How a Stud Racehorse Helped Sink a Brutal Cartel Boss

A top Los Zetas figure had his brother set up a horse-breeding operation in America to launder cash. Then they started winning big prizes—and the feds got involved.

|
Jul 25 2017, 2:45am

José Treviño, iført hvid cowboyhat, ses i 2010 sammen med flere af sine kolleger og en hemmelig politikilde, manden med telefonen i hånden til højre i billedet. Foto: US Attorney's Office

Tempting Dash arrived in Piedras Negras, Mexico, a stronghold of the notorious Los Zetas cartel, in late 2008. An associate of Miguel Treviño Morales—a.k.a. "Z-40," the Cartel's number-two figure—had purchased the horse, a colt descended from champion stock, at auction in California. But Dash was initially so slight of stature that the stable boys started calling him El Huesos, or "Bones." The name stuck even after he started racking up victories (and winning cash) for his owner.

That run of success ended up being more trouble than it was worth.

Morales was known at the time for his fondness of the guiso or "stew": placing unfortunate souls in massive drums where they burned alive, as the Associated Press reported. He also liked to dismember enemies. Horse racing was another popular—and slightly less brutal—hobby for prominent players in Mexico's drug cartels, who often bet $100,000 or more on individual contests.

But horses weren't just a Tony Soprano–style diversion for Morales. He wanted to move his (relatively) modest horse-racing venture across the border to the United States, where it might serve as a money-laundering front. As a high profile leader of Los Zetas, there was no way he could feasibly pull it off on his own. But Morales had an older brother, Jose Treviño, who was already in the country.

Treviño had left Mexico decades earlier, during which time he claimed to do a stint as a legit bricklayer. His US citizenship provided cover that might help secure assets for the family without arousing too much federal scrutiny. The operation launched in earnest in 2009, and got off to a great start, with Tempting Dash winning $600,000.

The rapid success brought trouble when it was noticed by an ambitious FBI agent named Scott Lawson. Looking into Treviño and his horse-breeding business in Oklahoma, the agent soon figured, might end up leading back to his notorious brother. Lawson recruited Tyler Graham, a young American with roots in the industry who got a job on Jose Treviño's ranch, to gather intel.

In Bones: Brothers, Horses, Cartels, and the Borderland Dream, out August 8, journalist Joe Tone recounts this story of family loyalty, violence along the border, and the human costs of America's failed drug war. VICE talked to the author to find out why he decided to build the story around a horse, how Jose Treviño got so involved with his infamous brother after seeming to lead a relatively modest life, and what it's like to live on the fringes of the drug trade.

VICE: When did you first hear about José Trevino and Tremor Enterprises? What made you want to write a book about his story?
Joe Tone: I first learned of José in 2012, after the feds raided his ranch in Oklahoma. The story was all over the news, including on the front page of the [New York] Times. José, a "self-described" bricklayer from Dallas, was accused of helping his brother, a notorious Los Zetas kingpin, launder drug money through American quarter-horse racing. I assumed bricklaying was just a cover for José—that he'd always been some stateside operative for Los Zetas, and that the feds had finally sniffed him out. But the more I looked into it, the more complicated the story became, and the more it felt like a compelling way to explore the follies of the drug war, life in the Southwest, the peculiarities of quarter-horse racing, and how all those these collided in this case.

Why center the story on the champion horse, Bones, as opposed to one of the criminal players?
As animals go, he's just a great character. He was bred from the best bloodlines in the sport, but he was small and skinny—hence the name—and by the time he was smuggled into the States for his first big race, he was banged up. Then he quickly, and suspiciously, came from behind and set the sport on fire. More important, he was the horse that tempted Zetas commander Z-40 into expanding his American horse-racing operation, and the horse that dragged José onto the feds' radar. The moment that horse crossed the river, everything changed for a lot of people.

Why do you think José Treviño got involved with his brother Miguel and the quarter-horse breeding scheme? It seems like he was set in his ways and then gave in.
He'd spent 30 years as a bricklayer and he hadn't really gotten anywhere financially, which is how it often works for immigrant laborers, especially in a right-to-work [anti-union] state like Texas. So you can see him becoming tempted by the chance to make a little more money, especially when his oldest daughter was heading off to college. And you can see him being enticed by an opportunity that didn't require any direct interaction with his brother's drug money, let alone the drugs themselves. It started small, too, with one fast colt. "I got lucky buying that horse," he always said, and it grew from there.

