BROWNSVILLE—Former Cameron County Sheriff Conrado Cantu and four co-defendants received prison terms Tuesday for a racketeering enterprise that solicited bribes from drug traffickers in exchange for safe passage through this border county.
A stern U.S. District Judge Hilda Tagle sentenced Cantu to 24 years and two months in prison, with five years of supervision after his release. Cantu is to serve nearly all of the sentence before he can be freed.
The judge said she was personally disappointed Cantu and his friends used his power as sheriff to help distribute illegal drugs while undermining the nation’s security. Investigators were able to trace drugs that he helped smuggle through Cameron County as far into the country as Ohio.
“What you did to abuse that trust is egregious,” Tagle told Cantu. “You promoted disrespect for the laws of the state of Texas and the U.S.”
An emotional and rambling Cantu asked Tagle for mercy, saying he was a changed man who was tired of crying.
“I’ve cried for six months in a room by myself,” he said, adding he committed the crimes when he was drinking heavily and “lost in sin and alcohol.”
“All the pressure just got to me,” Cantu said. “I should have stopped, but it was just overwhelming.”
Federal prosecutors say Cantu, 50, engaged in corruption from the day he took office in January 2001 until he left four years later.
Embarrassing jailbreaks, the loss of $1.5 million in federal reimbursements at the jail and a campaign-related indictment caught up with Cantu, and he lost in 2004 to Omar Lucio, the incumbent sheriff he defeated in 2000.
She called co-defendant Geronimo Garcia the middle manager between drug traffickers and the sheriff.
“Who knows how much damage you were responsible for,” Tagle said to Garcia, adding the drug smugglers could have easily transported weapons or used the laundered money for other illicit purposes.
Also sentenced were Garcia’s brother-in-law Reynaldo Uribe, 41, of Brownsville, to 16 months for money laundering; former sheriff’s Capt. Rumaldo Rodriguez, 50, to 14 months for racketeering; and restaurant owner Hector Solis, 40, to six months for obstructing justice.
Earlier, Tagle rejected motions for probation from Uribe, Solis and Rodriguez, saying that would be a “slap to the face of justice.”