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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Border Lawmen Lured To Dark Side By Cartels

Border lawmen lured to dark side by cartels
The Houston Chronicle by Dane Schiller - August 19, 2011

Nine South Texas lawmen have been charged or sent to prison in the past 16 months for using their badges to sneak drugs or guns through the U.S.-Mexico border region from Laredo to Brownsville. Two are brothers. Another recruited an officer he has known since fifth grade. And a former McAllen policeman was finally sent to a federal penitentiary in December after escaping five years ago from the East Hidalgo Detention Center. The lawmen's downfalls, an indication of growing corruption prosecutions, are all linked to Mexico's lucrative drug cartels, which long have sought to infiltrate not only federal border guards but local officers patrolling U.S. towns along the Rio Grande. "I thought we knew these people like the back of our hand," said Laredo police investigator Joe Baeza. "But then again, if you look at the back of your hand every five years, it changes." Laredo officer Orlando Hale hyperventilated when federal agents showed him photographs of him meeting with a supposed cocaine trafficker he aided by escorting loads through the city, court records show. So began a nightmare for Hale, whose parents are law-enforcement veterans. He was convicted by a jury and got 24 years. Others who got busted include police officers, deputies and constables, as well as one high-ranking official, Sullivan City's police chief. None of the corruption cases appears to involve the classic cartel threat of offering "silver or lead," the practice of demanding the target "take our money and live, or turn us down and die." The tactic has devoured police departments in Mexico. Instead, interviews and court records and testimony show the South Texas cases often involve one officer at a time pulled to the dark side by friends, family or associates offering quick cash. "If you are a local person, you are going to have friends and relatives in the community and know people on both sides of the border," said Steve McCraw, head of the Texas Department of Public Safety. "They are going to know someone, who knows someone, and take a shot." "Once they have crossed that line, there is no sympathy," said McCraw, an El Paso native. Hale testified that agents lured him to a Laredo hotel with a bogus burglary call, then said they knew what he'd done. "They kept on telling me multiple times that I wasn't going to see my kids or my wife for life," Hale said, according to a transcript.

Stings keep working

Hale, 28, is to be released from prison in 2032. He claims he was set up by fellow officer Pedro Martinez III, whom he knew since childhood. Martinez testified against Hale as part of a plea deal and got six years. Martinez's father, who died in a suspicious suicide, was apparently a drug dealer who lured his son into the business. Martinez drove his squad car to escort what he thought was 44 pounds of cocaine. The drugs were a sham. The dealers were federal agents and government informants running a sting. Such tricks have worked repeatedly. Pharr police officer Jaime Beas was busted for using his vehicle to escort a load of cocaine and for his involvement in a scheme to ship a grenade, semiautomatic rifles and body armor to Mexico. Authorities went after Beas when he was turned in by an uncle in the military who said he repeatedly was approached about equipment. Most recently, Webb County deputy constable Eduardo Garcia was indicted for allegedly taking bribes to help traffickers.

'Throwing around money'

Garcia is accused of protecting loads and using a police database to check the license plate numbers of suspicious vehicles to determine whether they belonged to law enforcement agencies spying on the traffickers. Like most officers charged, Garcia is not accused of pocketing a fortune. If anything, he sold his badge cheaply. He supposedly checked a license plate for $200 and transported cocaine for $500. Garcia's lawyer could not be reached for comment. Tim Braaten, head of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officers Standards, said bribe-takers ultimately expose themselves. "It is usually women, cars, booze, gold and clothes. You'll see it," Braaten said. "You see them throwing around money they didn't previously have." Francisco Meza Rojas, who escaped from the Hidalgo jail, was accused of drug trafficking but fled to Mexico after he and five other inmates broke out with the help of a corrupt corrections officer, as well as using a homemade knife to overpower a guard. In December, Meza was sentenced to 27 years in prison without the possibility of parole. Teresa Hultz, head of the public corruption squad for the FBI's Houston Division, said going after law officers suspected of corruption is often more challenging than catching more traditional criminals. Corrupt officers are familiar with the techniques used to catch them, and there are plenty of supposed informants who come up with bogus information trying to smear reputations. "We don't take the allegations lightly, and we are very, very careful in how we handle them," Hultz said. "You get a drop in your stomach when you know it is true."

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