Federal agents swooped into Beeville early Friday and arrested two reputed prison gang members as part of a statewide sweep that put 21 of 24 suspected gang members in jail.
Police Chief Joe Treviño confirmed that the arrests were made here and he said that Assistant Police Chief Reagan Scott had been watching a unit in the Town Plaza Apartments where the two suspects here were arrested. Scott joined members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI Task Force in Corpus Christi and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms when they hit the complex at 1700 Mayfair St. at about 7 a.m.
In Houston, U.S. Attorney Don DeGabrielle announced that agents arrested 33-year-old Christopher Castaneda, also known as “PJ,” and 35-year-old Juan Jose Ramirez, also known as “T-Bone.” A statement released by DeGabrielle noted that Castaneda is from Skidmore and Ramirez is from Beeville.
The statement said a third suspect, 35-year-old Eric Lee Rodriguez, also known as “Buckwheat,” was not arrested in the sweep but authorities are looking for him.
DeGabrielle said all the suspects are believed to be members of Los Hermanos de Pistoleros (HPL), a prison and street gang that allegedly was engaged cocaine trafficking conspiracy and laundering millions of dollars generated by the sale of the drugs.
“The HPL members or associates arrested are charged in a 12-count indictment returned under seal by a Houston grand jury May 28, charging a total of 24 members or associates of the Laredo and Houston-based factions of the HPL gang for their alleged involvement in receiving kilogram quantities of cocaine smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico, storing contraband in Laredo area stash houses and transporting and distributing the cocaine to HPL members in Houston beginning in 2001,” DeGabrielle said.
Scott said the investigation here took a serious turn about three years ago shortly after the murder of Donald Bonham outside a local nightclub. He said information gathered in that investigation and from probes in other jurisdictions began to show a pattern that interested federal agencies.
The assistant chief said he joined a raid team of about nine federal agents on Friday morning after monitoring activity at the apartment. The agents surrounded the complex and an entry team knocked on the door of the apartment unit, went inside and made their arrests in seconds.
“The plan that the FBI, ATF and the Beeville Police Department made worked out perfectly,” Treviño said. “The two arrests were made quickly and without incident.”
The chief echoed the sentiments of other top law enforcement personnel in Bee County.
“I think it’s great that they’re (federal agents) coming to Beeville and rounding up some of these criminals.”
“That’s awesome. I’m thrilled,” said Bee County District Attorney Martha Warner. “It’s nice to have the feds helping us.”
“It’s great we’re all working together,” said Sheriff Carlos Carrizales, Jr. His department has been working with city detectives and with undercover operatives and informants to arrest dozens of suspected drug traffickers in recent months.
Carrizales’ chief investigator, Capt. Dan Caddell, agreed that it is good for the community to get the suspects off the street.
“Crooks can get away with dealing drugs for a while,” Caddell said, “but we or someone else will eventually catch them. Gang members bring a special type of evil to a community in that they recruit others to participate in their wickedness and violence.”
“As far as the Sheriff’s Office is concerned, the drug dealers in this county will never be safe from enforcement of the law,” Caddell said.
“It’s a bit hit,” Scott said, commenting that the flow of cocaine through the city could be slowed down for some time. He said informants had told investigators that large amounts of the drug had been coming through Bee County on their way from Laredo to Houston each month and a significant amount of the drug was channeled into the local narcotics network.
Although the raid team failed to capture Rodriguez, Scott said he will not be free for long.
“He’ll be caught eventually,” Scott said. “He’ll show up.”
Scott requested that anyone in the area who sees Rodriguez or knows of his whereabouts contact wither the Beeville Police Department or the FBI with that information.
DeGabrielle said 12 of the alleged gang members and associates were charged with collecting and laundering millions of dollars generated by the sale of cocaine, beginning in July 2007.
“The proceeds were allegedly used to promote the HPL’s illegal activity through the rental or purchases of apartments, hotel rooms, and residences to stash, store or package cocaine, vehicles and cellular phones or to conceal the source of the proceeds through the deposit of cash into personal bank accounts in Laredo and in amounts designed to avoid currency transaction reports,” the attorney said in a news release. “Millions of dollars were deposited and withdrawn from the personal bank accounts in Laredo for these purposes as well as personal use by HPL members.”
