Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

The Life And Death Of A Cartel Horseman

Illustration for article titled The Life And Death Of A Cartel Horseman

From around 2008 to 2012, Miguel Treviño Morales, a leader of the infamous Los Zetas cartel, spent and made millions of dollars buying, breeding, and racing American quarter horses, with help from his law-abiding American brother and a wealthy young Austin rancher. This excerpt from Bones: Brothers, Horses, Cartels, and the Borderland Dream, a new book from journalist Joe Tone, tells the story of two operatives whose love of horses led them on a collision course with Treviño, the FBI, and each other.


The calculations started as soon as Ramiro’s loafers shuffled into the barn. His eyes adjusted, and his brain started receiving dispatches about what he was seeing: thick haunches, hinged backs, steep shoulder slopes, and all the other variables that make the difference between racehorse and runner.


It was winter in Pomona, Calif., where the final quarter-horse auction of 2008 was about to begin. Ramiro moved through the barns, making small talk in his choppy English with the other horsemen—trainers looking for their next champions, breeders hoping to make a big sale. They were some of the best in the business. Ramiro knew them all.

They knew him, too. They knew him by various nicknames, including “the Horseman” and “Gordo,” which they recognized as the Spanish word for “fat.” It made sense, given the way his cheeks and midsection curved like birthday balloons, pushing his 5-foot-9 frame over 250 pounds. But at 35 years old, Ramiro was handsome, too, with eyes that played puppeteer to an electric smile, hair that crashed like a Malibu wave, and polo shirts in every color of Ralph Lauren’s rainbow. He was a fresa—a “strawberry,” a preppy—through and through.

Most of the quarter-horse cowboys knew Gordo by his real name, José Ramiro Villarreal Guajardo. Even if Ramiro didn’t exactly fit in—if his loafers seemed impractical, his polos a little bright for this hour, his double-fisted cellphones more than a little obnoxious—Ramiro knew the sellers welcomed the sight of him. The Great Recession was grinding toward its 13th month. A drought was ravaging Texas and other parts of the West, driving up hay prices. That meant the wealthy ranchers, oilmen, and businessmen who drove the quarter-horse industry were doing what wealthy people did in historic droughts and capital-R recessions: selling their planes and selling their horses. Sale prices were falling.

That was bad news for the sellers but good news for brokers like Ramiro. He was buying not for himself but for horsemen back home in Mexico, who trusted him to pick out well-bred babies and haul them back across the border. He never said who his buyers were; they were “Mexican businessmen” and nothing more. He could safely assume that everyone in the barns knew what kind of business those Mexicans were in. But the industry didn’t care, so long as Ramiro kept showing up to spend his clients’ money.


Recently, though, Ramiro’s clients had been spending bigger but sending money less reliably. At a small sale in Dallas that summer, he’d spent $112,000 on four yearlings, more money than any other buyer. In two auctions in Oklahoma that fall, he’d spent $370,000 on 28 horses—and then promptly bounced 10 checks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. At one in New Mexico, he’d spent $357,000 on 11 horses. And at another in California, he’d spent $405,000 on 17 horses. No other buyer came close to spending that much.

The checks eventually cleared; the wires eventually came through. But Ramiro was falling behind, despite spending hours fielding and making phone calls in an effort to settle his debts. The industry was losing patience. Twice recently, sale managers had pushed Ramiro against auction-house walls, demanding he pay off the balance of his bills.


Yet when Ramiro’s hand went up at the next auction, they never told him to lower it. They needed his clients’ money.

The Pomona auction house offered two positions from which to bid. One was inside, in the small gallery that circled the sales ring. The other was outside, around the artificial-turf walking ring, where the horses were displayed before being led up a faux-brick walkway and inside. Ramiro liked it outside. There was a bid-spotter out there, looking for flying hands, and it was a good place to get one last glimpse of a horse before the bidding started. Ramiro found his post along the rail and struck his usual pose, his belly flung out in front of him and his sales book resting on top of it.


His hand flew all morning, as he stocked up on quality breedings for relatively cheap. By the time the auction reached its final hour, he’d spent a little more than $100,000 on seven horses, including some of the sale’s most expensive. Then the auctioneer called hip number 140, the 140th horse of the auction. “Tempting Dash,” the auctioneer bellowed.

A handler walked into the ring beside a sorrel yearling colt whose sire, First Down Dash, was the most famous, and most prolific, in the history of quarter-horse racing. Quarter horses are shorter and stockier than their thoroughbred cousins, bred to run short, straight races with a lot of bumping. Its roots can be traced in Colonial America, but nowadays it’s the dusty brand of horseracing preferred by the cowboys of the American Southwest and Mexico.


The bidding for Tempting Dash climbed through the low five figures. Ramiro steadily lifted his hand as the other bidders fell away. Maybe it was the horse’s May birthday, which meant he’d be one of the younger two-year-olds on the track the following year. Maybe it was his size; he was small, shorter and skinnier than the prime yearlings, which stood somewhere around fourteen hands and weighed 850 pounds.

