The Rookie and the Zetas: How the Feds Took Down a Drug Cartel's Horse-Racing Empire
It was a matter of seconds, closer to six than seven, before what was happening became obvious, the colt masked in pink kicking up clouds of red on its way into the lead. It was late November, 2009. This race, the Texas Classic Futurity, was among the last of the year at Lone Star Park, the last chance to watch the 2-year-olds run. The last chance at a payday: $1.1 million up for grabs, a half million to the winning owner.
All eyes were on that horse in pink. The muscular sorrel colt, with a white racing stripe tracing the bridge of its nose, had first edged into the lead several weeks earlier, catching many in the crowd off guard. It had never raced in the United States, let alone placed. But it won that first race, and the next, and the next, and by the time it burst from the gates of the Classic, it was the odds-on favorite.
"Tempting Dash has been invincible!" the announcer bellowed as the horse cruised to the finish line, winning by three lengths and breaking its own track record. "Untouchable!"
Tempting Dash bounced along the track, 4-0, a future lucrative stud preening for his eventual suitors. Down in the winner's circle, a family gathered around the horse's owner, which only fueled the bleacher chatter. When the horse had first raced that fall, it was owned by a guy well known in racing circles. But since then it had been quietly sold to José Treviño Morales, the stocky, jocular man who was down there with Tempting Dash.
A few of the old-timers were suspicious. But for the most part, they just didn't know anything about Treviño. He was, to them, like Tempting Dash a few weeks earlier, a mysterious newcomer, totally unknown but coming on fast.
Scott Lawson lifted himself onto a barstool at Buffalo Wild Wings and summoned the bartender for wings and a beer. He'd done this before, but never here, a short, dusty walk from the Mexican border. Never on Christmas Eve.
Lawson was 28, tall and broad, a frame built for nudging people out of the way. He'd never spent a Christmas outside Tennessee. He was born and raised on the state's western edge, the son of a cop. He had long wanted to be an FBI agent, even if Dad, who'd fought in Vietnam, thought the feds were a little too keen on meetings. He'd spent a few mandatory years in a local cop-shop, but he had recently been accepted to the FBI training academy in Quantico, Virginia. During training, they asked him where he wanted to go, and he told them the Southeast. Atlanta, maybe. They sent him to Laredo.
From then on, whenever an instructor asked who'd been screwed the hardest, everyone pointed at Lawson, he says. In shooting class, everyone agreed he should pay extra attention, since he was going to be "in the shit." His gang instructor invited all the border-bound agents to a three-hour session, Lawson says, and showed them all the cartel beheadings they could handle.
He set off for Texas that winter, knowing little more about Laredo than "cartel bad, border dangerous." He arrived just before Christmas and shoved his belongings into an extended-stay hotel. On Christmas Eve, he sought the familiarity of over-sauced wings and domestic drafts. He made small talk with a firefighter, and the firefighter, hearing Lawson's story, ran home to pick up some Christmas tamales for him. Welcome to the border, gringo.
Lawson spent his first couple months on the margins of run-of-the-mill cases. The work, combined with the unfamiliar terrain of South Texas, left him wondering whether he should have just been a homicide cop. But then the bureau got a tip.
There was a horse auction recently, the tipster said. A young rancher from Austin bid $875,000 for a premier mare on behalf of an undisclosed "Mexico resident." Not just any Mexico resident, though. He bought it for the Zetas, the tipster said.
The Zetas, as Lawson had learned, were a group of former Mexican soldiers who had deserted the military to become enforcers for the powerful Gulf Cartel. But the two groups had recently fallen out, and a war was erupting across northeastern Mexico. Buying mares, even one that might foal some promising offspring, seemed like a strange use of resources.
But Lawson had learned something else about the Zetas: Like their fellow Mexican gangsters, they were obsessed with horses, prone to crowding around dirt tracks to bet on two-horse sprints. They were also, even by cartel standards, wild and unpredictable, and known to move brazenly across the Texas border, establishing safe houses in Laredo where hitmen awaited instructions to cross into Mexico and kill. That they wanted to race American quarter horses, the quicker and more compact cousins of the thoroughbred, wasn't as ludicrous as it sounded.
