The largest concentrated manhunt in Texas in nearly two decades entered its sixth day on Tuesday after a dangerous inmate with cartel connections escaped from a prison bus in Leon County on Thursday.
Law enforcement officials say they are determined to find 46-year-old Gonzalo Lopez, who is considered to be armed and dangerous with known ties to the La Mana drug cartel from Tamaulipas, Mexico. He’s currently serving a life sentence for cumulative offenses and violent crimes committed in two border counties: capital murder in Hidalgo County and attempted capital murder in Webb County.
“We are not going to rest until we find him. We are determined to find him,” Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Robert Hurst told KPRC News Monday, when the search included 300 personnel. Now, 500 personnel, including helicopter crews using thermal imaging, those on horseback and K9 units on foot, are searching for him in 100-degree weather covering a radius of 100 square miles.
“At this point, there is no indication to think that he is not in this area,” Hurst said. “We are using every resource available to us to locate him, and again, we will not quit until we find him.”
TDCJ also increased its reward to $50,000 for information leading to Lopez’s capture, up from $22,500 on Saturday. Texans are encouraged to contact TDCJ OIG CRIME STOPPERS at 1-800-832-8477 or 936-437-5171 or 911 if they have any information about his whereabouts.
In 2004, Lopez tried to kill a Webb County Sheriff’s deputy. He told investigators that he and another man were on their way to kill someone in Laredo when a Webb County deputy sheriff attempted to pull them over, WFAA News reported. The deputy was fired upon and shot while pursuing them in a car chase. Eventually, they ran out of gas and bailed out, escaping into the brush. Lopez hid from law enforcement until the next day, when he reached a cartel contact who picked him up. He then hid in Laredo, Rio Grande City, and Mexico with the help of cartel operatives. He was eventually taken into custody with the help of a confidential informant.
In 2005, he was arrested for participating in the kidnapping and murder of Lupe Ramirez in Weslaco, which he told investigators was at the orders of the La Mana cartel. Ramirez was held for a $40,000 ransom, which wasn’t paid, and then killed. One month later, Lopez was arrested in Starr County on unrelated drug possession charges when he told a Texas Ranger he’d kidnapped and killed Ramirez, court records show.
Webb County Chief Deputy Alex Gutierrez stressed that Lopez is dangerous. He said that while sharing information about Lopez was important, he warned Texans, “Don’t get close to this individual, he was serving a life sentence for capital murder,” KGNS News reported.
According to TDCJ inmate information, Lopez was sentenced on multiple offenses committed in Hidalgo County. In 1996, he was sentenced to 8 years each for aggravated assault committed in 1994 and twice in 1995, and to 5 years each for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, failure to stop, and possession of marijuana committed in March and June of 1994. He was released from prison and in 2006 was sentenced to life in prison for the 2005 capital murder and kidnapping charges. In 2007, he was sentenced to life in prison for attempted capital murder committed in 2004 in Webb County.
Law enforcement personnel involved in the ongoing search include those from the U.S. Marshals, Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Rangers, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Leon County Sheriffs Office, among others.
Leon County, roughly 115 miles north of Houston, has a population of roughly 16,000. State Highway 45, a major thoroughfare used by cartels and human traffickers traveling between Houston and Dallas, cuts through the county. Primarily a rural area with farmland and wooded forest, it’s located north of TDCJ headquarters located in Huntsville in Walker County. TDCJ operates the state’s correctional facilities for adults and is the largest employer in Huntsville.
Lopez was being transported to Huntsville in a bus with 16 inmates when he escaped on Thursday. An investigation will be launched into how he was able to break open the metal door to reach the driver, was able to get on the bus with an instrument to stab the driver, and was able to get away by stealing the bus with 15 inmates inside, TDCJ confirmed. First, the agency’s goal is capturing Lopez.
Meanwhile, visitation to select prison units are cancelled “due to the ongoing efforts in the apprehension of escaped inmate Gonzalo Lopez,” TDCJ says. “Until further notice, please contact the unit prior to traveling for visitation.”
The manhunt is one of the largest since the early 2000s when “the infamous Texas 7” escaped from the Connally Unit in south Texas. All but one of them were caught except for one who killed himself.