McALLEN — One name emerged over and over again as authorities tracked a brutal Zeta kidnapping ring across Hidalgo County in 2008:
Throughout the investigation, witnesses ascribed that nickname to a Pharr police officer who allegedly helped the cartel operatives carry out their attacks.
The nephew of a top Zeta lieutenant, the man had also purportedly shielded drug stash houses and guarded cocaine shipments through his city, all while on duty and in uniform, said Alfredo Barrera, an investigator with the Texas Department of Public Safety.
“We kept hearing about ‘Chino,’ ‘Chino’,” he testified in a federal courtroom Wednesday. “We just didn’t know who that was.”
Until this year.
Federal prosecutors now allege that former patrolman Jaime Beas operated for years under the nickname, smuggling drugs and diverting attention away from his uncle’s violent business.
Beas has entered “not guilty” pleas to multiple counts of extortion and smuggling drugs and weapons.
But at a bond hearing Wednesday, the government portrayed the six-year veteran of the force as a corrupt law enforcement official who secretly helped others break dozens of laws he had sworn to uphold.
“A police officer is supposed to uphold the law,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Wells said. “He couldn’t even follow them.”
FBI agents arrested Beas earlier this month in a sting operation in which the officer allegedly agreed to sell military-grade weapons to a man posing as a Zeta contact.
But the investigation that brought them to that point started years before, Barrera testified.
Throughout fall 2008, the Zetas carried out at least five abductions of Hidalgo County drug dealers in a bid to expand their influence north of the border. Many of the victims never resurfaced, and some met violent ends like being burned to death in chemical vats, witnesses have testified at trials for some of the kidnappers who have since been arrested.
In all, nine men were eventually charged later that year with playing a role in the plot. But as authorities began to interview those suspects, they uncovered disturbing links between one of the group’s top members and a nephew who supposedly worked as a Pharr police officer, Barrera said.
The officer had helped divert police attention in dozens of cases while the group carried out its work, the witnesses purportedly told investigators. The only problem was that none of them knew his real name.
But the list of crimes attributed to this phantom officer was as vast as it was shocking:
>> He purportedly served as a lookout during the kidnapping of a wheelchair-using Las Milpas man, sitting in his patrol car only feet away and monitoring his police radio.
>> In a separate case, he attempted to pull over another man so the group could abduct him but ended up causing a wreck that led to the intended victim’s escape.
>> He housed top-ranking Zetas in his Las Milpas home as they hid from retribution for their actions south of the border.
>> And all the while, he operated a slew of stash houses in Pharr where he kept his uncle’s drugs. He allegedly paid for one of those homes with $385,000 in cash.
“All the cooperators knew (of this) nephew that was a Pharr police officer,” Barrera said. “Anything his uncle needed, he was the man he would go to.”
LAYING A TRAP
Investigators first began to target Beas, 33, earlier this year, and it didn’t take much coaxing for the officer to prove their suspicions, said Barrera.
Working under the direction of the FBI, an informant approached Beas in April posing as a drug smuggler seeking protection for his loads of cocaine.
The officer allegedly agreed to personally escort each shipment in his Pharr police cruiser in exchange for $4,000 per trip.
In a separate venture, Beas purportedly struck a deal with another informant disguised as a Zeta weapons gatherer. And on July 9, he brokered a deal to sell a grenade, an M-16 assault rifle and a bulletproof vest he believed had been stolen from military stockpiles, according to court documents.
That’s when FBI agents swooped in to make their arrest.
Prosecutors allege Beas intended to work with another uncle — a military police officer stationed at the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station — to steal the weapons. That man is currently under court marshal in Florida, Wells said.
LINKS TO CHINO?
Beas’ attorney Al Alvarez questioned Wednesday what evidence the government had that would link his client to any of Chino’s alleged actions.
The charges Beas faces all stem from the drug smuggling and weapons dealing that occurred while the officer was under FBI surveillance.
“There’s not one kidnapping charge in all the five counts of this indictment,” said Alvarez. The rest of the charges stem from law enforcement entrapment, he said.
But for Pharr Police Chief Ruben Villescas, the allegations alone were enough to convict. He fired Beas July 12 — three days after his arrest.
“These acts of criminal conduct … will not be allowed to tear through the fabric of community-built relationships … that (our) officers have worked hard to bring together,” he said in a statement.
As of late Wednesday night, Beas remained in federal custody without bond.
If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.