The FBI could have passed the tip to a more experienced agent. But, Lawson says, they sensed he might have the best luck. He was about the same age as the rancher who'd apparently bid on that pricey mare for the undisclosed Mexican. He had a folksy charm and twang, too. And though it'd been years since he'd lifted himself into a saddle, Lawson had grown up with horses, and was once prone to slipping on boots and a cowboy hat and trail-riding through the hills of western Tennessee. Send the country boy, they figured.
Southwest Stallion Station sits on 1,300 acres of trampled grassland just east of Austin, a maze of white barns and pastures roamed by horses, goats and cattle. One morning in February 2010, a couple months after Lawson started in Laredo, he and another agent rumbled up the ranch's drive. They'd been careful to appear as horsemen, on the off chance their targets had planted a mole among the ranch's laborers. They picked a truck big enough to pass as a rancher's and made sure to wear their boots.
They stepped down from the truck and were met by Tyler Graham, the 25-year-old rancher who the tipster had claimed was bidding on horses for the Zetas. He'd been told they were coming, and told to treat them as he would a potential client, so he led them on a tour of the stables. Lawson couldn't help but run his hands across the horses' smooth coats. Compared with the $2,000 riding horses his mom kept back home, they were sculpted and immaculate. (Graham did not return calls or emails, but his story is chronicled in court testimony, and Lawson described their relationship over several interviews.)
They moved into an office attached to a barn. Lawson knew courting Graham as a source would be delicate. They had a lot in common — both were country guys trying to prove themselves in the family business — and they hit it off quickly. But Lawson didn't have anything on him, so he feared the usual talk-or-else approach wouldn't fly. At any moment, Graham could lawyer up and go quiet. He tried to make Graham feel the weight of the predicament without feeling pressure. "You're not going to like your options," he said.
Graham agreed to cooperate and told Lawson his story. He had graduated from Texas A&M a few years before, then returned to manage his grandpa's ranch. To boost profits, he'd made it a priority to beef up the breeding program. That meant scouring the industry for promising stallions and trying to persuade their owners to breed them at his ranch. "Just like you recruit an athlete," Graham said.
The year before, Graham said, he found a blue-chipper: Tempting Dash. From the moment that colt slipped into first at Lone Star, Graham wanted to be the one to breed it when it was retired into stud life. Paired with the right mares, Tempting Dash, which came from championship stock, could bring in a lot of money for the horse's owners — $5,000, $10,000, maybe more. Southwest Stallion would get a cut each time.
Graham had a line on the owner. But in the middle of the horse's run at Lone Star, the guy had mysteriously sold it to José Treviño. So Graham set about courting Treviño, talking up his breeding operation and learning what he could about him — about his growing up in Mexico, his work as a bricklayer, his wife and kids up in Dallas. He even took Treviño and his son hunting for white-tailed deer, hoping some male bonding would seal the deal. Treviño, not ready to commit, asked Graham to show up at a big auction in Oklahoma and act as a straw buyer, bidding on horses Treviño would later pay for. Graham agreed.
Soon, Graham said, wires started coming into the ranch to pay for the horses. The wires didn't cover it, though, so one of Treviño's associates showed up with a backpack stuffed with $100,000 in cash. Graham had agreed to board some of Treviño's horses, too, and eventually payments started coming in from various people and companies — all in $9,000 increments, just under the threshold that would send red flags flying at the bank or IRS.
Lawson listened and silently plotted his course. He wasn't sure how much Graham actually knew about what he'd gotten himself into. But by the time the FBI showed up, Graham had done enough Googling to understand why they had come rumbling up his grandpa's driveway: Treviño was the younger brother of Miguel "Z-40" Treviño Morales — aka the 40th Zeta, the bloodthirsty commander of Mexico's rising cartel and one of the most wanted men in the Americas.
In the little office behind the barn, a theory emerged — that Miguel Treviño was using his clean American brother to dump drug money into American quarter horses, to make some cash, clean some cash and win some horse races. Graham even pulled up a photo from the winner's circle at Lone Star, taken after one of Tempting Dash's big wins. There were José Treviño's kids, flashing "40" in hand signals. As if to say, Look, uncle, we did it.
