McALLEN, Texas (ValleyCentral) – The son of Starr County’s top lawman pleaded guilty to a federal drug trafficking charge on Thursday.

During a hearing on Thursday afternoon, Rene Fuentes Jr., 41, of Mission admitted to protecting a cocaine shipment in exchange for cash.

“Guilty, judge,” Rene Fuentes Jr. said, when asked how he pleaded.

Rene Fuentes Jr. is part of a prominent family that runs the Starr County Sheriff’s Office.

His father, Rene “Orta” Fuentes Sr., is the sheriff. Two other members of the family, Chief Deputy Larry Fuentes and Capt. Lenard Fuentes, are top administrators.

Rene Fuentes Jr. in 2005, when he joined the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office. (Photo courtesy of the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office.)

Rene Fuentes Jr. followed in their footsteps.

On June 5, 2000, just three days after Rene Fuentes Jr. graduated from high school, he accepted a job with the Starr County Sheriff’s Office.

While he worked at the Starr County jail, Rene Fuentes Jr. attended a police academy in Pharr.

He graduated in January 2003, according to Texas Commission on Law Enforcement records.

Less than three months later, the Starr County Sheriff’s Office assigned Rene Fuentes Jr. to the local High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force — a job typically reserved for experienced law enforcement officers.

Documents released by the Starr County Sheriff’s Office don’t show how long Rene Fuentes Jr. served on the task force.

In an undated memo, which the Starr County Sheriff’s Office released under the Texas Public Information Act, he requested a transfer back to patrol.

“I wish to pursue a career in law enforcement as a trooper and therefore I am requesting to be transferred to the patrol division to get more experience at the patrol level,” Rene Fuentes Jr. wrote.

Documents released by the Starr County Sheriff’s Office don’t include any response to his request.

In 2005, though, Rene Fuentes Jr. accepted a job with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, which placed him on patrol.

The federal courthouse in McAllen. (Photo by Mark Munoz / CBS 4 News.)

His star-studded job application listed Hidalgo County Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe Flores and Rio Grande City school district police Chief Byron “Dutch” Piper as references.

Just a year later, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office fired Rene Fuentes Jr. after federal agents caught him buying guns under false pretenses.

Agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives provided Hidalgo County with a summary of the federal investigation.

“The type of guns purchased by Fuentes are very expensive guns and which, in their experience, are commonly used by Mexican drug traffickers,” according to a memo released by the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office.

In some cases, Rene Fuentes Jr. paid other people to purchase guns for him — what federal agents call “straw purchasing.”

The ATF also determined that Rene Fuentes Jr. filled out federal forms with personal information that belonged to other people.

Rene Fuentes Jr. struck a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to making a false statement to a firearms dealer.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa sentenced him to 23 months in federal prison.

Rene Fuentes Jr. resurfaced in 2019, when the FBI conducted a sting operation in Starr County.

In May 2019, “undercover FBI assets” paid Fuentes and two other people to protect a cocaine shipment, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Laurence Guerra Jr. said Thursday afternoon, when Fuentes pleaded guilty. They escorted a car loaded with about 57 pounds of cocaine from Starr County to Hidalgo County.

Prosecutors, however, didn’t take the case against Rene Fuentes Jr. to a grand jury until June 2021, more than two years after the incident.

Documents filed by prosecutors suggest the case against Rene Fuentes Jr. is somehow linked to a public corruption investigation.

Guerra, the federal prosecutor who handled the case, and FBI Special Agent David Roncska, who participated in the investigation, worked together on the bribery case against former state District Judge Rodolfo “Rudy” Delgado.

What, if any, information about public corruption surfaced during the investigation remains a mystery.

Sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 4. Rene Fuentes Jr. faces 5 to 40 years in federal prison.