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Border Patrol Agent Found Not Guilty in Decapitation Slaying

Posted: February 1, 2017

By Aaron Nelsen, San Antonio Express-News

BROWNSVILLE — A U.S. Border Patrol agent was acquitted of murder in the grisly decapitation of a Honduran immigrant, but was sentenced to 20 years in prison for taking part in a drug trafficking enterprise.

A Cameron County jury cleared Joel Luna, a 31-year-old border agent and decorated Iraq War veteran, of capital murder in the March 2015 slaying of Francisco Palacios Paz, but found him guilty on two counts of engaging in organized criminal activity.

Joel Luna agreed to a 20-year prison term on the drug-related charge without the possibility of appeal. The other charge against him will be vacated.

Meanwhile, his younger brother Eduardo, 26, was convicted of capital murder and a drug trafficking charge. Benjamin Euresti, Jr., the 107th state District Court judge, sentenced Eduardo Luna, a commander in the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico’s oldest drug-running organizations, to life in prison without parole, plus 50 years on the drug trafficking charge.

“I think the (jury) sent a strong message that we are all together fighting spillover violence, cartel violence,” said Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz. “One law enforcement officer that goes wrong is one too many, but I want to keep it in perspective. The vast of Border Patrol agents are good people.”

Palacios worked at Eduardo’s tire shop in Edinburg, where he was murdered. Palacios’ headless, naked body was pulled from the waters of South Padre Island after his killers had come to believe that he was preparing to give away their drug trafficking enterprise.

The Luna brothers appeared stony-faced as Euresti read the verdict, concluding a trial that saw Fernando Luna, 37, the estranged older brother of Eduardo and Joel, take the stand. Fernando Luna testified that he and Palacios were watching television at the tire shop in Edinburg when Eduardo Luna walked in and shot Palacios in the head.

Gustavo “Gus” Garza, Cameron County assistant district attorney, convinced jurors that Joel Luna played a role in the drugs and money flowing across the border from Reynosa, but he failed to convince them that he had participated in Palacios’ murder.

“We never said to the jury that Joel Luna was at the tire shop when Franky was killed,” Garza said after the trial. “We have a serious, serious problem in this country with our appetite for drugs, and our appetite for drugs fuels all this.”

Even as the jury began deliberating Friday afternoon questions surrounding whether Joel Luna was involved, or at least knew of the plot to murder Palacios carried over until Tuesday morning.

Several times throughout their deliberations jurors asked to rehear the testimony of Fernando Luna, who last August struck a deal with the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office to testify against his brothers and other defendants in the capital murder case.

At issue were telephone calls, text messages among the brothers on March 9 and March 10, the dates when authorities believe Palacios was murdered, and his naked body was dumped in the Laguna Madre.

Under cross-examination from Carlos A. Garcia, Joel Luna’s attorney, Fernando Luna testified that he and Joel never discussed the ill-gotten money from the sale of drugs and weapons, or of Eduardo’s alleged threats to kill Palacios.

Fernando Luna explained that he had deleted his text messages to Eduardo describing Palacios as a “traitor” due to the gravity of the situation. Fernando Luna said he was concerned Joel, who was born in Texas, could get in trouble for harboring the families of Eduardo and Fernando, who were living in the country illegally.

“I’m disappointed because I didn’t believe my client was guilt of anything … I believe that the government did not prove what they alleged,” Garcia said. “At worst he was guilty of giving his brothers shelter and nothing more.”

Investigators seized a black steel safe found in the San Juan home of Joel Luna’s mother-in-law. Inside investigators found 3 pounds of cocaine, half an ounce of methamphetamine, $89,560 in cash, a 1911 silver-plated .38 Gulf Cartel engraved pistol, a .22-caliber pistol, a Border Patrol commemorative badge, and a ledger documenting the sale of narcotics, firearms and ammunition.

From the start, Garcia described the charges against his client as the efforts of an embattled county, still reeling from a series of high-profile public corruption scandals, trying to land a trophy conviction of a federal law enforcement agent.

Joel Luna had been assigned to a checkpoint in Hebbronville at the time of Palacios’ death. He remains on indefinite suspension, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

In recent years, U.S. Customs and Border Protection — the nation’s largest law enforcement agency — has been dogged by corruption within its ranks.

Two other men also are charged with capital murder in Palacios’ death: Nestor Manuel Leal and Aaron Rodriguez Medellin. Their case was severed from that of the Luna brothers. Fernando Luna pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance, and faces three years in prison, and possibly no more than probation as part of the plea deal.

At the conclusion of the trial, Palacios’ on-again, off-again girlfriend, Martha Sanchez, faced her boyfriend’s killer, describing for him how her life had been upended since his death. Eduardo Luna’s steely gaze did not meet Sanchez.

“I’m not calm,” a tearful Sanchez said. “I live with fear and distrust.”

The information on this Defense Attorneys & Lawyers / Law Firm website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this or associated pages, documents, comments, answers, emails, or other communications should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. The information on this website is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing of this information does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

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