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From left: Bernice Espinosa-Torres, Committee Clerk, House Committee on Energy Resources, and Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg.

Photograph By MARK MONTEMAYOR

Forged search warrants, which were used by the now-disgraced and defunct Panama Unit anti-narcotics law enforcement task force to threaten the innocent in Hidalgo County, would be more difficult to counterfeit under legislation pre-filed on Friday, January 9, by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg. The Panama Unit – created in 2010 and disbanded in January 2013 – was made up of a small group of area law enforcement officers who wound up breaking the law themselves by stealing from, or working with, drug dealers. Canales’ House Bill 644 seeks to close what he contends is a potential legal weakness in the search warrant process, which was prompted by the infamous Panama Unit law enforcement scandal. The House District 40 lawmaker’s HB 644 requires that the name of the judge or magistrate, who are authorized to issue search warrants, must be typewritten on that powerful legal document. “Currently, a search warrant requires a judge or magistrate to sign their name on it, but many people have signatures which are too difficult to make out,” explained Canales, who is a lawyer. The Panama Unit would just scribble names on search warrants, making it difficult to verify because no one could read the judge’s supposed signature. “If our bill would have been a law already, we might have caught the Panama Unit much sooner,” Canales said. The second-term lawmaker added: “The actions of the Panama Unit, whose members have been convicted of their crimes, painted a very unfair and negative image of our law enforcement professionals in Hidalgo County. But this tragic episode shed light on a weakness in the search warrant process, and by passing this measure, a very important improvement can be made in the name of justice and civil liberties.” The plan is being supported by the Texas Municipal Police Association, the largest law enforcement association in Texas, which represents more than 21,000 local, county and state law enforcement officers.

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Panama Unit law enforcement scandal sparks legislation by Rep. Canales to crack down on use of  counterfeit search warrants

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Legislativemedia@aol.com

Forged search warrants, which were used by the now-disgraced and defunct Panama Unit anti-narcotics law enforcement task force to threaten the innocent in Hidalgo County, would be more difficult to counterfeit under legislation pre-filed on Friday, January 9, by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg.

The plan is being supported by the Texas Municipal Police Association, the largest law enforcement association in Texas, which represents more than 21,000 local, county and state law enforcement officers.

The mission of Texas Municipal Police Association is to protect the rights and interests of Texas law enforcement officers by providing the best legal assistance in the country, effective lobbying at state and local levels, affordable training and exemplary member support.

The Panama Unit – created in 2010 but disbanded in January 2013 – was made up of a small group of area law enforcement officers who wound up breaking the law themselves by stealing from, or working with, drug dealers.

Canales’ House Bill 644 seeks to close what he contends is a potential legal weakness in the search warrant process, which was prompted by the infamous Panama Unit law enforcement scandal.

The House District 40 lawmaker’s HB 644 requires that the name of the judge or magistrate, who are authorized to issue search warrants, must be typewritten on that powerful legal document.

“Currently, a search warrant requires a judge or magistrate to sign their name on it, but many people have signatures which are too difficult to make out,” explained Canales, who is a lawyer.

In general, a search warrant is an order, called a writ, issued by a legal authority, typically a court, authorizing a police officer to search an individual or specified place for evidence that a crime has occurred or is occurring. To obtain a search warrant, an officer must show a judge or magistrate that there is probable cause – enough evidence for a reasonable person to believe a crime has or is being committed.

The Panama Unit would just scribble names on search warrants, he explained.

“They were difficult to verify because no one could read the judge’s supposed signature,” Canales noted. “If our bill would have been a law already, we might have caught the Panama Unit much sooner,” Canales contended.

That small group of corrupt sheriff’s deputies and city police officers in at least two cases forged or falsified the name of a judge or magistrate in order to create fake search warrants.

In one of those cases, which led to a lawsuit against Hidalgo County because the Panama Unit included sheriff’s deputies, the Monitor newspaper in McAllen reported: “Patrick T.L. Shumaker, 34, of Starkville, Miss., claims the Panama Unit’ searched his motel room using a fake warrant and demanded drugs. When Shumaker refused, the Panama Unit had him jailed — without charging Shumaker with any crime.”

The name of the group was reportedly created by its members, and was not an acronym (abbreviation of a phrase, entity, individual, or word).

“The actions of the Panama Unit, whose members have been convicted of their crimes, painted a very unfair and negative image of our law enforcement professionals in Hidalgo County,” said Canales. “But this tragic episode shed light on a weakness in the search warrant process, and by passing this measure, a very important improvement can be made in the name of justice and civil liberties.”

A federal investigation revealed that from 2010 through 2012, members of the Panama Unit used their positions to steal narcotics and currency from local drug traffickers. The stolen narcotics were then re-distributed to another narcotics dealer.

