Joel Carcano Jr. stands apart from his 12 co-defendants in an ongoing federal case against one of Texas' most violent prison gangs.
A college-educated paralegal for a McAllen law firm, he appears out of place when lined up with the tattooed gang members, convicted felons and other associates named in the same nine-count indictment.
The others stand accused of a slew of murders, drug smuggling attempts and kidnappings over the past eight years -- all undertaken to protect the Texas Syndicate's criminal interests in the Rio Grande Valley.
But Carcano never directly participated in any of these violent acts. Still, prosecutors argue, he should be held just as responsible for their results.
According to his attorney, Carcano is accused of providing the gang confidential court information that led to the slaying of a federal witness last year.
While the paralegal has maintained his innocence and the government has so far remained silent on what it believes may have prompted the alleged leak of information, the case highlights a threat that has received scant attention amid ongoing efforts to dismantle South Texas' largest criminal organizations.
For years, border law enforcement officials have feared that members of their own ranks could be swayed by the allure of money offered by criminal organizations.
The relatively low pay local officers receive and their proximity to the border entice a handful each year to go from working for the taxpayers to working for the traffickers.
But there is much less discussion of the same temptations lurking within the halls of justice.
A cadre of attorneys, probation officers, paralegals, grand jurors and court staff has access to sensitive intelligence for which groups such as the Texas Syndicate or the Tamaulipas-based Gulf Cartel are willing to pay highly.
"There's a lot of money in the drug business," said Jack Wolfe, a criminal defense attorney who worked as a federal prosecutor in the early '90s. "Sometimes, I think the temptation may be too much for some people."
Costs Of Justice
In October, Mexican authorities charged five members of an elite organized crime unit within that country's attorney general's office with accepting $450,000 in bribes a month from Mexico's powerful Beltran-Leyva drug cartel.
In exchange for the cash, the attorneys and staff purportedly leaked information about ongoing investigations and witnesses who were cooperating with government probes.
Their arrests sent shockwaves through Mexico -- a country long conditioned to expect corruption within law enforcement circles.
Similar instances of malfeasance among legal professionals north of the border have remained rare, but a small group of lawyers, probation officers and court staff have admitted over the past decade to accepting money from the very people they should be working to convict.
In April, a probation officer working in McAllen's federal courthouse pleaded guilty to taking $5,000 in bribes to leak sealed documents to an undercover agent posing as a member of a Mexico-based smuggling organization.
According to court records, Juan De Dios Muniz Jr. knew the fake criminal enterprise hoped to learn who was cooperating with authorities against the group. He is currently serving a three-year prison term.
A jury convicted an assistant district attorney in Laredo in 1999 for accepting thousands of dollars to make drug cases go away.
Jurors, too, are not immune from the lure of gang and cartel cash.
Jose Luis Snell, a juror selected for the case of two convicted drug smugglers in 1997, volunteered to help sway the verdict in exchange for a $10,000 payment from the defendants' families. When he failed to secure the promised not-guilty decision, the families turned him in.
"It's always been a bit of an issue, but never a chronic problem," said Eric Reed, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted a similar jury-tampering case. "But situations like these are always a concern -- especially where violence is already a big part of the allegations."
'Manipulated And Used'
The case of paralegal Joel Carcano may be the most unclear at this point. He has maintained his innocence since his arrest and intends to take his case before a jury next year.
But already his alleged misdeeds have had the most serious consequences.
After a grand jury indicted several members of the Texas Syndicate last year on federal racketeering and organized crime charges, members of the gang scrambled to find out how investigators had learned so much about them.
The unusually detailed indictment linked members to six murders and multiple drug deals over the course of nearly a decade. For the tight-knit group formed in the '70s in the California prison system, snitching is the vilest form of treachery.
Prosecutors allege Carcano helped the Texas Syndicate identify one of its own members as a source of the information, said his attorney Ralph R. Martinez.
Carcano worked for a law firm defending gang member Marcelino "Mars" Rodriguez Torres, when the man opted to cooperate with investigators.
Rodriguez's body turned up in July 2007, shot and burned beyond recognition in a field south of Edcouch, weeks after his decision to turn federal witness.
But Martinez maintains his client never willingly gave up anything to gang members.
"He was manipulated and used," he said of Carcano. "He's not in a gang. He's college-educated. He's got small children. He's not the type of person that's going to get himself involved with these types of people."
Even if Carcano accidentally identified Rodriguez as a witness, Martinez said, the Syndicate could have learned this information just as easily by reviewing public documents.
"It was all spelled out in the plea agreement," he said, referring to the document that offered Rodriguez a reduced sentence in a separate criminal case in exchange for his cooperation with authorities.
An Unstoppable Risk
Much about Carcano's case remains unknown. But it is easy to see how some legal professionals can be led from the straight path, said Reed, the former federal prosecutor.
"It begins as sort of an innocent relationship -- maybe at a backyard barbecue or over drinks," he said. "And once you've done maybe a little favor for them, they own you."
Such temptations can be harder to avoid in a region where the law-abiding and the lawbreakers cross paths every day at grocery stores, restaurants, schools and family functions.
Protecting against this type of wrongdoing before it occurs is nearly impossible.
Defense attorneys and their staffs need access to witness lists, incriminating intelligence and the identities of some cooperating informants to effectively represent their clients.
Probation officers collect minute details of a convict's background to adequately assess his risk to the community.
And sensitive information is essential for a prosecutor to even begin building a criminal case.
Despite the risks, the vast majority of these professionals conduct themselves according to a strict set of personal and legal guidelines, said former defense attorney Wolfe. And no amount of precaution will stop those who have already chosen to stray.
"As long as I've been in this profession, there have always been bad apples," he said. "They haven't invented the machine yet where you can dip someone in and it will tell you exactly how they're going to act.
"All we can do is background checks, emphasize the law, screen these employees and hope it works out for the best."
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