A True Tale of Drug Cartels, Money Laundering and Horse Racing

A True Tale of Drug Cartels, Money Laundering and Horse Racing

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In September 2010, bettors at the All American Futurity race in New Mexico watched the long-shot Mr. Piloto gallop to the million-dollar first prize by less than a nose, the second-closest win in the race’s history. Meanwhile, over the border in Mexico, a gang of drug traffickers from the Zetas cartel cheered the victory with whiskey, from a safe house. Mr. Piloto was registered to the company of a Dallas bricklayer named José Treviño Morales, but the money to buy him had come from his brother Miguel Treviño, alias “El Cuarenta,” a Zeta boss blamed for some of the worst massacres in Mexico’s drug war. Bloodstained dollars had gone from American drug users over the Rio Grande to cartel killers, and then back north into the American racing industry.

The true-life tale of the Zetas’ foray into quarter horses is masterfully recounted by the journalist Joe Tone in his debut book, “Bones.” He shines a light on an often overlooked corner of the blood bath ravaging Mexico: how cartel money is laundered in the United States. In this case, federal agents finally busted the operation, seizing more than 400 “narco horses,” which they auctioned off for $12 million. But with Americans estimated to spend $100 billion a year on illegal drugs, this is probably just the tip of an iceberg.

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Miguel Treviño MoralesCreditU.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

In addition to following the drug money, Tone has found a great yarn. His finely-painted cast of characters includes a rookie F.B.I. agent hungry to make his name, a Texas cowboy fighting to keep his family business afloat and a talented Mexican horseman picking winners for a very dangerous boss. Tone weaves the threads together with skillful pacing and sharp prose, marking him as an important new talent in narrative nonfiction.

He is helped along by ample documentation of the case. While much of the narco world remains in the shadows, Treviño and his cronies were brought to trial in Austin, in 2013, in one of the most extensive lawsuits against a Mexican cartel to be heard in an American courtroom. (Major Mexican traffickers often don’t go to trial, because they cut deals.) Even though he builds on the reporting of Ginger Thompson, who broke the story in The New York Times, Tone adds some vivid details, recounting wiretapped phone calls and drawing the full back story from Lawson, the rookie F.B.I. agent who pursued the case. “Lawson could hear the horses if he listened closely,” Tone writes. “He was standing outside the black-iron gate with the horse silhouettes, at the bottom of a long driveway that led up to José’s brick homestead. It was a little after six in the morning, the earliest moment the court would allow them to raid without a judge’s permission.”

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Tone digs deep into the colorful world of quarter-horse racing, a variant of the sport developed by white cowboys, Mexican ranchers and Native Americans. He also shows how some players in the horse industry reaped the drug money and went on to enjoy their profits; how those arrested were all Hispanic while some white horsemen doing similar things remained free; how José Treviño’s daughter, a college student who married a Marine, was caught up in the sweep.

Like many journalists of the drug war, Tone sheds doubt on the whole strategy of fighting the trade. “Better answers might lie in the halls of American power and influence — in the way drugs are regulated, drug users treated, drug traffickers sentenced.” He is right to push for more debate on how to stop the billions of drug dollars from funding the crime armies tearing Mexico apart. But law enforcement agents still need to keep hacking at the tentacles of cartel finances that stretch through the United States, where the blood wealth of narcos could be right before your eyes.

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