Did a Border Patrol agent aid a Mexican cartel decapitation?

A Border Patrol agent in south Texas faces murder charges in connection with what authorities say was a Mexican cartel killing that left a decapitated body floating off the coast of South Padre Island this year.

Border Patrol Agent Joel Luna, 30, was assigned to the Hebbronville station, about 165 miles northwest of the island, and had worked for the agency six years. He was placed on administrative leave after his arrest last week, officials said.

Luna is charged with capital murder, possession of a controlled substance, engaging in organized criminal activity and tampering with evidence in the death of Jose Francisco Rodriguez Palacios Paz, 33, a Honduran immigrant.

Fishermen found Paz’s mutilated body floating about 500 yards from the popular spring break destination on March 16, according to a statement released by Cameron County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Gus Reyna Jr.

Paz had been working at a tire shop in Edinburg, about 80 miles west of the island in the Rio Grande Valley. Reyna said investigators arrested three men in the area in June in connection with the slaying: Aaron Rodriguez Medellin, 22; Nestor Manuel Leal, 18; and one of Luna’s brothers, Eduardo Luna Rodriguez, 24.

A fourth man, another of Luna’s brothers -- Fernando Luna Rodriguez, 35 -- was arrested at a border crossing on the same day as he returned from Mexico with Luna.

Luna wasn’t charged until Thursday, when a team of federal, state and local investigators searched his mother-in-law’s house elsewhere in the Rio Grande Valley and recovered a black steel safe.

Among evidence seized from the safe: more than a kilogram of cocaine, 17 grams of methamphetamines, a 1911 engraved pistol, a .22-caliber pistol, about $90,000 in bundled cash and Luna’s Border Patrol badge and identifying documents, Reyna said.

He said investigators “developed further information that corroborated that the murder was associated with the Gulf cartel.”

The Gulf cartel operates a massive, international drug-trafficking operation headquartered directly across the border from the Cameron County seat of Brownsville in Matamoros, Mexico.

Security in Tamaulipas state has deteriorated in recent months, with kidnappings and gun battles in the streets between cartel fighters and state police. Last month, the Matamoros mayor warned residents to stay inside after gunfights erupted in the wake of a Gulf cartel leader's capture.

Reyna said the investigation indicated that Luna was “a participant in the possession and distribution of controlled substances” as well as Paz’s murder.

Luna, his two brothers and the two other suspects were being held without bond at the Cameron County jail Monday.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said internal affairs officials were cooperating with investigators in the case.

“The overwhelming majority of [Border Patrol] officers and agents perform their duties with honor and distinction, working tirelessly every day to keep our country safe,” the agency said in a statement. “We do not tolerate corruption or abuse within our ranks, and we fully cooperate with any criminal or administrative investigation of alleged misconduct by any of our personnel, on or off duty.”

Follow me for the latest in national news @mollyhf.

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