Lawson says he saw no real score in Graham, who was under pressure to keep Southwest Stallion thriving at a time when a record drought was forcing ranchers across Texas to sell off their herds. Besides, to prove his theory right, what Lawson needed most was to know what came next — the next horse, the next race, the next auction.
Graham told him. That fall, Labor Day, was the All American Futurity in New Mexico, the highest-stakes race on the quarter-horse racing calendar. José Treviño would be there, Graham said, to buy horses and watch one of his own run. Lawson heard this and decided: He would be there, too.
Though its players stretch across the West, it's hard for an outsider to go unnoticed in the quarter-horse industry, so Lawson's nerves rattled as he rolled into Ruidoso Downs, the little town with the big track in the scraggy mountains of southern New Mexico. An auction would take place a couple days before the race, and Lawson worried that watching all day without bidding might raise suspicions. So along with cowboying up his outfit, he prepared a cover story that he was just tracking things for a friend in the business. He would use it at various times that day and later in the investigation, well enough that one guy invited him to a goat sale.
Lawson and another agent slipped into the crowd the morning of the auction. Tyler Graham was around, but aside from a few subtle nods and a quick meeting at the hotel, Lawson was careful not to be seen with him. Instead, he wandered around the arena looking for his targets. Looking for José Treviño.
Lawson had studied up on José Treviño and his brothers, whose story is well known to Texas law enforcement. They'd been born into a working class family in Nuevo Laredo, where their dad worked on a ranch. Eventually they came north to Dallas. Miguel was lured into street gangs and climbed the ranks of the Gulf Cartel and, later, the Zetas, making him the first Zeta who didn't come out of the military. Along the way, he revealed himself to be among Mexico's most ruthless criminals. Among his acts of alleged violence: ordering grenades hurled at the U.S. consulate in Monterrey, burning people in oil barrels and eating his victims' hearts.
By the time Lawson showed up, U.S. law enforcement had been tracking Miguel Treviño's movements for years. They hoped to help Mexico swoop him up along its northern border, where they believed he was living out of safe houses and his truck, always with enough cash to pay off his potential captors. In 2008, one borderland agent says, they arrived at a ranch along the border so soon after Miguel fled that his coffee was still warm.
Through it all, Lawson says, the feds looked hard at the Treviños' large extended family. But they were, for the most part, law-abiding Texans, including José, the middle of 13 children. He'd become a naturalized U.S. citizen and stayed out of trouble. His daughter, Alexandra, would soon be engaged to a United States Marine. He went to see his family in Mexico sometimes, and every time he did the feds stopped him and questioned him. They always sent him on his way.
José's bank records painted a similarly mundane picture, though Lawson avoided bank records at all costs. He'd also never worked a money-laundering case. So he brought in a team of IRS investigators, several of whom had grown up with horses themselves, to plow through the boxes.
Jose Trevino, in the white cowboy hat, is seen inside the auction house with Carlos Nayen, the Zetas' chief horse buyer.
For years, they found, José never had more than $9,000 in his account. But in 2008, according to Lawson's sources, Miguel had caught wind of Tempting Dash and ordered an associate, Ramiro Villarreal, to buy the horse and bring it to Mexico. The horse was named Huesos, or Bones, and it ran well in Mexico. So they sent it to Lone Star, under the name Tempting Dash. When it qualified, the sources said, Miguel ordered it sold to his brother José.
After the horse won, records showed, José Treviño deposited $441,855 into his personal account. He claimed he paid $25,000 for the horse, a bargain that funded his entire operation, his lawyers maintain. But the feds saw no record of a payment. They believed the Zetas had bought the horse, and were just using their clean American brother to make it appear legitimate.
Lawson trailed José around the New Mexico auction house, sneaking pictures when he could. He watched him mingle with some associates Graham had mentioned. As the horses trotted into the arena, Lawson watched them shoot photos of the board after a big sale. It was hard to tell who was buying what, but it was clear they were spending big. This is not a two- or three-horse deal, Lawson thought.
He was right. All in all they'd bought 23 horses, paid for by a Mexican businessman who the feds believed doubled as a Zeta bagman. The total bill: $2.1 million.
Jose Trevino Morales celebrates a $1 million win at the All-American Futurity in New Mexico.
