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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Feds lay out case against sheriff

The Monitor by Jeremy Roebuck - October 17, 2008

McALLEN, TEXAS -- Starr County Sheriff Reymundo "Rey" Guerra accepted thousands of dollars in cash and gifts in exchange for aiding Gulf Cartel operations, federal prosecutors alleged Friday. The county's top lawman reportedly tipped off smugglers to law enforcement activities, helped bungle ongoing drug investigations and gave up the identities of informants working with police, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Toni Treviño during a day-long hearing into whether Guerra should be released on bond. "He assisted (people) that were not run-of-the-mill drug traffickers," she said. "Through Sheriff Guerra's assistance, he made it easier for (them) to operate almost unfettered in the Starr County area." But as federal agents laid out their case against the two-term sheriff, Guerra's family and friends struggled to reconcile the man they know as community-oriented and family-focused with the image authorities painted of a crooked politician in league with the largest criminal organization operating in the Rio Grande Valley.

LOS SOBRINOS -- Guerra has remained in federal custody since his arrest Tuesday on charges of conspiracy and aiding drug trafficking. But the allegations made against him Friday extend well beyond the peripheral role his indictment suggests. FBI Special Agent Katherine Gutierrez linked the sheriff to at least five alleged drug traffickers operating in Starr County who he reportedly referred to as his sobrinos, or nephews. All were arrested in a nationwide crackdown on cartel members and their associates last month.

Among them was Juan Carlos Hinojosa, a 31-year-old who reportedly claimed to be both a lawyer and an informant for the district attorney's office based in Miguel Alemán, across the international border from Roma. Authorities allege Hinojosa has strong ties to the Gulf Cartel and answered to high-ranking members of its paramilitary wing, Los Zetas, including one of the Zetas' founders, Efrain Teodoro Torres, who was killed last year in a shootout with police in the Mexican state of Veracruz. Hinojosa also led one of the largest trafficking organizations working between Roma and Miguel Alemán, according to the 19-count federal indictment in which Guerra is also charged. Between 2005 and 2008, Guerra worked closely with Hinojosa to help identify roadblocks in his drug smuggling operation in exchange for regular $5,000 payments and gifts of rib-eye steaks and shrimp, Gutierrez testified.

In one alleged instance, the sheriff helped return to Hinojosa a vehicle - seized as part of a cash smuggling investigation - that was later determined to have a false compartment for smuggling drugs. In another, he reportedly had a shooting victim come to the sheriff's office to sign affidavits implicating an alleged drug trafficker as his attacker - a move prosecutors described as unnecessary and meant to intimidate the witness. Guerra's attorney - Phillip Hilder - maintained, however, that the sheriff shared information with Hinojosa because he believed him to be a member of Mexican law enforcement. Over the three years of their alleged relationship, Hinojosa had helped track down murder suspects and wanted fugitives in Miguel Alemán and bring them into custody in the United States, Hilder said. "But law enforcement doesn't help other law enforcement commit crimes and hide offenses," Treviño, the prosecutor, responded.

‘BIRDS ON THE WIRE' -- Federal agents first became involved after one of Guerra's own deputies began to question his behavior. The investigator became suspicious after the sheriff allegedly asked him to divulge sensitive information about a stash house raid. During a meeting in Guerra's truck, the sheriff reportedly ordered him to tell Hinojosa who tipped authorities off to the drugs. At the prompting of the FBI, the investigator provided false information. "It would be very uncommon for us to reveal the identity of any of our sources to someone who wasn't involved in the investigation," Gutierrez said.

After another raid that uncovered a drug stash, the investigator witnessed Guerra accept fraudulent documents from the home's owner that said she had leased the building to someone else, Gutierrez testified. The woman, now a co-defendant in the federal case, later told agents that the sheriff knew the lease was a fake and accepted it so deputies could close the case without making an arrest. As authorities circled in on Guerra, he became increasingly nervous that he would be found out, Gutierrez said. He allegedly warned his associates that there were "birds on the wire" and that "someone was talking" in several wiretapped conversations. On Sept. 4, those worries were confirmed as FBI agents raided his home and office, two weeks before many of his alleged associates were arrested. A month later, Guerra found himself behind bars.

‘IT'S TRADITION FOR US' - Guerra's relatives and friends shook their heads in disbelief and muttered retorts from the court gallery as the government piled on accusation after accusation Friday. To them, he had always demonstrated the utmost character and devotion to his community - qualities they say clash with their perception of a corrupt politician. "He's a dedicated, supportive, loving Catholic," his daughter Veronica Kerns said. "He's everything that a man can be and more."

Guerra helped raise his wife's three daughters from a previous marriage as if they were his own. Throughout his decades-long career in law enforcement, he made time to volunteer at his church and with civic groups like the Rotary Club and the Knights of Columbus. And even while on duty, Guerra rarely felt comfortable carrying a weapon, they said. But at least one witness who testified on the sheriff's behalf Friday seemed able to resolve that disparity with ease. Alonzo Alvarez, a retired Roma High School teacher who has known the sheriff for decades, described drug trafficking as simply a way of life in Starr County.

Without surmising as to Guerra's guilt or innocence, Alvarez testified that many of his friends, relatives and neighbors growing up in impoverished Roma turned to drug smuggling as a way to make a living for their families. "It's part of our heritage on the river," Alvarez said. "It's tradition for us." Guerra faces one count each of conspiracy, aiding and abetting smugglers and using a telephone to help commit a crime. If convicted on all counts, he could face up to life in prison and $6.25 million in fines. U.S. Magistrate Judge Dorina Ramos is expected to decide Monday whether Guerra should remain in custody without bond until his trial date. Jeremy Roebuck covers courts and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4437.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Roebuck am I correct in stating you were one of the five journalists ,wearing a pink shirt at the hearing on Oct. 17, 2008?

Anonymous said...

let me rephrase that, were you one of the five journalists in attendance? and were you in the pink shirt? If so I have one question for you....