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Three south Texas brothers, including border patrol agent, set to stand trial in cartel-linked murder case

September 19, 2016  |  Posted by: Francesca Falzarano
Three south Texas brothers, including border patrol agent, set to stand trial in cartel-linked murder case

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Joel Luna appeared to be an excellent Border Patrol hire: a native of south Texas, a high school ROTC superstar, and an Army veteran.

Luna worked at a border checkpoint about 100 miles north of Mexico in Hebbronville, guarding ranch land well known among human and drug smugglers.

However, the 31-year-old is awaiting to stand trial on a capital murder charge for his part in what prosecutors allege was a drug cartel trafficking conspiracy that resulted in a decapitated body floating along the Texas coast during spring break in 2015.

Prosecutors allege that the drug-related execution was conducted by three individuals — Joel, and his two brothers Eduardo and Fernando.

Fernando, 35, who is known by the nickname “Junior,” is the oldest of the Lunas brothers, and the youngest is 25-year-old Eduardo, who goes by the nickname “Pajaro,” or “Bird.”

According to the Star-Telegram, prosecutors alleged that Joel assisted Fernando and Eduardo in managing an illegal family business.

Joel’s lawyer says that his client did not murder anyone and that in an area where cross-border families frequently include a mix of law enforcement and immigrants, Fernando and Eduardo, who are Mexican citizens illegally in the U.S., are to blame for the killing.

A Pharr-San Juan Alamo High School annual shows Joel Luna, who was a standout in the Army ROTC. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske/Los Angeles Times)

A Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School annual shows Joel Luna, who was a standout in the Army ROTC. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske/Los Angeles Times)

“There’s an argument to be made against my client that’s guilt by association. People get swept up with those who are really guilty. It’s family,” stated Carlos A. Garcia, Joel’s attorney.

“Associating or going to a quinceañera is not a crime. He was just a family man, a working man. Think about how many Border Patrol members who live on the border have relatives here without visas,” Garcia said.

Joel’s U.S. birth certificate indicated that he was born in San Juan, less than 10 miles away from from the Rio Grande, but he grew up in Reynosa, which is an area south of the border that is heavily infiltrated by the infamous Gulf cartel. His brothers were born in Mexico.

His parents got a Mexican birth certificate for Joel so that he could attend school in Mexico. “This is a common thing along the border. Joel was no different. People who are born here, their families take them into Mexico to attend school up until high school, until they have to pay for it,” his lawyer said.

Because he was born in the U.S., Joel went Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School, became a member of the Army ROTC, and then became a commander.

“He knew what he wanted to do from a young age,” Garcia stated. “He wanted to defend his country.”

After he had graduated, Joel enlisted in the Army in 2004 and did a tour in Iraq. In 2008, he was discharged as a Specialist in the Army National Guard and served four years in the Rio Grande Valley.

Joel then became a Border Patrol agent in 2009, and underwent a background check but was not asked to take a polygraph test, which became mandatory just one year later under the Anti-Border Corruption Act.

Evidence including a A pick ax and blood stains discovered at Veteran's Tire Shop in Edinburg, Texas, tested positive for the blood of homicide victim Jose Francisco "Franky" Palacios Paz. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske/Los Angeles Times)

Evidence including a pick ax and blood stains discovered at Veteran’s Tire Shop in Edinburg, Texas, tested positive for the blood of homicide victim Jose Francisco “Franky” Palacios Paz. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske/Los Angeles Times)

He got married to Dulce “Candy” Trevino, and the couple had two children. Across the border, his brother Fernando was an employee at Exterran Corp., an oil and gas business, and Eduardo started to implicate himself with members of the Gulf cartel.

It was revealed in court that a high-ranking Gulf Cartel member, who is now behind bars in Houston, informed prosecutors he and Eduardo served as “Comandante.” Eduardo once went with Joel to a Sam’s Club and bought a black steel safe with him, Joel’s brother-in-law told law enforcement officials that Joel stored the safe at his mother-in-law’s home.

In 2013, Joel reported to Border Patrol officials that his brother Eduardo was temporarily kidnapped by cartel members in Reynosa, who were aware that Joel was an agent and had threatened his relatives there, according to Cameron County Assistant District Attorney Gustavo “Gus” Garza.

