By Daniel Bendtsen
Via Wyoming News Exchange
LARAMIE — Federal prosecutors are relying merely on conjecture in alleging Almanza Mexican Food helped launder money for a Mexican drug cartel, the restaurant’s attorney told the Laramie Boomerang Wednesday.
Jason Tangeman, who represents Almanza, said the restaurant’s owners have been adamant in denying the accusations of money laundering.
“The Almanzas tell me they haven’t done anything wrong,” Tangeman said. “They haven’t been civilly charged with anything. They haven’t been criminally charged with anything. There’s very little allegation in the complaint of any wrong-doing.”
The federal attorneys’ assumptions about “suspicious” transactions, Tangeman said, has unfairly smeared a couple who have “no criminal history whatsoever” and are “good members of the communities they’ve lived in.”
“They’re active in this community with their financial support of things,” Tangeman said. “These folks work hard, and their kids go to high school here.”
Some of the government’s suspicions are based on ignorance, Tangeman said.
For example, the federal complaint mentions that Leticia Munoz-Nava, a co-owner of Almanza, made a $33,415 cash deposit into a bank account in February 2016.
That same bank account was used to write 72 checks of $159,230 to El Potosino, a wholesale food distribution company federal prosecutors suggest served as a money-laundering “front company.”
Tangeman notes El Potosino is a very legitimate business registered with the state of Colorado that distributes food to many restaurants.
And what prosecutors don’t know, Tangeman said, is that the deposit from Munoz-Nava came a day after the Almanza’s landlord requested $32,367 in back-rent.
The cash deposit, Tangeman said, was made and then transferred to the landlord immediately.
“It’s frustrating, because the government takes innocuous stuff and tries to spin it,” Tangeman said.
In 2018, federal prosecutors seized about $1.5 million from 17 bank accounts, including several that include Jose Luis Almanza-Sanchez, the owner of Almanza, as a signatory.
Even though Almanza-Sanchez is listed as a signatory of some accounts, Tangeman said Almanza-Sanchez doesn’t have any real relationship with the money in those accounts and has not filed as a claimant for the seized funds.
The owners of those accounts have largely contested the federal allegations. The involvement of respected and powerful law firms in representing the claimants, Tangeman said, could be a sign that the federal government’s case is weak.
“We’ll see what happens, but this might get dismissed,” Tangeman said.
According to U.S. attorneys, Jose Aguilar — the owner of El Potosino — used Mexican restaurants thorough Wyoming and Colorado to launder money. The attorneys also state that the case is “still in its infancy.”
Mexican restaurants in the U.S., they say, are a convenient way for cartels to launder money.
According to the complaint, cartels raise cattle on their ranches and then sell their “cartel beef” at inflated prices and then distribute the beef to individuals who can articulate a legitimate reason for purchasing the beef.
However, federal prosecutors offer little direct evidence — aside from “suspicious” transactions in their complaint — to show El Potosino operates such a scheme.