Ismael Lira grew up in the border town of Del Rio, Texas. He’d live there until getting caught up in the system for the first and only time. By his late 20s, Lira had settled into a life most Americans lived. He worked hard, enjoyed going to local restaurants with friends and loved spending time with his wife, Tina.
The Feds believe Lira to be part of an ongoing criminal enterprise, alleging he was part of an operation that saw hundreds of thousands of dollars exchanged. They allege he was paid significantly for his work. Feds used witness testimony to infer that Lira’s expensive vehicles came from drug money in court.
Never offered a plea deal, Lira fought the charges and paid for it immensely. His decision saw his charges swell from a few pounds to hundreds. Ultimately, a pre-sentence report attributed roughly 33,000 kilograms of illegal cannabis to the Liras and the distribution ring. The alleged weight trafficked and earnings would be enough to trigger a mandatory life sentence for Lira.
Lira said that, “When you go to trial for conspiracy as I did, and lose, you are held accountable for conduct that other defendants committed, it is referred to as relevant conduct.”
For over 17 years, Lira has been torn from his family, home and life over his first non-violent cannabis offense. Several states away from his loved ones, he spends much of his time alone in a violent Indiana federal prison. All the while, advocates in and out of prison highlight his ongoing commitment to personal wellness and development, hoping he can be released sometime soon.
Six Pounds Of Cannabis Becomes Hundreds
In 2004, the Liras were detained 50 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border near San Antonio. Ismael claims the couple were held from around 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. At that time, Tina was released, and her husband was arrested despite not having any cannabis, plant or otherwise, on him. From there, the case amplified in allegations and severity, when they were linked to another person caught that day at the checkpoint carrying roughly six pounds of cannabis in their car.
Feds accused Lira of providing cannabis to that person. Between the arrest and trial, the six pounds and a single charge increased to a multi-person operation handling thousands of kilograms of cannabis. For his part, Lira cited various court statements that he believes misrepresent the facts, tying him to a cannabis operation in name only, without any hard evidence.
Lira said Feds eventually began looping in other witnesses to tie him to the case after his two co-defendants said they did not testify against him. He cited additional court transcripts alleging that Feds drug out the proceedings to build a case against him and his wife.
Like most found in this predicament, whether guilty or not, Lira said Feds attempted to get him to plead out to avoid a trial. Eventually, Tina was also charged with alleged conspiracy. Lira swears that his wife was innocent. At that point, he said he knew he had to fight the charges and clear their names. The decision would prove costly.
Eighteen months after his arrest, the trial would begin. By day three, Lira knew he was in trouble. He recalled hearing prosecutors telling his defense attorney that they’d be paid regardless of the trial’s outcome.
“It happens all the time,” he claimed.
Lira said he ended up like many do, short on courtroom education with representation that didn’t help fill the gaps. Lira would better understand his case and conspiracy charges in the years since his conviction, stating that conspiracy must prove intent, knowledge and an agreement to further the operation. He said that two of three others charged in the operation didn’t know the Liras, and a deal had never been in place.
“There were no seizures; there’s no weighing of the evidence,” Lira said.
His fight wouldn’t sway the jury, with the Liras found guilty for their involvement in the operation. Tina would receive 11 years for her first offense; Ismael received life.
Ismael Lira: 17 Years In Some of America’s Most Violent Destinations
The past 17 years have seen Lira shipped to several different prisons, witnessing frequent instances of violence and living far from any of his loved ones.
His first stop was USP Beaumont, also known as Bloody Beaumont for its high level of violence and extended lockdowns. Lira only came in with 15 points as part of his assessment, which should have kept him from the more violent units. However, his crimes put him in the higher risk cell blocks. He called the experience an eye-opener, with murders a frequent occurrence. “I got to see more violence than I ever saw on TV growing up as a kid,” he recalled of the Texas prison he lived in until March 2008.
Future stops would not reduce the brutality. Lira continued to see murder and other forms of violence along the way. The circumstances have not changed much since arriving in Indiana. In 2020, the prison gained national press when the Washington Post reported a beating death.
Lira had to cancel his first phone call with High Times in late July due to a lockdown in which a prisoner was stabbed. He did not have any involvement in the incident.
Little family interaction has occurred during his sentence. Over Lira’s 17 years of incarceration, he recalls only six or seven visits, citing the extended distance from his family in south Texas. During Tina’s 11 years in prison, Ismael would tell family and friends to visit her instead.
“I wanted her to have somebody to see,” he stated. He added, “I wanted my family to be there for her.”
The Liras would remain together through Tina’s sentence. Four years ago, however, they decided to separate. “It’s hard to have a relationship in prison,” he said.
Rising Above And Hoping For A Second Chance
The end of their marriage had not changed Lira’s commitment to his wife before he was sentenced. They agreed not to let the system change them as it does for countless individuals.
The now 44-year-old Lira’s dedication to that commitment is exemplified through a commitment to education and self-improvement. To date, he’s completed over 70 programs focused on personal and professional development. He’s completed two apprenticeship programs and studied urban and industrial pest management through Purdue University during the spring 2020 semester.
Lira has earned glowing praise from unit counselors and advocates like Amy Povah, a former non-violent drug war prisoner turned advocate. She now runs the organization CAN-DO Foundation, which seeks clemency for people like Lira.
Povah recently started a Change.org petition for Lira’s clemency, hoping that he can receive clemency after failing to do so with Presidents Obama and Trump.
“Ismael is one of the most deserving pot prisoners I know who should be home,” Povah told High Times.
Povah said she prays that the Biden administration “lives up to its promise to free all cannabis prisoners.” She added, “It’s a rather small category of individuals who are rotting in prison while others, including former speaker of the house John Boehner, rake in big bucks.”