Whatever the reason, Ramiro found himself the last bidder to raise his hand, with the price stuck at $21,500, a meager sum considering Tempting Dash’s lineage.


“Sold,” the auctioneer said, to the ruddy-cheeked fellow in the bright polo with the phone pressed to his ear. Another bargain for his clients back in Mexico.

Ramiro grew up in a middle-class family in Monterrey, Nuevo León, a cosmopolitan city once known as a haven from the violence of Mexico’s drug war. His obsession with horse racing seemed born from native talent. As a teenager, he’d cobbled money from friends and relatives to buy cheap horses at auction and race them at the small tracks that dotted the Mexican countryside. His horses always outperformed their purchase price, which got the attention of other horse owners. Ramiro started making a living by picking and buying promising young quarter horses for ranchers and other wealthy businessmen.


Eventually Ramiro’s keen eye got the attention of the drug criminals, including a high-ranking member of Los Zetas, the notoriously savage drug gang that ruled much of northern Mexico. The Zeta, Jesús Enrique Rejón Aguilar, used the code name Z-7, meaning he was the seventh special-forces soldier to defect from the Mexican military to join Los Zetas. But everyone called him “Mamito,” a play on Mamita, the common term of endearment for Latina women.

Mamito’s plate was full. He paid bribes to state policemen and soldiers, and he collected pisos, taxes, from traffickers who wanted to move drugs through the Zetas’ territory. If they didn’t pay those pisos, he was usually ordered to kidnap them, torture them, and, if necessary, kill them. But like many of the high-ranking Zetas, Mamito found time for racing quarter horses. He noticed Ramiro’s talent for picking horses and tapped him to pick some winners at the auctions in the United States and bring them back to Mexico to race.


Throughout his 20s, Ramiro had built a sustainable income as a broker, but Mamito’s business offered more revenue. The more expensive the horse, the higher Ramiro’s commission, and Mamito wanted some of the priciest horses. Ramiro started showing up at the big auctions in Oklahoma City, Dallas, and southern California, bidding on horses from Mamito’s favored bloodlines, including First Down Dash. Mamito then found a legitimate Mexican businessman to pay off Ramiro’s debts at the auction houses, instructing them to send a check or a wire and promising to repay them from his stash of drug money.

Ramiro operated like this throughout most of the 2000s, well into his 30s. Though he was buying for narcos, he had managed to remain independent, a safe distance from their business and their culture. But around the time he bought Tempting Dash in 2008, some guys approached and told him that a different high-ranking Zeta wanted to do business together. This comandante’s name was Miguel Treviño Morales, aka Z-40. Everyone called him “Cuarenta,” or Forty. And everyone feared him—he was, and would be for years to come, among the most murderous, and most wanted, criminals in Latin America.


Ramiro politely declined to meet Forty. But the guys came back with a message.

This isn’t optional, Horseman.

Soon after, Ramiro showed up at a track in Monterrey. Two armed men found him and escorted him to a cluster of SUVs and pickups parked near the track. A man stepped forward and extended his hand.


“So you’re the famous Horseman,” Forty said.

“How can I help you?” Ramiro asked.

“I want you to buy horses for me,” Forty said.

“I’m too busy.”

“I really need you to buy horses for me,” Forty said.

“I’m sorry,” Ramiro said. He insisted he didn’t have time.

Forty’s bodyguards stiffened. Their boss pulled back his shirt to reveal a pistol. Forty asked, “Do you have time to save your family?”


“What do you mean?” Ramiro asked.

“If you don’t buy my fucking horses,” Forty said, “you won’t have a family.”

So now, Ramiro bought for Forty.

Ramiro at least appeared to have a luxurious life under Forty and the Zetas. As he traversed Mexico and the American Southwest, he racked up $300 bills at steakhouses and found time to jaunt to Las Vegas. And, damn, could he shop. He preferred the colorful short-sleeves at Lacoste, where those little gator logos could make $240 or $360 of Ramiro’s money disappear in an afternoon. But he also made trips to Louis Vuitton, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and other high-end stores. His voracious spending kept his checking account from ever climbing, but there was always enough to spend. If 17 grand went out one month, 20 grand came in.


There was no sign of business slowing down. With every passing year, the Zetas’ zeal for horses seemed to increase. The group’s leader, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, nicknamed “The Executioner,” was prone to throwing private parties anchored by match races, including one where he injected his horse with so much cocaine that it died on the track. But it was second-in-command Forty who really changed Ramiro’s business. Forty didn’t want Ramiro just to buy horses in the United States; he wanted Ramiro to run them there. And he wanted them to win.

