Maggies

  • How Mexican cartels launder drug money in San Antonio (Hint: Check the North Side)


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    Maggie’s was the place to go in the 1990s if it was late and you were a hungry college student (like me). Nestled among the car dealerships on San Pedro Avenue outside Loop 410, the two-story restaurant was open late and offered some of the best shakes ever.

    Maggie’s permanently closed, reopened as a Champ’s restaurant, closed, then reopened in 2009 as Barbaresco Tuscan Grill and Enoteca, a swanky Italian restaurant.

    Barbaresco was a lot different from Maggie’s. On its opening day, guests were treated to readings of Romeo and Juliet while an attractive, semi-nude woman lay on a table, her body strategically covered with pasta.

    Brothers Mauricio and Alejandro Sánchez Garza had bought the old Maggie’s restaurant, along with numerous other businesses and properties in San Antonio, and heavily invested in it. Now the Drug Enforcement Administration has accused the brothers of using those businesses to launder millions of dollars in drug money from Mexican cartels.

    Express-News reporters Jason Buch and Guillermo Contreras wrote about the money-laundering case in a story published Sunday. The article detailed key properties and businesses the brothers were involved in, which is a hell of a way of grabbing readers’ attention. A lot of people like me remember Maggie’s. Finding out the building is tied up in a federal money laundering investigation definitely piqued our interest.

    “It allowed us to see, literally see, how everything was connected.”

    I sit next to Jason in the newsroom so I talked to him a bit while he worked on the story. One difficulty he faced was keeping track of the tangled spider web of people, businesses and properties connected to the Mexican brothers. To make sense of everything, Jason used a plugin for Microsoft Excel called NodeXL, which allows you to create a social network diagram.

    Jason typed in more than 250 entities and their related entities in a spreadsheet, and NodeXL displayed that information in a graph that showed spokes between each connection. Here’s an example of the main players and entities:

    Money laundering social network analysis

    “It allowed us to see, literally see, how everything was connected,” Jason told me.

    In complicated stories with lots of moving pieces, building a chronology to keep track of key events is also important. By chance I learned about a new open source, interactive timeline tool by Zach Wise and told Jason about it. Timeline is also based on information contained in a spreadsheet. In Google Docs, you type in the dates and chatter, provide links to photos, videos, or other media, and then Wise’s Timeline tool uses javascript to display an interactive chronology that you can publish on a website.

    Jason and Guillermo were going to have to write a chronology in their notes anyway. Wise’s Timeline tool let them share their relevant information with readers in a really compelling way. Their timeline looks drop-dead gorgeous. And they linked to federal documents in the timeline, so readers could see the allegations for themselves.

    Maggie’s is long gone. But it was fascinating to see what became of it.