by Josh Eells
Sometimes this led to some imprudent decisions. One of the bookies Treviño bet with was a teacher who sold Ecstasy on the side. He didn’t know Treviño was a cop. Treviño owed him money, so they arranged to meet at a Petco parking lot to settle up, but when the teacher arrived, members of the Panama Unit jumped out. Treviño claimed his gambling was all part of an undercover op. “He was crying so hard,” he says. “I felt bad.” The teacher paid Treviño $15,000 to let him off, and they never heard from him again.
By 2012, word was getting around that the Panama Unit might be dirty. Dealers were starting to talk: Crooked cops were one thing, but they shouldn’t go around stealing your shit. Other cops saw red flags too – like how the unit occasionally called in an operation after the bust, instead of before. One local chief told his officers not to work with the unit. Sometimes when a robbery call came in to the sheriff’s office, deputies would joke: “Have you checked Panama?”
But the Panama Unit almost seemed to enjoy their reputation as bad cops. They had a certain outlaw cool, like Omar from The Wire, ripping and running. They decorated their office with posters – marijuana plants, Bob Marley, Tupac – and wore polos with their logo printed on the chest: a silhouette, in the dark, kicking down a door. “Everyone in the streets knew me,” Treviño says. “We were like a damn gang.” He says dealers called his white Tahoe “the Ghostbuster” and him Estrellita – “The Little Star.”
Eventually, it got to where stealing wasn’t even exciting – just routine. “The adrenaline rush came on the legit busts, when we were kicking down doors,” Treviño says. “But with the illegal stuff, we had gotten away with it, and we were going to continue getting away with it. I just felt like we were untouchable.”
In the summer of 2012, Special Agent J.P. Reneau was working on a different case. Reneau was an agent in the Hidalgo County office of Homeland Security Investigations, the investigative arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. HSI’s purview includes human trafficking, money laundering, gun running and cybercrime, but at the border it mostly works drugs. A soft-spoken Texan with a cowboy squint, Reneau looked like a young James Caan, with dusty-blond hair he wore slicked back. He drove a Chevy Silverado and had a reputation as a bit of a maverick. Some colleagues complained about his “high operational tempo”; one agent later said, “We wanted him to grow up a little.”
Reneau had been an HSI agent for four years, during which time the federal government had spent about $60 billion on drug enforcement. In early July, he was chasing a tip from a source about a marijuana shipment northeast of town when, for various reasons, the operation went south and one of his agents ended up getting shot in the back. The agent survived, but in the shitstorm that ensued, Reneau learned that his source, a bail-bondsman-turned-drug-trafficker, was conspiring to steal rivals’ loads. He was affiliated with the Guerras and, through them, had loose ties to a rogue group of cops called the Panama Unit.
HSI knew it had to tread carefully. “In a community like that, law enforcement is small and tightknit,” says Janice Ayala, the special agent in charge of HSI’s San Antonio field office. “You start asking questions, and somebody’s going to hear very quickly.” To complicate matters further, one Panama cop, Alexis Espinoza, was actually assigned to a Homeland Security task force in a cubicle literally steps away. “On one side of the hallway were my case agents,” an HSI group supervisor says, “and on the other side, Alexis is sittin’ right there.”
Espinoza wasn’t officially in the Panama Unit, but he did a lot of jobs with them. “Alexis was more of a follower – definitely not Type A,” one of the agents said. He and Treviño had been friends since they were five: Espinoza’s father, Rudy, was a captain at the sheriff’s department. He and Treviño had joined Mission PD within months of each other: Treviño was badge No. 363, and Espinoza was No. 369.
“When you’re building an investigation, you’re going to use different tactics and strategies,” says an HSI agent. “In this case, they were so brazen that there was enough to go operational quickly.” Reneau and his agents started surveilling the Panama Unit, mapping out their connections and routines. The DEA and Texas Rangers also got involved, and the FBI recruited a sheriff’s deputy to wear a wire. Treviño suspects that the feds even got one of his cousins to talk. “That actually caused a pretty big rift in our family,” says Chris. “My grandma still doesn’t speak to that cousin.”
Meanwhile, the Panama Unit was getting paranoid – not about cops, but about drug dealers. Treviño wasn’t afraid of the cartels themselves: He was smart enough not to step on their toes. “Not every dealer in the Valley runs with a cartel,” he says. “So the more independent ones, you could go after them safely.” Also, if they did ever accidentally jack the wrong stash, he had “friends on the other side of the border” who could take care of him “in case shit hit the fan.” He adds, “It’s like a business. You have to go through a chain of command. So I had people up the chain who could put a stop to it.”