A couple days later, Lawson settled into the bleachers for the All American Futurity, the big race at Ruidoso Downs with a $1 million payout for the winner. He scanned the track for Mr. Piloto, a horse Graham had told him about. Like Tempting Dash, it had first been purchased by Villarreal, but once it qualified for the high-stakes race it was quietly transferred to José Treviño's company, with no record of money changing hands. Now, if the horse placed, its winnings would come back to José, cleaner than ever.
Winning horse races isn't easy, though, so the Zetas were said to take steps to increase their odds. Sometimes, sources told Lawson, they slipped their jockeys small electric devices to give their horses a jolt mid-race. Other times they paid groundskeepers to pack one part of the track tight. Or they might bribe the gate-starters, who could hold back certain horses or make sure others bumped into each other.
They'd allegedly fixed the race Lawson was sitting down to watch. Their Dallas cocaine distributor claimed he set aside $110,000 in drug proceeds and sent it to New Mexico stuffed into a pressure cooker — "the one you use for turkey," one source said — to bribe track workers and make sure Mr. Piloto won. Lawson, sitting up front, watched closely as the gun sounded, cheering and waving his betting slip.
Mr. Piloto shot out and veered way off course, "visiting the fans on the outside fence," as the announcer called it. As the rest of the pack bumped its way down the inside, Mr. Piloto, a long shot at 22-1, hugged that fence, making Lawson later wonder whether groundskeepers had packed that part of the track. (Others, including top trainer Paul Jones, dismiss that idea as impossible, and say the race was simply a mess, as some races are.) Whatever they did, Mr. Piloto overtook the field on his way home and won the race. Lawson watched as José Treviño and his associates hugged and celebrated. Treviño got on the phone. Lawson could only guess to whom, but he had a hunch about what he might be saying: We just won a million dollars.
After the race, Lawson and another agent followed Graham, Treviño and the others to a nearby resort called the Inn of the Mountain Gods Casino. He trailed them into the bar and slipped into a table across the room. While he neglected a beer, he watched the men celebrate, drinking and debating their next move: Keep racing Mr. Piloto, to make some money and prove its worth as a stud, or retire the horse and start breeding it at Graham's farm. Either way, Lawson figured, Treviño's bricklaying days looked to be over.
Lawson moved out of his extended-stay hotel and into a house in Laredo, not far from some of the Treviños' extended family, he says. He came to appreciate the camaraderie of working the border, a destination so low on agents' wish lists that the bureau lets them transfer wherever they want after five years. Most of the agents were young and single, since no one with any seniority lasts, and the bosses nurtured a culture that felt more like a cop shop than a federal bureau, with a loose dress code and looser language. They played poker and went to happy hour when they could.
The FBI agents felt some kinship with those from the other federal agencies in Laredo, which all share an office. There was also competitiveness, though. They were all chasing Zetas, whose fight with the Gulf Cartel had grown so violent that agents sometimes went to the border to listen to gunfights.
The Drug Enforcement Administration had even done some digging into the horse-racing business, hoping it would lead to Miguel Treviño. They'd developed a great source of their own: Ramiro Villarreal, the Zeta associate who'd discovered Tempting Dash, among other horses. The DEA had detained him at the airport in Houston and he'd agreed, reluctantly, to cooperate. But soon after, he stopped showing up at auctions and races. According to his friends, who spoke with The New York Times, he was summoned to a Mexican safe house, where Miguel Treviño asked if he was snitching and threatened to kill him. His body was eventually found by the side of a road in Mexico, inside a burned-up car. (The DEA declined to make agents with ties to the case available for interviews.)
Without Villarreal, Lawson figured, the DEA wouldn't have much interest in horse racing. He liked it that way. Without another agency turning up the heat, he had more time to work sources (like Graham) and targets (like José Treviño). But in February 2011, word came of something Lawson knew would rightfully ignite the DEA's interest in the Treviño family.
Two Homeland Security agents from Laredo, Jaime Zapata and Víctor Ávila, had been driving a black SUV down a highway that cuts through the heart of Mexico. A truck full of Zetas sped alongside them and forced them off the road. Zapata and Ávila tried to tell them they were U.S. diplomats, but the gunmen forced their way into the car and opened fire. Zapata died, the first U.S. law enforcement agent to die in Mexico's drug wars in 25 years.
