A U.S. Border Patrol agent has been charged with capital murder in the case of a Honduran man who was decapitated in an act of drug cartel violence earlier this year.
Lotta details to this case, lotta ins and outs, lotta what-have-yous. Sometime in mid-March, Franklin Rodriguez Palacios Paz, of Edinburg, Texas, was reported missing. Paz, originally from Honduras, reportedly had a job at a Veteran’s Tire Shop in town, and a common-law wife who “said he was in the country unlawfully” at the time of his disappearance.
Days later, on March 16, a headless, mutilated body was found floating in the waters off of South Padre Island, a “popular spring break destination” along Texas’s Gulf Coast. In addition to the missing head, the body’s chest “had been mutilated with a sharp object, suggestive of organized crime violence in Mexico.” Authorities checked fingerprints “in a federal database” and were able to identify the body as belonging to Paz. Paz’s real name, according to one report, is Juan Francisco Palacios Paz.
Paz reportedly had a criminal history that included drug-related arrests. Different reports say different things, but at least one claims the Veteran’s Tire Shop was, in fact, a front for “a drug packaging operation.” Paz’s coworkers at the shop reportedly included Aaron Rodriguez Medellin, Nestor Manuel Leal, and brothers Eduardo Luna Rodriguez and Fernando Luna Rodriguez.
Those four men were arrested in connection with Paz’s brutal murder. While Medellin, Leal, and Eduardo Luna Rodriguez were arrested in Edinburg, Fernando Luna Rodriguez was arrested while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border with his other brother, Joel Luna, a six-year veteran of the U.S. Border Patrol.
Possibly because of his sibling relationship to two of the murderers, investigators reportedly began to look at Luna “shortly after the June arrest of four men who would later be charged with capital murder.”
Through interviews with the accused, investigators learned of a safe that Joel Luna allegedly had hidden in the home of his mother-in-law in San Juan. Stashed in the safe was a kilogram of cocaine, an undisclosed amount of methamphetamine, two handguns, and nearly $90,000, all of which was seized by authorities.
On Thursday, Luna was arrested at his home on a charge of possession of a controlled substance. Then, on Friday, Luna was hit with additional charges related to Paz’s death: capital murder, engaging in organized criminal activity, and tampering with evidence.
Cameron County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Gus Reyna Jr. said investigators “developed further information that corroborated that the murder was associated with the Gulf cartel.” PBS Frontline says the Gulf Cartel traffics cocaine and other drugs “all over the U.S. as far north as Michigan and New York.” Their international operation is reportedly “headquartered directly across the border from the Cameron County seat of Brownsville in Matamoros, Mexico.”
The Los Angeles Times quotes Reyna as saying the ongoing investigation indicates that Luna was “a participant in the possession and distribution of controlled substances,” in addition to Paz’s murder.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol says Luna’s corruption is anomalous among his peers:
“The overwhelming majority of [Border Patrol] officers and agents perform their duties with honor and distinction, working tirelessly every day to keep our country safe,” the agency said in a statement. “We do not tolerate corruption or abuse within our ranks, and we fully cooperate with any criminal or administrative investigation of alleged misconduct by any of our personnel, on or off duty.”
Statistics generally support this assertion. A 2012 U.S. Government Accountability Study reported that “less than 1 percent of CBP’s entire workforce per fiscal year” is arrested on corruption-related charges. As a raw number, that’s certainly encouraging—the overwhelming majority of Border Patrol agents are clean. But! Given the large size of CBP’s workforce—over 21,000 agents—even a small percentage adds up to a correspondingly large number of individuals engaging in criminal behavior from within the agency: 144 were charged with corruption-related crimes over a seven-year period between 2006 and 2012. Luna’s alleged crimes make him just one among that group.
The 2010 Anti-Border Corruption Act mandates that applicants for U.S. Border Patrol positions take a polygraph exam—Luna, a six-year CBP veteran, would have been hired at least a year before the Act became law.
Right, so, back to the case: all five men charged in the murder are being held without bond at the Cameron County jail. Paz’s head has still not been found.
Image via the San Antonio Express-News