• 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.

  • Mexico in Crisis: Q&A with John MacCormack


    Known as “Johnny Mac” in the newsroom, John MacCormack is a talented, colorful reporter. He likes telling a good yarn, both in person and on the front pages of the San Antonio Express-News. One time I heard him on the phone telling a source: “What are you going to give me so I don’t write the usual blather?”

    His trademark wit was on display when he gave this speech explaining how he figured out that missing atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair was not dining on bonbons in New Zealand, as police theorized, but had actually been brutally murdered.

    Last year, MacCormack and Express-News Photographer Jerry Lara spent months documenting the toll of violence from the Mexican drug war, and how life on the Texas border has dramatically changed for the worse. The result was a compelling series of articles and photos called Mexico in Crisis. MacCormack won an award for his work this month from the Inter American Press Association.

    Given MacCormack’s gift of gab and skill at reporting, I thought it’d be entertaining and educational to do a Q&A with him, and learn how he and Jerry worked on the stories.

    I was right.

  • Mexican authorities arrest “La Barbie”

    la barbieIn January, Express-News Reporter Jason Buch profiled Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a U.S. citizen from Laredo who had risen through the ranks of a Mexican drug cartel. In high school, Valdez Villarreal was a jock who got the nickname “Barbie” for his light-colored eyes and hair. Years later in Mexico, he was poised to become a ruthless drug boss.

    This week, Valdez Villarreal was arrested in Mexico and NPR featured an interesting interview with Jason yesterday about Villarreal. You can hear a Mexican ballad that extols the virtues of the drug lord, and how he’s such an intelligent businessman. Great stuff.

  • Express-News reporters win national honors

    Gunrunner's land of plentyReporters Todd Bensman and Guillermo Contreras, my colleagues on the special projects team at the San Antonio Express-News, won an award from the National Press Club for their series of stories about gunrunning to Mexico called Texas’ Deadliest Export.

    According to the press club:

    “Reporters Todd Bensman and Guillermo Contreras of the San Antonio Express-News won the Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence for a three-part series tracing the trail of high-powered guns smuggled from the United States into Mexico and the mounting body count in Mexico’s drug cartel war.”

  • U.S. denying sanctuary to Mexicans fleeing drug war

    MortuaryInvestigative reporter Todd Bensman has been writing about Mexican immigrants who are fleeing the drug war but are denied political asylum in the United States. For his first story, he interviewed a Mexican lawyer who said he was brutally tortured by a drug cartel. Today’s article tells the story of a family from Jaurez:

    In the heat of an August day last year, 10 masked cartel gunmen roared aboard SUVs onto a street in a working-class neighborhood of Juarez, Mexico. Four people soon lay dead amid spent AK-47 shell casings.

    Two were brothers who lived with their families a few houses apart and earned extra cash as neighborhood marijuana pushers, court testimony would later show. A third victim that day was the 16-year-old son of one of the brothers; another was a bystander.

    The gunmen issued a chilling departing vow: They’d soon return to finish off the four sons of the other brother.

    Their sons’ mother, newly widowed, had heard about a quick legal way out: political asylum in America.

    Once over the Paso del Norte pedestrian bridge in El Paso, mother and sons, ages 9 through 22, joined a growing number of Mexicans petitioning for U.S. asylum as permanent haven from the narcotics traffickers besieging Mexico.

    But federal immigration judges have denied them all sanctuary and are, one of their attorneys says, “sending them back to their deaths.” Two deported sons are hiding out in drug-war savaged Juarez, where murders are surging despite the military’s presence there.

  • Mexican Murders, American Victims

    mexicoLise Olsen at the Houston Chronicle has a gripping story in our Sunday paper that puts names and faces to the 230 Americans who have been killed in Mexico since 2003.

    Lise went beyond the scant statistics provided by the State Department and built her own database with the name of each victim, the age, location, approximate date, and other details. The entire database is searchable and online. There’s also an interactive Yahoo! map that shows where each death occurred.

