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New guidelines reduce penalty for former sheriff Conrado Cantu

September 18, 2018

Former Cameron County sheriff and current Bureau of Federal Prisons inmate 51689-179 will get out of jail in a little more than two years after a federal judge in Laredo reduced his sentence.

Conrado Cantu, who protected drug traffickers while serving as sheriff from January 2001 until December 2004, was scheduled to be released on July 22, 2026, but will instead get out of prison on Sept. 28, 2020.

U.S. District Judge Hilda Tagle originally sentenced Cantu to a little more than 24 years in prison in December 2005 for racketeering.

In a plea deal at the time, Cantu admitted to working with a former captain and a former county jailer to solicit and extort bribes from drug traffickers, including a $10,000 bribe just one month after he took office. The former sheriff also admitted to protecting illegal video gamblers and confessed to covering up a March 2004 shootout between a Cantu political supporter and deputies, newspaper archives indicate.

However, Cantu is not being released early because of a successful appeal challenging his conviction. Instead, Cantu is being released early because in 2014 the U.S. Sentencing Commission changed how sentencing guidelines are calculated for drug offenses.

When a federal convict is sentenced, authorities use a system of points to determine the length of the sentence within the guidelines of a criminal offense. In 2014, the U.S. Sentencing Commission amended its Drug Quantity Table, which impacted the number of points used to sentence Cantu to a little more than 24 years in prison. The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s changes were sent to Congress, which didn’t take up the matter, making the amendments to the sentencing guidelines law, and the U.S. Sentencing Commission also allowed the amendments to apply retroactively.

At the end of 2014, Cantu filed a motion to reduce his sentence and asked that it be changed to 17.5 years. The U.S. government did not oppose the motion.

When Tagle originally sentenced Cantu, he had a base offense level of 34, which was enhanced by eight points to 42 because Cantu allowed drug traffickers to operate in Cameron County.

In his motion, Cantu said the sentencing guideline amendment changed his base offense level to 32 and, with enhancements, set it at 37, which set his new sentencing range between 210 and 262 months.

In 2015, Tagle and U.S. District Judge Rolando Olvera both recused themselves from hearing the motion.

Over the next two years, the case experienced several sealed events and Cantu substituted his attorney. By the end of 2017, U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen also recused himself and the case was sent over to U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo in Laredo.

On Aug. 13, Marmolejo held an evidentiary hearing regarding the motion for reduction of sentence, and just two days later ordered Cantu’s sentence be reduced to 17.5 years from a little more than 24.

After four years of work on his case, Cantu was successful in shaving time off his prison term, court records show.

mreagan@brownsvilleherald.com

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