Joel Luna seemed an ideal Border Patrol hire: south Texas native, high school ROTC standout, Army combat veteran.
Luna worked out of a border checkpoint about 100 miles north of Mexico in Hebbronville, patrolling ranch land frequented by smugglers of humans and drugs. The covert work drew upon his infantry experience.
But now Luna, 31, is preparing to stand trial on a charge of capital murder for his role in what prosecutors say was a cartel drug trafficking conspiracy that left a decapitated corpse floating off the Texas coast during spring break.
To hear prosecutors tell it, the conspiracy is a tale of three Lunas — brothers Joel, Fernando and Eduardo.
Fernando, also known as “Junior,” is the oldest—35, heavyset and bespectacled. The youngest is 25-year-old Eduardo, who sports a shaved head and goatee and goes by “Pajaro,” or “Bird” — a nickname that would play a key role in the case.
Prosecutors say Joel helped Fernando and Eduardo run a criminal family business.
Joel’s attorney says he didn’t kill anyone, that in a region where cross-border families often include a mix of law enforcement and immigrants, it’s Fernando and Eduardo, Mexican citizens in the U.S. illegally, who are to blame for the slaying.
“There’s an argument to be made against my client that’s guilt by association. People get swept up with those who are really guilty. It’s family,” said Joel’s attorney, Carlos A. Garcia. “Associating or going to a quinceañera is not a crime. He was just a family man, a working man. Think about how many Border Patrol members who live on the border have relatives here without visas.”
According to his U.S. birth certificate, Joel was born in San Juan, less than 10 miles north of the Rio Grande, but he was raised south of the border in Reynosa, a Gulf cartel stronghold. Fernando and Eduardo were born in Mexico.
The boys’ parents obtained a Mexican birth certificate for Joel so that he could attend elementary and middle school in Mexico, Garcia said. “This is a common thing along the border. Joel was no different. People who are born here, their families take them into Mexico to attend school up until high school, until they have to pay for it,” he said.
Thanks to his U.S. birth certificate, Joel attended Pharr-San Juan Alamo High School, joined Army ROTC, and became a commander. Yearbook photos show him running laps and posing in uniform, a short, trim figure trying to look serious with the shadow of a mustache.
“He knew what he wanted to do from a young age,” Garcia said. “He wanted to defend his country.”
After graduating, Joel joined the Army in 2004 and served a combat tour in Iraq. In 2008, he was discharged as a specialist to the Army National Guard, serving for four more years in the Rio Grande Valley.