Jose Treviño after his arrest in 2012. Photo courtesy of US attorney's office

Everyone has read about the violence perpetrated by the cartels in Mexico, but how does Miguel Treviño—Z-40—stand out?
He was, in the gravest way, a pioneer. The smuggling trade used to be governed by unwritten rules not unlike those of the mob wars: You killed only to protect your business interests. "Forty," as he's known, was part of a new wave of narcos, who killed indiscriminately and boldly, as a way of stoking fear and amassing power in the towns they were fighting to control. The more the drug war's power brokers—including the Mexican government, the American government, and more traditional cartels like Sinaloa—tried to put Forty and the Zetas out of business, the more havoc they wreaked. Beheadings, bodies burned in drums, mass graves, and massacres like the one ProPublica recently exposed. That was all Forty.

You relied fairly heavily on the FBI guy Lawson. Do you think this might have obscured or skewed your account?
I'm not sure I relied on Lawson to tell the story as much as I relied on him to tell his story, which was important to me. He's a thoughtful, expressive, emotionally open, smart FBI agent, and it's not every day as a journalist that you get access to someone like that. He was also brand new, so I wanted to tell the investigative aspect of the story through his nascent eyes, so the reader could learn the terrain along with him.

But for the details of story itself, I relied much more heavily on documentary evidence—transcripts, reports, photographs, audio, video, etc, as well as interviews with participants. Everything Lawson did was documented; I just needed him to tell me why he did it, how it made him feel, and which horses he bet on when he was undercover. He never would crack on that last question.

How did Tyler Graham get dragged into this?
Tyler was a young rancher who was trying to revive his grandfather's stud farm, which had fallen on hard times. Once Tyler got involved with José and his horses, he was on the FBI's radar. It was just a matter of Lawson keeping him on board. For agents like Lawson, that's always the hard part: getting, and keeping, cooperators in the game. When it felt like Tyler might slip away, Lawson could see the case, and his pursuit of Forty, slipping away with him.

What is life like on the border for law abiding Mexicans and Mexican Americans? How prevalent is the temptation to get involved with the money-making cartels?
What life is really like, I can't say. I'm a white dude who's never lived south of Dallas. What I can say is that, in a town like Laredo, Texas, where I spent a lot of time for this book, life seems good. It's not what it used to be: You can't cross into Mexico for a good meal or a cheap drink the way you once could, and the downtown retailers are struggling, just like they are everywhere else. But crime is low, much lower than most people think. The economy's strong, there's plenty to do, and the people are warm, hard-working, and happy. That's just Texas, from Laredo to Dallas.

The temptation to smuggle is real, especially for young men whose lives have been defined in some way by the failed drug war—family members locked up, neighborhoods eroded, valuable turf defended violently. And of course, it's often less temptation and more compulsion. Several of the people I interviewed for this book, or who I learned about during my research, wound up working for the Zetas because Forty threatened to kill them or their family if they didn't. They knew enough about Forty to know he would follow through.

These things influence the lives of every border resident, on this side and the Mexican side. But in this story, it all mingled in the barns and on the track. The white American cowboys and Mexican cowboys all faced the same choice of whether to do business with "cartel money." The white men did it without fear of violence or legal consequence, because they intuited the drug war's unwritten rules—that if they got caught, they could simply flip on the Mexicans and ride off into the sunset none the poorer. The Mexicans were making a riskier calculation, but they often had little choice: If they wanted to be successful, they worked with the Zetas. If they wanted stay alive, they worked with the Zetas.

There have obviously been plenty of books, documentaries, and TV shows about the cartels and their charismatic figures at this point. What do you hope sets yours apart from the pack? What do you want readers to take from this tale?
That quarter horses are gorgeous. That quarter horse jockeys are nuts. That the drug war has failed. That Ruidoso, New Mexico, is a nice place to spend a Sunday in September. That bankers launder more money than José Treviño ever could have. That the DEA and FBI should be combined, or something else should happen to keep them from beefing so pettily. That snitching is kind of chill, assuming you're rich and white. That industrious doping is not just for cyclists and corner outfielders. And that the people in these "narco" stories we love to consume (and create) are real, and the consequences are real, and it's not beyond our control to keep them from dying, like some in this book did, or getting locked away, like others did. It will take political will, and policy smarts, which are perhaps not in abundant supply in Washington right now, and it will probably take some old bigots dying. But it can happen.

Learn more about Joe Tone's new book, out August 8, here.

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.

Stories