The discovery of a headless body floating near the Texas spring break haven of South Padre Island touched off an investigation that prosecutors say revealed a U.S. Border Patrol agent had helped a Mexican cartel to move illegal weapons and ammunition south of the border and illicit drugs to the north.
The prosecutor alleges that agent Joel Luna got pulled into the business to help his brothers, including one linked to a cartel, and that their operation unraveled when investigators found a "treasure trove" of evidence in a safe at Luna's mother-in-law's home. The material included passwords to Luna's work computer, almost $90,000 in cash and a kilo of cocaine. The trail of evidence led to Luna being accused on a raft of charges, including capital murder in the death of a man seen as a possible snitch.
Luna's attorney, Carlos A. Garcia, insists that the 31-year-old Iraq War veteran had no part in the scheme and that material in the safe connecting him to criminal activity may have been stolen by one of his brothers.
"This is a clear-cut case of guilt by association," Garcia recently told The Associated Press.
Cameron County District Attorney Gustavo "Gus" Garza declined to elaborate on how or if Joel Luna's status as a federal agent aided in the alleged drug-and-weapons operation. He noted the safe also contained Joel Luna's commemorative Border Patrol badge.
"Drug use and abuse in America is fueling the Mexican cartels, and because of the money and the weapons that go south, we get all the violence," Garza said. "This case represents that."
Joel Luna patrolled a vast expanse of Texas ranchland near the Mexico border during his six years as a Border Patrol agent. Born in Texas, he grew up mostly in Mexico before returning to Texas to attend high school. He was a member of ROTC and later served an Army combat tour in Iraq. He served in the Army Reserves before joining the Border Patrol, Garcia said.
The case against Luna and his brothers, Eduardo and Fernando Luna, began in March 2015 when boaters found the headless, nude and bloated body of 33-year-old Jose Francisco Rodriguez Palacios Paz. The Honduran immigrant had worked at Fernando Luna's tire shop in Edinburg, a South Texas town about 20 miles north of the border.
Investigators said phone records and texts revealed that Palacios Paz's common-law wife expressed concern to Fernando Luna that he was going to reveal the drug operation. Prosecutors allege the Luna brothers conspired to kill Palacios Paz, and that he was killed at the tire shop.
Eduardo -- who prosecutors say was a commander in the Gulf Cartel -- and Fernando Luna were arrested in June 2015. Two other shop employees are also charged.
But it wasn't until November that investigators found the safe that, according to Garza, also contained ammunition, a gun and a ledger noting the sale of drugs and weapons. Joel Luna was later arrested and suspended from his job as a Border Patrol agent. Investigators found more than 900 rounds of Russian-made ammunition in his locker, Garza said.
Prosecutors are pushing for Joel Luna to be tried as early as this month with Eduardo Luna, his 26-year-old younger brother. Both men have pleaded not guilty to murder and other charges.
Fernando Luna, their older brother, pleaded guilty in August to possession of a controlled substance and agreed to testify against his brothers in exchange for prosecutors dropping other charges, including murder. The 36-year-old faces up to three years in prison.
An attorney for Fernando Luna declined to comment when contacted by the AP. A lawyer for Eduardo Luna didn't return messages seeking comment.
Garcia said there have been conversations with prosecutors about a plea deal for Joel Luna, but that none was seriously considered because the Army veteran has done nothing wrong. Garcia said a judge declined his request to try Joel Luna separately from his brother.
"We're confident in the facts," the defense attorney said. "He had absolutely nothing to do with this man's death. He was not involved in drug-running, had nothing to do with the trafficking of weapons."