Elberto Esquiel Bravo, 55, the former warden at the East Hidalgo County Detention Center, was arrested in January 2015 and charged with acting as an accessory after the fact in a conspiracy to bribe Hidalgo County Justice of the Peace Jose Ismael “Melo” Ochoa to reduce the bond of a Mexican drug trafficker.
The detention center, operated by LCS Corrections Services at the time, holds prisoners for the U.S. Marshals as well as overflow prisoners from the Hidalgo County Jail. The facility has been the subject of past complaints over inadequate health care, lack of water and lack of recreation.
In February 2010, agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration asked the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office to conduct a traffic stop on Luis Martinez-Gallegos pursuant to an investigation into a major cocaine smuggling operation. Almost 90 kilos of cocaine were discovered in his car, and Ochoa set his bond at $2.45 million.
According to the criminal complaint filed against Bravo, three people who later cooperated with federal authorities conspired with others, including Bravo, to bribe Ochoa to reduce the bond so Martinez-Gallegos, who was in the U.S. illegally, could post bail and be deported to Mexico. They paid $100,000 in bribes; Ochoa then reduced the bond to $50,000, and Martinez-Gallegos was released and deported.
Bravo allegedly met with one of the cooperating witnesses and an unnamed attorney who accepted the bribe money. The former warden was placed on paid administrative leave after LCS became aware that he was the subject of a federal investigation. He was removed from his position at the detention center in February 2012.
However, the charges against Bravo and a woman implicated in the bribery scheme, Sylvia San Juanita Vasquez, were dismissed by federal prosecutors on August 26, 2015 in the “interest of justice.” The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not elaborate.
Texas State Representative Terry Canales denied any wrongdoing in connection with the bribery scandal; he was the criminal defense attorney for Martinez-Gallegos, and has not been charged with any crime. “I filed a legal bond reduction. It was reduced, and that was the long and the short of it,” Canales stated.
LCS Corrections was purchased by the GEO Group in February 2015, and GEO continues to operate the East Hidalgo County Detention Center.
Since December 2012, a series of corruption scandals have rocked Hidalgo County. Former Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino was convicted of accepting bribes from a drug trafficker, and received a five-year federal prison sentence. Justice of the Peace Ochoa was indicted for bribery, engaging in organized criminal activity and money laundering; he allegedly worked with the same drug trafficker, Julio Armando Davila, and accepted bribes to reduce bonds for clients of a bail bond company affiliated with Davila.
Ochoa, who cooperated with federal authorities, pleaded guilty to bribery charges in December 2014 in exchange for 10 years of probation. Davila was tied to other corruption cases, including that of his former girlfriend, Aida Palacios, who was an investigator for the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office. She was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for storing drugs for Davila and running license plates for him. Davila was charged with conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and sentenced to 43 months in prison plus three years of supervised release on October 5, 2015.
Apparently, corruption and serving in public office go hand-in-hand in Hidalgo County, Texas.
Sources: www.valleycentral.com, www.themonitor.com
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