But local gangs were a different story. The Panama Unit always justified their rips by saying they weren’t robbing innocent people, only drug dealers. On the other hand: They were robbing drug dealers. Retaliation is a risk even in legit narcotics work – one former deputy recalls officers being posted outside the Treviños’ house following a threat against Jonathan back when the unit was clean – but since they’d started ripping loads, the threats were coming with alarming frequency. A local street gang called the Tri-City Bombers allegedly put a hit out on Treviño that he was able to get called off. (He says he knew a high-ranking lieutenant.) Later, a member of the Partido Revolucionario Mexicano, a Texas prison gang affiliated with the Gulf Cartel, called the sheriff’s office and threatened to kill “every fucking family member he has.” To most people, it sounded like another pissed-off gangbanger – but to Treviño, it seemed like his life might be in danger.
Treviño had stockpiled a small arsenal at home – pistols, M4s, AK-47s, – and he started packing everywhere he went. The Panama Unit began traveling in groups, never alone. “I knew they would come after me on the street, not at work or my house,” Treviño says. “But it was going to end in a shooting, them or me. I always thought that.”
In October, the Panama Unit got a line on a new connection. There was a madam they used to frequent who called herself Betty, a Mexican woman with platinum-blond hair who bused in prostitutes from across the border in Monterrey. She’d heard the stories a lot of people had, about Panama and drugs. One night she asked the unit for help.
At the time, Treviño was growing disillusioned with the Guerras. They didn’t pay enough – he wanted market rates – and at times their jobs took too long to come through. One deal was frustrating Rodriguez in particular: There was supposedly a big cocaine shipment they were going to steal, but the sender was a big believer in the black-magic-heavy cult known as Santa Muerte, and he kept consulting a witch who told him the timing for delivery was no good. The deal dragged out for months. Every so often, an exasperated Rodriguez would call for an update: “So what did the witch say? Can they bring the drugs in or not?”
Thus Treviño was understandably enthusiastic when Betty asked if the unit would start escorting cocaine for her employers.
“Escorts have been around forever,” says a local police chief. “Corrupt cops have been doing that for a long time.” The way they worked was a couple of unmarked Panama vehicles would drive behind and in front of Betty’s shipments, protecting the load from any bad guys and stepping in if any good guys showed up. Escorting didn’t pay much, especially compared with the rips. But the unit had a bigger plan in mind: They would use Betty’s connections, working loads and building trust, until they got one valuable and vulnerable enough to rip off.
In other words: They were now going to start robbing the very traffickers that were hiring them.
That fall, the Panama Unit escorted five loads for Betty. Meanwhile, they were also hearing rumors of their own. One of the guys got an anonymous call saying the feds were looking into the unit, and they should stop whatever they were doing. One of their moms heard the Texas Rangers were investigating them as well. During a gambling trip to Louisiana, the Panama Unit agreed to do one last job and go straight.
Soon, Betty got in touch about a new escort: 10 kilos of coke, with a wholesale value of around $200,000. Together, they all decided to rip it. The job was set for December 12th, 2012, but when the day came, Treviño had a bad feeling. “All morning Betty kept calling,” he says, “and I kept pressing ‘ignore, ignore, ignore.’ ”
Still, he went. There were three of them on the highway: Treviño, Espinoza and another Panama deputy named Sal Arguello. The plan was to steal the coke, give Betty $40,000 and split the rest – “easy deal,” Treviño says. Around 11:30 a.m., they pulled Betty over and popped the trunk on her black four-door Kia to reveal a large box wrapped like a Christmas gift in red candy-cane paper. Jonathan opened it to find 10 bricks covered in black tape. But when he picked one up, he felt something attached. He removed the tape, and that’s when he saw it: a small battery-size device with wires and a bar code on the side. A GPS tracker.
At the time, the sheriff was a few miles away, holding a press conference at the scene of a shooting. He’d just gotten back in his truck when a call came on the radio from the Panama Unit asking for assistance. Recognizing his son’s voice, the sheriff asked what was going on. Seconds later, his cellphone rang. “We have a situation,” Jonathan said.
When the sheriff arrived, he knew right away that it was bad. “I’ve been doing this for over 40 years,” he later testified. “It was pretty obvious to me what the deal was. It wasn’t to them, because they’re very young, very stupid, inexperienced. But it was obvious to me.”
What was obvious to him was that the Panama Unit had stumbled into a trap. Betty was an informant all along – “loaded up in a government vehicle with government cocaine,” as Espinoza’s lawyer later put it. She’d been recruited by HSI to set up Jonathan and his crew. The Panama Unit had just been stung.
