Government investigating drug trafficking organization in Starr County
RIO GRANDE CITY, TX — "We do not allow the cartel to control our streets," a prosecutor argued at a detention hearing for three men suspected of participating in a drug trafficking organization operating in Starr County.
The testimony shed light on a case the government is building against the defendants, who were arrested during targeted raids carried out February 3, 2020 by the HSI Falcon Dam task force.
The offense stems from a failed smuggling attempt on January 17, 2019, according to the indictment, involving 320 kilograms of cocaine, an ATV, and a bundle that jumped from the load and landed close to two of the defendants who were reportedly feeding livestock, and were dressed "nicely."
It happened on property that sits along the border and includes a ranch and residences belonging to several related families. U.S. prosecutor Patricia Profit described it as "a compound, though that will really get everybody upset. But there are some very contiguous properties there."
Federal agents have been looking at the property on 208 Midway Road for the last two and a half years, according to testimony offered on the stand. The government believes it to be "a staging area that has been used in the past by the cartel."
During the detention hearing held February 11 and 13, 2020, the government called DEA Case Agent Christopher Donahue to the stand. He spoke to the court about the incident as witnessed by agents in the field.
Donahue said Daniel Sepulveda was seen driving an ATV loaded with eleven drug bundles in burlap sacks on a ranch located on 208 Midway Road. The smuggling attempt failed when law enforcement detected and chased the vehicle.
Daniel Sepulveda drove the ATV toward the Rio Grande and at one point made a sharp turn, dropping a bundle on the Midway property belonging to Americo Garcia. The recreational vehicle continued until crashing near the river bank where Daniel Sepulveda dismounted and swam to Mexico. The 10 bundles it was carrying were found in, or by the river.
After the incident, the two co-defendants, Evaristo Sepulveda III and Juan I. Garcia were seen driving to a barn about 30 yards away. They were later spotted by federal agents holding a bag of feed, corn, near a horse.
When Border Patrol talked to them, the fallen bundle of cocaine was about 5 to 10 yards away. Agents said the men were dressed in nice clothes not fit for ranching, and appeared frantic.
"Well, judge, who wouldn't be frantic if they saw an ATV on their property dropping bundles and law enforcement following behind?" Gocha Ramirez asked in defense of his client, Juan I. Garcia. "You don't have to be involved in the actual distribution of the cocaine to become frantic when you see that happening on your father's property."
Ramirez pointed out that Garcia was on the property because he is a caretaker of his father's, Americo Garcia's ranch. Ramirez explained Garcia's earnings came from his job as a rancher and his mere presence on the property was to tend to his father's livestock as he does regularly.
Ramirez further argued that there was no direct evidence known at the time of the hearing that links Garcia to the drugs. Under questioning, agent Donahue admitted the bundles were not tested for finger prints.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter Ormsby later pondered, "Is it likely he would've been there with all that going on and not be involved in that situation? It's possible, and it's something that can be argued as the case goes forward. But, you know, generally, of course, people that are involved in large-scale drug trafficking are not going to be dropping off bundles next to people who have nothing to do with it for obvious reasons, or to be in a place where there will be people who have nothing to do with it for obvious reasons."
Agents believe Evaristo Sepulveda III was waiting to receive the cocaine. However, no text messages indicating that was his role were found by agents who extracted information from phones seized. That was revealed under cross-examination of agent Donahue by Evaristo Sepulveda III's attorney, Gilberto Falcon.
Extracted information from cellphones is part of the government's evidence.
A narco-corrido written about Daniel Sepulveda was found on his cellphone, which was seized during the execution of a search warrant on August 30, 2019. Text messages appear to link Daniel Sepulveda and Garcia to other smuggling events.
Agent Donahue testified that there were conversations between the two referring to 10 cocaine loads crossed between June and August 2019. Agents believe code words "tacos" and "buckets" were used to refer to cocaine received at the riverbank.
The analysis has not found any messages related to the January smuggling event. The agent, however, said the information was voluminous and they are still sorting through the extracted data.
