The corrupting power of Mexican drug traffickers is finding its way into the police forces of the southern United States. An investigation by the Dromomanos collective, winner of the Ortega y Gasset Journalism Awards, published in El Universal, reveals drug traffickers have bribed a large number of sheriffs, border patrol officers, and customs officials in Texas.
When Jose Perez returned to his house on the afternoon of July 26, 2012, six police broke into his home.
"Where are the wetbacks?" they shouted.
The officers were members of the Pamana Unit, a group created to combat drug trafficking in Hidalgo county in southern Texas. They began to inspect the house, looking for migrants. When they didn't find any, they began to get more angry.
"Where is the money?" they yelled.
During their search Perez says they took $4,000, as well as jewelry and perfumes belonging to Perez's wife.
But it wasn't enough for them.
"Where are the drugs?" they shouted.
According to Perez, after another fruitless search, they threatened him.
“Call someone who sells drugs. If you don't, we are going to take you somewhere," one of them told him. "You know what I'm talking about.”
Perez called a contact.
“This is the border, everyone here knows someone who sells,” he said, while in his garden at his house in Pharr, a small city of 70,000 people, close to McAllen.
A few minutes after he made the call, the drug dealer parked his car in front of a store. As soon as he opened the trunk, the police arrested him: He was carrying two kilos of cocaine and $50,000. According to a complaint Perez filed to a federal court, the Panama Unit claimed they had only seized a few of the cocaine packages.
The civil complaint Perez filed was dismissed, but it marked the beginning of the end for the Panama Unit. In December 2012, the FBI arrested the majority of the anti-drug unit, and in April 2014 nine agents were convicted on conspiracy charges for drug trafficking, in addition to three drug traffickers who were working with the police force.
According to the court files, the Panama Unit stole drugs from warehouses along the border, and worked for drug trafficking groups by guarding freight trucks carrying drug shipments northward. On one occasion, FBI informants followed the leader of the anti-drug unit, Jonathon Treviño, while he and other members of the unit protected a truck reportedly transporting seven kilos of cocaine. The drug traffickers paid the police $6,000 to escort the truck.
But the Panama Unit is not an isolated case. An investigation conducted by El Universal revealed that a large number of law enforcement officials -- including sheriffs, border patrol officials, and customs agents -- working in southern Texas have been bribed by criminal organizations. According to authorities and local reports, seven drug cartels are active along the border with the United States, most notably the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, and the Zetas.
The Gulf Cartel Influence
The Panama Unit primarily worked for Tomas "El Gallo" Gonzalez, a man who led a double life as the owner of a transportation business and as one of the biggest drug bosses in the region, with ties to the Gulf Cartel. El Gallo, who was also arrested and convicted, trafficked drug shipments of between 360 kilograms and three tons of marijuana, and several hundred kilograms of cocaine, at a time.
SEE ALSO: Gulf Cartel News and Profile
A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report published this year revealed that approximately 2,000 police and other law enforcement officials are under investigation for their involvement in organized crime. The DHS is currently investigating public officials who have received bribes to protect criminals, facilitate drug trafficking, escort drug shipments, and traffic the Mexican cartels' drugs.
The latest report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicates that 144 border patrol agents were arrested between 2005 to 2012 for corruption. Many of the cases were drug-related. Forty-eight of those arrested worked in Texas.
“Southern Texas, specifically the Rio Grande Valley, is the most corrupt area along the border, ” said Guadalupe Correa, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
Corruption scandals have emerged in most of the 14 border counties between Brownsville and El Paso. Border agents and local police -- as well as judges and politicians -- have taken drug money. In Cameron, former Sheriff Conrado Cantu is serving a 24-year sentence for leading a criminal group involved in drug trafficking, money laundering, and extortion. In Starr, former Sheriff Reymundo Rey facilitated drug shipments from Tamaulipas and maintained ties with the drug boss Jose Carlos Hinojosa and his partners in the Gulf Cartel.
In early October, Robert Maldonado, a former Hidalgo county deputy sheriff, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for laundering $40 million for the Gulf Cartel. Gaudalupe Treviño in Hidalgo county -- who had an 80 percent approval rating -- was the latest sheriff in the region to fall. He is the father of Jonathan Treviño, the former head of the Panama Unit.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Police Reform
The elder Treviño was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to laundering $10,000 during his re-election campaign for sheriff in 2012. When they arrested his son for his illegal activities during his time with the Panama Unit, several agents revealed that the Sheriff forced them to give him a portion of their drug trafficking earnings.
Treviño's former right-hand man, Jose Padilla, is one of the key witnesses testifying against him; he is currently being protected by the FBI. Padilla claims Treviño has had ties to El Gallo since 2012. Even today, in the capo's house, a mansion in the middle of a modest neighborhood, there are two campaign posters of the former sheriff. Treviño, who is currently appealing his sentence, denies involvement in the drug trade.
A year and a half after the Panama Unit's intrusion into his house, Jose Perez says he still has to see a psychiatrist, and has begun smoking again despite having heart problems and suffering from episodes of paranoia.
“Let's call things what they are," he said. "That was an invasion, a robbery, and a kidnapping.”
*This article was written by Jose Luis Pardo and Alejandra Inzunza for Mexican newspaper El Universal, as part of an investigation by the journalist collective Dromomanos on organized crime along the US-Mexico border. See original article here. Follow the team on Twitter at @Dromomanos, and see more of their work at https://www.dromomanos.com.