Seven Zapata residents were recently convicted of conspiring to conduct illegal gambling activities in Webb and Zapata counties.
Hilda Diana Guerra-Villarreal, 74; Raul Rene Villarreal, 51; and Alma Urania Garcia, 33, pleaded guilty in April to operating illicit game rooms in both counties.
Last year, four other members of the same family – Rodolfo Ricardo Villarreal Jr., 37; Juan Vasco, 52; and Ruben Samuel VIllareal, 28 – along with Maria Mendieta, 42, from Bruni, pleaded guilty to the same charge.
The convictions came after a joint investigation between Homeland Security Investigations, the Laredo Police Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Webb County District Attorney’s Office.
The defendants were accused of conspiring to operate an illegal gambling business at several locations, including:
- Lucky Spins (Red Barn) in Bruni;
- Desert Diamond in Falcon;
- Golden Amusement in Zapata.
According to charges, the Villarreal family and close cohorts owned and operated these establishments and made illegal cash payouts to customers.
In the hopes of lightening her sentence, Guerra-Villarreal agreed to forfeit an estimated $2.6 million in the form of land, buildings and gambling machines.
US District Judge Diana Saldaña will hold sentencing at a future date. Each person faces up to five years in prison and a possible $250,000 fine.
All seven remain out on bond pending the hearing.
Homeland Security Investigations were turned onto the case when investigations revealed the family’s illegal dealings included money laundering.
A family crime syndicate in Texas
The Villarreal family has lived in southwest Texas for many years. It began business by operating three small stores in the Zapata and Laredo areas.
The three small shops had slot machines known as maquinitas – or eight-liners – and table games such as poker and blackjack.
After the Laredo Police received a tip about the family’s involvement in illegal gambling, a nine-month investigation ensued.
In January 2018, multiple law enforcement agencies executed search warrants at several eight-liner establishments and a residence in Zapata. Authorities arrested several members of the family.
At the time, authorities discovered $1.5 million in cash hidden in safes, lockers, boxes and PVC pipes in the home of Guerra-Villarreal, who authorities allege was the head of the operations.
The FBI took over the jurisdiction of the family’s seized assets, believing the family played an important role in the flow of crime and drugs in the area.
Court documents from 2018 reveal Guerra-Villarreal, Raul Rene Villarreal and Rebecca Villarreal Lopez faced charges of conspiracy to commit:
- Money laundering;
- Keeping a gambling place;
- Engaging in organized crime.
South Texas’ storied history of maquinitas and illegal gambling
Eight-liners exist in nearly every corner of Laredo. Texas law allows maquinitas for amusement purposes. Texas law does not permit them for gambling. People can play these games for fun and receive a payout up to $5, or a prize of equal value.
However, payouts at maquinitas are typically much larger than this. It is common to hear of winnings in the hundreds or thousands of dollars. Illicit game rooms operating eight-liners are infamous for attracting crime and drugs.
This has led to a string of raids and arrests at maquinitas establishments across south Texas.
Over the years, several political figures in Laredo have tarnished their reputation because of their involvement in eight-liner establishments.
In 2007, Laredo Police Department Chief Agustin Dovalina left the force unexpectedly and was arrested four days later for allegedly taking $13,500 in bribes from local maquinita parlors. A lieutenant and sergeant with LPD pleaded guilty to similar charges.
All three were convicted and received three years of jail time.
State law requires game rooms to be 1,500 feet away from the nearest residential area, and a certain distance away from the next game room. Game room owners also need a permit from the city to operate.