Jonathan tried to cover himself and said they pretended to go along with Betty’s bribes as part of an investigation. “Are you lying to me?” the sheriff demanded. Jonathan swore he wasn’t. The sheriff then asked Betty which federal agency she was working for. Betty became hysterical, claiming that the drugs belonged to the Sinaloa Cartel and that they needed to get out of there before they got killed. “She put on a heck of a good act,” the sheriff later testified. “I mean, she was really crying and carrying on.”
Lupe told a unit to take Betty back to the sheriff’s office. Then he called his contacts at the FBI and the DEA. There were two possibilities, he told them. “Either the Sinaloa Cartel really is tracking these things, and we’ve got a problem . . . or these are your GPS units, and you need to . . . do what you have to do.”
“I was proud of the work we did,” says Jonathan Treviño. “I felt accomplished getting 4,000 pounds of dope off the street, even if we put 1,000 pounds back on it.”
Back at headquarters, Lupe met with the feds, as they laid out their case against the Panama Unit. Then he called his son into his office. He told him he had been the target of a federal investigation, and that he’d need to turn himself in. Choking back tears, the sheriff then asked for Jonathan’s badge and gun. “He was devastated,” Jonathan says. “It crushed his heart.”
They spoke only briefly before Jonathan had to go meet with his lawyer. But on the ride home that night, Lupe told his son he loved and supported him no matter what. They walked in the house to find Jonathan’s mom waiting, and both father and son burst into tears. “I had never seen my dad cry,” says Chris. “He was balled up on the couch crying like a baby, and Jonathan was crying right there on the other couch.”
The news of the Panama Unit rocked Hidalgo County. In all, nine officers associated with the crew were indicted, and the DA announced he was throwing out as many as 75 cases: “Their credibility went from absolute to zero,” he said. At a “Coffee With the Sheriff” event at the Country Omelette restaurant a few months later, Lupe called the day the Panama Unit was busted “my 9/11”: “On that day, it was said that America would never be the same,” he said, according to The Monitor. “After 12/12, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office will never be the same.”
It wasn’t long before suspicion fell on the sheriff. After all, Jonathan had lived at home for years. Could Lupe – the veteran narcotics investigator – really not have known what was going on? Either he was a terrible cop or he was covering for his son. At the trial of a deputy accused along with the Panama Unit, one lawyer asked, for instance, why Jonathan’s free-spending ways never raised alarms. “He was making quite a bit of overtime money,” the sheriff said, pointing out that for much of the time, Jonathan lived at home rent-free. “I had no reason to question what he was doing.”
Publicly, the sheriff was adamant. “I’ll say this until I am blue in the face,” he told The Monitor. “I had no knowledge about the criminal activities of those individuals, nor was I complicit in those activities.” He compared himself to a cheated-on husband: “They may live under the same house, share the same bed, share the same finances – but the spouse is always the last to find out.” About the feds, he added, “I want them to investigate me. I want them to take a good look.”
As it turned out, the sheriff would get his wish. Further investigations revealed that Lupe was receiving money from a local drug lord named Tomas Gonzalez – a.k.a. El Gallo, “the Rooster.”
El Gallo was like a real-life version of Gus Fring from Breaking Bad. He owned a cold-storage company, T&F Produce, whose logo was a chicken, and which he used as a front for his drug-smuggling operation. He and his logistics coordinator (who moonlighted as the coach of a girls’ basketball team) would pack marijuana and cocaine in tractor-trailers full of vegetables and ship them all over the country: Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, even as far north as Iowa. A well-known narco-corrido singer named Chuy Quintanilla sang of El Gallo’s exploits:
He’s a real man with the blood of a fine gallo
And his people admire and respect him
He doesn’t like violence; he’d rather use his head
But if necessary, he can use a machine gun
El Gallo was rumored to have ties to the Zetas, the terroristic Mexican cartel currently locked in a bloody war against their rivals in the Gulf Cartel. Two of his brothers were in prison in the U.S., and his mother supposedly died in prison in Mexico. He’d been on Reneau’s radar for more than two years, and once escaped a bust in a chase at 115 mph. But he wasn’t the type to keep a low profile: On the gates outside his mansion in the sugarcane fields east of town were two ceramic roosters, right next to the signs that read re-elect Sheriff Treviño.
The sheriff swore he’d never met El Gallo. Yes, he’d been to his property twice – once to investigate the signs, which he said were fake, and once to investigate a triple murder at a cockfight elsewhere in the county (El Gallo’s dad was a big cockfighting enthusiast). But he’d never met the man. “I’ll take a polygraph,” he told the feds, according to his son Chris. “I don’t even know what the fuck he looks like.” But when an investigation turned up $10,000 in illegal campaign contributions from El Gallo, the sheriff was sunk. In March, he resigned, and in July, he was sentenced to five years for money laundering.