In addition, Panama Unit members attempted to assist narcotics traffickers by escorting loads of cocaine, which travelled through Hidalgo County in exchange for thousands of dollars.

Highlights of the federal government’s cases against members of the Panama Unit, which also wound up implicating, then convicting, then-Hidalgo County Sheriff Guadalupe “Lupe” Treviño, follow in the narratives written by Angela Dodge, Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the U.S. Attorney, Southern District of Texas.

The investigation leading to the charges was conducted by Homeland Security Investigations, Drug Enforcement Administration, Texas Department of Public Safety, Rangers Division and Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation. Assistant United States Attorneys James Sturgis and Aníbal Alaniz prosecuted the case.

MAY 29, 2013

SHERIFF’S SON AMONG FIVE WHO ENTER GUILTY PLEAS IN PANAMA UNIT CASE

Four members of the now defunct Panama Unit were convicted on Wednesday, May 29, 2013, United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson announced.

Jonathan Treviño, 29, Claudio Mata, 35, and Eric Alcantar, 29, all of McAllen, and Salvador Argüello, 34, of Edinburg, entered guilty pleas before United States District Judge Randy Crane.

Also pleading guilty that day was a fifth individual, Gerardo Mendoza-Durán, 30, of Pharr, who was a member of the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) but not part of the Panama Unit itself.

Treviño, Argüello, Mata and Alcantar entered guilty pleas to one count of conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine, while Mendoza-Durán pleaded guilty to attempting to aid and abet the possession with the intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine.

From 2010 to December of 2012, Treviño, Argüello, Mata and Alcantar utilized their positions as law enforcement officers to steal narcotics and currency. All four were members of the Panama Unit which was a drug task force operated by the HCSO and comprised of HCSO deputies and officers with the Mission Police Department.

The investigation revealed the defendants, upon learning the location of drugs and currency, would use their positions to gain entry into residences and vehicles in order to steal the contraband. Subsequently, the narcotics would be sold to other traffickers for a profit.

Additionally, in exchange for thousands of dollars, Treviño and Mendoza-Durán agreed to use their law enforcement positions to escort multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine as it traveled through Hidalgo County.

JUNE 28, 2013

ANOTHER PLEA IN PANAMA UNIT CASE

On Friday, June 28, 2013, another man was convicted in relation to the investigation involving the now defunct Panama Unit, United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson announced.

Fabian Rodríguez, 28, of Edinburg, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine and more than 500 grams of methamphetamine.

Rodríguez was a former Hidalgo County Sheriff’s deputy who was a member of the former Panama Unit.

During 2011 and 2012, Rodríguez utilized his position as a law enforcement officer to traffic narcotics. Rodríguez admitted he used his law enforcement authority to steal narcotics which he and the others sold to local drug dealers.

APRIL 14, 2014

FORMER HIDALGO COUNTY SHERIFF GUADALUPE “LUPE” TREVIÑO PLEADS GUILTY

Guadalupe Treviño, aka Lupe Treviño, 64, of McAllen, on Monday, April 14, 2014, entered a guilty plea a criminal information charging him with conspiracy to commit money laundering, announced United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson.

Treviño was the former sheriff of Hidalgo County.

The investigation revealed that during 2011 and 2012, Treviño received cash contributions for his election campaign from alleged drug trafficker, Tomás “El Gallo” Gonzalez.

On Monday, April 14, 2014, Treviño admitted he accepted the money, knowing it was from illegal activities. He admitted he accepted the monies directly and through others as donations to assist with his 2012 election campaign. Some of the monies received were subsequently deposited into bank accounts Trevino controlled and were co-mingled with other funds.

During and after the transactions, Treviño and others acted to disguise and conceal the nature, location, source, ownership and control of the currency by filing false Candidate/Officeholder Campaign Finance Reports and producing other documents.

U.S. District Judge Micaela Álvarez accepted the plea.

On Friday, April 14, 2014, Trevino’s former chief of staff and campaign treasurer, María Patricia Medina, pleaded guilty to  misprision of a felony, admitting she assisted Treviño in the concealment of the donations by falsifying election records.

JULY 17, 2014

FORMER SHERIFF TREVIÑO SENTENCED TO 60 MONTHS IN PRISON, FINED $60,000

On Thursday, July 17, 2014, former Hidalgo County sheriff was sentenced to federal prison following his conviction of conspiracy to commit money laundering, announced U.S. Attorney Kenneth Madison.

“No one is above the law,” said Magidson. “Those entrusted with protecting the public safety have a specific duty to guard against corruption. When they become crooked themselves, the interests of the people demand full accounting for their illegal activities.”

