How a Racehorse Brought Down a Cartel Boss

It started as a way to launder cash. Then the feds got involved.

July 25, 2017 11:40 am

In late 2008, the notorious Los Zetas cartel purchased Tempting Dash, a colt descended from champion stock, at an auction in Florida. Though the horse was so small he earned the name El Huesos, or Bones, from the cartel, he started winning — and racking in the cash — for his owners.

Ultimately, a winning racehorse was more trouble than it was worth for the cartel, according to a new book, Bones: Brothers, Horses, Cartels, and the Borderland Dream, which comes out August 8.

Miguel Treviño Morales — or “Z-40,” the Cartel’s number-two figure — was known for putting people in massive drums where they were burned alive, and for dismembering enemies, the Associated Press reported.

Horse racing was a popular hobby for prominent members of Mexico’s drug cartels, but Morales decided to take it one step further and have it serve as a money laundering front. But he could not do it on his own, since he was a high member of Los Zetas. But Morales’ brother, Jose, was already in the United States. He had US citizenship, so he could secure assets for the family without arousing too much federal suspicion.

They launched the operation in 2009 with great success; Tempting Dash won $600,000. However, the success didn’t last long. An FBI agent, Scott Lawson, looked into Treviño and his horse-breeding business, hoping to find a lead back to his brother in Mexico. Lawson recruited a young American with roots in the industry to get a job on Jose Treviño’s ranch.

In Bones, journalist Joe Tone examines the family’s story and the human costs of America’s failed drug war. VICE sat down with Tone, who first learned of Jose in 2012, after the feds raided his ranch.

Jose Treviño after his arrest in 2012. Photo courtesy US Attorney’s Office

The story centers around the horse, instead of one of the criminals, because Tone thought the horse made a great character. He was bred from the best bloodlines in the sport but was small and skinny, and banged up from being smuggled into the States. The horse also changed a lot of people’s lives: he was the horse that tempted Zetas commander into expanding his horse-racing operation, which eventually led the feds to the Zetas.

In the interview, Jones discusses how it was important to him that Lawson told his side of the story. He also relied heavily on documentary evidence — transcripts, reports, photographs, audio, video  as well as interviews with participants.

Jones also talks about what life along the border is like for law abiding Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Jones says that “life seems good.” Crime is lower than most people think, the economy is strong, and there’s plenty to do. However, the temptation to smuggle is real, and many young men’s lives have been defined by the failed drug war. Several people Jones interviewed worked for the Zetas because they or their family was threatened.

What does he want people to take away from his book? Plenty of things, like that quarter horses are beautiful and quarter horse jockeys are nuts. But the big takeaway is “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.”

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