Lupe ultimately admitted to accepting between $20,000 and $25,000 from El Gallo. A sheriff’s commander, who was himself convicted of bribery, claims it was more like $1 million. The cash was delivered in paper bags, fives, tens and twenties. At his own sentencing in November, El Gallo – who, to be fair, stood to earn a reduced sentence by implicating the sheriff – said he gave Lupe $53,000 for a new fishing boat and $40,000 for a trip to Vegas. The sheriff supposedly referred to El Gallo as “Eastside” and cautioned against calling him on a work phone. (El Gallo preferred Boost Mobile burners.) El Gallo said the person who first introduced him to the sheriff was Chuy Quintanilla, the narco-corrido singer – who, the previous year, had been found murdered in a grapefruit orchard.
Citing a pending appeal, Lupe declined an interview. “My denials of those allegations that cannot be verified or corroborated are a matter of record,” he said in an e-mail, noting that many additional claims were made when he wasn’t present to defend himself.
Lupe’s defenders insist that his crime was, at worst, a campaign violation. “[They] sentenced him because of his son,” said the Hidalgo County DA, one of his oldest friends. Chris agrees: “If it wasn’t for the Panama Unit, they never would have been combing through his campaign-finance reports. Jonathan brought all the attention on him.”
Although no one knew it at the time, the sheriff was considering a run for Congress. Recently, he e-mailed Chris from prison in Florida, where he’s serving five years. “He said, ‘I worked so hard in my 42 years of law enforcement, and it was all wiped away because of what Jonathan did. I forgive Jonathan – but I’m here because of him.’ ”
On April 25th, 2014, Jonathan Treviño celebrated his 30th birthday. Four days later, he and the rest of the Panama Unit arrived in federal court for sentencing on drug conspiracy charges. The right side of the gallery was filled with family and friends, including Treviño’s girlfriend, a middle-school vice principal. The left side was filled with federal agents.
The proceedings stretched over two days, with most sentences ranging between 10 and 14 years. Treviño, who was sentenced last, was represented by a defense attorney named Bobby Joe Yza-guirre, whose previous clients included two ex-chiefs of the Gulf Cartel. The $120 bulletproof vest that Treviño had been so proud of ended up coming back to haunt him: The judge imposed an extra penalty for using body armor in a drug-trafficking crime. In the end, he got 17 years.
On a crisp autumn day at the beginning of November, Treviño shuffled into the visiting room of a federal prison in an Eastern state that he requested not be named. He wore Nike sneakers and a khaki jacket and work pants – sheriff’s colors – and his thick black beard was flecked with gray. He sat at a small table, a little hunched, and asked for some snacks from the vending machine: a tuna sandwich, potato chips and a can of Dr Pepper.
Treviño wanted to make it clear that he never informed on anyone outside the unit, on either side of the law, partly out of concern for the safety of his family. He noted with pride how he stood up in court and took his punishment like a man. He said he was grateful to the feds who arrested him – “as weird as it sounds” – for stepping in before anyone got hurt or killed. And he forgave the people he says ratted on him, including the rest of the Panama Unit. “Even though they turned on me in open court, I would still take a bullet for these guys.”
Chris thinks if his brother had come clean earlier, he might have been able to work out a deal. “My dad would have turned him in immediately to the feds and said, ‘My son will cooperate,’ ” he says. “He had plenty of outs, and he didn’t take any of them.” But he says the sheriff also bears some responsibility. “The unit didn’t have any supervision whatsoever,” says Chris. “And to be honest, I blame my dad for that.”
But according to Jonathan, the thought of confessing never crossed his mind. “I couldn’t,” he says. “My dad would have been so disappointed.”
Prison could be worse for Treviño. He has a fantasy football team and can use the bathroom without permission. With good behavior, he could get out in his early forties. And though the government seized the cash he had hidden in his safe, he says, he also had two more hiding places they don’t know about.
In the meantime, he misses being a cop. “I enjoyed my job so much,” he says. “I loved waking up, going to work, getting busts. Even doing crooked stuff, I was proud. Five-thousand-pound dope busts? Some narcotics officers will never get that in their careers. So I felt accomplished knowing we got 4,000 pounds off the street – even when we put 1,000 back on it.”
There’s a new sheriff in Hidalgo County now. Before he took office, he had to sign a pledge that he was never “in any way associated, directly or indirectly, with the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas, the Sinaloas or anybody else.” On the border, the violence continues: The same day the Panama Unit arrived in court for sentencing, 14 people were gunned down a few miles away in Reynosa, two of them federal policemen. A few months later, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office received a new grant from Homeland Security’s Operation Stonegarden: $4.7 million – its biggest ever.
Lupe Treviño pleaded guilty to money laundering and got five years in prison. AP Photo/The Monitor, Gabe Hernandez