By Rick Schwertfeger, Captain, Frontier Partisans Southern Command, Austin Texas
The environment on the border: An American couple jet skiing on Falcon Lake reservoir on the Rio Grande strayed into Zeta territory on the Mexican side. Shot at with AK-47s, the man was killed but the wife escaped on her jet ski. Weeks later they still hadn’t recovered his body. A Mexican police commander volunteered to help
“But a week later his head was delivered in a suitcase to a Mexican army barracks near the lake.” *
* Quotes from the book “Bloodlines,” by Melissa Del Bosque.
An irony of a drug lord’s success is that he makes so much money that even an extravagantly rich home and lifestyle doesn’t consume the massive profits. Zeta drug king Miguel Treviño grew up in the northern Mexico Norteño culture, which is enamored with Quarter Horse racing. This cross-border phenomenon extends well into Texas and the Southwestern U.S. The bulletin boards outside Callahan’s General Store in S.E. Austin display ads from ones handwritten with a phone number to computer printed with photos for cuarto milla horses. Racing these sprinters 440 yards is big business!
Treviño’s brother Jose was a Dallas bricklayer — a “clean” American citizen who wanted nothing to do with the drug game. Jose never had made more than $50,000 in a year. One day in 2009 Jose Treviño bought a horse named Tempting Dash for $25,000 from Mexican horse agent Ramiro Villarreal. Young Texas Quarter Horse breeder Tyler Graham was suspicious — because Tempting Dash had just won two major races and $445,000! Why would Villarreal sell a horse like that for $25,000? But Graham realized that Tempting Dash — “a once-in-a-lifetime kind of horse” — could put his Southwest Stallion Station on the map, while making big profits. Despite his questions, Graham convinced Jose Trevino to have Tempting Dash stand at stud in Elgin, 30 miles east of Austin.
“Graham had no idea who he was dealing with.” But young FBI Special Agent Scott Lawson did. Lawson visited Graham’s stables for a chat. Lawson informed Graham that Jose Treviño was the brother of the boss of the ultra-violent Zeta Mexican drug cartel. There was high suspicion that Jose was building a racing empire using laundered Zeta drug monies.
Graham was in a box: He wanted Tempting Dash and some other Treviño horses for his business, but continuing to work with Treviño could lead him into illegal activity. Lawson offered a deal. Tyler Graham could work with the FBI, providing information to help bust the budding racing empire. He also “could end up dead.”
“With an air of resignation, the brave Graham said, ‘So how can I help?’”
How Tyler Graham helped, and how Scott Lawson and his colleagues broke the Zeta drug money laundering/Quarter Horse racing business is the subject of Melissa Del Bosque’s 2017 book Bloodlines: The True Story of a Drug Cartel, the FBI, and the Battle for a Horse-Racing Dynasty.
It’s a cross-border saga, with American dollars pouring into Mexico; and the money flowing back to the U.S. into shell corporations set up to appear as legitimate businesses — but which “washed” the money and poured it into building the Treviños’ Quarter Horse racing empire. And, because U.S. law allows people to bring under $10,000 in cash into the country without paperwork required, “mules” walked countless duffel bags full of $9,990 in cash across the bridge from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, into Laredo, Texas; the money then used as payments for horse boarding and associated expenses, including bribes of race track workers. (A favorite trick was bribing starting gate workers, who’d open the gates of Trevino challengers an imperceptible instant late.)
“Nuevo Laredo was in a state of siege.” The Sinaloa, Gulf and Michoacán cartels joined “to wipe out the Zetas.” The Zetas, Juarez, Tijuana and Beltran-Leyva cartels allied for “a full-blown civil war.” The Zetas, with training camps in three states, recruited current and ex-military. They “stockpiled weapons from U.S. gun shows and the Guatemalan military. They had M-16s, rocket launchers, grenades, bazookas, machine guns, a helicopter and a Cessna.”
“Zetas blocked city streets with hijacked semis and buses, ambushing government soldiers or enemy gunmen. Day and night, a cacophony of high-caliber weapons fire echoed in the streets. Innocent civilians watched in horror as their neighborhoods turned into battle zones.”
Kidnapping, extortion, torture, and execution were daily non-combat tactics. Politicians and businessmen especially were targets.
“We know where your family lives; we know where your parents live.”
In Laredo and up the I-35 Drug Corridor through Austin, Waco and Dallas, investigators put in 14-hour days trying to tie the Zetas’ drug money to Jose Treviño’s Tremor Enterprises. A conviction was impossible without definitive proof. Author Melissa Del Bosque artfully takes the reader through the ins and outs, ups and downs of the investigation. A major bump in the road involved friction between the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration — their overlapping responsibilities leading to competition instead of the needed high degree of cooperation. Tense negotiations were required. The case could have collapsed numerous times.
Once a grand jury in Austin handed down indictments, planning of the raid to arrest those indicted ramped up. The size and complexity was daunting.
“Nine FBI field offices, the IRS, the DEA, and the U.S. attorney’s office” were in the planning. “It would take 1200 agents and support staff to target four states in simultaneous raids,” with a coordinating command post in San Antonio. They would hit Jose Trevino’s Oklahoma ranch and “racetracks in New Mexico, Texas and California.”
Del Bosque recounts the events on the early morning of June 12, 2012, as the raid went down successfully.
The last, fascinating part of Bloodlines deals with preparations for and the conduct of the trial in Austin, which started April 15, 2013. Jose Treviño and co-defendants hired high-powered Texas defense attorneys Mike DeGeurin, David Finn and Christie Williams. These pros are experts in poking holes in the government’s case and planting “doubts in the minds of the jury.” Del Bosque relates the high-profile trial dramatically. There was tension, and reason for fear.
“A few days earlier, someone had tried to purchase a copy of the blueprints of the courthouse”!
After three tense weeks, Federal prosecutors Doug Gardner, Michelle Fernald and Daniel Castillo rested their case. And after just four hours of jury deliberation, the word “Guilty” echoed throughout the hushed courtroom. Special Agent Scott Lawson and his colleagues had spent three years on the case — and they’d won!
© 2018 Rick Schwertfeger, Austin, Texas. Used by permission.