By Josh Eells
How an elite anti-narcotics task force became the most brazen drug thieves on the Texas border
The temperature was nearing triple digits when Jonathan Treviño strapped on his bulletproof vest, slipped his .40-caliber Glock into his ankle holster and got ready to go to work. It was Thursday, July 26th, 2012, one of those summers in South Texas when the hot air settles on the Rio Grande Valley like a blanket. The Gulf breeze was already sticky as Treviño climbed into his unmarked Chevy Tahoe and started it up.
Treviño was a police officer in Mission, a bustling city of 80,000 on the Texas-Mexico border. Part of a flourishing bilingual metropolitan region with five international bridges, Mission also sits firmly in on e of the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s 28 HIDTAs, or High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas – smuggling hot spots where the federal government spends an extra $240 million a year battling narcotics. Nearly 800,000 pounds of marijuana and several tons of cocaine are seized there every year, on their way to street corners and living rooms all over the country – and that’s not counting the stuff that does get through. As the leader of an elite street-level narcotics squad, Treviño was in the middle of the action.
At 28, Treviño was young to be heading up his own narcotics unit. Five feet 10 and built like a second baseman, he had a boyish goatee, a baby face and a habit of rubbing his head when he got confused. But he had good street connections and a solid pedigree, plus a knack for sniffing out drugs. His supervisor joked that they didn’t even need a K-9 – they had Treviño.
He was driving to work when the call came in. An inmate in the county jail had tipped two of his guys to a suspected cocaine stash two towns over, in a little peach-colored house with cactuses in the yard and a vacant lot next door. Treviño turned the truck around and went to meet his deputies, plainclothes cops in T-shirts and wraparound shades, all SWAT-trained and hand-picked by Treviño himself. They were part of a special task force that drew from the county sheriff’s office and Mission PD, meaning they had jurisdiction to operate in the city and county alike. Their official name was an interagency jumble (Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office – Mission Police Department Local Level Drug Unit) – but everyone called them the Panama Unit.
When they got to the house, no one was home, so Treviño parked nearby and waited. In his sneakers and khakis, with his silver badge tucked into his shirt, the only indication that he was a cop was his olive-green tactical bulletproof vest, which said police on the front in big block letters. Treviño loved that vest: He’d paid $120 for it at a military-supply store called Green Beret. He could have gotten a police-issue vest for free, but police-issue vests didn’t look as cool. “I’d rather spend $120 to at least look halfway decent,” he later said.
till, even without the vest, he wasn’t exactly undercover. He also wore a yellow T-shirt – the jersey from the Panama Unit’s softball team – with the number 7 and Treviño on the back, and on the front: TEAM JUSTICE.
Around 2 p.m., a black Buick eased into the driveway, and two deputies came whipping up behind in a maroon SUV and leapt out, weapons drawn. “Hands up, motherfuckers!” one shouted. Treviño followed in his Tahoe, the hidden red-and-blue grille lights flashing.
The owner of the house was José Perez, a 62-year-old retired auto mechanic. “Where’s the coke?” Treviño demanded. Perez said he had no idea what he was talking about. As one deputy stood watch over Perez and his wife, Treviño retrieved three semiautomatics and took the other deputies inside to toss the house.
Accounts differ about what they found, but in Treviño’s telling, one officer noticed something funny about the bedroom floor and uncovered a secret compartment containing a scale and seven baggies of cocaine. (Perez denies this, though federal investigators corroborated it.) Treviño sat Perez on the bed. “You’re going to jail,” he said, “unless you tell me where some drugs are.”
This is standard practice in narcotics work – flipping a small-timer to get a bigger fish. Perez called a guy he knew and said he needed two “workers” – slang for kilograms of cocaine. They set up a 4 p.m. meeting outside Matt’s Cash & Carry, a hardware store near the freeway, and Treviño let Perez go.
When the alleged dealer showed up, the Panama Unit arrested him – not for the two kilos, but for the small baggies they’d allegedly found at Perez’s house. The kilos they kept and later sold to a connection for around $15,000 each. They also pocketed $25,000 of the suspect’s cash, according to the FBI. All in all, $55,000 – not bad for an afternoon’s work.
For the past year, Treviño and the Panama Unit had been operating one of the most efficient drug-robbery rings in Texas, taking money from some dealers and traffickers while using their police weapons and police cars to rob others. “These guys were outlaws,” one former Hidalgo County deputy says. Adds another, “They were running around like that movie Training Day.” They started off stealing ounces of weed and eventually stole so much they attracted the attention of the FBI, the DEA, Homeland Security and the Texas Rangers, not to mention at least one revenge-seeking gang.
