EDINBURG — The final suspect in the La Plaza Mall robbery made a Hollywood-esque claim Thursday that is reminiscent of a plot twist in a blockbuster action heist flick.
Namely, the La Plaza Mall robbery that shocked the Rio Grande Valley during the summer of 2018 — when seven men smashed glass in the Deutsch & Deutsch jewelry store, causing mall-goers to mistake the sound for gunshots — was never about making off with millions of dollars in designer watches.
Instead, the brazen daylight robbery was a diversion for a drug cartel based in Mexico City to fly a large shipment of cocaine into McAllen International Airport for distribution throughout the Rio Grande Valley, according to the claim, which is based on interviews with two juvenile cartel members who are in custody.
And through his attorney, 26-year-old Abner Zepeda Posos, a Mexican national, says he was forced to participate in that robbery attempt after this unnamed cartel threatened bodily harm to his family, including his 5-year-old child.
“He was just a pawn,” Ricardo Alanis, the man’s attorney, said during the sentencing hearing where Posos was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Alanis said Posos received a message instilling fear in him eight to 10 days before the robbery. According to Posos, he traveled by bus to the border, crossed the river, waited in the brush two days and then was held in terrible conditions before the robbery.
The defendants were split up before the robbery and there was no planning or rehearsing, Alanis said.
“He was not a leader,” the defense attorney said.
Prosecutors have portrayed Posos and 24-year-old Mexican national Brayan Melchor, who are childhood friends, as the ringleaders because they were convicted of committing a nearly identical robbery in California four years ago.
Alanis said a drug cartel operative involved in that attempted heist was also involved in orchestrating the La Plaza Mall robbery.
“It’s people like him and the ones above him that should be in jail,” Alanis said.
In early September, the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office provided new evidence that was possibly exculpatory at sentencing to all the defendants in the La Plaza Mall case, including five who had already been sentenced.
At the time, authorities remained tight-lipped on the evidence, which could be exculpatory.
During Posos’ sentencing, Assistant District Attorney Angel Davila revealed that two juvenile cartel members in custody, who were not members of the supposed Mexico City-based cartel, claimed the defendants were brought to the Rio Grande Valley to serve as a diversion for a large load of cocaine being smuggled in via an airplane.
Davila, however, doesn’t buy the story, questioning why cartel factions operating out of Reynosa would allow a rival cartel from Mexico City to do such a thing and how its rival members would know of the scheme.
“I think this is all not a very well conceived story,” Davila said.
The prosecutor also reminded the court that the claim is all hearsay.
However, Alanis reminded state District Judge Israel Ramon Jr. that it would be hard for the juveniles to fabricate the story with Posos as they are incarcerated in separate buildings.
Ramon asked Alanis that even assuming the claim had some credibility, that the whole event was a diversion away from a large shipment of cocaine that was being smuggled in, how does that excuse Posos’ actions?
“We didn’t even know,” Alanis said. “He doesn’t even know.”
But for the judge, Posos’ previous involvement in the California heist was inexcusable.
“I still cannot in essence overlook or forgive that he was involved in another felony like this,” Ramon said.
Before handing down a 22-year sentence, Ramon allowed Posos to address the court.
“I’m sorry for the mistake I made,” Posos said. “I’m just asking for some leniency. I’m just sorry to everyone for what happened.”
In all, the La Plaza Mall suspects — who include Posos, Melchor, 27-year-old Miguel Cardenas Quintanilla, 34-year-old Alberto Rafael Barrera, 24-year-old Javier Leobardo Olvera and 29-year-old Jorge Angel Mejia — have been sentenced to a combined 111 years in prison.