    Lise wrote:

    The U.S. State Department tracks most American homicides abroad, but the department releases minimal statistics and doesn’t include the names of victims or details about their deaths. The Chronicle examined hundreds of records to document the personal tragedies behind them.

    “I’m no longer the same person,” said Paula Valdez, a Houston mother who lost her son in a slaying near her childhood home in central Mexico’s Guerrero in 2004.

    More U.S. citizens suffered unnatural deaths in Mexico than any other country — excluding military killed in combat zones — from 2004 to 2007, State Department statistics show. Most died in the recent outbreaks of violence in bleeding border cities — Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez and Nuevo Laredo.

    This is a great example of enterprise journalism, and how important stories are often buried under dry, official statistics.

  • Exposing the gun buyers for Mexican drug cartels

    gunnrunning3Day 2 of “Texas’ Deadliest Export” is out. The series shows how easy it is for Mexican drug cartels to buy guns in Texas. Sunday’s story by Reporter Guillermo Contreras focuses on the straw buyers — the people with clean criminal histories who buy guns that wind up being used in cop killings and gun battles in Mexico:

    “Anyone who can legally buy a gun can get caught up in the scheme,” said Mark Siebert, resident agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in San Antonio. “It’s college students, girls, guys, grandmothers. It’s anybody.”

    In Houston, ATF agents uncovered one network of more than 30 straw buyers who spent more than $400,000 on guns, said J. Dewey Webb, agent in charge of the office there, which oversees San Antonio and much of south Texas.

    “A lot of straw purchasers say, ‘Hey I’m not hurting anybody. I’m just making a few dollars,” Webb said. “But that AK killed someone in Mexico. It’s all connected and it’s all relevant.”

    The value of this series of watchdog stories is how they help people understand a complicated problem. We’ve all heard the violence in Mexico. It seems like a vague, distant problem with no connection to us. But the Express-News stories are answering some fundamental questions, such as, where do the guns come from? And who actually supplies them?

    Guillermo names names and shows readers how Texas is connected to the drug violence. He give readers some surprising answers, which is what a good investigative news story is supposed to do.

  • Gunrunners’ land of plenty

    Express-News Reporter Todd Bensman wrote an outstanding article in Sunday’s paper about Mexican drug cartels buying assault weapons in Texas to battle rivals and Mexican police.

    Bensman’s story showed how cartels hire people with clean criminal histories to buy firearms at Texas gun shows and gun shops.

    Bensman traced the path of several guns found at the scene of a police killing in Mexico. The guns were bought in Laredo, Texas, and Bensman found the purchaser, Raúl Alvarez Jr.

    Alvarez denied having anything to do with the cartels but he bought a new house shortly after he sold the guns. He also hired a cartel lawyer when federal investigators began looking into the purchase.

    Bensman’s story included interesting details about Alvarez:

    The Nuevo Laredo brothel owned by the mother of Raúl Alvarez Jr. seems out of place amid the rows of broken-down bordellos that crowd the city’s pink-walled “Zone of Tolerance,” or Boys’ Town. Prostitutes amble up and down the uneven gravel streets strewn with garbage picked over by skeletal dogs.

    The Danash Mens Club is newly built in the garish likeness of a medieval castle. It’s all bright lights outside and shiny gold dance poles inside on a main floor covered over by plush, red cushioned seats.

    In a recent interview, Alvarez explained that drug syndicate operatives prefer the Danash to the other zone brothels for what are to him obvious reasons.

    “We have the best girls,” said Alvarez, whose rail-thin body and boyish features make him look far younger than 29.

    But even though the narcos often take the girls away for days at a time without paying, they otherwise let him and his mother operate the family business without too much meddling.

    Knowing what Alvarez did with the guns would help the ATF move one step closer to the smugglers. It would be illegal but tough to prove if Alvarez had fronted for a cartel contact from the club. Alvarez must have sensed trouble for himself when an ATF agent called, especially when the agent told him during an initial phone call “there was a mess down in Mexico” involving some guns Alvarez bought.

    He hired a Laredo lawyer known to defend drug-trafficking suspects and then refused to talk further to the ATF.

    Check out the whole story here.