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Former South Texas sheriff's deputy facing drug charges enters not guilty plea

A former South Texas sheriff's deputy who is the latest law enforcement officer in Hidalgo County to be accused of being on an alleged drug trafficker's payroll pleaded not guilty Friday to a federal drug conspiracy charge.

The growing federal indictment to which former Hidalgo County sheriff's deputies Jorge Garza and James Phil Flores were added this week now includes nine former officers, including the sons of the Hidalgo County sheriff and Hidalgo police chief.

Garza waived the reading of the indictment Friday and U.S. Magistrate Judge Dorina Ramos set his bond at $100,000. His attorney has declined to comment. A judge set the same bond for Flores last week. The charge carries a possible sentence of between 10 years and life in prison.

At the center is Fernando Guerra Sr., who was arrested in February. Prosecutors allege he would arrange to buy drugs in South Texas and then use corrupt law enforcement officers to intercept the deliveries. Prosecutors say what appeared to be legitimate busts were actually drug robberies with corrupt cops turning the product over to Guerra for resale.

The veneer of legitimacy was critical, because drug traffickers routinely mete out severe punishments for stolen loads. In at least some instances, Guerra went so far as to make sure the person he was buying from witnessed the phony police bust to tamp down any suspicion, according to court records.

An informant told authorities that Garza and Flores performed this ruse about 20 times and made about $10,000, court records say. Each load was typically more than 500 pounds of marijuana.

Additionally, authorities say Guerra paid Garza to guard the stash houses where the drugs were stored at night.

The pieces started falling in December, when four former officers were charged. Three of them were members of the "Panama Unit," a joint task force between the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office and Mission Police Department targeting the street-level drug trade in that city.

The Mission officers, Jonathan Trevino and Alexis Rigoberto Espinoza, are sons of Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino and Hidalgo Police Chief Rodolfo "Rudy" Espinoza.

Federal prosecutors say the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement department that conducts internal reviews received a tip in August about Espinoza and another task force member stealing drugs. Federal investigators set up a sting.

Those first four officers charged allegedly escorted drug loads for money in the sting last fall. But the indictment charges them in a drug conspiracy that dates to the beginning of 2009.

Sheriff Trevino disbanded the unit. The number of his former deputies now facing charges in the case stands at seven.

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