents and four Brownsville residents named in a series of federal money laundering and drug trafficking indictments unsealed in Atlanta this week.

Emmanuel Sanchez, 48, of Mission, smuggled cash between the Valley and Atlanta for a multi-state criminal organization working with Mexico's Gulf Cartel, prosecutors said in a statement issued Wednesday.

A federal grand jury in Georgia has indicted 40 other men and women from cities such as Brownsville, Palmview and Mercedes as well as Atlanta and its suburbs for their alleged involvement with the group.

The charges stem from a two-year investigation dubbed "Operation Pay Cut," aimed at disrupting the flow of money fueling the organization's illicit activities.

"Drug trafficking is all about the money," U.S. Internal Revenue Service agent Reginael D. McDaniel said in a statement. "Seizing the dirty cash and the assets of these illegal organizations hits criminals where it hurts and deprives them of their profits."

In all, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Internal Revenue Service and other federal and local agencies involved in the investigation seized more than $22 million, 6,000 pounds of marijuana and 490 pounds of cocaine.

But the criminal organization's drug proceeds are believed to extend well beyond that, according to the indictments. Their value exposes what Jerry Robinette, head of ICE's San Antonio office, describes as a growing illegal trafficking network between Georgia and South Texas.

Atlanta, in particular, has emerged over the last several years as a leading hub city for drug traffickers hoping to move narcotics to the Eastern Seaboard, he said.

Valley smuggling organizations bring contraband in from Mexico, ship it to Georgia and distribute it north. Once drugs are sold, runners ship the proceeds back south.

"The same factors that make a city like Atlanta attractive for legitimate business - such as an expansive highway system and proximity to other locations - also makes it an attractive place for drug smuggling and money laundering," Robinette said.

Georgia State Police believe the nearly $1 million they found hidden in the door of former Hidalgo County deputy Sanchez's Ford F-350 dually during a traffic stop in January 2007 came from drug transactions between the two regions.

After officers stopped Sanchez on an interstate outside of Atlanta, he reportedly displayed his badge in an attempt to avert further investigation. But once they had found the money, Sanchez said he found it behind the dumpster of a nearby Hooter's.

Officers seized the cash but let Sanchez go. He resigned his position with the sheriff's office soon after.

The former deputy now faces three counts of conspiracy and money laundering in the indictments unsealed Tuesday. It was not clear whether he had retained an attorney.

In a separate incident, officers found $13 million in alleged drug proceeds hidden in a livestock trailer driven by a Mercedes father and son duo.

Jesus Flores Sr. and his son Jesus Flores Jr. reportedly hid their cash in a compartment underneath live cows and concealed with a complex pulley system, investigators said.

They also face conspiracy and money laundering counts.

In addition to cash seizures made during the investigation, prosecutors initiated criminal forfeiture proceedings against several vehicles, homes, bank accounts and businesses believed to have been paid for with drug money, including an Hidalgo car dealership and auto parts stores in Brownsville and Donna.

Investigators believe Sur Plaza Auto Sales and the two GLG Collision Auto Parts locations were incorporated solely to launder money for the drug trafficking organization. Phone calls to all three businesses went unreturned Wednesday.

Gustavo Lopez, the 35-year-old owner of the auto parts business, faces indictment in the investigation. It remains unclear whether anyone involved in the Hidalgo car dealership has been charged.


>> Gracie Priscilla Medina, 25, of Brownsville

>> Daniel Marillo, 37, of Brownsville

>> Dimas "El Guerro" Gonzalez, of Reynosa

>> Gustavo "El Licendiado" Lopez, 35, of Palmview

>> Luis Miguel, 31, of McAllen

>> Marco Antonio "El Tigre" Gamboa, 29, of Pharr

>> Maria Cantu, 22, of Hidalgo

>> Juan Manuel "Meme" Quesada, 40, of Brownsville

>> Emmanuel "Sheriff" Sanchez, 48, of Mission

>> Jesus Flores Sr., 55, of Mercedes

>> Jesus Flores Jr., 28, of Mercedes

>> Jack Padilla, 31, of Brownsville

October 28, 2008

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October 20, 2008

Indicted former Starr County sheriff is refused bail

San Antonio Express-news

BROWNSVILLE — Reymundo Guerra's resignation as Starr County sheriff didn't convince a federal magistrate judge to set bail for the former lawman, who is accused of using his position to assist high-ranking members of a drug cartel.

Defense attorney Philip Hilder said Guerra would appeal Monday's bail denial by U.S. Magistrate Judge Dorina Ramos. Unless overturned by a district court, Ramos' decision means Guerra will remain behind bars pending trial in early December.

Guerra, who had been sheriff for the past decade, submitted his resignation over the weekend after Ramos expressed concern about his return to the office he allegedly abused.

The Starr County Commissioners Court approved the resignation during an emergency meeting Monday morning.

Guerra has been in federal custody since being arrested at his Rio Grande City office last Tuesday.

He is one of 15 defendants in a 19-count federal indictment alleging conspiracy to move cocaine and marijuana from Mexico into the interior United States.

