The Rookie and the Zetas: How the Feds Took Down a Drug Cartel's Horse-Racing Empire

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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.

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Joe Tone
Contact: Joe Tone