“MX” for Borderland Beat; San Antonio Express-News
|Jorge Juan Torres López|
A former Mexican border governor, whose short time in office was marred by allegations of massive embezzlement, admitted Wednesday in a Corpus Christi courtroom to laundering money through Texas banks.
Jorge Juan Torres López, 66, served for most of 2011 as the interim governor of Coahuila, a state that borders Texas from west of Laredo to the Big Bend. Torres, who owns a home in the Houston area, is closely associated with Coahuila’s nearly $2 billion debt, dubbed the megadeuda in the Mexican press.
He’s one of several officials and businessmen from the state accused by U.S. authorities of laundering through Texas banks and San Antonio real estate transactions tens of millions of dollars embezzled from the state or collected as bribes.
On Wednesday, he pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering conspiracy. Torres joined the hearing in U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos’s courtroom via video conferencing from the Aransas County Detention Center, where he’s been held since his extradition last year. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine or twice the value of the money he laundered when he’s sentenced in September, although will likely receive much less under federal sentencing guidelines.
As part of his plea agreement, Torres agreed to give up an empty lot in Montgomery County that backs up to the first hole on the Miller Course at the Bentwater Yacht and Country Club.
In a departure from past plea hearings for others charged in the investigation, including a businessman who admitted to bribing Torres, prosecutors didn’t give any details of the former governor’s crimes.
“After much reflection and time consulting with his family and attorneys, Mr. Torres Lopez has accepted responsibility for some of the allegations against him,” Carlos Solis, one of his lawyers, wrote in an email. “He looks forward to putting this distressing time of his life behind him and his family sooner rather than later.”
Former Coahuila governor Humberto Moreira appointed Torres as the state’s secretary of treasury when he took office in 2005. Torres served for two years, leaving in 2007 when he was elected mayor of Saltillo, the state capital. When Moreira left the governorship with nearly a year remaining in his term to lead Mexico’s longtime ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Torres was appointed to replace him.
Torres was governor when in March 2011 members of the Zetas drug cartel launched a bloody cleansing in and around Piedras Negras, across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass. Known as the Allende Massacre after one of the towns where much of the killing took place, the days-long pogrom is believed to have left hundreds dead.
In a series of trials in Texas federal courtrooms, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informants testified that details of their cooperation was leaked to the Zetas leaders. In response, gang members rounded up and executed anyone they could find with a connection to the traitors. One Zetas operative testified in 2016 that payments to top Coahuila officials, including Moreira, gave the traffickers free reign in the state.
Torres was not named as a recipient of those bribes. Moreira, who wouldn’t comment for this story and wasn’t charged in the U.S., has in the past denied taking money from the Zetas, whom he blames for the murder of his son in 2012.
Solis, Torres’ lawyer, said he “has never been connected or associated with drug trafficking organizations in any capacity, any suggestion or insinuation to such is utterly inaccurate.”
News of Coahuila’s massive debt broke before Torres left office in December 2011. Héctor Javier Villarreal-Hernandez, his successor as state treasurer, stepped down and later faced criminal charges amid an investigation into allegations he had taken out loans using the state’s credit without legislative approval.
Meanwhile, U.S. investigators were looking into allegations Moreira and other government officials had embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars from state coffers and transferred much of it to the U.S.
In 2012, Bexar County and federal prosecutors seized homes and commercial properties Villarreal’s family members owned in San Antonio and in the Rio Grande Valley worth nearly $40 million.
In April 2013, Torres agreed to turn $200,000 over to Hidalgo County prosecutors to settle a civil lawsuit against a bank account he and his wife had at Inter National Bank in McAllen. Five months later, federal prosecutors in Corpus Christi seized a $2.76 million account Torres held in a Bermuda bank.
In a lawsuit to forfeit the property, they alleged Torres and Villarreal in 2008 met with J.P. Morgan Chase bankers in McAllen to establish bank accounts, but lied about where their money came from. Those accounts were used to transfer money from Mexico to the U.S., then offshore banks, according to the lawsuit. In November 2013, the Corpus Christi prosecutors indicted Villarreal and Torres on money laundering conspiracy and bank fraud charges.
Villearreal later turned himself in to U.S. authorities at an international bridge in El Paso and pleaded guilty to the Corpus Christi charges as well as additional charges in San Antonio. He’s free on bond and is awaiting sentencing before a judge in San Antonio.
Mexican officials arrested Torres last year in the Pacific Coast city of Puerto Vallarta, and in October he agreed to be extradited to the U.S. to face charges here.
Little information was released during Wednesday’s hearing, a change from past guilty pleas in prosecutors’ investigation of Coahuila bribery and money laundering. In a 2015 plea agreement for a media mogul with properties on both sides of the border, prosecutors identified Moreira as Co-Conspirator 1.
In that document filed in a San Antonio federal court, they alleged he stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the state of Coahuila, some of which he used to purchase radio and television stations in Mexico. In 2009, Moreira, Villarreal and the businessman met at the Club at Sonterra to discuss the sale of media holdings in Mexico for nearly $2 million, according to the plea agreement.
In 2017, Luis Carlos Castillo Cervantes, a Mexican construction magnate and a former shareholder in Inter National Bank, admitted in a Corpus Christi federal court to paying bribes to Moreira in exchange for paving contracts.
During that hearing, and the 2013 guilty plea of one of Castillo’s business associates, prosecutors read lengthy statements outlying the men’s crimes and naming former Mexican officials whom they allegedly bribed and helped launder money.
During the 2017 plea, prosecutors alleged that, at the behest of a business associate, he wired money to a title company to pay for a house Moreira’s mother-in-law owned in San Antonio’s Greystone Country Estates subdivision. U.S. authorities seized the home.
Prosecutors also alleged during Castillo’s plea hearing that Coahuila officials, including Torres, inflated road paving contracts in exchange for $6.8 million in kickbacks. Castillo helped Torres set up an account at Inter National bank, then gave him more than $700,000 to purchase real estate in Montgomery County, near Houston, prosecutors alleged. Torres laundered more than $2 million through the account, according to prosecutors. No such information was released Wednesday.