Longform

The Bermudez Triangle

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But Bermudez's connection to the border drug rings was more personal than that. His former brother-in-law, Rene Wong, was deep in the trade, and this relationship would eventually land Bermudez in federal prison. Bermudez hasn't kept his time in prison a secret, though he's done his best to paint it as a positive thing, while once again positioning himself as a martyr.

He contends that his conviction was a setup by his political opponents. At the time of his arrest, Bermudez had just begun to consider running for the state Senate.

"I went to jail for doing what I'm doing. I can guarantee you if I had not been the mayor, if I was not seeking higher office, whatever happened to put me in jail would not have mattered," he says.

Actually, there was a set of very specific circumstances that led to his indictment, along with four other men, on nine counts of conspiracy to distribute drugs and conspiracy to launder money. It's all documented in U.S. District Court files.

In 1993, the IRS began to investigate Bermudez for preparing false tax returns at Centro de Progresso.

According to court documents, the IRS noticed an extraordinary number of Bermudez's clients were receiving money from their tax returns. For example, in 1992 his business prepared 2,341 returns, and 100 percent of those received refunds. Turns out, Bermudez was allowing people to falsely claim an earned-income credit for their children who did not reside in the United States (to get an EIC, your dependent family must live with you in the U.S. for at least six months out of the year).

But the trouble was worse than that.

In March 1993, the IRS was asked to join a federal grand jury investigation into Bermudez and others for drug trafficking and money laundering. According to court documents, the FBI had been looking into the case since October 1991, after a raid on a meth lab in a house owned by Bermudez's brother-in-law in San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, Mexico.

A year later, the brother-in-law, Rene Wong, and Bermudez's sister, Matilde Wong, were arrested at a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint with 31 pounds of methamphetamine.

Matilde admitted that her husband was a drug trafficker associated with two men, Balthazar Casillas and Rafael Tinico.

After that, the evidence against Bermudez stacked up quickly.

He'd been given money by Rene Wong to purchase property under an alias, Jesse Bermudez, and Rene Wong was listed as an officer of Centro de Progresso. According to the Yuma County recorder, "Jesse" owned seven properties, four of which had transferred ownership to Nuestro Progresso Inc. Nuestro Progresso had the same address as Centro de Progresso, and listed Elias Bermudez as the president, Rene Wong as the vice president and "Jesse" as the secretary.

When questioned by New Times about Nuestro Progresso, Bermudez simply said it was supposed to be a nonprofit arm of Centro de Progresso; much like Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras is to Centro de Ayuda today. In reality, it was little more than a front for Wong.

Bermudez accepted $100,000 from his brother-in-law, opened a checking account, put him on Centro de Progresso's payroll and paid him for work that was never done.

In other words, he laundered drug money.

Bermudez says he did it to help his family and says he had good intentions.

"I was just trying to get him out of whatever he was doing," he says of his brother-in-law. "It was a family matter. It was such a shame on the family. It was a small town. Everyone knew."

Still, court documents, filed by his own lawyer, show Bermudez knew what he was doing. "He knew Rene Wong and Matilde Wong were involved in drug dealing, and . . . his involvement was with open eyes," one pleading reads.

Bermudez looks angry when asked if he's still in contact with Rene Wong. The answer is a vehement no. Then he appears to remember the softer light he's cast himself in for the past few years, and he adds that he does forgive his former brother-in-law. (He and Matilde have since divorced.)

"I offer him thanks. I would forgive the assassin of my own child," he says. "That is just the way I am. I am a follower of Gandhi. I grew up in a Christian environment. I don't profess to be a Christian because I have moved out of religion to a higher call."

Though initially indicted on nine counts that included drug trafficking, Bermudez pleaded guilty in 1996 to one count of money laundering and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. Bermudez spent 10 months in prison and the last eight months of his sentence at a halfway house in Phoenix.

He calls it the best thing that ever happened to him.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin