A cigarette butt, burnt at a murder crime scene over 20 years ago, left a trail of evidence Starr County authorities picked up again this year.
The man who smoked it met with The Monitor and said he tried to come clean twice, but to no avail.
He blamed the district attorney at the time, who was incensed by the allegation.
COLD CASE CRACKED
Dario Salmon, 45, was found dead outside his Rio Grande City home in 2001. The cigarette found at the crime scene was sent to a Texas Department of Public Safety lab, but it wouldn’t be ready for another three years.
Recently, investigators who took up the case again found the lab made a match to a known gang member operating in Starr County with the Texas Mexican Mafia, Luis Carlos Mares. But no one responded to the lab report in 2004, SCU investigators concluded.
They revisited Mares, who is serving two 60-year sentences for an attempted capital murder in Webb County in 2004 and the murder of a woman strangled with her own shoelace in Hidalgo County in 2003.
Mares, who was a sergeant with the gang in 2001, told investigators he and another member who outranked him — Joe Bazan, a lieutenant — were involved in the murder.
The day of Salmon’s death, Mares took his wife’s car, found a route to Salmon’s home, and dropped off Bazan at an alley nearby.
When Mares and another person picked up Bazan, he was covered in blood. It stained the backseat, and the men had to clean it up and burn Bazan’s clothes.
Mixed in with the retelling of his involvement, Mares told SCU investigators that he tried to give details of this crime to the district attorney in Starr County at the time, Heriberto Silva.
He told The Monitor he tried talking to the district attorney twice.
Dressed in a white uniform, Mares sat down on a round metal stool Tuesday at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice William G. McConnell Unit in Beeville, and picked up a phone to talk through a glass pane with a Monitor reporter about his attempts to disclose details of the crime.
Mares made no effort to mince words.
“Let’s clean this motherf—— s— up. Let’s clean Rio Grande City up,” he said.
Mares benefitted from the corruption he claimed existed when he kidnapped, killed and moved drugs through Starr County.
“It was good while it lasted,” Mares said, responding candidly.
Years after incarceration, he feels compelled to talk about the system that he exploited and used to hurt many.
A long list of crimes and bad choices led Mares to prison and where he could stay until he’s 92 years old.
Born to a carpenter father and a mother who tended to the home, Mares said he started down the wrong path after he dropped out of high school. He and his father worked with criminal organizations in Mexico, but it was his father’s kidnapping that changed him.
The father escaped, and eventually left that life behind; Mares stepped deeper into it.
As a young man, he adapted to the brutality of the life he chose.
In 1994, Mares brutally killed his cousin with a baseball bat, a crime for which he was sentenced to serve five years in prison. He said the district attorney’s office, at the time under his relative, Heriberto Silva, originally wanted to give him 99 years.
Silva later said he did not prosecute that case, but he said they did share relatives on Mares’ maternal side.
In 1999, Mares joined the Texas Mexican Mafia. He claimed to have used his family ties, but mainly, the gang’s money to get cases dismissed in Starr County.
“We were giving him money; just make the cases disappear,” Mares alleged.
Mares claimed he paid Silva thousands of dollars to make “several” cases go away.
“If you go back to 2000, I had a stack of cases: deadly conduct, type of murder. And I went for two years on tamper with a state witness,” Mares said.
In 2000 and 2001, Mares had nine felony cases filed against him in Starr County. Some were consolidated for others, but they ranged from possession of a firearm by a felon to aggravated assault, deadly conduct, exhibiting a deadly weapon, and tampering with a witness.
A jury returned a not guilty verdict on three of them; a jury did find him guilty of tampering with a witness and he was sentenced to serve two years in prison; but five cases were dismissed.
Mares’ allegations of public corruption against Silva are not the only time the former district attorney has been accused of taking bribes.
Four different men who took the stand against a convicted Starr County law enforcement officer, Ramon ‘Ramey’ de la Cruz, spoke about a payment made to Silva in 2011, according to a 220-page transcript from the sentencing hearing in 2019.
De la Cruz was convicted for his role in helping the drug trafficking organization under the Beltran family in Starr County, operated under the leadership of Ramiro Beltran.
During sentencing, Rodolfo Beltran, the banker of the organization and Ramiro’s brother; Rosbel Beltran, Ramiro’s son; Rigoberto Beltran, another brother of Ramiro’s; and Roel Garza, a friend and employee of the organization testified separately and mentioned a payment made to Silva in 2011.
Flatbeds, trucks, welding equipment, and other property were seized from a Beltran ranch after a search warrant was executed on Sept. 30, 2011, according to testimony.
It was later recovered, something a federal agent said was “very shocking.”
“Ramiro gave some money to — what do you call it — the DA at the time,” Rigoberto Beltran said on the stand.
Rodolfo Beltran and Roel Garza said a $6,000 payment secured Silva’s signature to release their property.
“People try to do that to help themselves,” Silva said, referring to those who testified that day hoping to receive lighter sentences for their role in the drug trafficking organization.
Silva, long retired from the district attorney’s office but who still works as a public defender, refuted the claims levied against him in a 14-minute telephone conversation Friday.
