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Ex-County Commissioner Willie Gandara Jr. sentenced to 6 1/2 years on drug charges

Ex-El Paso County Commissioner Willie Gandara Jr. was sentenced Nov. 14 to 6 1/2 years in federal prison on drug-related charges.

He also has to pay a $300,000 fine. He was taken into custody and family members cried as they told him they loved him.

Gandara Jr. pleaded guilty in August to operating a Lower Valley stash house and masterminding the shipment of hundreds of pounds of marijuana to Oklahoma and Chicago.

Gandara Jr. supporters wrote letters to U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo, pleading for leniency in the former politician’s sentencing.

Letters of support came from Gandara Jr.’s wife, Claudia Gandara, his oldest daughter, Gabrielle, and other El Paso County residents who claim Gandara Jr. is a decent man.

Among those who wrote pleas for leniency are San Elizario I.S.D. District Social Worker Nora Garcia, Familias Triunfadoras Executive Director Maria Covernali-Ortiz, attorney David Austin, LULAC President Nicholas Dominguez, and El Paso Community College professor Rodolfo Hernandez.

Gandara Jr. had faced up to 40 years in prison and a $1.5 million fine.

Gandara Jr. was arrested the night of Feb. 22 in Sierra Blanca, Texas and charged with five counts of federal drug trafficking charges. His attorney, Joe Spencer told ABC-7 in February that his client was on his way to San Antonio for a family vacation when he was arrested in Sierra Blanca. Spencer said Gandara Jr. was taken that night by law enforcement to Socorro for a search of his home that turned up nothing.

In 2008, when he was elected to County Commissioners Court, he told his constituents he would give 90 percent of his salary to his district.

“A person such as myself is doing it because he wants to give back to the people that have given me so much,” Gandara Jr. said in 2008.

Spencer said in August that Gandara Jr. was owning up to his actions as a drug trafficker.

“He’s very remorseful. He’s very regretful as an example he set. It’s a bad example,” Spencer said in August. “He’s very ashamed for his conduct. He’s told me that many many times.”

During a hearing in late February, prosecutors played video surveillance evidence they said showed Gandara Jr. and Juan Canales engaged in illegal activity.

According to prosecutors, Gandara Jr. set up the exchange of large loads of marijuana which was stored at a property he owned in Socorro.

At one point in one of the recorded conversations with a confidential informant, Gandara Jr. bragged about a small pipeline he has that runs loads of marijuana to Oklahoma and Chicago.

“We were a little surprised with the evidence,” Spencer said after the late February hearing. “I think there’s some issues here with entrapment. That’s a solid defense. What we have here is … Mr. Gandara, it appeared, he did have some involvement … what the extent of involvement is we really don’t know.”

The indictment on Gandara Jr. alleged that from November 2010 until the February 2012, the defendants conspired to possess and distribute over 50 kilograms of marijuana using property owned by Gandara Jr. located at 1000 Coker Road in El Paso County.

The indictment also contains a notice of criminal forfeiture whereby the government is seeking to forfeit any and all proceeds derived from their alleged marijuana trafficking operation.

Gandara Jr., 37, withdrew from the State Representative District 75 race soon after his arrest and resigned his seat on Commissioners Court.

He was elected to Commissioners Court in November 2008.

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