The L.A. Times reported Eduardo, Fernando, and their families illegally crossed the border into the United States to live with Joel. He gave his sister-in-law $42,000 and told her to buy a house in San Juan for his younger brother, according to arrest documents. Fernando purchased a house across the street, according to Garza.

Fernando was laid off from his job and used his severance check to purchase Veteran’s Tire Shop. He hired Eduardo along with three other employees and investigators alleged that the shop was used for money laundering and drug trafficking.

As this was going on, Joel maintained his law-abiding reputation. Jose Luis Villanueva, 53, Joel’s brother-in-law described him as “calm, hardworking,” and a quiet man who never took drugs or drank alcohol around his family.

In March 2015, a man cruising on a boat with his kids off the coast of South Padre Island recognized a nude, somewhat decayed body and immediately called 911. Detectives never located the man’s head, but he was identified as one of Fernando’s workers: Jose Francisco “Franky” Palacios Paz, a 33-year-old man from Honduras who was illegally living in the U.S.

Fernando and Eduardo allowed investigators to go through their cellphones, but they had been reset. However, an arrest affidavit revealed that police were able to recover texts that Palacios’ wife sent to Fernando the day before his disappearance.

“This Franky is a … traitor,” she stated in Spanish, saying that Palacios was talking “about drug sales.”

“At any moment he is going to put the finger on you,” she added.

The Luna brothers, including Border Patrol agent Joel (left), were indicted on capital murder and organized crime charges in the 2015 beheading death of a ...

The Luna brothers, including Border Patrol agent Joel (left) Fernando, (center) and Eduardo (right) were indicted on capital murder and organized crime charges in the 2015 beheading of an undocumented Honduran immigrant Jose Francisco “Franky” Palacios Paz 

Investigators’ reports also indicate that the day Palacios disappeared, Eduardo and one of the tire shop employees drove to Port Isabel, just across the causeway from where the headless body was discovered. Their phones reportedly pinged nearby cell towers as they called Fernando.

Stains and a pickax recovered from tire shop tested positive for Palacios’ blood. One of the other workers told law enforcement officials that Palacios’ head was brought to Mexico to be displayed publicly, which is a common cartel ritual, Garza stated.

In June 2015, Eduardo and two shop employees were taken into custody, and Fernando was arrested as he was coming home from Mexico — in Joel’s white truck. Joel was not charged with any crimes at the time and remained at his post with Border Patrol.

Sheriff’s deputies and Homeland Security investigators raided Joel’s mother-in-law’s home four months later and stated they discovered the black safe. Inside the safe, investigators found what would become the crux of their case: over a kilo of cocaine, more than $89,500 in cash. Additionally, they obtained a 1911 silver-plated .38 firearm decorated with the gold image of St. Jude, with the words “Cartel del Golfo” and “Pajaro” — Eduardo’s nickname, engraved in it.

Records documenting drug sales, firearms, and ammunition were also recovered. Authorities announced that they found a commemorative Border Patrol emblem and papers belonging to Joel Luna, including his work password and his Security Service Federal Credit Union account password.

Joel claimed that he “had no knowledge of the safe.” He was nonetheless arrested on multiple charges, including capital murder and tampering with evidence.

In January, a grand jury indicted the three brothers on capital murder for retaliation charges, along with the two tire shop employees. All of the suspects pleaded not guilty.

In a turn of events, Fernando, the oldest brother, pleaded guilty last month to drug possession in exchange for his testimony. Prosecutors dismissed criminal conspiracy and murder charges, and he faces a maximum of three years behind bars when he is sentenced on October 19th.

The two remaining brothers are awaiting trial.

Joel’s lawyer said that his client has rejected a plea agreement and will take his chances at trial.

“The state’s case is built on conjecture and speculation. My client doesn’t have anything to fear from what his brother will say,” Garcia said, adding that he is working to have Joel and Eduardo tried separately.

“My client should not be held to account for his brother’s acts,” the attorney continued.

Garza believes that after their father had died, Joel felt committed to helping his brothers at first.

“That happens in families all the time… After that, he was more and more involved. He was up to his ears,” said Garza.

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