The following is a transcript of a portion of the interview with The Monitor, in which an agitated Silva was indignant to hear the allegations from convicted criminals like Mares and Beltranes.
SILVA: I’ve been in law enforcement for 40 years, ma’am. I was a captain in the military police. I was county attorney. I was assistant district attorney in Hidalgo County. I was DA here for 24 years, and now I’m a director with the public defender’s office. I’m a member of a church. I’m a member of the Lion’s Club for 40 years. I was a band booster. I was an ROTC booster, Rattler booster, here in town. I’ve served on many committees, including the committee that created the public defender’s program throughout Texas. Member of the State bar. I’ve never had any problems with the law. Now, if you publish a deal that says I’m a member of the Mexican mafia, and you believe it, damn. When do I have time? I’ve got so much work to do to be a member of any other club. And you’re asking me to be a member of the Mexican Mafia? Now, come on.
REPORTER: No, I did not.
SILVA: No, yes you did. You published it.
REPORTER: No, sir. Those allegations are not — that’s not something that I said.
SILVA: Well, that’s how I feel. You published that without doing any homework. Why would I trust you about anything else?
REPORTER: Sir, we did not publish that.
SILVA: Why don’t you publish that, that I said that you didn’t do your homework. And, that’s why I don’t want to talk to you.
REPORTER: I can write that if you’d like. I don’t mind.
SILVA: Yes, ma’am. Put it down.
The Monitor published an initial story in late July quoting a government document, a probable cause affidavit, that stated: “Defendant Mares insisted in his statement that he had provided the details of Dario Salmon’s murder to 229th District Attorney in 2004 who had traveled to Laredo to interview him in person while he was in custody for a different offense.”
Silva questioned the validity of the claims raised in the De la Cruz sentencing, too.
REPORTER: I did check a 220-page transcript in which four members, three members of the Beltranes and one of their friends testified that they paid you money for the seizure, in 2001, I believe. (Correction: Warrant was executed in 2011.)
SILVA: No, they testified about a guy that was with the sheriff’s office and you know that. (Silva said, referring to De la Cruz.)
REPORTER: No, I read the transcript, sir, 220 pages.
SILVA: You can dig up all you want to, ma’am. If the feds would have believed that story, I wouldn’t be here right now. People try to do that to help themselves. The guy is still in Mexico, the one who gave that story, Ramiro Beltran. You know that.
In another short exchange, Silva dismissed Mares’ bribery claims.
REPORTER: So, Mr. Mares is alleging that he paid you so those cases could get dismissed. Why would he say that?
SILVA: Ma’am, you got to understand he was in custody. He was serving all this time and he didn’t have a penny in his pocket. What are you talking about? Paid anybody.
The brief phone conversation confirmed Mares’ initial claim that he told Silva about the Salmon murder in 2004.
Mares was facing capital murder charges in Webb County at the time and Silva drove up from Starr County to talk to him.
“I told him who did it. I told him everything,” Mares told The Monitor on Tuesday.
Silva said, “I’m telling you that I interviewed him, because he wanted help and I couldn’t give him help because he was not in my jurisdiction. He was in Webb County. He had some other cases in Hidalgo County, and he had some cases in Cameron County.” He added, “He gave me that information and I passed it on to the Rangers. The Dario Salmon case was the least of his problems.”
Mares claimed he tried talking about it a second time in 2005, but Silva did not confirm that attempt.
A HISTORY OF COLLABORATION
Mares has a history of speaking with authorities about crimes in which he has participated.
In 2005, Mares spoke to the Texas Rangers about a murder involving his ex-girlfriend, Ann Marie Garcia, who was strangled with her own shoelace two years prior.
“Mares implicated himself, Reynaldo Saenz, and almost a dozen other men in both the home invasion and Garcia’s kidnapping and murder, according to the affidavit,” The Monitor reported in 2005.
He testified again in the same case, for a retrial of a Mexican mafia member, Juan Adames, who Mares described as a foot soldier, in 2015.
“Mares, who is serving 60 years in prison for his involvement in Garcia’s murder and two other unrelated crimes, said he came to testify because he felt Adames needed to take responsibility for what he did — just like Mares had done more than 10 years ago,” The Monitor reported in 2015.
On Tuesday, Mares repeated a similar motivation.
“They’ve done too much ‘daño’ already in Starr County,” Mares said. “I just hope Rio Grande City comes clean already.”
Mares, who claimed to have delivered drugs to a current police officer back in the 1980s, paid a current public official bribes, and worked with lawyers who were aware of the corruption but are still practicing law, said he hopes his case can address problems he believes are still plaguing the South Texas county.
“I know people in Rio Grande City are tired already. I know. So, for me, Rio Grande City, if you’re all tired of this, say something. Speak up,” Mares urged.
The murder investigation of Dario Salmon continues to move forward. Mares looks forward to speaking in court.
“I’m not scared,” a defiant Mares said from behind the glass.
His projected release date is in 45 years, although he’s up for parole review in 15 years.