A network of politicians and businessmen from the Mexican state of Coahuila relocated to San Antonio over the past seven years, and prosecutors say a corrupt group among them invested millions of dollars in illegal kickbacks here from drug traffickers and state contractors.
San Antonio has strong historic ties to Saltillo, Coahuila's capital. Intellectuals and landholders from the state, which borders Texas, took refuge here during the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. Further back, in the 1800s, Coahuila y Tejas was one state under Mexican rule.
Camouflaged among those escaping the more recent problems in the state are drug traffickers, unscrupulous businessmen and high-ranking Coahuila officials who laundered more than $35 million in kickbacks for state contracts, U.S. authorities say.
Prosecutors have moved to seize tens of millions of dollars in San Antonio real estate — including a home in The Dominion, commercial property on U.S. 281 and a pharmacy on Stone Oak Parkway — and indicted six people under an investigation into a nexus of politics, private industry and one of Mexico's most notorious drug gangs.
They say those millions were looted from the Coahuila government and flooded Texas starting in 2007, during the term of former Gov. Humberto Moreira.
Moreira has not been charged, but his political career came to an abrupt end in 2011 when it was revealed that under his governorship Coahuila had racked up nearly $3 billion in debt.
Among those charged in South Texas are the interim governor who served after Moreira, several business owners with homes on San Antonio's North Side, and a former state treasurer who's wanted in Mexico on allegations of taking out fraudulent loans on the state's credit.
Bexar County prosecutors say the treasurer, Héctor Javier Villarreal Hernández, wired millions of dollars to Texas that he received from kickbacks.
Some of the money came from inflated contracts, said First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg. On one occasion, he said, a state contract went to a mineral extraction company controlled by the Zetas drug gang, former en- forcers for another cartel who spun off into their own criminal organization.
“It is our position that it's just a front for money laundering,” Herberg said. “They didn't do any mining.”
Interviews, court documents, property records and regulatory filings show that those under investigation built a sprawling business network in Texas, including commercial real estate developments, private residences and restaurants. They often used a network of limited liability companies that made it difficult for investigators to track the ownership of those assets.
Along with the San Antonio properties, prosecutors have filed lawsuits to take control of real estate in the Rio Grande Valley and millions of dollars in bank accounts in Texas and Bermuda.
Investigators are asking witnesses about Coahuila politicians — including Moreira and his brother, the current governor — comprising a virtual who's who of businessmen from the state and the Zetas, one court document shows.
The multiagency taskforce handling the case includes the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Texas attorney general's office and the Internal Revenue Service.
Among those charged are Villarreal, who is in a San Antonio jail awaiting trial, and Coahuila's former interim governor, Jorge Juan Torres López, a fugitive. Lawyers for both men maintain they're innocent.
The situation is politically fraught. Moreira, the former leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is close to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. When one defendant was brought to court in San Antonio, a former U.S. congressman showed up to support him.
Coahuila, with its large manufacturing sector and border crossings, is a major trade partner with Texas, and politically connected people from the state who are not under investigation have become close with San Antonio city leaders.
Fernando Salazar, a recently elected senator from Coahuila who's in the opposing National Action Party, or PAN, said he thinks the problem goes well beyond the former treasurer and interim governor. Salazar said Moreira deserves more scrutiny because the state's debt and the allegations of theft happened on his watch.
“Torres and Villarreal were the closest persons to Moreira,” Salazar said. “They worked for him. He's the one that made all this mess.”
Moreira's attorneys wouldn't comment for this report, but after Forbes magazine included him on a list of Mexican politicians accused of corruption, Mexico City lawyer Christian F. Zinser Cieslik wrote to the publication, saying the former governor had been exonerated in an investigation by the Mexican attorney general's office.
“It was found that there is no evidence to link Mr. Moreira Valdes to any wrongdoing in relation to the debt contracted in the state of Coahuila during his term as governor,” the attorney wrote.
A simple drug bust
On an October morning last year, residents in the gated Champions Ridge subdivision watched as federal agents arrested a neighbor with ties to the Coahuila government.
Despite the tony digs, the raid looked like any other drug case. An indictment accused Raúl González Fernandez, a 42-year-old restaurateur who was born in Del Rio, of conspiring to distribute more than 5 kilograms of cocaine and possessing more than 500 grams of the drug.
Properties that the feds moved to seize in the case suggested they were looking at something more than a simple dope smuggling investigation.
