This post was updated on .
April 13, 2019 10:02 pm
By Isabel Vincent
La Plaza Mall in McAllen, Texas
McALLEN, Texas — In this palm-studded city on the southern tip of Texas — “ground zero” in the border crisis between the US and Mexico — there is a new Maserati dealership and ads for Rolex and Cartier watches at the airport.
There are also dozens of plush jewelry stores, where one vendor told The Post that she regularly imports African diamonds for custom engagement rings.
In many of the gated communities in the area, terra cotta-roofed mansions sit empty behind concrete walls.
On Saturday, the McAllen Polo Club held its annual Hot Air Balloon Festival and Polo Match at Springfest Park, a sprawling, immaculately manicured green space for the smart set and their horses.
At the upscale La Plaza Mall, shoppers and their kids lined up to meet the Easter Bunny and well-dressed young professionals tucked into steaks at the Texas de Brazil grill.
McAllen lies eight miles from the Mexican border, in one of the 30 poorest enclaves in the country, Hidalgo County, where 34 percent of residents live in poverty, according to US Census data.
So who is spending all this cash?
‘Whether it’s drugs, or people smuggling, the cartels are laundering their cash right here.’
In addition to cross-border shoppers, who local store owners said make up 30 percent of McAllen’s $3.2 billion in annual retail sales, the city is a favorite destination for drug traffickers.
“It’s all about smuggling here,” said a federal law-enforcement source. “Whether it’s drugs, or people smuggling, the cartels are laundering their cash right here.”
Some of that cash even makes its way into political campaigns in this traditionally Democratic stronghold.
In 2014, Guadelupe “Lupe” Trevino, the former county sheriff and one of the most powerful lawmen in the state, was convicted of laundering money. He confessed to taking cash from a Texas drug trafficker who had a trucking business that he used as a front to smuggle drugs.
Prosecutors said the sheriff took up to $120,000 from convicted kingpin Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez. Some of that cash went to his re-election campaign, prosecutors said.
Trevino was sentenced to five years in federal prison and released in January.
His son, Jonathan Trevino, wasn’t as lucky with a light sentence. A former cop and commander of an elite anti-narcotics squad that reported directly to his father, the younger Trevino was convicted in 2014 of drug trafficking and is currently serving a 14-year sentence in federal prison, along with four other former members of his task force, known as the Panama Unit.
The squad had links to the Gulf Cartel, one of the oldest criminal syndicates in Mexico, known by its Spanish-language acronym, CDG.
Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino. AP
In addition to drug trafficking, the Mexican cartels have made billions of dollars on the massive flow of illegal migrants into the Rio Grande Valley region near cities like McAllen, according to the US Customs and Border Protection.
“The current migration patterns have reaped huge profits for the transnational criminal organizations that use smuggling as a cash flow source,” Rodolfo Karisch, chief patrol agent for the Rio Grande Valley Section of US Border Patrol, said in testimony to the Senate last week.
In McAllen, a city of just over 140,000, Border Patrol choppers regularly hover overhead en route to the border, where agents scour the rugged terrain for illegal immigrants, many of them in life-threatening situations, suffering from hypothermia, exhaustion or starvation.
Agents have also raided an unspecified number of “inhumane stash houses” in McAllen and neighboring communities such as Pharr and Mission, according to the Customs and Border Protection website.
Last week, the agency called the flow of migrants “an unprecedented and unsustainable situation at the southwest border … and a humanitarian crisis.”
Illegal immigrants are found in a McAllen hotel room that smugglers used as a “stash house.” CBP rio Grand Valley
In McAllen and the surrounding Rio Grande Valley, agents are reporting “caravan-equivalent numbers” arriving every week, and more than 1,000 people arriving every day. Cartel and gang members are among the largest beneficiaries of this crisis.
Groups such as the CDG and Los Zetas regularly hire unemployed local youth to do a variety of jobs, from dropping off cash at banks to buying bulk supplies of food and other provisions at Costco and BJ’s for the migrants they hold in stash houses in the area.
Migrants who pay gangs to bring them over the border into the US are often herded into local homes and detained for weeks at a time in order for the smugglers to extort even more money from their family members living in other parts of the US.
If they don’t pay, some of the newly arrived are forced into becoming drug mules for the cartels. Many of the women are forced into sex slavery, according to a federal source.
Typically, a local teenager can earn between $250 and $300 in cash per migrant that he drives to a local stash house, the law-enforcement source told The Post.
“If they are transporting even 10 people that’s an easy $3,000 for a few hours’ work,” the source said.
And the owners of the stash houses — usually large homes in middle-class neighborhoods or rural areas — are offered exponentially more rent in cash paid upfront in order to look the other way while traffickers stuff dozens of desperate, undocumented immigrants in their homes.
Many Mexico-based cartels such as Los Zetas have used the confusion at the border to increase the flow of illegal drugs, such as cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine.
In February, Border Patrol agents seized 1,000 pounds of meth and 10 pounds of cocaine, with an estimated street value of $14.5 million in Pharr, just outside McAllen where the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge connects to the Mexican border town of Reynosa.
The area is the biggest transshipment point for marijuana coming into the US, according to Customs and Border Protection.
The Maserati dealership in McAllen, Texas. Angel Chevrestt
Drug proceeds go into real estate and nightclubs, which open for a few months and then shut down, a local real-estate agent told The Post.
Traffickers on both sides of the border use local banks and notaries to set up limited liability companies, which shield their identities, then invest millions in commercial properties in the city.
“There are so many layers of corporations that it becomes very difficult to trace the money back to its criminal origin,” the source told The Post.
In fact, there is so much money currently flowing into McAllen that a new Lexus dealership opened last week, and a salesperson at the Maserati showroom said they had just closed on one of their most expensive models.
The real-estate agent observed, “It’s sad to say, but there is a lot of money laundering going on here.”
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