5 plead guilty in Starr County drug trafficking case that includes former justice of the peace

McALLEN — Five out of 25 defendants charged with participating in a Starr County drug trafficking ring, which included a justice of the peace, cut a deal with the government on Thursday and declared themselves guilty.

Ramiro Eden Clarke, Eugenio Peña, 42, Roosevelt Vela, 54, Janella Chavarria, 34, and Adrean Espitia-Garza, 25, appeared virtually before U.S. District Judge Randy Crane for the hearing after reaching plea deals with the government.

All five are facing charges for their role in a drug trafficking organization that saw its members arrested following a coordinated effort that drew down federal agents from all parts of the country on Sept. 15, 2021. The arrests that day included former Starr County Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace Roel “Role” Valadez.

Justice of the Peace Roel Valadez at a raid on his home Sept. 15, 2021. (Monitor Photo)

The defendants who went before the judge on Thursday were not considered the leaders of the organization. Prosecutors previously described Ignacio “Nacho” Garza, Diego Alberto Reyes-Roiz and Isodoro Garza leaders of the organization.

All defendants were facing two charges each, including the conspiracy charge that names all 25.

Additionally, Clarke, Peña and Chavarria were facing another charge for possessing with the intention to distribute approximately 456 pounds of marijuana on Sept. 1, 2020. Vela was also facing a similar charge for a separate incident involving around 238 pounds of marijuana on Oct. 6, 2020. And Espitia had a second charge for possession with the intention to distribute a little more than 1,500 pounds of marijuana on Aug. 6, 2021.

According to Profit, on Sept. 1, 2020, Jannella Chavarria picked up another defendant, Marcos Barrientos, who then gave Eugenio Peña instructions to pick up approximately 456 pounds of marijuana at the Rio Grande. All three then drove to the home of another defendant, Ramiro Clarke, to drop off the drugs. Clarke attempted to move the drugs to Barrientos’ residence but was stopped by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who seized the drugs.

On Oct. 6, 2020, Profit said they were prepared to show Vela picked up fewer than 220 pounds of marijuana stashed somewhere in Rio Grande City before being chased by law enforcement. Vela crashed as he tried to flee. The drugs were seized and Vela was arrested.

Espitia-Garza was seen on Aug. 6, 2021, driving a truck into a Rio Grande City ranch. He left hauling a cattle trailer, according to Profit. A traffic stop and a drug-sniffing dog prompted a search that yielded the seizure of over 1,500 pounds of marijuana. Profit said Espitia-Garza was planning on distributing the drugs to someone else.

All the defendants said the accounts the prosecutor provided were true.

As part of the plea agreements, the government recommended decreased sentences, which the judge does not have to accept.

Federal agents conduct an operation resulting in drug trafficking arrests in Starr County on Sept. 15, 2021. (Monitor Photo)

Chavarria and Peña could face a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison. Additionally, they could be fined up to $5 million.

Vela could be sent to prison up to 20 years and be fined up to $250,000.

Espitia-Garza could face a minimum five years and up to 40 years in prison and a fine not exceeding $5 million.

The details of Clarke’s plea agreement were not made public as of press time.

The rest of the defendants were scheduled to begin trial next week, but the date could be delayed after several attorneys entered motions requesting more time.

Sentencing for the five defendants was tentatively scheduled for early May.