They asked a judge to give them three San Antonio houses, all appraised at more than $500,000; the Champions Ridge home owned by González Fernandez, a house in the Vistas at Sonterra owned by his brother; and a house in Oakwell Farms, an exclusive inside-the-loop gated community, owned by their father, Raúl González Treviño.
In 2008, Humberto Moreira named González Treviño the state of Coahuila's spokesman in San Antonio, but it's unclear what duties he performed. González Treviño wouldn't comment and officials at the Mexican Consulate and in San Antonio's International Relations Office said they're not familiar with him.
Rubén Moreira, the current governor, told Mexican reporters that González Treviño's position was “unofficial” and unpaid.
González Fernandez, the son, has pleaded not guilty to the drug charges. The lawyer he initially hired to defend him said the family isn't involved in any crimes.
“It is my understanding that the Gonzalez family has contributed greatly to the economy of San Antonio,” his lawyer Carlos Quezada said.
What's known is this: the Gonzálezes control a media empire in Mexico and in recent years extended their influence across the border.
González Treviño, the father, bought his first house in San Antonio in the early 1990s. Then, starting in 2006, he and his brother, Roberto Casimiro González Treviño, went on a spending spree. Over five years, they purchased a dozen houses in San Antonio, selling off a handful and renting out others. Some sit empty today.
Last year, Raul González Treviño bought a one-acre piece of commercial property on U.S. 281 near TPC Parkway.
Roberto Casimiro González Treviño's company, RCG Radio y Televisión, has come a long way since the family business started 30 years ago, when it launched as Cablevision, the first cable company in Mexico.
Today, it has large office buildings in Saltillo and hangars at the city airport. The company also owns billboards around the state. Its radio and television stations have a reputation for supporting the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish acronym PRI, in general and the Moreiras in particular.
The former governor, critics said, was adept at bringing the news media to his side, leaning on advertisers or offering up party and government advertising as an enticement.
“When Humberto came into power, RCG was tiny,” said Jorge Rosales Saade, an official with the opposition PAN party in Coahuila. “All he had was Cablevision, but they made him a multimillionaire with enormous power. All the billboards that the PRI used in its campaigns they would rent from Roberto, and they'd easily get the permits from the city governments.”
Roberto Casimiro González Treviño also shows up on the list of people Bexar County prosecutors told a judge they want to ask witnesses about as part of their money laundering investigation, and he once owned the house in Champions Ridge that the feds are trying to seize from his nephew.
González Fernandez's girlfriend, Alejandra Ibarra, who lives at the Champions Ridge house with their 3-year-old daughter, said she doesn't believe he was involved in drug trafficking. The family has plenty of money from recent sales of Mexican media holdings, Ibarra said, and her boyfriend had income from running restaurants in Torreón, Coahuila, and San Antonio.
“I was shocked,” Ibarra said of her boyfriend's arrest. “I think he's not guilty, so I was shocked.”
González Fernandez didn't respond to letters written to him in jail, and his new attorney, San Antonio white collar crime expert Cynthia Orr, wouldn't comment.
The house in Champions Ridge is owned by Raul González Fernandez, but over the years it's been owned by his father, brother, uncle and by Vicente Chaires Yañez, Moreira's personal secretary while he was governor.
In 2011, a pair of Mexican senators called for an investigation into Chaires and his investment in real estate and in Coahuila radio and television stations. He's not been charged with a crime, and neither have the González Treviño brothers.
Roberto Casimiro González Treviño's properties are nominally owned by a complex structure of companies.
One of his Texas limited liability companies — the one that shows up on deed records — is controlled by a Dutch company, which is controlled by another Texas LLC, which is controlled by a trust.
Roberto Casimiro González Treviño signed the deed of sale for the property and he's listed as the trust's sole managing member, but his name does not appear on public records filed by the LLCs.
Ed Rodriguez, a former IRS agent who is not involved in the case, said there could be perfectly legitimate reasons for businessmen to distance themselves from properties they own, including protection from lawsuits. It makes the ownership of properties more difficult for investigators and regulators to trace, however, and also could be used to disguise the source of money in the original purpose.
“When there's two or three or four or five layers of individuals, that's called layering of ownership,” he said. “It becomes very difficult to track for any investigator in law enforcement, but it's especially more difficult for financial industry investigators because they're limited, they don't have authority of the government, subpoena power.”
Treasurer on the run
The most high-profile arrest of the money laundering investigation has been that of Villarreal, the former state treasurer. His saga began in mid-2011, when news broke of Coahuila's massive debt.