The Panama Unit’s crimes were a black eye on border law enforcement – especially the majority of officers who are honest cops. The case also raised questions about who is being enlisted and what resources are being devoted to fighting the nation’s drug war. Until it was exposed, the unit was seen as an example of what local drug enforcement was doing right. Most incredibly, its crimes were all happening on the watch of one of the most powerful lawmen in Texas and one of the U.S. government’s most trusted border advisers: the popular Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño, a.k.a. Jonathan’s father.
When Mexican drug lords first descended on the Rio Grande Valley 25 years ago, they found a land of opportunity: a rugged corner of Texas marked by sugar-cane fields and chaparral, separated from Mexico by just a thin blue line on a map. The Mexicans were bit players at the time, with the cocaine trade dominated by the Colombians, but before long, one of Mexico’s most powerful drug syndicates, the Gulf Cartel, had locked down the South Texas trade and was moving 40 tons of cocaine across the border each year, overseen by its boss, Juan García Ábrego, who maintained a home in Hidalgo County.
That’s about the time Lupe Treviño arrived, too. Lupe had been a cop in Austin, a decorated 14-year veteran who’d done stints in homicide, vice, narcotics and internal affairs. He probably could have made captain if he wanted, but he’d grown up in the valley, and he wanted his sons to grow up there, too. In 1988, Lupe took a job as an investigator for the Hidalgo County DA, and he and his wife, Mary, an elementary-school teacher, bought a nice house on a cul-de-sac where their sons could play.
There were three boys in all: Carlos, the eldest; Chris, in the middle; and Jonathan, the baby. They used to sit at their dad’s feet while he got dressed for raids, awed by all his gear. Sometimes they got to tag along, watching from the back seat while Lupe stormed a house. Afterward, they’d gather on the couch and watch videotapes of the busts, like family movies. Chris ended up going into local government, and Carlos works in media, but all Jonathan ever wanted to be was a cop. “And not just a cop,” he says. “But narcotics.”
After graduating high school in 2002, Jonathan enrolled at a community college and majored in criminal justice, but he flunked half of his classes and dropped out after two years. But then in 2004, his dad – who by that time was the head of the county HIDTA task force, one of the region’s top drug cops – was backed by some local power brokers in a run for sheriff. After a hard-fought primary in which he vastly outspent his opponent, Lupe was elected Hidalgo County sheriff. Suddenly, Jonathan’s career path looked a whole lot clearer.
A few months after his dad took office, Jonathan started at the sheriff’s academy. One classmate remembers him partying his way through, showing up Monday mornings looking rumpled and hungover. “He was an arrogant son of a bitch,” says one instructor. “I couldn’t stand him.” After graduation, he applied for a job at Mission PD, placing near the bottom quartile on his civil-service exam. But his references were excellent – a county commissioner, a sheriff’s captain – and in August 2006, Jonathan became a patrolman.
He rose through the ranks quickly, making investigator in 2007 and major crimes in 2008. Despite his relative inexperience, when supervisors corrected him, he bristled. “I learned from the best,” he used to say. “My dad taught me everything.”
The Panama Unit was the sheriff’s idea. It was a way to get his son working more or less under him without violating state nepotism laws. The sheriff wanted Jonathan to follow in his footsteps, to be one of the top cops in the state, and leading a narcotics unit was an important step. “Lupe was grooming him,” says one federal agent. “The unit was created to help Jonathan climb the ladder.”
Jonathan wanted to name it the Spider or Scorpion Unit (“I think because he wanted to sting people,” a supervisor says), but his chief demurred. They settled on Panama, after a strain of weed called Panama Red. Jonathan filled his team with his friends – like Claudio Mata, a pal from the sheriff’s academy, and Eric Alcantar, a Little League teammate he’d known since they were eight. Officially they had a supervisor for day-to-day issues, but an internal memo made it clear: “The [unit] will directly answer to the sheriff.”
Around 2010, the Panama Unit set up shop at an old community center across the street from a Whataburger, where they could work sensitive drug cases in secret. “When they first started, they really meant well,” recalls one supervisor. “High-spirited, a lot of energy – we said, ‘Wow, they’re gonna be really good.’ ” With the Gulf Cartel at its peak, drugs were pouring into Hidalgo County, and the Panama Unit, says Jonathan, was logging around 40 busts a month. “We were kicking ass,” he says. “We were tearing the city apart. We were doing stuff legit and doing damn good work.”
