His voice breaking, the man who had helped bring drug traffickers to justice as a top official in the Laredo multi-agency Narcotics Task Force stood in federal court Friday, apologizing to the court and to his family for taking money from undercover federal agents who he believed were smuggling cocaine into the U.S. from Mexico.Julio Alfonso Lopez, the task force’s former deputy commander, stood in a black suit and cowboy boots next to his co-defendant, Meliton Valadez, who admitted to brokering the transactions.
Lopez, 46, and 33-year old Valadez, who was wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, head each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to interfere with interstate commerce under color of official right. Federal District Judge George P. Kazen sentenced Lopez to 100 months in federal prison and Valadez to 78 months. After their prison terms are complete, both will have to serve three years of supervised release. They had faced up to 20 years in jail and a fine of up to $250,000, but received sentence reductions because they took responsibility for their actions and because they cooperated with the government. Lopez, however, received a stiffer sentence because he abused his position as a law enforcement officer. Both were ordered to undergo drug treatment.
Asks for leniency
Before the sentencing, Lopez asked Kazen for as much leniency as the judge could give, saying he wanted to be there for his family, with whom Lopez said he’d recently been reunited after 12 years of separation. “I believe, ironically, since this happened, I’ve actually been able to rekindle what had been lost between my children and myself, especially the youngest one, who’s 9 years old,” Lopez said.
He testified that drug and alcohol use had been a factor in making the decisions that led to his actions.
Lopez is the brother of 49th District Court Judge Joe Lopez. Another brother, Joel Lopez, testified on Julio Lopez’s behalf Friday. Joel Lopez told the judge that law enforcement had been his brother’s passion.
Joel Lopez told the story of a man who had begun law enforcement work as a jailer in his teens and had ascended to become a well-respected law enforcement officer whom other departments approached for assistance in undercover operations and who took part in operations as far away as Georgia.
Julio Lopez showed signs he was falling, Joel Lopez said, when his family life deteriorated and signs of substance abuse became apparent. Joel Lopez choked back sobs as he described watching his older brother, the once-proud law enforcement officer who he said had represented scruples and discipline and of whom his whole family was proud, go into a tailspin. Joel Lopez said he regretted not stepping in to help.
“I know he sidestepped and broke the Constitution he had loved for so long,” Joel Lopez said.
Never being able to serve in law enforcement again is the biggest punishment Julio Lopez faces, his brother said. Julio Lopez worked for more than 20 years as an investigator for the Zapata County Attorney’s Office before he joined the task force in 2005. He has four children, ages 9 to 20. Family members filled the courtroom, but declined to comment afterward. Judge Lopez was not present.
Julio Lopez and Valadez were arrested in May of last year and indicted on 10 counts, but were sentenced on only one as part of their plea agreements. During the sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim McAlister said it was Valadez’s agreement to testify that led to a plea deal being negotiated with Lopez. Valadez, who was not associated with the task force, acted as a middleman with federal agents that he and Lopez believed were drug traffickers. Valadez supplied Lopez with cocaine for his personal use as well, said Lopez’s lawyer, Octavio Salinas III.
Between June 2005 and December 2005, Lopez and Valadez negotiated deals with men they believed to be drug traffickers, providing safe avenues and facilities for them to transport and store cocaine. The proceeds from those transactions totaled almost $50,000, the documents state. Lopez used his position as deputy commander of the task force, now called the South Texas Violent Crime Task Force, to ensure the traffickers had a safe route, according to court documents.
The undercover operation was conducted by special agents from the Laredo office of the FBI, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston. Attorneys for Valadez and Lopez argued that because no real drugs were involved, it would be inappropriate to sentence the defendants based on the amount of drugs they thought were being transported. Guillermo Ruben Garcia, representing Valadez, said neither defendant would again be in a situation to commit similar acts. Salinas asked Kazen to take into account his client’s long service in law enforcement.
The judge brushed the arguments aside, saying the drugs may not have been real, but the money was, and suggesting that the reason the federal government ran the sting operation was because agents suspected Lopez and Valadez were already engaged in criminal activity. He called Lopez’s service as a lawman a “double-sided sword,” pointing to corruption in Mexico as evidence that U.S. law enforcement needs to be held to a high standard. “If we don’t do something to stop corruption in law enforcement, then God help us all,” Kazen said. “We’re too close to seeing what happens.”
Lopez is free on bond until he is directed to begin his sentence, according to the news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Valadez has been in custody on a parole violation, the news release stated.
Other guilty plea
Another former member of the task force facing similar charges pleaded guilty in August. Jose Amaro, who was working as an investigator for the Zapata County Attorney’s office and serving on the task force, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess marijuana with intent to distribute. Also charged were Manuel “Meme” Martinez, who was a justice of the peace in Zapata County at the time, and Ruben Elizondo, a Zapata County code enforcement officer. The three were arrested and charged in June. Martinez and Amaro were initially charged with 10 counts. Martinez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct, delay and affect interstate commerce by means of extortion. Elizondo was acquitted by a federal jury.
That case stemmed from an FBI investigation in Zapata as well. Martinez and Amaro were accused of using their positions to provide safe avenues for drug traffickers. Elizondo was accused of providing counter-surveillance.
During Elizondo’s trial, Martinez admitted to being recruited by his cousin, Rafael Riojas, who, the government claimed, was a member of the Gulf Cartel’s paramilitary group the Zetas.
Special Agent Andrew del Valle testified during the trial that Riojas had cooperated with the government after being arrested in 2006.
Salinas said he did not know of any connection between the two cases.