Over the next few months, Villarreal, Moreira — who by that time had left Coahuila to become the national leader of the PRI as it was poised to retake Mexico's presidency — and Torres, who had taken over the governorship, were forced to leave their respective jobs.
Coahuila prosecutors in October 2011 charged Villarreal with falsifying documents to take out millions of dollars in loans on the state's credit. He surrendered to state police on Oct. 29, 2011, and was released on bond within hours.
He quickly left Mexico for the U.S. and showed up in East Texas in February 2012 where he was again arrested. Sheriff's deputies there said they stopped Villarreal, his wife and brother-in-law Oswaldo Coronado traveling with $67,000.
Again he was released on bond and within days Mexican federal prosecutors leveled a new round of charges against him tied to the alleged fraudulent loans, which they say approached $250 million. By then, Villarreal disappeared.
In the following months, details of the U.S. investigation began trickling out through a series of lawsuits filed by federal and state prosecutors to seize bank accounts and property owned by limited liability companies that had been set up by Villarreal, Coronado, another brother-in-law, Villarreal's wife and his alleged mistress.
The lawsuits sought millions of dollars in bank accounts in Texas and Bermuda as well as the commercial strip center on U.S. 281, the pharmacy on Stone Oak Parkway, a storage center on Loop 1604, a condo on South Padre Island and most of a commercial block in Brownsville that prosecutors said was purchased with money stolen from Coahuila's treasury.
“Villarreal fraudulently acquired Mexican pesos totaling over $35 million in U.S. dollars and funneled the monies into United States bank accounts,” federal prosecutors in Corpus Christi wrote in a court filing. “Villarreal laundered these ill-gotten gains from the state of Coahuila with the assistance of family members, including his wife.... These family members assisted Villarreal by, among other things, opening bank accounts at U.S. banks, establishing business entities and purchasing real estate in the names of these business entities.”
Villarreal's attorney said the majority owners in the Texas LLCs are not Villarreal's family members, but a Panamanian company, and that the San Antonio property was purchased with money from lenders in Mexico, not kickbacks. Villarreal “was involved in facilitating the purchase of the properties,” Houston attorney Michael J. Wynne said.
With Villarreal on the run, the lawsuits languished. Meanwhile, the U.S. investigation sprawled.
As Torreón businessman Guillermo Flores Cordero stepped off a private jet in August at San Antonio International Airport, federal agents were waiting to take him to Corpus Christi to face charges that he illegally used shell companies to transfer millions of dollars from Mexico to the U.S. for others.
Flores has since pleaded guilty to a money laundering conspiracy charge and agreed to give up millions of dollars in Texas bank accounts, a Learjet and his home in The Dominion. Prosecutors have said in court that they believe Flores helped a former governor of Tamaulipas, another state that borders Texas, launder bribe money from the Zetas. The former governor, Eugenio Hernández Flores, has said those allegations are false.
In another court filing, the feds wrote that Flores' case is somehow tied to their investigation of money allegedly stolen from the Coahuila government and laundered in Texas. His lawyer, Roy Barrera Jr., said Flores wasn't involved in public corruption or organized crime.
“He pleaded guilty to operating a money transmitting business without a license,” Barrera said. “That's it. You have to have a federal and state license for that. There were no guns, no drugs.”
Flores had made powerful friends in the U.S., among them lobbyist and former Congressman Henry Bonilla, who showed up at his initial court appearance in San Antonio.
The former lawmaker didn't respond to phone calls seeking comment, but at the time lawyers said Bonilla became friends with Flores after selling his house to the businessman and was there to show support.
Later in the year, attention focused on Coahuila's former interim governor. Prosecutors in Corpus Christi filed a lawsuit in late September accusing Torres, who owns a house near Houston, of using JP Morgan Chase Bank accounts to transfer millions of dollars from Mexico to Texas, then turning around and sending it offshore. The lawsuit seeks $2.8 million in an account Torres has in Bermuda.
A similar lawsuit is seeking to forfeit for $2.3 million Villarreal has in another Bermuda bank.
Rounding up witnesses
In December, six Coahuila businessmen gathered at the Hotel Contessa in downtown San Antonio. They refused to identify themselves to reporters or discuss why they were meeting in a conference room with prosecutors, a DEA agent and an investigator with the Texas attorney general's office.
Among the businessmen was a scowling Coronado, Villarreal's brother-in-law who was detained in East Texas, and Francisco Xavier Flores Valdez, a nephew of the Moreira brothers.
