McALLEN, TEXAS (ValleyCentral) — Former Starr County Attorney Victor Canales Jr. pleaded guilty to a federal extortion charge on Tuesday.

During a hearing on Tuesday afternoon, Canales confessed to arranging for the County Attorney’s Office not to prosecute three misdemeanor charges in exchange for $1,500.

“Why would you do this for $1,500?” asked U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa. “Or for any amount?”

“A moment of weakness,” Canales said.

Victor Canales Jr., 50, of Rio Grande City served as Starr County attorney from 2005 to 2022.

As the county attorney, Canales supervised a small staff that advised the Commissioners Court, represented Starr County in civil litigation and prosecuted misdemeanor cases.

Canales also represented other clients, including the Rio Grande City Grulla Independent School District and El Tanque Water Supply Corp.

While popular with voters, Canales occasionally clashed with other county officials, including the Commissioners Court and the regional district attorney.

Canales abruptly resigned from the County Attorney’s Office in April 2022. A federal grand jury indicted him less than a year later.

The indictment charged Canales with stealing from the County Attorney’s Office.

“Victor Canales would convert funds destined for the Starr County’s Attorney’s Office for fines and fees, by requesting payment in cash or money orders,” according to the indictment, “and then depositing the cash or money orders into his personal accounts.”

Canales embezzled at least $5,000 from the County Attorney’s Office each year from 2018 to 2021, according to the indictment, which doesn’t include exact amounts.

The indictment also charged Canales with extortion “under color of official right.” Prosecutors use the charge when a public official accepts money in exchange for an official act.

In September 2021, a woman contacted Canales about her son, who had been charged with three misdemeanors, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Cook Profit, who is prosecuting the case. Canales said he could “take care” of the charges for $1,500.

Someone left three money orders in his mailbox, Profit said, and Canales decided not to prosecute the misdemeanor cases.

Canales was arrested in April 2023.

The case against Canales is linked to Operation Ice River, which cracked down on drug smuggling in Starr County. Prosecutors brought charges against more than two dozen people, including Hector Reyes, a man in his mid-30s from Rio Grande City.

Reyes hired drivers for the drug trafficking organization and shipped cocaine to people in other states, according U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Patrick Zaruba, who testified during a hearing in May.

“He was also responsible for conducting these religious-type ceremonies to — based on our wiretaps — that it would be to bless the loads,” Zaruba said.

Reyes would light candles, say prayers and sacrifice animals during the quasi-religious ceremonies, Zaruba said, which Reyes apparently believed would protect drug shipments from federal agents.

“We’ve learned, through our investigation, they would do these rituals, I guess, to give luck to them,” Zaruba said. “So that the DEA or other agencies wouldn’t interdict it.”

Along with drug trafficking, Reyes is charged with violating the federal Endangered Species Act by acquiring a female jaguar “intended for sacrifice,” according to the indictment against him. Reyes pleaded not guilty.

The “Notice of Related Cases” filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas doesn’t provide any details about the connection between Reyes and Canales.

Canales pleaded not guilty in April. He returned to court Tuesday after striking a deal with prosecutors.

As part of the agreement, Canales pleaded guilty to one count of extortion. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to drop eight other charges against him.

Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 15. Canales faces a maximum of 20 years in federal prison.