By Daniel Bendtsen
Via Wyoming News Exchange
LARAMIE — Almanza’s Mexican Food on Grand Avenue is implicated as being part of a years-long money laundering scheme for a Mexican drug cartel.
In 2018, federal prosecutors began asset forfeiture proceedings against 17 bank accounts, including several that are partially controlled by Jose Luis Almanza-Sanchez, who’s listed in Wyoming Secretary of State records as the owner of Almanza’s.
In the year leading up to Februrary 3, 2017, a bank account for Almanza’s issued 59 checks, totaling $268,058, to El Potosino Foods, a “front company” belonging to Jose Aguilar-Martinez.
The complaint also indicates the role Almanza’s played in the laundering scheme was key to revealing the “ill-gotten gains” of Aguilar.
In 2014, Aguilar purchased a new Chevrolet Silverado in Cheyenne for $61,566, paying $10,000 cash up-front.
That purchase, along with another “suspicious” vehicle purchase by Aguilar, led federal investigators to begin investigating Aguilar’s unregistered food distribution company: El Potosino Foods.
Aguilar’s phone number was included in the Drug Enforcement Agency’s database as being linked to the investigation of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman-Lorea and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia, two leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel.
Guzman, one of the most notorious drug lords of this century, now faces life imprisonment after being convicted of various crimes.
When federal agents began surveilling Almanza’s, they noticed Aguilar’s white Silverado outside.
A Laramie Police Department officer stopped the white Silverado in January 2018, it was Almanza-Sanchez, not Aguilar, who was the driver.
According to the federal complaint, Almanza-Sanchez told the officer that Aguilar was “was a good friend of Almanza-Sanchez’s” who he “had known for a long time.”
“Almanza-Sanchez explained that Aguilar owned the pickup, but Almanza-Sanchez was driving the pickup and simply paying for the insurance on it,” the complaint states.
In July, the U.S. seized $1.5 million from bank accounts that allegedly were used to launder Aguilar’s money.
According to U.S. attorneys, Aguilar used Mexican restaurants throughout 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.
Using a legitimate business like Almanza’s for money laundering is a way to “introduce the cash from the sale of illegal drugs into the financial system so that those higher up in the drug trafficking organization can acquire assets and real property without spending large sums of cash which might attract the attention of the financial institutions involved,” the complaint says.
Over a two-year period, Aguilar’s primary bank account for El Potosino had received $2.3 million of cash or “cash equivalent” via 311 individual transactions.
“The sale and re-distribution of the beef from the wholesale distribution level to the independent Mexican fast food restaurant creates a multi-layered financial transaction that allows the drug trafficking organization in Mexico to represent to law enforcement in their country (or from any inquiring party) that their financial gains are not from the sale of narcotics, but from the sale of beef,” the U.S. attorneys’ complaint states.
When agents began tapping Aguilar’s phones in 2017, they found him in frequent communication with people who had been arrested for possession of large quantities of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.