Wynne, Villarreal's attorney who was at the hotel meeting, said he's trying to show the Texas properties were purchased with legitimate funds.
“Our position on behalf of Mr. Villarreal is to establish the facts and show that he is not guilty. That's what we're doing,” he said. “It's a very complicated matter that's taking a lot of time, but there are bank records and property records and it's taking a while to sift through all the facts to show he did not do what they claim he did.”
U.S. authorities were ramping up their investigation after Gonzalez's arrest on drug charges. A federal grand jury in Corpus Christi in November charged Villarreal and Torres with money laundering and fraud.
Torres remains a fugitive in Mexico. His high-powered attorney, J.A. “Tony” Canales, said Torres is innocent but won't come to the U.S. to fight the charges because he's afraid he won't get bond.
“If he gets extradited we will (fight the criminal case), but right now he has not been extradited, so he's still in Mexico,” Canales said.
He wouldn't say more in an interview, but in court Canales called the indictment “a sham” and accused prosecutors of using it to retaliate against Torres for fighting the civil suit.
“The government is abusing its power,” Canales wrote in one filing. “First, the government filed a civil complaint and, when (Torres) contested this civil forfeiture by filing a motion to dismiss, then the government brought an indictment over the same subject matter — all with the purpose of obstructing the ability to defend oneself against a groundless forfeiture.”
By the time federal prosecutors charged Torres and Villarreal, Bexar County prosecutors finally had started moving their civil lawsuit forward. Initially, they claimed in court documents that the money in the Texas banks and the funds used to buy the San Antonio properties came from fraudulent loans Villarreal took out on Coahuila's credit.
Now, said Herberg, the No. 2 at the DA's office, prosecutors believe at least some of the $6.5 million in a JP Morgan Chase and Co. bank account that his office is suing to forfeit came from kickbacks.
Coronado and Flores Valdez, the Moreiras' nephew, were in San Antonio responding to a request by Bexar County to depose representatives of the LLCs that Villarreal's family members manage.
The prosecutors' deposition request included a list of people and entities they would be asking about, including the Moreira brothers, their nephew, a number of Villarreal's family members, Chaires, Humberto Moreira's former secretary, and Roberto Casimiro Gonzalez Treviño, the Coahuila cable magnate whose nephew was arrested in San Antonio and whose brother served as the state's spokesman here.
Also on the list were Villarreal, the former treasurer; Torres, the former interim governor; and Flores, the businessman who pleaded guilty in Corpus Christi.
“They are either identified as being investors in some of these corporations, or persons with knowledge of some of the transactions,” Herberg said. “And that is why we want to ask questions as far as their involvement or knowledge.”
The Zetas ties
In February, Villarreal slipped across one of the international bridges in El Paso and turned himself in to federal agents. They whisked him to San Antonio, where prosecutors unsealed an indictment charging him with another count of money laundering.
It alleges that he laundered in San Antonio the proceeds of bribes, theft, embezzlement and drug distribution, another indication that the U.S. is investigating whether there's a connection between the alleged raiding of Coahuila's state coffers and the Zetas, a gang started by former Mexican special forces soldiers to be the Gulf Cartel's paramilitary arm.
Today, the Zetas are their own criminal organization engaged in a wide range of illegal activities including drug trafficking, prostitution, human trafficking and distribution of counterfeit goods. Like a traditional mafia, the Zetas also are involved in public works fraud, creating fake companies or suborning legitimate businesses and bribing public officials in exchange for government contracts that are inflated or never completed.
In October 2012, José Eduardo Moreira, Humberto's son, was found murdered outside the border city of Acuña, and several police officials were arrested in connection with the slaying.
In interviews after his son's killing, Moreira placed blame on narcoempresarios, businessmen with ties to the cartels who allowed the gangs to act with impunity. The Zetas in particular had spread their control to Coahuila's mining sector, Moreira said. The gang, he said, was responsible for a wave of violence that killed tens of thousand in Mexico, many in Coahuila.
The government's investigation shouldn't stop with the drug gangs, the former governor told the Saltillo newspaper Vanguardia.
He asked for “an investigation of those persons, many of whom are part of society and are well-known and who have financial relations with (organized crime) and who have made their fortunes through them. Consequently, they are also responsible for the death of my son and the 80,000 or 100,000 — you see the numbers aren't what they're thought to be, as much as 150,000 — ultimately dead from this war.”