He has pleaded not guilty to three charges including conspiracy, accessory after the fact, and using a telephone to further a drug conspiracy. He faces 10 years to life in prison, plus a $4 million fine on the conspiracy charge alone.

An FBI agent testified during a detention hearing Friday that Guerra asked a sheriff's department investigator to reveal intelligence to a man Guerra said had ties to Mexican law enforcement.

The man, 31-year-old Jose Carlos Hinojosa, was named along with Guerra and 13 others in the indictment and is believed to be a leader in the Gulf Cartel.

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said the sheriff's office would for now be under the command of Chief Deputy Rene Fuentes, who is next in the chain of command.

Since Guerra was running unopposed in the Nov. 4 election, he effectively starts a new term as sheriff in January, Vera said.

"At that time, the topic will come up again," Vera said.

If convicted, Guerra will join a list of other border law enforcement officials, including predecessor Eugenio "Gene" Falcon, who have fallen amid alleged drug crimes or corruption.

October 14, 2008

Starr County Sheriff indicted on drug charges

The Monitor
McALLEN -- A federal grand jury indicted Starr County Sheriff Rey Guerra on drug charges, officials announced today.

Guerra is named as a defendant in a 19-count indictment handed down Wednesday. FBI agents arrested Guerra at his office in Rio Grande City. He is expected to appear later today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dorina Ramos in McAllen.

Prosecutors will seek to keep Guerra behind bars pending a hearing on its request to detain him without bond before his trial.

Guerra, also known as Tio, is accused along with several others - many with previous arrests and charges - of participating in a conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute both cocaine and marijuana.

The charge relates to an offense allegedly committed by three co-conspirators - Jose De Jesus Hernandez; Hernandez's wife, Mayra Trevino Flores; and Jose Carlos Hinojosa - involving possession with intent to distribute approximately 692 pounds of marijuana and more than two pounds of cocaine found at a residence owned by Flores, as alleged in count four of the indictment.

Guerra allegedly assisted Hernandez by helping produce fraudulent lease documents in an effort to hinder and prevent the apprehension of Hernandez, according to the indictment.

Hernandez, 29, is a resident alien from Mexico who resides in Houston. Flores, 25, also lives in Houston; and Jose Carlos Hinojosa, aka Sobrino, 31, is a resident alien from Mexico who lives in Roma. All three have all been previously arrested and are pending trial. Hernandez, Flores and Hinojosa are among those also named with Guerra in count one of the indictment.

Guerra is also charged in count 10 with facilitating the drug trafficking conspiracy via telephone on Oct. 13, 2007.

Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances, as alleged in count one of the indictment, carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years and a maximum of life imprisonment upon conviction, as well as $4 million fine.

If Guerra is convicted of being an accessory after the fact, he faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $2 million fine.A conviction for using a telephone to further a drug conspiracy carries a maximum four-year prison term and a $250,000 fine.

In addition to Guerra and the other three defendants named above, the following 11 individuals also named in the second superceding indictment have been arrested and are pending trial:

Raymundo Edgar Gonzalez, 37, of Miguel Aleman, Tamps., Mexico
Sergio Ivan Olivarez-Flores, a Mexican citizen, 24, of Miguel Aleman, Tamps, Mexico
Saul Mendez Jr., 31, of Rio Grande City
Mario Alberto Mascorro, 33, of McAllen
Jesus Fabiel Mendoza, 29, of Richmond, Texas
Jaime Herrera, 33, of Edinburg
San Juanita M. Garcia, 55, of Garciasville
Tarsila Villarreal Vidal, 37, of Salineno
Yanira Barrera, 33, of Houston
Jorge Alberto Ramos, 29 of Roma

FBI special agents, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division, officers of the Houston Police Department and the Hidalgo County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force participated in the investigation that led to the charges.

"We shall continue to address public corruption, a major priority in the Southern District of Texas," United States Attorney Don DeGabrielle said in a statement.

October 1, 2008

Lawmaker: In-state college tuition for illegal immigrants violates federal law

By PATRICK McGEEpmcgee@star-telegram.com

A former Arlington City Council member turned anti-illegal immigrant crusader in the Texas House is trying to scrap Texas’ college tuition benefits for illegal immigrants.

State Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, has asked for a Texas attorney general’s opinion on the legality of a Texas law that allows illegal immigrants to receive state financial aid and in-state tuition.

Berman asked for the opinion after a California appellate court ruled Sept. 16 that such college benefits for illegal immigrants in California conflict with federal law.

"If it’s in violation in California, I would assume that we are also in violation here in Texas," Berman said. "I’m hoping to make people realize that we are a nation of laws. We have to obey our laws, and if we’re in violation of federal laws then we have to correct it."

Texas became the first state to offer such college benefits to illegal immigrants in 2001, and at least eight states have followed suit. Efforts in Congress to make federal financial aid available to illegal immigrants have stalled.

Berman served on the Arlington City Council from 1979 to 1985. In the 2007 legislative session he fought for anti-illegal immigration bills that ultimately died under opposition from business interests and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

Berman said he will try again in January by introducing bills that, among other things, would tax money transfers to Mexico and challenge the citizenship of children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrant parents.

Should the Texas State Legislature pass immigration enforcement laws in 2009?