Evaristo Sepulveda III's phone revealed more disturbing content. A video of cartel torture was singled out by agent Donahue, who testified: "He also had one particular video that appears to be a drug cartel interrogation video, in that video, the subject was getting his legs cut off. He was alive getting his legs cut off, and then he was getting beat with his own legs." Another video showed a body dumped in a landfill. Numerous photos were also found that showed law enforcement helicopters and traffic stops.
Character witnesses were called by the defense. Relatives, partners and an ex-wife spoke favorably about the defendants.
Ariana Sepulveda, Daniel's wife, told the judge her husband is a hardworking landscaper who provides for her undergraduate education and their child.
Evaristo Sepulveda III's wife, Julisa Peña said he used to work in pipelines for eight years but lost his job and became a landscaper about a year ago. Under questioning by prosecutors, she admitted their home valued at $200,000 was paid for in cash in a period of two years. They finished paying their home in December 2019.
Garcia had three people testify on his behalf. Rodolfo Carlos Salinas Jr. spoke in glowing terms of Garcia as a father. He explained that although Garcia has children with an ex-wife, a current wife and a girlfriend, he is financially responsible for all four children.
Norma Linda Villarreal, his ex-wife, agreed and called Garcia a "responsible father." She told the court they were married for about six years and divorced about 12 years ago. They lead separate lives, but she praised his involvement with their children and continued financial support.
Melissa Fernanda Orta Deleon, his current partner, said all four children normally spend time together on the weekends.
Although the judge expressed a favorable impression of the defendants as fathers and husbands, he also took into consideration their charges and their alleged behavior.
When Daniel Sepulveda was under arrest and on his way to the DEA office, agents reported he made a threat.
"I have 10 guys over that hill," Sepulveda told agents, according to agent Donahue's testimony. "At the DEA office in McAllen, he [Sepulveda] made a statement that agents were lucky that if he got one of his rifles, he would've at least shot two agents. He stated that he wasn't afraid to die, and he would've at least killed two agents."
An enigmatic Profit, the federal prosecutor, exclaimed to Judge Ormsby, "This is the United States. It is not Mexico. We do not allow the cartel to control our streets, even the streets of Rio Grande City and even Midway," she said with raised arms.
Judge Ormsby later added, "It probably wasn't a real threat in terms of that there really were people that were close by that might threaten the agents or be a threat to the agents, but just the fact of saying that is troubling, frankly."
Other statements made by Daniel Sepulveda related to DEA cameras near their property were also revealed before the judge.
Agents said he told them he knew the cameras belonged to DEA and believed it was unconstitutional. After that, Juan I. Garcia's brother, Jose Luis Garcia was seen at his second home where Rene and Daniel Sepulveda showed up.
Jose Luis Garcia left the house with a rifle and got into his vehicle. They all left together.
About an hour later, the cameras were shot down. Those cameras were about 100 yards from Daniel and Evaristo Sepulveda III's residence, the agent testified.
DPS troopers conducted a trajectory investigation and determined one camera was shot from 32 Midway Road, where Sepulveda's parents reside.
Both Garcia and Daniel Sepulveda were also alleged to have participated in the disappearance of someone the government sought to arrest.
"Agents have interviewed numerous sources that stated that Juan Garcia and Daniel Sepulveda were involved in the disappearance of Joaquin Sepulveda," agent Donahue said.
Joaquin Sepulveda, Daniel Sepulveda's cousin, was involved in a failed smuggling attempt in July 2019. Juan Garcia is also believed to be involved in the July 2019 smuggling attempt.
The government has a pending arrest warrant for him but has been unable to find him. They think they know what happened.
"Those individuals have stated that ... Daniel Sepulveda, was involved in the kidnapping of Joaquin Sepulveda in Mexico, and that he was involved in the murder of Joaquin Sepulveda," agent Donahue said.
In the end, Judge Ormbsy decided the allegation of ongoing drug trafficking attempts represented a "considerable danger to the community," local or wherever the alleged drugs would be sent. "And, the danger to other people and those circumstances are certainly a danger to be considered," he said.
Juan Garcia and Evaristo Sepulveda have been targets of prior investigations.
Garcia was linked to a 386-kilogram cocaine bust in February 2007, but prosecutors dropped the case, according to federal court records.
Judge Ormbsy mentioned Evaristo Sepulveda committed a felony offense but received a deferred probation.
Bond was denied to all. They will be detained until their trial.