Zapata's death sent agents across Texas hunting for anyone with Zeta ties, a parade of door-knocks and who-do-you-knows. Lawson, who'd occasionally seen Zapata in the office gym, understood the need to send the Zetas a message, but he worried the DEA's tree-shaking might interfere with his case. He craved the status quo.
He didn't get it. Shortly after Zapata's death, a DEA task force knocked on the door of José Treviño's tidy red-brick home outside Dallas, its windows barred and its perimeter ringed by a simple chain-link fence. The agents wore protective vests, ready for a fight, but found instead a portrait of domesticity: A teenage son answered. The agents shuffled the family into the kitchen while they searched the house. They were there for 45 minutes and found nothing — no money, no guns, no drugs. Off they went to shake another tree.
Every few weeks, Lawson would meet up with Graham. They would slip into hotel rooms, restaurants and bars around Austin — safer than Lawson being seen at the ranch — and compare notes. Lawson, at least, recalls the meetings fondly, especially the one when they caught each other mouthing lyrics to an old-school rap song, two country boys embracing their dudes-of-the-90s roots.
Graham stood out from Lawson's other sources in one important way: He was still part of the conspiracy. To prove money laundering, the feds would have to show that the money used to buy and care for the horses was drug money, and that everyone knew it was drug money. Other informants could help make the link, but they came bearing caveats. One was a high-ranking and murderous Zeta, nickname El Mamito, who the feds had extradited (but later cleared) in connection with Zapata's killing. The others were former traffickers who'd worked the Zetas' supply chain between Piedras Negras and Dallas. They were all looking for a deal — a reduction of sentence, usually, though one trafficker, who admitted moving five tons of cocaine a year, avoided prosecution altogether.
Together, their stories helped connect drug money to the horse operation. The supplier in Mexico was a close associate of Miguel Treviño. Usually he would call and tell the Dallas boss when to expect a shipment of coke. Sometimes, though, he called with different instructions: Take $80,000 to Retama Park, the race track in San Antonio. Take $100,000 to Lone Star Park. Take $100,000 to the Walmart in Balch Springs and drop it with 40's brother José.
It was great intelligence, but it was jailhouse intelligence from guys looking for a few years off the top. So Lawson leaned on Graham, and Graham delivered.
At the agent's urging, Graham eventually convinced José Treviño to breed Tempting Dash at his grandpa's ranch. Lawson knew Graham's participation meant he got to keep boarding and breeding valuable horses and taking Treviño's money, as well as breed some of his own mares with Tempting Dash. But he believed Graham was doing it for other reasons — to keep the feds on his good side, and to make things right. Eventually, Lawson even asked Graham to let the FBI listen in on his calls. He had been hesitant to ask, wary about chasing Graham away. But Graham quickly agreed. Shit, Lawson thought, I should have thought of this a long time ago.
Later, Treviño fell behind on some payments — farm fees, boarding fees, things like that. Graham was pushing him to pay up. Then, one day, he got a call. If you want the money, the caller said, you can pick it up in Laredo. I'll send someone, Graham said.
The day of the exchange, Lawson and a dozen other agents set up shop around a verdant plaza in front of the La Posada Hotel, not far from the bridge to Mexico. An undercover agent, posing as one of Graham's laborers, waited in a truck for the money, a recording device stuffed in his pocket. When the delivery didn't come, he called back the number: Hey, where's that money?
There was a problem, the guy said. He'd strapped the cash to some female money mules, but one of them was detained at the border. She'd be fine, the guy said — he'd only given them $9,900 each, so they weren't legally required to declare it. But it might be a while.
An agent rushed to the bridge and urged the guys at checkpoint to let the woman go, Lawson says. They did, and soon enough Lawson watched as a guy, dressed in a red jacket as promised, appeared on foot and then handed the undercover agent $55,000 in cash. Lawson met Graham in a parking lot and delivered the cash. There were horses to feed.
A surveillance photo shows a zeta courier delovering a bag of cash to an agent posing as one of Tyler Graham's ranch hands.
