Bones: Brothers, Horses, Cartels, and the Borderland Dream is a true crime story examining the infiltration of quarter-horse racing by drug cartels seeking to launder money through the case of José Treviño Morales, brother to the infamous Miguel Treviño Morales (40) who led the Zetas and Scott Lawson, the rookie FBI agent who brought down some of the money launderers.
The Zetas are a notorious Mexican drug cartel of extraordinary violence and inhumanity. One cartel leader was sentenced last month for chopping a six-year-old girl up in front of her parents, removing and burning her limbs while she was still alive. Unfortunately, since 40 was arrested in a separate operation, violence has only increased and the Zetas have notched more than 12,500 murders in just the first six months of 2017.
This makes this book in turns fascinating and infuriating. Let’s consider José Treviño Morales. For most of his life, he worked as a brick layer. His wife worked at Ernst & Young. They did okay, never getting ahead, but supporting their family. Because his brother was this infamous drug lord, José was constantly harassed by police, ICE, and the DEA. If he crossed the border, even walking, carrying nothing, they made him sit for hours as though he were a drug mule and interrogated him about his family. When his brother committed some atrocity, his house would be searched. Law enforcement harassed him as though he were criminal even though he was a brick layer and had no involvement whatsoever in his brother’s criminality.
However, that changed when he suddenly bought a horse and got involved in horse-racing. Buying, breeding, and racing horses requires money and a lot of money churned through his business. It didn’t seem to enrich him personally, and he worked hard at it, spreading the manure, feeding the horses, and doing what a horse rancher would do…but of course, the financing was all from his brother and eventually it all came falling down when the FBI swooped in and charged him with money laundering.
The story is interesting, though the most pressing question is never answered. Unfortunately, Joe Tone never interviewed José so he could not answer why, after a lifetime of law-abiding hard work, did he, at last, succumb to temptation? I am sure he comforted himself by saying he was not involved in the drugs – and he was not – but money laundering enables the cartel. So what made him switch? Was it his daughter coming of age for college and marriage? It does not seem so. Perhaps it was being treated by a criminal despite his years of hard work. After all, if law enforcement is going to search his home, interrogate him, hang around outside his house, and harass him while he does nothing, why shouldn’t he make some money? We never find out what the straw was that broke his law-abiding back.
Joe Tone notes that implicit bias was involved in many of the FBI decisions but still seems very admiring of Lawson. Lawson decided to approach the white guy who was part of the horse business because he didn’t “act like a boss.” This guy, Tyler Graham, makes out like a bandit. He gets to keep all the laundered money that comes his way and the horses bred by Tempting Dash, the winning horse whose victories precipitated José’s involvement. His collaboration with the cartel made him millions. This was some private judgment Lawson made that seems pretty arbitrary. Most descriptions of José note that he was humble, not prideful. But Lawson thought he acted “like a boss.” Did he have some expectation of servility that all the Latinos offended? He is not challenged on his judgment.
There were some very questionable indictments, like the builder brother of one of the conspirators who never should have been indicted, and luckily was found not guilty. Meanwhile, none of the white conspirators were indicted. Bank of America held several accounts that laundered millions but was not accused. Why not? Actively assisting the investigation after the fact is money laundering and getting away with it. Let us not forget that HSBC laundered billions of dollars and paid a fine totaling five weeks income.
I thought the story was interesting but was not terribly impressed by law enforcement. I would be happy to see the cartels out of horse-racing, but who believes that taking down one rancher took the cartels out of the industry? The auction houses knowingly sold to and even carried credit for cartel buyers, does anyone believe that stopped when not one of them was touched? The racing industry turned a blind eye to cartel infiltration because it inflated prices and brought in shipments of cash. None of them were held accountable.
This operation took down one small cog in a giant cartel, one that was relatively insignificant, but symbolically important. José was the brother of the kingpin and so his conviction was a symbolic win, but what a misplaced set of priorities. The cartels could not operate without banks colluding, without structured money transfers that banks ignored. In all, there was one bank that seemed alert to and unwilling to accommodate the cartel, forcing one of the conspirators to close his account, but the rest were happy to handle the money. They were not indicted. If the FBI wants to really stop money laundering, it needs to start indicting bankers. When we see bankers in perp walks, we will know that the government is serious about ending cartels.
And of course, the Zetas are worse than ever…and nothing done in interdiction will ever stop the violence. There is money to be made and American focus on prohibition over treatment continues to incentivize criminal cartels. Prohibition made the American mafia in the 20s and is made the cartels of today. Unfortunately, this book has no answers. It seems the cartels will continue to terrorize the border and the people of Mexico and American banks will continue to profit with impunity. As to horse-racing? Who knows? Since none of the people who profited the most from cartel involvement were punished, do they have an incentive to keep the cartels out now? Were there any reforms in how horses were auctioned and how payment was made? None are mentioned in the book, so it seems that another operation could step right in.
Joe Tone tells a good story. He raises many questions, though, and answers few. He notes the racial disparities in how the FBI approached the Latino and white participants in the money laundering, but it never seems to impinge on his assessment of Lawson or Graham. Really, Graham made out like a bandit, didn’t he? It seems he made the correct assessment he could have his money laundering cake and eat it, too. It would have been nice if Tone had noted who some of the unindicted co-conspirators in the sales barns and banks of America were, the people who profited with impunity because there is where the battle needs to go. In a way, it seems as though Tone pulled his punches the same way the FBI did.
I received a copy of Bones: Brothers, Horses, Cartels, and the Borderland Dream through a Shelf Awareness promotional drawing.
- Bones: Brothers, Horses, Cartels, and the Borderland Dream at Penguin Random House
- Joe Tone author site
- “The Rookie and the Zetas” – original article about this story