“This prosecution is about public safety,” DeGabrielle commented. “Organized criminal gang activity in this particular case has met its match and will now have to answer in our courts. Many thanks to the outstanding collective law enforcement agents who brought these defendants to the bar of justice.”
The multi-year investigation used the combined resources of the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, AFT, the Internal Revenue Service and officers of the Houston Police Department, the Harris county Sheriff’s Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Pasadena Police Department, the Victoria County Sheriff’s Department, the Ford Bend County Sheriff’s Department, the Laredo Police Department and the Beeville Police Department, federal prosecutors said.
The indictment alleges that the HPL gang was formed in the mid 1980s by Latino inmates serving time in Texas Department of Criminal Justice units. Members sport tattoos that include a .45-caliber handgun along the waistline and the letters HPL or objects in the shape of HPL.
The gang allegedly makes its money through the sale and distribution of illegal drugs throughout the state, including the cities of Houston, Victoria and Laredo. Scott said a portion of the narcotics sent from Laredo to Victoria and Houston were siphoned off for distribution in Live Oak and Bee Counties.
Rules of the organization mandate lifetime membership, loyalty and participation in criminal activities of the organization and a decision-making hierarchy. The gang’s structure also provides for each city and prison to have its own leadership structure and some autonomy from the statewide organization.
The indictment alleged that Peter Gil, also known as “Master P, PG or Carwash” of the gang’s Laredo faction agreed to supply Houston gang members and associates with multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine at a price of $14,500 a kilogram, beginning in 2003. Following the agreement Laredo HPL members began procuring, storing, transporting and delivering cocaine to Houston area gang members. A number of HPL members and associates are accused in 10 separate counts of possession with intent to distribute cocaine during the conspiracy.
Those charged with conspiracy face a mandatory sentence of 10 years in prison, a fine of as much as $4 million and five years of supervised release. Other counts carry an equal or lesser possible sentence depending on the amount of drugs involved.
Those charged in the money laundering conspiracy are accused of collecting millions of dollars in drug proceeds in Houston, transporting cash to Laredo and structuring numerous cash deposits in amounts of less than $10,000 into a number of bank accounts in Laredo. The accounts were opened in the names of Pedro and Alma Gil, Maria Padilla Ancira and Lorena Garcia Hernandez. The money later was withdrawn and used to buy real estate, vehicles, airline tickets and numerous services and personal items including jewelry and designer items.
The money laundering conspiracy charge carried a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of more than $500,000 or twice the amount of the financial transaction.
Prosecutors also are seeking forfeiture of interest of 11 defendant including those specifically names in $6 million of U.S. currency, a number of Laredo-area homes and real property in Webb and Dimmit Counties, based on the allegation that the property constitutes the proceeds of, was derived from or used furtherance of the charge of criminal activity.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Tim S. Braley and Mary Lou Castillo have been assigned to prosecute the case.
Each of the defendants in custody are expected to be arraigned before a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Houston this week.
Others apprehended as a result of the indictment include Pedro Gil of Laredo, Daniel Avila, 28, of Rio Bravo, Mark Barrera, 28, of Houston, Marino Duran, 46, of Houston, Raul Garcia aka “Flaco,” 29, of Laredo, Manuel Bernard Harris aka “Black,” 38, of Houston, Benjamin Leal aka “Benny or Primo,” 39, unknown address, Alberto Lerma aka “Gas,” 28, of Houston, Joe Brian Martinez, 28, of Victoria, Robert Luis Naravaez aka “Tato,” of Houston, Roberto Navarrete, Jr., 37, of Houston, Marvin Ramdeen aka “Black or Marv,” 26, of Houston, Pacino San Miguel aka “P or Pedro,” 31, of Houston, Roberto Sanchez, Jr. aka “Cameron,” 34, of Pearsall, Mark Urdialez, 34, of Mathis, Brian Michael Washington, 21, of Houston, Alma Gil aka “Alma Ancira,” 29, of Laredo, Maria D. Padilla Ancira, 63, of Laredo and Lorena Garcia Hernandez, 31, of Laredo.
Those still being sought by federal agents, other than Rodriguez of Beeville, were identified as Terrance Robinson aka “Monster,” 40, of Shepard, and Juan Manuel Hernandez aka “Meme,” 33, of Houston.