They busted several smugglers in high-speed pursuits, sometimes turning up bundles still wet from the river. An episode of the National Geographic show Border Wars cast members of the unit as heroes, executing a raid on a stash house and finding two tons of pot. They also took advantage of generous asset-forfeiture laws to seize some sweet rides for the department: Hummers, Mercedes-Benzes and, for Jonathan, a gray GMC Z71 pickup with monster tires. “We were seizing three or four vehicles a month,” he says. “All the investigators were happy because they had these nice new cars.”
The crew hung out together in their off hours, having poker night or a barbecue at the sheriff’s house. (Lupe made great cabrito.) Jonathan also loved hunting – he and his dad never missed a deer season – and sometimes he’d take the guys to the family’s hunting lease. On the weekends, they’d hit the bars – maybe Hillbilly’s, with its mechanical bull and live country music, Jonathan’s favorite. Sometimes they’d smoke a little pot, but nothing more, at least not for Jonathan. (The Panama Unit evolved over time, and not every officer was dirty. Of the six core members of the crew, two declined to be interviewed and three others did not respond to requests.)
In hindsight, there were some warning signs. On evaluations, Jonathan got high marks for motivation but lower ones for record-keeping and following procedure. Then there was the time his sergeant found out he was rooming with a guy who’d been arrested on a drug charge. The sergeant told a superior, and word got back to the sheriff. A few hours later, Jonathan was on the phone. “Thanks a lot, Sarge,” he said. “Now I gotta move back home with my dad.”
So Jonathan settled back in with his parents. He didn’t pay rent, didn’t pay for his meals, and his mom did all his laundry. In the evenings, she’d make dinner – like his favorite, calabaza con pollo – and Jonathan and his dad would sit and talk shop.
Naturally, the sheriff worried about his son. “I did that type of work for a lot of years,” he later testified. “There is a lot of danger assigned to it. . . . I used to call him and ask, ‘How are you all doing? Are you OK? Are there any problems?’ And he’d say, ‘We’re working on this big thing,’ or he’d call and say, ‘Hey, we just busted this big thing.’ ”
The sheriff warned Jonathan to slow down, take it easy. “The drugs are never going to end,” he would say. “The drugs will always be there.” But he was also proud of his son, and he bragged about him to anyone who’d listen. “My son is the hardest-working narcotics investigator in Hidalgo County,” he’d say. Even years later, sitting in a federal prison, Jonathan recalls with pride something the sheriff once told him: “I was good at narcotics. But you’re better.”
Corruption runs deep in the Rio Grande Valley – one natural result of Mexico’s $10 billion-a-year cartel industry and America’s $30 billion-a-year drug war. Twenty years ago, a Hidalgo County sheriff was convicted of racketeering and money laundering, and since then other border-county sheriffs have been brought down every three or four years. “Narcotics investigation is a very slimy world,” Sheriff Treviño told local newspaper The Monitor in 2008.
But Lupe was different. A former Texas Narcotics Officers Association supervisor of the year, he fired or forced out nine deputies in his first two years and won an award from the FBI for battling public corruption. Even Washington, D.C., took notice, as Lupe made frequent appearances before the Homeland Security Advisory Council, briefing luminaries like Attorney General Eric Holder. In 2009, then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced a new Southwest Border Task Force, a “diverse group of national-security experts” charged with formulating policy. The chair was a former director of the FBI and the CIA, and one of the vice chairs was a former White House chief of staff and ambassador to Mexico. The other vice chair was Lupe Treviño.
“You’d really have to live down here to know how powerful my father was,” says his son Chris, an operations administrator for Hidalgo County. “There’s no professional sports teams, no movie stars. Down here, it’s all politics.” The sheriff was a master politician, using his influence to win increased budgets and bigger grants. He secured more than $10 million from Operation Stonegarden – a $55 million-a-year Homeland Security grant program that enables local law enforcement to purchase SWAT gear like night-vision goggles and $350,000 B.E.A.R.’s, or Ballistic Engineered Armored Response trucks. (“It’s a real neat vehicle,” the sheriff said.) There were also grants from programs like Operation Linebacker and Operation Border Star, multimillion-dollar state initiatives designed to beef up border police forces.