Calling this day a “sad” one for Hidalgo County, U.S. District Judge Micaela Álvarez upwardly departed from the recommended guidelines and handed Treviño a 60-month term of imprisonment. He was also ordered to pay a $60,000 fine and will serve a two-year-term of supervised release following completion of the prison sentence.

“The sentencing of the former Hidalgo County sheriff is the culmination of a long-term investigation into corruption and the violation of public trust,” said Special Agent in Charge Janice Ayala of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in San Antonio. “While the local community mourns this violation, they’re now able to put this chapter behind them.”

José A. Padilla, of Weslaco, a former deputy commander with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office who served under the leadership of Treviño pleaded guilty to receiving a bribe, in a separate, but related case.

Nine others, including drug trafficker Tomás Reyes González aka “El Gallo,” were convicted in relation to the underlying narcotics/money laundering conspiracy.

The investigation revealed that from 2007 to 2013, Reyes González headed a drug trafficking organization responsible for the distribution of thousands of kilograms of marijuana and hundreds of kilograms of cocaine. The narcotics were transported from the Rio Grande Valley to Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. Reyes González used the resulting drug proceeds to purchase properties.

Treviño admitted he received cash contributions for his election campaign through Padilla from Reyes González, acknowledging he accepted the money knowing it was from illegal activities. At the time of his guilty plea, Padilla also admitted he received cash from Reyes González in exchange for providing information to him related to ongoing law enforcement activities.

Treviño admitted he accepted the monies directly and through others as donations to assist with his 2012 election campaign. Some of the monies received were subsequently deposited into bank accounts Treviño controlled and were co-mingled with other funds.

During and after the transactions, Treviño and others acted to disguise and conceal the nature, location, source, ownership and control of the currency by filing false Candidate/Officeholder Campaign Finance Reports and producing other documents.

Treviño’s former chief of staff and campaign treasurer, María Patricia Medina, pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony, admitting she assisted Treviño in the concealment of the donations by falsifying election records.

NOVEMBER 13, 2014

NINE WHO HAD ROLES IN PANAMA UNIT DRUG TRAFFICKING SENTENCED TO PRISON

A total of nine people on Thursday, November 13, 2014, were ordered to federal prison for their roles in relation to a drug trafficking organization responsible for the distribution of thousands of kilograms of marijuana and hundreds of kilograms of cocaine, announced U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson.

U.S. District Judge Randy Crane sentenced the leader of that organization, Tomás Reyes González aka “El Gallo,” 37, to a total of 120 months in federal prison.

Reyes González was convicted of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute narcotics along with Eloy González, 40, Hector Rodríguez Sr., 61, Federico Rodríguez, 27, Jamail Thomas, 34, and William Champion González, 22, all of Weslaco.

Reyes González also pleaded to one count of conspiring to launder money.

Reyes González, Rodríguez Sr., Rodríguez, Thomas, and Champion González will serve respective sentences of 120, 57, 57, 70, and 40 months.

Also sentenced on November 13 was José A. Padilla, 54, of Weslaco, a former deputy commander with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office who served under the leadership of former sheriff Treviño.

Padilla pleaded guilty to receiving a bribe and received a sentence of 38 months in prison.

The 12th and final defendant charged in this case, Omar Fidencio Rojas, 33, of Weslaco, was convicted after a four-day jury trial in July 2014 of three counts of possession with intent to distribute marijuana and seven counts of money laundering. He was sentenced to 180 months for narcotics trafficking and 120 months for money laundering to run concurrently. He was also required to pay a $300,000 fine.

The investigation revealed that from 2007 to 2013, Reyes González headed a drug trafficking organization responsible for the distribution of thousands of kilograms of marijuana and hundreds of kilograms of cocaine. The narcotics were transported from the Rio Grande Valley to Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. Reyes González used the resulting drug proceeds to purchase properties.

At the time of his guilty plea, Padilla admitted he received cash from Reyes González in exchange for providing information to him related to ongoing law enforcement activities.

In a separate case, the former sheriff Treviño, 65, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering. He admitted he received cash contributions for his election campaign through Padilla from Reyes González, acknowledging he accepted the money knowing it was from illegal activities.

He admitted he accepted the monies directly and through others as donations to assist with his 2012 election campaign. Some of the monies received were subsequently deposited into bank accounts Treviño controlled and were co-mingled with other funds.

During and after the transactions, Treviño and others acted to disguise and conceal the nature, location, source, ownership and control of the currency by filing false Candidate/Officeholder Campaign Finance Reports and producing other documents.

Treviño was sentenced July 17, 2014, to 60 months in prison by U.S. District Judge Micaela Álvarez.

Treviño’s former chief of staff and campaign treasurer, María Patricia Medina, 40, pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony in yet another case, admitting she assisted Trevino in the concealment of the donations by falsifying election records.

She was sentenced in late July to 11 months by Chief U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa.

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