Three months after suspending him during an internal investigation of inappropriate workplace conduct and 11 days after his arrest on a domestic violence charge, the Hidalgo City Council fired Police Chief Rodolfo Espinoza.
Espinoza’s dismissal is the latest bad news for two close South Texas law enforcement families. A wide-reaching drug investigation has already put former Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño and both men’s sons in federal prison.
Treviño was released from a federal prison camp in July, six months short of his full 60-month sentence following a 2014 conviction for laundering a campaign contribution from a suspected drug trafficker.
Treviño was sentenced three months after a U.S. District Court judge sentenced his son, Jonathan Treviño, to 17 years and the younger Treviño’s childhood friend, Alexis Espinoza, son of the former Hidalgo police chief, to 14 years in prison for their part in the notorious Panama Unit.
The Texas Observer, Texas Monthly and Rolling Stone have all written about the Panama Unit, a group of undercover drug agents who confiscated huge quantities of cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana and then turned dealers themselves to sell the drugs. Members of the group all had blood connections to an elder generation of law officers.
Rodolfo Espinoza had taken no part in that corruption, but on Oct. 16 the city council suspended him with pay for “allegations of inappropriate workplace conduct and potential conflict of interests,” according to a letter issued by City Manager Julian Gonzalez.
City officials since then have declined to elaborate on the allegations or disclose anything the investigation revealed, according to the McAllen Monitor.
Hidalgo County sheriff’s deputies arrested Espinoza in the early morning Dec. 27 at his home after a woman described in the probable cause affidavit as his common-law wife reported that Espinoza had grabbed her throat and pinned her to a wall.
A justice of the peace released Espinoza on a $5,000 personal recognizance bond while the investigation continues.
Hidalgo Mayor Sergio Coronado said the council’s decision to fire the chief, effective Jan. 8, was “made in the best interest of the city of Hidalgo … we have a responsibility to protect the integrity of our community, and that’s what we’re doing,” according to the Brownsville Herald.
Attorneys for Espinoza described the woman alleging the assault as a girlfriend, not a common-law wife, and are challenging some of the details of the incident in the affidavit, the Herald reported.
Espinoza had been the police chief in Hidalgo since 2012, having been hired away from Treviño’s sheriff’s department, where, as a captain, he taught law enforcement ethics and headed the department’s special units, according to a story by Texas Watchdog.
Treviño had a reputation for running a clean department, making corruption and border security the cornerstones of three successful election campaigns, the Watchdog story said.
Espinoza’s first year as police chief would be the last year for the Panama Unit, described by the Texas Observer as “the worst-kept secret in Hidalgo County, at least among law enforcement and local drug dealers.”
Treviño had used his clout to get his son appointed head of the joint Hidalgo County-Mission Police Department drug unit in 2006 at the age of 22 — his first law enforcement job. The younger Treviño recruited Espinoza’s son and five of his father’s deputies to fill out the unit.
For years the unit stopped drug dealers and let them go, but kept the seized drug caches, reselling them to other drug dealers working with the unit. After a year of investigation, the FBI in December 2012 indicted young Treviño as the ringleader, plus Espinoza and the other members of the Panama Unit.
About the time a federal judge was sentencing the two younger men in 2014, the elder Treviño was forced to resign as sheriff and pleaded guilty to a federal felony money laundering charge for concealing a campaign contribution from suspected drug trafficker Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
During the Panama Unit investigation, deputies said they were under pressure from Treviño’s top commander to raise money for Treviño’s reelection. The commander, Jose Padilla, was also convicted on federal drug trafficking and money laundering charges.
A U.S. district court judge sentenced Treviño and fined him $60,000. A month before he was released, the Texas Ethics Commission fined Treviño $10,000 for failing to report the Gonzalez campaign contribution. According to commission records, the contribution had been reported to authorities by a former Treviño political opponent.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].