With his salt-and-pepper mustache and crisp khaki uniform, Lupe cut a dashing figure around Hidalgo County. He favored custom-made boots and expensive rifles, and he kept eight whitetail buck heads mounted in his office. He came from humble roots – the eldest son of a welder who died falling from a roof when Lupe was a teenager, leaving Lupe and his mom to raise his six brothers and sisters in their one-bedroom house. And Hidalgo County loved him: In his first re-election, he ran unopposed.
“There’s something about a Texas sheriff,” says a federal agent involved in the Panama Unit investigation. “I don’t know if it’s the hat or what – but they really embody that whole I-am-almost-God-type thing.” Lupe certainly did, patrolling the county with a gold star on his chest and an AK-47 on his front seat, radiating swagger. Deputies nicknamed his internal-affairs bureau “the Gestapo,” and in his most recent re-election, he won 80 percent of the vote. At his victory party at a local Mexican restaurant, he boasted of his achievements and spoke of the challenges ahead. “If anything is gonna kill us, it’s internal corruption,” he warned. “Because some of our folks can be bought.”
For the Panama Unit, it all started with some stolen cash and a bulletproof vest.
It was shortly before Christmas 2010. Around 2:45 in the morning, Treviño, Alcantar and Mata pulled over a drunk driver in a pickup and noticed some white residue in his mustache. Searching the car, they found a few ounces of cocaine and a plastic bag containing $50,000. “We asked him whose money it was, and he said he didn’t know,” recalls Treviño. “We just figured, ‘We can get away with it, we’re among friends, get a little extra money for Christmas – fuck it.’ ” Mata took three bundles, totaling $9,000, and hid them in his vest. They split it up later at Alcantar’s house, because Treviño was living with his parents.
It wasn’t long before the Panama Unit graduated to stealing drugs. It was easy: They’d do a legal search, find some coke or dope, and just . . . not turn it in. They were careful to mark the drugs with evidence tags, in case they ran into other cops before they’d unloaded them. There were various local dealers they sold to – $15,000 a kilo for coke, $150 a pound for weed, and meth for $1,000 an ounce.
But as the Panama Unit stole more and more drugs, they needed a bigger connection to sell to. That’s where Fabian Rodriguez came in. A clumsy, overweight deputy who worked at his uncle’s tire shop before joining the sheriff’s office, Rodriguez was assigned to Hidalgo County Crime Stoppers, the anonymous hotline 668-TIPS, which gave him access to a lot of potentially valuable information. But what he really wanted was to join the unit for real, so he tried to impress Treviño by hooking him up with a buyer he knew, a drug trafficker named Fernando Guerra.
Guerra and his son Fernando Jr. ran a trucking company that was contracted to move loads originating from the Gulf Cartel. Mexican smugglers would get the drugs across the river, and the Guerras would drive them north from there. “Every time you cross a barrier, the drugs increase in value,” says Ildefonso Ortiz, a local reporter who covers drugs and the border. In this way, a middleman could take a $200 pound of marijuana and turn it into an $800 pound.
The Guerras also had a side hustle, which was ripping off fellow traffickers. “In Mexico, you wouldn’t dream of ripping a load,” Ortiz says, “but here, it’s more of a free-for-all.” The Panama Unit were their perfect match: They became the Guerras’ drug-thieves-for-hire. For their first job, in May 2012, the unit stole a half-ton of pot from an 18-wheeler and were paid $14,000 each. Pretty soon, they were doing jobs nearly every month.
Treviño got an apartment in one of the nicest complexes in town, with three flat-screen TVs and a balcony overlooking the pool. He had a closet full of Polo and Hugo Boss, and he took frequent trips: to nearby South Padre Island, the horse track in San Antonio, Tim McGraw concerts in Houston and Cowboys games in Dallas. When the unit ate dinner together, Treviño would treat, and even when the bill topped $2,000, he paid cash. “I always carried about $10,000 in hundreds,” he says.
Around their families, though, they downplayed their newfound wealth. “We’d play poker, and they would all pull out the minimum amount,” says Treviño’s brother Chris. “They concealed it very well.”
As the Panama Unit started making more and more cash, their partying got wilder. They’d hit Stilettos, the high-end strip club in town, and drop $10,000 in the VIP room. (“They made it rain,” one former deputy says.) There were visits to escorts and prostitutes. Once a month, they drove to Louisiana to gamble at the casinos, and after a really big score, they’d fly to Vegas and rent a suite at the Bellagio. Treviño also had bookies he bet with locally – mostly football and baseball games, at $5,000 a pop. “It was an addiction,” says Chris. He lost more than he won, which only encouraged more rips.
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come back next week for part 2