Feds raid Elsa City Hall, two game rooms in money laundering investigation

Only have a minute? Listen instead
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
Homeland Security Investigations special agents remove at least a dozen bankers boxes’ worth of documents from Elsa City Hall during one of three law enforcement raids in the Delta region Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (Dina Arévalo | [email protected])

ELSA — For the second time in as many weeks, federal investigators have descended upon a small town city hall in search of evidence of financial crimes.

This time, Homeland Security Investigations agents raided Elsa City Hall, as well as two other locations in the Delta region Thursday morning, HSI spokesperson Adelina “Nina” Pruneda confirmed.

“HSI conducted the enforcement actions this morning at several locations. It’s part of an ongoing money laundering investigation,” Pruneda said via phone.

The raids began when a large number of law enforcement, including about half a dozen HSI agents, as well as several Texas Department of Public Safety troopers and Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office deputies, arrived at Elsa City Hall at approximately 8:30 a.m.

The agents brought with them a white Ford F-250 towing a small trailer.

Sheriff’s deputies and state troopers remained outside the building as a helicopter registered to the Department of Homeland Security circled overhead through the early morning drizzle.

While one team of investigators remained inside Elsa City Hall, two more sizable teams were busy conducting similar raids at nearby electronic game rooms, known locally as “8-liners” or “maquinitas” — Spanish for “little machines.”

The simultaneous raids occurred at the now-shuttered Sizzling Sevens game room located on Texas Highway 107 just two blocks east of city hall, as well as The Lucky Hive game room in Edcouch.

Sheriff’s deputies raided and subsequently shut down the Sizzling Sevens game room on Sept. 28. At the time, deputies took 14 people into custody on charges varying from possessing gambling equipment to engaging in organized crime.

Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra confirmed on X, formerly Twitter, that his deputies were assisting federal law enforcement execute search warrants at all three sites on Thursday.

“The HCSO is assisting our federal partners in a law enforcement operation at Elsa City Hall and the Sizzling Sevens located at 412 E. Edinburg Ave in Elsa. We are also assisting them at The Lucky Hive, (612) E Santa Rosa Ave, in Edcouch (sic),” Guerra’s X post reads.

It was at that latter location, The Lucky Hive — once the site of a church — where the most visible law enforcement activity occurred.

There, at about 10 a.m., a semi-truck and two pickup trucks towing large trailers arrived on the scene.

Soon, a group of young men dressed largely in T-shirts and shorts could be seen using hand trucks to remove several dozen gaming machines from the building.

They lined the machines up in the center of the parking lot three rows deep before placing them inside the semi-truck’s expansive trailer.

Shortly after noon, officials closed up the trailer and the semi left.

Meanwhile, back in Elsa, a gaggle of press had gathered in front of city hall.

The Ford F-250 and trailer, which had remained untouched where it had been parked in front of the building’s entrance since the early morning, suddenly departed from city hall and headed eastward on Highway 107 toward The Lucky Hive.

It stayed briefly along the curb in front of the game room before returning to Elsa City Hall, where the majority of the media had since left.

Shortly thereafter, agents emerged from the building pushing dollies laden with at least a dozen white and brown cardboard bankers boxes.

Some of the boxes bore labels alluding to the city’s finances and vendors. Others bore markings reading “HSI evidence” and were sealed with tape.

By 1:45 p.m., agents had again sealed the trailer.

The scene was reminiscent of a similar raid by FBI agents at Edcouch City Hall last Wednesday.

In that instance, the FBI agents spent approximately five hours scouring the building for records related to Edcouch’s game room ordinance and permit applications.

The agents also seized records related to federally funded programs, such as Operation Stonegarden, a border security law enforcement grant, Edcouch City Manager Victor Hugo de la Cruz confirmed this week.

Edcouch City Attorney Roel Gutierrez further confirmed that the FBI took documents relating to Edcouch’s finances, budgets, purchases and public meetings records, too.

Calls to Elsa leaders, including Mayor Alberto Perez and City Manager Juan Jose “J.J.” Ybarra went straight to voicemail.

However, late Thursday, Elsa City Attorney Gus Acevedo sent an email on behalf of the city.

“In light of recent law enforcement inquiries, the City of Elsa wishes to reassure its residents and the public in general that the City is in full cooperation with the Office of Homeland Security,” Acevedo stated.

The email also included a brief message from the city manager, as well as a breakdown of how some $466,000 in “special revenue” funds that Elsa has collected have since been allocated.

“We have always prioritized running a transparent government, and our cooperation with the Office of Homeland Security is in line with this commitment,” Ybarra stated.

“Our goal is to ensure that the City of Elsa remains a safe, trustworthy, and progressive community for all its residents,” he further stated.

During Elsa City Council meetings last fall — when the council approved its first 8-liner permit — Ybarra told The Monitor that he had blocked the reporter’s phone number. He similarly refused to answer questions in person.

In the case of Edcouch, the FBI is reportedly investigating bribery and racketeering, as well as federally funded programs.

The federal investigations into the two Delta cities both involve electronic game rooms, but when asked if the investigations intersect in any way, Pruneda, the HSI spokesperson, said no.

“FBI has nothing to do with this,” Pruneda said of Thursday’s three raids by HSI. “They’re not even involved; they’re not part of our team as far as this case is concerned,” she said before referring additional questions to the Justice Department.