The feds identified the courier as a Zeta associate and kept tabs on him. Once, they tracked him as he took a cab from the border to Graham's ranch near Austin, to pick up vials of Tempting Dash's semen. Another time, agents noticed that he planned to fly to Oklahoma City, so they tailed him to a parking deck, where he met up with José Treviño. Then they stopped Treviño and found $5,000 in cash. According to Lawson's sources, the courier dutifully reported all of this to Miguel Treviño. Soon after that, the courier was killed.
Through it all, Tempting Dash kept breeding, and Graham kept trying to collect his fees, complaining in call after call to Zeta associates that they were behind on their bills. Graham had to bills to cover himself, he said, like for the $70,000 he'd just paid for ten 18-wheelers' worth of alfalfa.
"Damn," one of the Zetas' horsemen said. "That must be a shitload of alfalfa."
"It is, but hell, you got this many horses around here and it's so dry — I gotta have it."
Sometime in 2011, though, Graham started to tell Lawson about a development even more troubling to both of them: José Treviño wanted to start his own breeding farm.
What had started with one horse had evolved into an operation that by the feds' count included as many as 500, spread across stables in Texas, New Mexico, California and Oklahoma. (By coincidence, many of their names included the word "cartel," which is common in horse racing.) IRS investigators, working among towers of boxes out of a war room in Austin, had subpoenaed thousands of records from auction houses, race tracks and other sources. They traced the money through the horse-racing industry and into several front-companies operated by José Treviño, ultimately following it into his checking account. In 2010, the year after he got Tempting Dash, he deposited $1 million into his account. The next year he deposited $2 million.
As the operation grew, it became more brazen. When one horse wasn't performing, Zetas kidnapped a rich real estate developer in Mexico and forced him to fly to Oklahoma to buy it from them. They'd beat him up good, so everyone noticed when the man with the busted face kept bidding on the horse with the mangy coat, eventually paying $330,000 for a horse everyone agreed wasn't worth $75,000. When Tempting Dash was diagnosed with a blood disease and briefly quarantined by the Texas Animal Health Commission, José Treviño asked Graham whether they could send the commission a couple hundred thousand dollars to get the horse back.
Treviño was also becoming a more confident horseman. Once a breeding novice with endless questions, he was now prone to debating Graham on the finer points of mating horses, Lawson says. And now he wanted to start a ranch of his own. He was eying property in Oklahoma, with plans to hire breeding experts and erect a state-of-the-art facility, complete with industrial lighting that would trick the horses into thinking it was breeding season. He still had to build it out, but eventually he could move hundreds of horses there. On the one hand, this development proved to Lawson how central Treviño was to the operation. But it could also cut off Lawson's best source of intelligence: Graham.
I thought we had something good going, Graham told Treviño.
I want to prove I can do this on my own, Treviño replied.
Not long after that, the first horse trailers showed up.
By March 2012, the feds were getting closer to building a case worthy of indictment. They weren't there yet, but they felt like they still had time. Then, Lawson started to hear about something going down at the Los Alamitos Race Course outside Los Angeles. Something with the DEA.
Los Alamitos figured big into the Zetas' expanding horse operation. It was the home of the sport's best trainer, Paul Jones, who was running several of their horses. Another trainer there had been flown to Mexico to meet with Miguel Treviño and tell him which bloodlines were poised to win big in the years to come. It wasn't until he got home, the trainer said later, that he bothered to Google "Miguel Treviño."
The morning the DEA showed up, the U.S. marshals in Mexico had received a tip that Miguel Treviño — or maybe his brother Omar, another Zeta boss — was at Los Alamitos. DEA agents poured into the stables looking for a criminal mastermind.
He wasn't there. The DEA did stumble upon some of the Treviños' associates, but that was hardly useful to Lawson, who feared they would all flee. Then, around the same time, Lawson's sources delivered more bad news. A reporter from The New York Times was sniffing out a story about the Zetas' horse-racing operation. She was talking to the right people, asking the right questions.
Lawson called his bosses, he says, frantic.
"We have to indict," he told them. "They're going to go back to Mexico. They're going to go back to Mexico."
An aerial photo of the Lexington ranch where Trevino moved his quarter horse business.
On a Sunday in June 2012, Lawson found himself at the front of an FBI meeting room, staring down a room full of agents. He was in Oklahoma City, not far from José Treviño's sprawling horse ranch. Treviño, as promised, had bought two lots, erected a house and multiple stables, moved in his family and trucked in scores of his horses. Now, the feds were going to tear it apart.
