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Cameron County, Texas, Jail Guards Indicted for Drug Smuggling, Theft, Sexual Misconduct

by Michael Rigby

The problems began almost as soon as the Cameron County Jail system's newly built Carrizales-Rucker Detention Center opened in the summer of 2002. Just months after the $19 million maximum security jail began operations in the South Texas town of Olmito, two prisoners escaped, apparently picking a lock with plastic spoons. Less than a year later, several guards and ranking officers have been indicted in a number of scandals, including drug smuggling, theft of prisoner funds and property, and improper sexual relations with female prisoners. The detention center is one of four jails operated by the Cameron County Sheriff Department.

On December 12, 2002, drugs were found at the Carrizales-Rucker Detention Center for the second time in as many months. Sheriff Conrado Cantu revealed in a December 13, 2002 statement that guards at the maximum security jail had discovered two marijuana cigarettes during a routine search.

Marijuana had also been discovered at the jail in October. A guard was charged in that incident on October 17, 2002, after admitting that he smuggled the drugs to prisoners.

On May 1, 2003, former jailer Juan Mendoza III pleaded not guilty to two charges of theft by a public servant. Mendoza is accused of stealing money and personal property from prisoners. The two-count indictment was returned by a grand jury on March 19, 2003.

Along with the sheriff department's administrative investigation, the Brownsville Police Department began a criminal investigation in late November 2002. Almost $8,400 was discovered missing from prisoner accounts in the month of September 2002. The review covered the months of July through September, Mendoza resigned on September 11, 2003.

District Attorney Yolanda de Leon said that Mendoza wasn't charged with stealing the entire $8,400 and that there were other suspects being looked at. Brownsville Police Chief Carlos Garcia said his department had found enough evidence to charge one suspect for tampering with governmental records and that a female guard had also been implicated for theft of funds although he had no information on the status of either.

Most troubling at the jail are allegations of sexual improprieties by ranking guards. On May 30, 2003, former second in command at the jail, Lt. Joel Zamora, pleaded not guilty before state District Judge Menton Murray to four counts of improper sexual relations with two female prisoners. Two of the charges allege sexual contact, the other two involve sexual intercourse.

Reports of Zamora's sexual misconduct surfaced in late November 2002 when Lt. Hilda Trevino showed supervisors letters she had received from prisoners alleging sexual misconduct by guards, including Zamora, who was also present at the meeting. Soon after, in early December, Zamora called Trevino into his office and fired her. Trevino was a 10-year veteran.

That same month, Trevino filed a lawsuit against Sheriff Conrado Cantu and Cameron County alleging she was fired for reporting the letters. Her attorney, Richard Nunez, said she paid the price for doing the right thing.

Nunez said they don't know why Trevino was fired. "They haven't given us a reason for terminating Ms. Trevino because they haven't thought of it yet," he said. "They're working on that, believe me." Nunez said his client wants her job back but "needs protection against retaliation, she needs an injunction to be in place."

A criminal investigation into the alleged sexual misconduct by Zamora and former disciplinary official Alex Garcia was launched on December 1, 2002. It included local, state and federal police agencies.

On December 10, 2002, Zamora and Garcia were suspended without pay; on February 28, 2003 they were fired. Garcia was never indicted, but County Judge Gilberto Hinojosa said it is doubtful he will get his job back.

As a result of the sexual misconduct allegations, all 42 federal female prisoners confined at the Cameron County Jail were removed as of December 13, 2002, said U.S. Marshalls Service officials..

Official charges against Zamora were filed on April 30, 2003, in state district court. He surrendered the same day at the Carrizales-Rucker Detention Center, the same place he worked until his suspension. He immediately posted $15,000 bail. If convicted, Zamora faces 2 years in jail and up to $10,000 in fines on the state-felony charges.

In an attempt to turn the troubled jail system around, the County hired retired state police captain Hector Ramos to oversee it. Ramos.began work on January 7, 2003. A week later he quit without explanation.

The jail system has now pinned their hopes on retired Federal Bureau of Prisons warden Michael Tweedy, who was selected by Sheriff Cantu on February 3, 2003. He was slated to begin his position as head of the jail on February 24, 2003. "I feel very happy about this," said Cantu. "I feel that with all this knowledge that Commander Tweedy brings to our department and working hand in hand, he will do an excellent job in this jail."

Sources: The Brownsville Herald,, Associated Press, The Dallas Morning News

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