America’s Dirtiest Cops: Cash, Cocaine and Corruption 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.
“Everyone in the streets knew me,” Panama leader Treviño says. “We were like a damn gang. We were untouchable.”
Still, 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.
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