After some negotiation with the Times, the reporter had agreed to hold her story until the feds raided their targets. They'd convened a grand jury and indicted 14 people — including José, Miguel and Omar Treviño, trainers, horse buyers, moneymen and others — and set about planning their raids.
They'd briefly considered doing it in a more spectacular setting. José Treviño's daughter, Alexandra, was getting married in Dallas that spring. Lawson harbored fantasies — delusions, maybe — that Miguel Treviño might sneak across the border to attend. They eventually thought better of it: Alexandra was getting married to an American Marine at the busy Adolphus Hotel in downtown Dallas. She'd played a minor role in the horse business, and had even shared heartfelt instant messages with her fiancé about how the horse business might transform her family. But she'd proven to be a hard-working student with no ties to her uncle.
Still, they had to be there. Lawson and other agents had lingered in a hotel bar while a SWAT team waited in the streets, just in case. Miguel Treviño didn't show — few of their targets did, actually — but at some point, a bus pulled up and a band spilled out. Lawson texted his sources in Mexico with the band name, Banda el Recodo, and learned that it was one of Mexico's best known, said to cost $250,000 a night. Miguel Treviño's favorite band, apparently.
They planned the raid for the next month instead. Lawson flew in late and scrambled into the FBI offices in Oklahoma City, where he was greeted by more than 250 law enforcement agents — FBI, IRS, the National Guard, SWAT teams from as far as Kansas City, and others. He and the IRS' lead agent, a Waco investigator named Steve Pennington, went back over the plan. How they would move into the ranch. What to look for. Who to look for. How they would go about taking possession of the hundreds of horses spread across the compound.
The horses — that might be the hardest part. Finding and taking drug dealers' money, even their cars and houses, is second nature to cops. But this was different: 500 horses worth upward of $15 million by the feds' calculations. The IRS brass wanted them to take just a handful. As Pennington put it, "Uncle Sam didn't have any interest in seizing anything that's going to be a pain in the ass." But the IRS eventually agreed to let them seize 50 or so, and leave the others until after the trial. They hired a team of cowboys to meet them at the ranch, to help wrangle the horses.
"You're a long way from the border," Lawson recalls telling the agents that night, "but you're going to put a hit on a lot of guys who do some bad things down here."
After the briefing, Lawson went to dinner, took down a steak and retired to his hotel room. He was preoccupied — about who would or wouldn't be at the ranch, about the safety of his fellow cops and cowboys, about the simultaneous raids that would take place in California and Texas and New Mexico. He finally fell asleep, but by 4 a.m. he was on his way to the National Guard office in Lexington, and by sunrise he was standing nearby as the SWAT team kicked down José Treviño's front door.
Treviño was asleep with his wife; his son and mother were there too. They came out peacefully. Lawson searched for phones. Agents dug through paperwork. The cowboys arrived and split up, leading the most valuable horses into trailers, carefully cataloging the rest.
Later that morning, Lawson and some other agents drove to the FBI's Norman office. Around 9:30 a.m., he gathered himself and stepped into a small interview room. There, sitting at a table, was the guy he'd now been tracking for a year and a half: José Treviño.
He was an honest, hard worker, Treviño said, according to the agents' notes from the interview. He'd made sure his wife and kids were the same. He was an American, he said. And while, yes, he would occasionally see his brothers in Mexico, he didn't deserve to be harassed by the feds every time he did.
You don't pick your family, he said.
As for all those horses: They can be traced not to his brother's drug money but to Tempting Dash. He'd bought that horse cheap, he said. It was all built from there. Miguel had nothing to do with it.
Then Lawson told Treviño about the spreadsheet. It was nothing special, just a list of expenses and payments from the horse business. But, Lawson told him, we know you took this spreadsheet to a meeting with your brother in Mexico. Then he added a little strategical flourish, telling Treviño he had a copy of the spreadsheet. He didn't, but Treviño didn't call his bluff. He ended the interview on the spot.
Mexico offered $2 million for information leading to Miguel "Z-40's" capture.
