Former Hidalgo County sheriff's deputy Jorge Garza would pull over marijuana-laden vehicles in his squad car to make it seem the drugs had been confiscated, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Sturgis told jurors during his opening statement at Garza's trial in federal court in McAllen.
Of nine former law enforcement officials accused of taking part in the conspiracy, only Garza didn't plead guilty. The scheme was allegedly led by co-conspirator Fernando Guerra Sr., who has already pleaded guilty in the case.
According to prosecutors, Guerra would tell the owner of a load of marijuana that he was moving it from one place to another. A three-vehicle caravan would start driving down a rural county road with the load vehicle going first, followed by a vehicle carrying Guerra's son and the owner of the marijuana and finally a vehicle carrying Guerra Sr.
Prosecutors say Garza would wait at a pre-arranged location down the road in his Hidalgo County sheriff's office vehicle. Once the load vehicle passed, he would pull out and turn on his lights. It would appear that a traffic stop occurred on a side road just out of view.
"He believes his marijuana is being seized," Sturgis said. "Then that marijuana gets sold by the Guerras and the money gets split."
David Olivarez, who was driving a car with seven large bundles of marijuana for one of those planned traffic stops, testified that "once he turned off the lights, I was good to go." But Olivarez said he never saw the deputy and had never seen Garza before.
That bit of theater allowed Guerra to resell the drugs without being fingered as stealing them. Sturgis said that Garza was the deputy who conducted the fake traffic stops, and that he did so 10 to 15 times.
Garza's attorney, Lilly Ann Gutierrez, targeted the credibility of the government's witnesses. Olivarez pleaded guilty to a drug conspiracy charge in a separate but related case and is awaiting sentencing. She noted that he was testifying in the hopes of reducing his sentence.
Gutierrez stressed that Garza was not a member of the now disbanded Panama Unit, a joint task force between the sheriff's office and the Mission police department that targeted street-level drug sales in that city.
Guerra Sr. used the corrupt members of the Panama Unit to steal and resell other traffickers' drugs. The unit's members included the sheriff's son and the son of a local police chief. Both have pleaded guilty in the conspiracy.
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