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.
VALLEY RESIDENTS INDICTED AS PART OF ‘OPERATION PAY CUT'
>> 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