McALLEN — On paper, Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño’s political future looks bleak.
Judging by past scandals, though, Rio Grande Valley voters appear more likely to express sympathy for Sheriff Treviño than scorn.
In December, federal agents charged his youngest son, Mission police Investigator Jonathan Treviño, with stealing cocaine and marijuana from drug traffickers. Along with seven other corrupt cops, Jonathan Treviño recently pleaded guilty to participating in a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy.
The saga of Jonathan Treviño and the Panama Unit, the now-infamous narcotics squad staffed with Jonathan’s friends, cast a dark shadow over Hidalgo County’s smooth talking, politically savvy sheriff. It also erased the euphoria from Sheriff Treviño’s landslide victory in November, when he won re-election with 80 percent of the vote.
Last month, Sheriff Treviño took tough questions at the Country Omelet restaurant. Asked about the scandal, he compared himself to the faithful partner in a failing marriage.
“They may live under the same house, share the same bed, share the same finances, but the spouse is always the last one to find out,” Sheriff Treviño said. “In this case, I was like that spouse.”
It’s a familiar story.
Two years ago, Border Patrol agents arrested Leo Palacios, the son of Pharr Mayor Leopoldo “Polo” Palacios, at the Falfurrias checkpoint with nearly 52 pounds of marijuana. The arrest hardly registered in Pharr.
“So when that happened to us, you know, we just have to take it like anything else,” Mayor Palacios said. “There’s nothing we can do, no one we can blame but himself.”
Ultimately, Mayor Palacios said in a January interview, parents like Sheriff Treviño must let their children make their own choices.
“And I’ve known him for many years, and I’ve known him to be a very respectful and honest person,” Mayor Palacios said. “It’s unfortunate that this happened to one of his boys, but they shouldn’t blame him for that. Nobody should blame Mr. Treviño for what his son did.”
Starr County Sheriff Rene Fuentes, who took the department’s top job after federal agents arrested his predecessor, had a similar experience. His son, Rene Jr., received a 23-month prison sentence for straw purchasing several rifles. The incident doesn’t appear to have impacted the career of Sheriff Fuentes, who did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Generally, the Valley’s highest profile lawmen have been judged on their own merits.
In 1994, Zapata County Sheriff Romeo Ramirez took bribes from undercover federal agents, according to the Associated Press. A bribery scandal involving a drug trafficker and conjugal visits ended tough-talking Hidalgo County Sheriff Brig Marmolejo’s career the same year.
Federal agents arrested Starr County Sheriff Gene Falcon four years later, according to the Associated Press. He, too, took bribes from an informant. And in 2005, Cameron County Sheriff Conrado Cantu was sentenced for extorting drug traffickers and other criminals.
Until recently, Sheriff Treviño seemed far above the fray.
Several Valley politicians said voters generally hold Sheriff Treviño in high esteem and didn’t think the Panama Unit scandal would upend his career.
“Obviously from a political viewpoint, nothing dealing with the Panama Unit is positive,” said state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg. “When it comes to the sheriff’s political future, I wish him the best and I think he is a good guy. I think his heart and his priorities are definitely in the right place.”
While the scandal will have a negative effect on Sheriff Treviño, the fallout’s severity will fall to voters, Canales said.
Sheriff Treviño isn’t up for re-election until November 2016. By then, the initial Panama Unit cases will likely have faded from memory — if nothing else emerges.
When the steady drip of Panama Unit revelations began to subside in the early summer, Sheriff Treviño’s family had another brush with controversy. McAllen police arrested his eldest son, Reserve Deputy John Carlos Treviño, for public intoxication. After telling officers “‘Do you know who I am, I’m not (expletive) going with you,” he assaulted a jailer, according to police records.
The most damaging blows unfolded Thursday, when retired Deputy James Phil “J.P.” Flores testified during a federal trial connected to the Panama Unit case. Under oath, Flores told the court that Commander Jose “Joe” Padilla, who reports directly to Sheriff Treviño, forced lawmen to campaign for the sheriff and sell raffle tickets.
And the U.S. Attorney’s Office told federal District Judge Randy Crane that Padilla was the target of an investigation. Padilla declined to testify. Any investigation into Sheriff Treviño’s campaign practices and fundraising would take the controversy to a new level.
Sheriff Treviño, who wouldn’t comment for this article, appeared unfazed Thursday afternoon, telling KURV-AM host Davis Rankin he felt vindicated by the court testimony.
“And (he) said ‘Everything that we did was behind Sheriff Treviño’s back and he knew absolutely nothing of the illegal schemes that we were involved in,’” Sheriff Treviño said, adding that Padilla didn’t know about the criminal activity either. “And that’s what I have been waiting for since the first day of his trial.”