BROWNSVILLE — U.S. Border Patrol agent Joel Luna goes on trial this week in deep South Texas, where he faces capital murder and drug trafficking charges in a case that has stoked concerns about law enforcement corruption on the U.S. side of the southern border.
Prosecutors charged Luna, his two brothers and two associates in the grisly 2015 beheading death of Jose Francisco Palacios Paz, better known as Franky Palacios — allegedly killed because he knew too much.
The eldest of the Luna brothers, Fernando, pleaded guilty in August to a single drug possession charge and is expected to testify against his siblings. Younger brother Eduardo Luna of Reynosa, Mexico — described in court papers as a Mexican cartel “comandante” — will be tried alongside his Border Patrol agent brother. Eduardo and Joel Luna have pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Jury selection is set to begin Tuesday morning, and state District Judge Benjamin Euresti has signaled the trial would begin immediately thereafter.
Cameron County Assistant District Attorney Gus Garza said he’s confident he’ll be able to demonstrate that Joel Luna and his brothers were part of a criminal organization that Franky Palacios was on the verge of ratting out.
“The state alleges that this group, the brothers, were conducting a criminal enterprise, of moving drugs, selling drugs. Later on, we also learned that they were moving weapons, and Franky was going to snitch on them,” Garza told The Texas Tribune. “In order to silence him and not have their enterprise disclosed to law enforcement — that’s why he was killed.”
Joel Luna’s lawyer, Carlos A. Garcia, has said prosecutors are employing a guilt-by-association strategy against his client, who is an Iraq War veteran.
“If there was a criminal enterprise, that criminal enterprise did not include Joel Luna,” Garcia said. “Joel Luna dedicated his life to serving his country and protecting our border — until the state of Texas, specifically the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office, found it in their infinite wisdom to arrest an innocent man.”
The case began in March 2015 — at the height of Spring Break on South Padre Island — with the discovery of a headless body floating in the waters of the Laguna Madre, the narrow bay between the island and the mainland.
Police quickly matched the body’s fingerprints to Franky Palacios, a Honduran national who worked at Veteran's Tire Shop in Edinburg, one county over. Prosecutors believe Palacios was killed at the tire shop.
Investigators later found a black safe at Joel Luna’s mother-in-law’s house that contained a trove of documents and contraband, including $89,000 in cash, more than a kilogram of cocaine, 17 grams of meth, a scale, measuring spoons and a ledger documenting narcotics and firearms sales.
They also found Joel Luna's commemorative Border Patrol badge and a gold-plated .38 Super pistol, a model frequently associated with cartel assassins, stamped with "Cartel del Golfo" (Gulf Cartel) on one side. The word “Pajaro,” or bird — Eduardo Luna’s cartel nickname, according to court documents — was embossed on the handle. Eduardo Luna's lawyer declined to comment.
Joel Luna denied knowledge of the safe, but authorities found evidence that he bought it and had kept it at his house, records show.
The allegations against Luna have added to concerns about law enforcement corruption along the U.S-Mexico border. A joint investigation by the Tribune and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting has identified at least 140 officials who were arrested or convicted for acts of corruption that allegedly compromised their mission to stop crime and keep the nation secure.
Though the cases represent a tiny fraction of the 44,000 law enforcement officers at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, experts say the government doesn’t have a good way to measure the extent of corruption in their ranks.
“The true levels of corruption within CBP are not known,” the Homeland Security Advisory Council wrote last year. “This means that pockets of corruption could fester within CBP, potentially for years.”
Texas Tribune reporter Neena Satija contributed to this report.
Related Tribune coverage:
- When Franky Palacios Paz was found floating naked and decapitated off South Padre Island, the local sheriff thought the murder would lead investigators back to Mexican drug cartel violence. He didn't expect a U.S. Border Patrol agent to be among those arrested.
- In an unusual twist to an already unusual case, federal immigration authorities are questioning the nationality of a U.S. Border Patrol agent accused of capital murder and drug cartel ties in deep South Texas.