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Texas Official Charged with Drug Trafficking

(Photo credit: CNN)

(Photo credit: CNN)

By Michael Martinez, CNN

An El Paso County commissioner who’s also a Democratic candidate for the Texas Legislature has been indicted on charges of trafficking 50 kilograms of marijuana and money laundering, authorities said Friday.

El Paso County Commissioner Guillermo “Willie” Gandara Jr., 37, of El Paso, and an associate, Juan Canales, 50, of San Elizario, were indicted on a count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute the 50 kilograms or more of marijuana and another count of possession with intent to distribute marijuana.

Gandara comes from a well-known political family in El Paso County, where he, his brother and their father have served on the school board or city council or both in Socorro, according to Gandara’s attorney.

Gandara, whom the indictment says went by the alias “Godfather,” is also charged with three counts of maintaining property in El Paso County for the distribution of marijuana since November 2010. Authorities are seeking criminal forfeiture of any property derived from the alleged crimes.

Gandara’s attorney, Joe A. Spencer, said his client was “shocked” at the allegations.

“He has no knowledge of what the government is accusing him of,” Spencer said. “I have not seen any of the evidence. We’re not privy to the discovery yet.”

Gandara was arrested Thursday afternoon while he, his wife and their children were driving from San Antonio. They were stopped at a routine U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint at Sierra Blanca, where Gandara was identified and apprehended, Spencer said. The children were on a semester break from school, Spencer said.

Gandara had his initial appearance in federal court in El Paso on Thursday. Federal prosecutors are seeking to detain Gandara without bond, which he will oppose, Spencer said. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Tuesday, the defense attorney said.

“It’s our contention that he’s not a flight risk and he’s not a danger to the community,” Spencer said.

Gandara will remain on the county commission, Spencer said. Gandara is running for Texas state representative of District 75, according to the Texas Democratic Party website. The incumbent, state Rep. Chente Quintanilla, is not seeking re-election and, in fact, is seeking the county commission seat now occupied by Gandara, Spencer said.

“We have not had any discussions about his political future” running for the statehouse, Spencer said about his client. “We have been focusing on these allegations.”‘

Gandara’s brother, Gary, and their father, Willie Sr., served as mayor and school board members in Socorro, a suburb of El Paso, Spencer said. Gandara also served on the Socorro school board, the attorney said.

“They’re all politically involved,” Spencer said, adding the family is Democrat.

If convicted, Gandara and the other defendant face up to 20 years in federal prison on each count, authorities said.

“Elected officials who engage in drug trafficking violate the public trust,” Joseph M. Arabit, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s El Paso Division, said in a statement. “As this lengthy investigation attests, DEA and its law enforcement partners are committed to holding drug traffickers accountable for their illegal activity, regardless of their position, and we will not allow the actions of a few to tarnish the honorable work that other government officials perform each day. The residents of El Paso County deserve no less.”