Former police chief gets 20 years in drug trafficking case

Geovani Hernandez

McALLEN — A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a former Rio Grande Valley lawman to a 20-year prison sentence in connection with a drug conspiracy case.

U.S. District Judge Randy Crane sentenced Geovani Hernandez, a law enforcement officer of nearly two decades, including time as the La Joya police chief, several months after a four-day trial that ultimately ended with jurors finding him guilty of playing a role in a drug trafficking scheme concocted by federal agents.

Crane, who presided over the trial in March, stated before the sentencing that he was perplexed as to why Hernandez had not opted to plead guilty in light of the prosecution’s evidence against him, which was substantial.

He said if Hernandez had opted to go that route, he would’ve likely been spared up to seven years in prison.

Instead, he was handed a 240-month sentence, which could’ve easily been 293 months, the high-side of the sentencing range Hernandez was subject to.

In early March, jurors found that the government had proven through evidence that Hernandez had provided his services in exchange for money to a man he believed was working with Gulf Cartel members. In fact, the scheme was made up by federal agents working with a man who had befriended Hernandez for a potential business endeavor.

Hernandez, prosecutors said, on two occasions in July 2017 agreed to provide “safe passage” for Hector Obed Saucedo-Rodriguez, someone who Hernandez believed was a drug cartel associate, from Progreso to Pharr. Hernandez agreed to provide cover for the vehicle Saucedo-Rodriguez was driving, which was loaded with cocaine.

Prosecutors further presented evidence that Hernandez and Saucedo-Rodriguez, the man he thought was a Gulf Cartel associate, but who was in fact working as a government informant, “sweeped” the streets of Progreso to assure the vehicle got through with the cocaine.

The sentence and aforementioned guilty verdict comes two years after Hernandez met with the informant, a Pharr man who ran an illegal casino business, met a U.S. Homeland Security Investigations special agent to cooperate with the government against the 45-year-old Hernandez.

The conviction against the Weslaco native becomes the latest in a long list of Rio Grande Valley lawmen landing in the same quarters as the very men they were sworn to apprehend.

Just last week, a federal jury returned guilty verdicts on all eight counts for former state District Judge Rodolfo “Rudy” Delgado, who was accused of accepting bribes from a local attorney in exchange for favorable consideration in his courtroom.

The cooperating source and government’s star witness, Saucedo-Rodriguez, testified that he was motivated to cooperate with the government to get information on Hernandez because of a promise he made to his wife, Maritza Salinas.

Salinas was facing serious federal drug charges in connection with an unrelated cocaine conspiracy case out of Houston involving, among others, corrupt Valley law enforcement officers.

Saucedo-Rodriguez told HSI agents that he could get close to Hernandez because he was looking to open illegal 8-liner casinos in Progreso, and that he had a friend who knew Hernandez as someone who could help him with that.

Saucedo-Rodriguez agreed sometime in March 2017 to do just that by way of a business proposition regarding illegal 8-liner casinos — businesses Hernandez was known to collect from — not knowing that Hernandez would eventually be willing to get involved in scouting for a suspected drug load.

From March 2017 to the end of July 2017, Saucedo-Rodriguez recorded several hours of communication between the two — most times with Hernandez changing the meaning of words during conversations with Saucedo-Rodriguez as a counter-surveillance tactic.

Hernandez’s defense counsel argued not that Hernandez did not commit these alleged acts, but that Saucedo-Rodriguez’s own actions made him untrustworthy and lacking in credibility.

The defense repeatedly brought up Saucedo-Rodriguez’s own lies to the very agents he was supposed to be helping, such as admitting to stealing cash that was supposed to go to Hernandez as part of the investigation into him, and lying about continued drug use.

Saucedo-Rodríguez is currently serving prison time for the theft of government funds after he admitted to HSI agents that some of the money that was intended for Hernandez ended up in his pocket instead.

Despite this, Saucedo-Rodríguez’s testimony over the course of Hernandez’s trial, which in all was three days and nearly 11 hours, seemed to seal the fate for the father of four.

Much of that testimony centered on the two specific “operations” he and Hernandez carried out.

On those occasions, Saucedo-Rodriguez said he was Hernandez’s passenger in his personal car on July 15, 2017, and in Hernandez’s patrol unit on July 31, 2017, when a car loaded with drugs that Hernandez believed was associated with the Gulf Cartel was to traverse through Progreso to Pharr.

Jurors were shown a photo of the badge Hernandez gave to Saucedo-Rodriguez, who promptly showed it to federal agents in charge of the investigation, before returning it to Hernandez.

Also shown to jurors was aerial surveillance footage of the July 15, 2017 meeting between the two men, showing the arrival of Saucedo-Rodriguez at Hernandez’s Weslaco residence, and then the subsequent trip to Progreso where Hernandez was tasked with “sweeping” Progreso’s city streets to provide safe passage.

Hernandez understood he would be paid $5,000 for each instance of helping aid the associates get the load car through the city he was sworn to patrol.

On the final day of testimony, the government called a Mission man who testified he made a living stealing drugs from cartels, sometimes in cooperation with law enforcement officers, including with the help of Hernandez.

Arturo Cuellar Zavala Jr. implicated Hernandez in at least three jobs — two sometime in mid-2016, and one job on Jan. 20, 2017.

He said that a mere phone call to Hernandez and the law enforcement officer would make himself available to help in drug rips on vehicles that carried narcotics.

Cuellar testified that in one instance in 2016, Hernandez helped him and his crew secure nearly $800,000 of heroin by pulling up behind a vehicle loaded with 20 kilograms of heroin.

But it was during the first day of the trial that the conviction may have been secured as Saucedo-Rodriguez hit at the core of Hernandez’s motivation for his willingness to get involved in the illicit activity.

He testified that in one meeting, Hernandez allegedly told Saucedo-Rodriguez that he needed money for his campaign bid for a Hidalgo County constable post. He also told Saucedo-Rodriguez that he was a close friend of Gulf Cartel Plaza boss Juan Manuel Loza-Salinas, aka “El Toro,” who ran a plaza in Reynosa, Mexico, the complaint read.

Saucedo-Rodríguez said Hernandez would solicit funds for, among other things, to start a towing company.

The former police chief was arrested on Aug. 12, 2017, at his Weslaco ranch. He began his law enforcement career with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office more than two decades ago, and has previously served with various local police agencies — Progreso, Alamo and Pharr to name a few.

In addition to the prison sentence, Hernandez is required to serve five years of supervised release upon completion of this prison term.

Before reading the punishment, Hernandez briefly addressed the court, thanking Crane for his personal and professional consideration, his family and his mother.

“I hope I can be reunited with (my family) soon,” Hernandez said. “God bless this court, and God bless us all.”

After the hearing, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations officials reacted to the lengthy sentence.

“This sentence serves as a sobering reminder about the serious consequences for those who violate the public’s trust,” said Shane Folden, HSI special agent in charge. “HSI will continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners to target and investigate those who exploit their position for financial gain.”

The sentencing of another lawman and authority figure comes on the heels of a federal jury finding a former state district judge guilty on bribery charges.

Rodolfo “Rudy” Delgado was found guilty on eight charges during a four-day trial related to a federal bribery investigation into the longtime judge.