Investigators arrest 4 people, seize 80 slot machines in latest ‘Operation Shut Down’ raid

Local News
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Investigators seized about 80 slot machines and arrested four people Tuesday, when they raided the old Ramon’s Auto Service building in La Joya.

Investigators seized about 80 slot machines and arrested four people Tuesday, when they raided the old Ramon’s Auto Service building in La Joya.

The Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office spearheaded the raid — part of a new anti-gambling initiative called Operation Shut Down — with support from the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office.

Hidalgo County announced Operation Shut Down last week, when investigators simultaneously raided businesses throughout La Joya.

“This was one of the last places that was left there in La Joya,” said District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez.

With the Ramon’s Auto Service raid, investigators have now arrested 11 people and seized more than 730 so-called “amusement redemption machines” since July 6.

Texas law doesn’t allow the slot machine-style devices — commonly called eight-liners or maquinitas — to pay cash prizes.

“There’s not one place that has been operating legally,” Rodriguez said.

Many businesses, though, made hefty cash payments to La Joya.

Owners pay $2,500 every year for a business permit, $1,000 every year per machine and $300 every month “for the benefit of the youth,” according to city regulations.

City permits created the veneer of legitimacy for eight-liner establishments, which operated openly in La Joya.

Local police haven’t conducted any gambling raids or requested help from the District Attorney’s Office to stop cash payouts.

“It’s frustrating,” Rodriguez said, adding: “All we’re asking is that law enforcement, that they enforce the law.”

Investigators with the District Attorney’s Office routinely raided eight-liner establishments in La Joya, but the arrests didn’t appear to deter anyone.

Ramon’s Auto Service exemplified the problem.

La Joya approved a business permit for the Ramon’s Auto Service eight-liner establishment — officially called Amusement Arcades of Texas — on Jan. 1, 2015.

Documents listed the business applicant as “Hermelinda Rios” of Edcouch.

The business started making regular cash payments to La Joya: $19,900 for the first quarter, $16,150 for the second quarter and $15,900 for the third quarter, according to city records.

Allegations about players winning cash at the old Ramon’s Auto Service building apparently reached the District Attorney’s Office.

On Sept. 30, an undercover investigator visited the Ramon’s Auto Service building.

According to the investigator’s affidavit:

Investigator De La Rosa witnessed patrons gambling inside Ramon’s Auto Service gaming room. Investigator De La Rosa observed approximately 100 gambling machines inside the building. Investigator De La Rosa witnessed one (1) patron win while playing the 8 liner machine and get paid in U.S. currency. Investigator De La Rosa also won while playing the 8 liner machines. The patron and Investigator De La Rosa were paid cash by an unidentified female employee that was working as a cashier. Investigator De La Rosa did not see the exact amount of U.S. currency paid to the patron but Investigator De La Rosa was paid $105.00 U.S. dollars for her winnings.

The District Attorney’s Office raided Ramon’s Auto Service the next day.

Investigators seized nearly $25,000 and arrested Erlinda Medina Rios, 24, of Edcouch.

“She’s maintained that she had the proper permits with the city of La Joya,” said attorney Richard Gonzalez, who represents Rios. “And she wasn’t doing anything illegal.”

Prosecutors later struck a deal with Rios, returning $5,000 and keeping nearly $20,000. Criminal charges against her remain pending.

Ramon’s Auto Service closed for several months, but eventually reopened.

It’s unclear who revived the eight-liner establishment. Gonzales said Rios didn’t have role in the second iteration of Ramon’s Auto Service.

“As far as I know, she is not affiliated with that business,” Gonzalez said.

Investigators seized about 80 machines and arrested four people:


Esteban Homero Villanueva
, 26, of Mission, who was charged with:

  • Engaging in organized criminal activity, a state jail felony
  • Possession of gambling devices, equipment or paraphernalia, a Class A misdemeanor
  • Keeping a gambling place, a Class A misdemeanor
  • Gambling promotion, a Class A misdemeanor


Tania Natalia Vargas Guerrero
, 24, of Alton, who was charged with:

  • Engaging in organized criminal activity, a state jail felony
  • Possession of gambling devices, equipment or paraphernalia, a Class A misdemeanor
  • Keeping a gambling place, a Class A misdemeanor
  • Gambling promotion, a Class A misdemeanor


Gerardo Vargas Guerrero
, 25, of Alton, who was charged with:

  • Engaging in organized criminal activity, a state jail felony
  • Possession of gambling devices, equipment or paraphernalia, a Class A misdemeanor
  • Keeping a gambling place, a Class A misdemeanor
  • Gambling promotion, a Class A misdemeanor


Elizabeth Mikalencak Austin
, 51, of Mission

  • Engaging in organized criminal activity, a state jail felony
  • Possession of gambling devices, equipment or paraphernalia, a Class A misdemeanor
  • Keeping a gambling place, a Class A misdemeanor
  • Gambling promotion, a Class A misdemeanor


Gonzalez said they’re already contacted him about legal representation.

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