One morning in the summer of 2013, Lawson was sitting in his office when a coworker got an email from a source. Miguel Treviño has been captured, the source said. Caught along the border. Went without a bullet.
The FBI would occasionally get emails like this. There was a $2 million reward on Treviño's head in Mexico, plus another $5 million in the States — plenty of incentive for informants to run with even the thinnest of intelligence. The agents, wary of over-inflating their hopes, started reaching out to more sources, looking for confirmation.
Lawson tried to wish it true. It'd been two months since the trial. Amid war-zone-tight security, some of Texas' best defense attorneys had argued that the feds couldn't prove José Treviño was knowingly using drug money to fuel his horse business. They blasted the prosecutors for hyping the Zetas' bloodlust in a case about money, and for targeting José Treviño in lieu of being able to catch Miguel himself — the "low-hanging fruit" theory. They wondered why Tyler Graham wasn't on trial, and whether it had anything to do with his being white.
None of it worked. The jury convicted José Treviño and three others on money laundering and other charges. Together with guilty pleas wrung from several others, including José's wife and daughter, Lawson had helped pin felonies on 10 people. While he awaits an appeal ruling, Treviño sits in a federal prison in West Virginia. Unless his case is overturned, he'll be there for 20 years, the maximum time allowed.
After the trial, Lawson spent a lot of time worrying. He worried about that appeal, which was argued by famed defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, among others. He worried about witnesses, including Graham, who had calmly testified to informing on José Treviño and others. The Zetas were surely displeased with him, just as they had apparently been with Tempting Dash's veterinarian in Mexico. He was on the government's witness list too, but a few months before trial he'd been shot in Mexico. He managed to drive his truck to the border and call for help, and he survived. Still: message sent. He didn't testify.
Lawson also worried about his own safety. Sure, narco-traffickers generally considered it bad business to kill feds. But Miguel? The Zetas? They're different, Lawson thought, whenever the paranoia swelled. They killed agent Zapata. Plus, he thought, we hit the family. Other days, he wondered if he'd been watching too many cop movies. Still, taking Miguel Treviño out of the picture might ease his anxiety.
Soon, their sources started to ping them back, and then came official word: The Mexican military had found Miguel Treviño in a truck along a dirt road, just across the river in Nuevo Laredo. He had $2 million in bribe money, but it wasn't enough.
Lawson hugged another agent, and that afternoon, they all went to a bar called TKOs. They shot tequila and talked about how long they'd have to wait to see Miguel Treviño extradited to the States, if he ever is. They're still waiting.
Eventually Miguel's brother Omar would be captured too, weakening the Zetas. Lawson was gone by then, though. Last year, toward the end of his mandatory five-year stay in Laredo, he asked to be transferred somewhere in the Southeast, closer to home. His dad had recently died — heart attack at 58, too much hard living — but his mom and other family were still back in Tennessee. The bureau gave him a post in a rural area of his home state, a place thick with trees where he could chase meth dealers and hopefully catch a cold case. He was back in Tennessee by Christmas.
After the rent-a-cowboys helped seize all those horses, the government started auctioning them off. Of the 400 seized, it sold 379 at one auction alone, netting $9 million.
There were only a few horses left after that. One of the last to sell was Tempting Dash, the horse the feds believed lured Miguel Treviño and his bricklaying brother into American horse-racing. Feds swarmed the auction house, in case the Zetas tried to buy back their prized stud.
No one was sure what to expect, especially after what had come out at trial. Phone calls tapped by the DEA, before Lawson was even on the case, seemed to indicate that the Zetas at least tried to bribe track workers at Lone Star during Tempting Dash's dominant run. But it was unclear whether they'd been successful, and either way the horse was a prize, its record perfect and its bloodlines pristine.
Off the bidding went, with buyer after buyer hoping to cash in on what they'd seen four years before. In the end, the winning bidder was a rancher from Central Texas. The final price: $1.7 million, more than any quarter-horse sale in history.
That buyer hasn't said much about his purchase, but so far Tempting Dash looks like a sound investment. Some of the sire's offspring have already started to make noise on the tracks. One of them won six of its seven starts last year, racking up almost $700,000 in earnings. It's called Kiss My Hocks, and it's owned by Tyler Graham.
Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Dallas, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.