Review :"Bloodlines", Los Zetas, Treviños, and the American Quarter Horse Racing Scheme

Review by Adam V.(Siskiyou_kid) for Borderland Beat

image from Texas Observer
Bloodlines: The True Story of a Drug Cartel, the FBI, and the Battle for a Horse-Racing Dynasty by Melissa del Bosque

Veteran reporter Melissa del Bosque is an excellently researched book about the federal investigation into the Treviño Morales brothers, and their attempts to launder millions of dollars in illicit cash through the purchase, running, and breeding of champion quarter horses. Bloodlines is set for release Sept. 12 and it’s an easy read that introduces the reader to the history of organized crime in Mexico, and fleshes out the current situation leading to a riveting story of ruthless crime bosses and the people who are tasked with taking them down. Del Bosque accomplishes this seamlessly, without boring any ardent follower of events in the narco world.

We are introduced to how the Zetas paramilitary force, has broken away from the Gulf Cartel, where they worked as enforcers. They went to war against their former benefactors, as well as other groups, including the Sinaloa Cartel, which was the most powerful criminal organization in Mexico at the time.

Two young FBI agents, including a rookie from Tennessee only weeks into his first time on the job, doggedly follow the trail of money and champion horses connected to the leadership of the Zetas crime syndicate following their break with the Gulf Cartel, while many colleagues and competing federal agencies see this as an unproductive line of investigation into a murderous organization selling hundreds of millions dollars’ worth of narcotics.

Del Bosque meticulously researched the story, with extensive personal interviews, not only with the two primary investigators and the prosecutors, but with seasoned reporters, other federal agents from the DEA, IRS, ICE, and the FBI, live court testimony, interviews with Mexican law enforcement officials, and direct interviews with some of the defendants targeted during the course of the case. This is in addition to her familiarity with border issues as a veteran report for the Texas Observer, and researching court transcripts, news stories, and other public information.

Scott Lawson and Alma Perez make are an unlikely pairing of young FBI agents stationed in Laredo, Texas, on the doorstep of the Zetas’ stronghold of Nuevo Laredo. They get a tip and Lawson travels to a sprawling horse ranch outside Austin run by a wealthy young heir to a quarter horse breeding business started by his grandfather. Tyler Graham is a confident 26 year-old who agrees to help the FBI with their investigation into José Treviño Morales, the seemingly straight-arrow brother of the incredibly violent Zetas boss, Miguel Angél Treviño Morales.

The agents are tasked, with the help of horse broker and breeder Tyler Graham, with learning how José Treviño Morales has gone from a brick layer earning at most $60,000 a year, to the apparent scion of a horse-racing empire worth millions of dollars, in a little over a year. It is not a stretch of the imagination to consider the involvement of his violent brothers, who are bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars through their criminal activities.

While the expense and manpower involved in such a complicated case could appear to be yet another pointless endeavor in America’s drug war, del Bosque accurately points out that the Zetas are much more that a drug cartel, they are a criminal insurgency that has spread through much of Mexico, even into the Golden Triangle stronghold of the rival Sinaloa Cartel, where Miguel Treviño has even taken over ranches and racetracks to enjoy his pursuit of racing champion quarter horses. While narcotics play an important role in this story and the activities of the Zetas, they also derive a significant portion of their illicit profits from kidnapping, extortion, murder, and immigrant smuggling. These are activities that arguably impact a much greater percentage of Mexican society than simply running drugs.

Miguel Angél Treviño Morales and his younger brother and deputy, Oscar Omar Treviño Morales, are able to continue their reign of terror with little opposition from Mexican authorities. This is because they are able to subvert and corrupt nearly every level of government and society through bribes and intimidation. We are introduced to how brutal this is in states like Veracruz, where del Bosque introduces us to a victim of the Zetas who becomes wrapped up in the federal case. From the governor down to the lowest-paid local police, the Zetas have officials under their control, which is crucial in states like Veracruz, with its huge seaport and 400 plus-mile coastline on the Gulf of Mexico, as well as in the eastern border states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, and Coahuila.

The center of Miguel Treviño’s operations is in and around the border city of Nuevo Laredo, one of the biggest entry points into the United States from Mexico for the transshipment of goods, and especially coveted for its proximity, via US Interstate 35, to San Antonio and US Interstate 10, where drug shipments can be routed to anywhere in America. Miguel Treviño and his and 6 brothers 6 sisters grew up here before the family relocated to Dallas, where they became accustomed to the border between the two Laredos being a mere formality. However, as the security situation in Mexico deteriorates and Miguel and Omar Treviño feel authorities closing in, they seek to establish a legacy for their family in the United States that will secure their family’s financial future. They decide to enlist their low-key older brother to accomplish this through the purchase of champion quarter horses and blood stock.

A dizzying array of shell companies and front men are used to mask the true ownership, as José Treviño Morales spends millions of dollars purchasing champion bloodlines, almost always changing the names of the horses, further obscuring ownership history. Of course they weren’t entirely discrete, giving the horses names like Forty Force and Number One Cartel. To pay the approximately one million dollars a month they spent buying horses at auction and caring for them, they enlisted a cadre of Mexicans who owned legitimate business, such as Francisco Colorado Cessa, who owned an oil services business with lucrative PEMEX contracts in Veracruz, to co-mingle Zeta cash with his legitimate revenue and wire money to pay for horses and other expenses. This web of deceit is aided by the shady nature of the horse racing industry, whose players looked the other way as cash was shuffled around, horses were drugged or otherwise manipulated to throw races, and employees and trainers at top racetracks colluded with criminals.

Many readers may recall Borderland Beat’s excellent from the court coverage of the trial, and Melissa del Bosque delivers a clear and concise overview of trial key points, including the significant testimony of Jesús Enrique “Mamito” Rejón Aguilar, Z-7  in the Zetas hierarchy and one of their original founders, as well as testimony from a Dallas cocaine dealer and distributor, José Luis Vasquez Jr., who described how as much as three tons of cocaine would move through or be sold in Dallas, and how large sums from the sale of cocaine would be diverted to buy and maintain quarter horses. Vasquez Jr. and a man named Hector Moreno had given the Blackberry ID numbers of phones supplied to the Los Zetas leadership to the DEA, precipitating the bloody purge of the Cinco Manantiales [aka Five Springs; Allende, Morelos, Nava, Villa Unión and Zaragoza] communities in the border region of Coahuila, 45 minutes south of the border city of Piedras Negras. Entire families and everybody they knew were rounded up, killed, and burned, and their homes destroyed. As many as 400-500 people died in the massacre, while the state and federal government did nothing. The two DEA informants, José Luis Garza Gaytán and Héctor Moreno Villanueva, are widely blamed for the deaths of these innocent people, most of whom had nothing to do with the Zetas.

In short, Bloodlines is a well written account of how a rookie FBI agent and his partner, along with colleagues from their agency and several federal departments, took down a complex criminal operation built by the leader of one of the world’s most fearsome criminal organizations. We gain insights into the inner workings of a ruthless criminal group, and the trail of victims they leave in their wake.

Channing Tatum has signed to play in the film version by Universal Studios
To read a teaser and chapter content use this hyperlink.  Borderland Beat couldn’t resist this morsel, click on image to enlarge.