For Ramiro, even getting the horses into the States required some ingenuity. The Texas Animal Health Commission had once crossed into Mexico to test horses for disease before they could be imported, but the violence made that too dangerous. Instead, they set up bays at border checkpoints to quarantine and test horses. Since some of the horses the Zetas wanted to race in Mexico likely carried piroplasmosis, a tick-borne disease that was spreading in northern Mexico, there was no hope of legally trucking them across the river. Even if they weren’t infected, there was a waiting list and paperwork and other bureaucratic hurdles that Forty and the Zetas had no time for.


So Ramiro smuggled them across. He hired associates from the racetracks to ride the horses across the river at night, at the same low-flowing sections where the Zetas crossed some of their cocaine. Once they were across, Ramiro made sure they got wherever they needed to go.

Tempting Dash needed to go to Dallas. Ramiro had actually intended to purchase the colt for Mamito. But after Ramiro hauled the sorrel colt to one of the Zetas’ Mexican ranches, Forty decided to keep the horse for himself. The colt was young and skinny, still growing into the frame bestowed on him by his famous sire. In Mexico, the grooms in the stables started calling him “El Huesos.” “The Bones.” It stuck, becoming the name Tempting Dash raced under in Mexico.


In the spring of 2009, Ramiro entered El Huesos into a race in Nuevo Laredo, on the city’s gleaming new racetrack, which Forty had paid to have built. El Huesos raced well, winning by several lengths, so Ramiro smuggled him across the river and entered him into a race at Dallas’s Lone Star Park, where the winning owner would take home almost $200,000.

As the Dallas race approached, Ramiro made frequent visits to a falling-down ranch on the outskirts of Austin, where a trainer named Chevo was working the horse into shape. He also took frequent calls from his cartel bosses.


“What’s up with Chevo?” Forty’s brother, Omar “Z-42” Treviño Morales, asked one day. “How’s the forecast? How’s he?”

Chevo was ready, Ramiro said. So was the horse. But that was hardly enough for the Zetas. They were under assault from so many angles—from rival cartels, from the Mexican government, from the Americans. The idea of losing something as simple as a horse race seemed unfathomable to them, and they took every step to avoid it. They routinely doped their horses, injecting them with traditional PEDs, cocaine, and even “frog juice,” a natural opioid squeezed from the back of an exotic South American frog. They fixed races, too, especially the unregulated ones in Mexico. Usually they bribed the starters, who manage the gates, and their assistants, who load the horses into the gates, paying them to hold on to their opponents’ horses for a millisecond.


Ramiro told Forty-Two about a deal he’d allegedly cut with the gate crew at Lone Star Park: $500 each, plus $4,000 for the head starter and an extra $1,000 for the one who made sure Tempting Dash got out clean. “Operativo Huesos,” as Forty-Two called it, was in motion.

“You will win, Gordo,” Forty-Two told Ramiro. “We’re going to win.”

The morning of the race, Ramiro flew to Dallas from Oklahoma City, where he’d just spent $113,000 on nine horses. He drove to the track in a rental Nissan. It was finally cool in Dallas, that brief window of fall that graces north Texas around Halloween. He called his parents, who were flying in from Monterrey for the race. Ramiro’s dad reminded him to bring a jacket.


That night, Ramiro found a table with his parents, and they fixed their eyes on Tempting Dash—a horse Ramiro technically owned, even if the industry suspected otherwise. The colt moved fluidly, which was lucky. He was the youngest horse in the field. He had also chipped a bone in his knee during one of the races in Mexico, so Ramiro had taken him to a Texas vet to get the knee cleaned up. He was running on a surgically repaired leg, and he’d run hard on it just a couple of weeks earlier, in the qualifier for this futurity.

All went quiet. The gates flung open. If Ramiro really had paid off the gate crew, they didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. Another well-bred horse, one of the favorites, burst into an early lead. Who knew whether Tempting Dash, a surgically repaired horse so skinny they called him—


El Huesos! About six seconds in, Tempting Dash sped past the lead horse and shaded toward the rail, away from the lights, which probably spooked the inexperienced colt. His blew through the finish line. Ramiro checked the scoreboard. It confirmed that Tempting Dash had not just won, but that he’d covered the 400 yards in just 19.379 seconds, a track record.

Ramiro pushed through the crowd and down to the winner’s circle. The circle teemed that night, with friends and family, and Tempting Dash’s other “connections.” But there was a newcomer, too, another young, slickly dressed Mexican man who stood out among the track’s cowboys. His name was Carlitos, and although Ramiro couldn’t know it, his presence signaled the beginning of the end of Ramiro’s time as Forty’s chief horseman.


Still, he celebrated. His Nextel rang out with calls of congratulations. One was from El Flaco, a Zetas boss in Monterrey. Ramiro could hear Forty in the background.

“His horse won, right?” El Flaco asked in Spanish. They rarely called Forty by his name on the phone, worried the Americans might be listening in. He was referred to only in vague terms like “the boss” or “that guy.”


“Yes, his horse won,” Ramiro said. “It’s a track record.”

“Again?” El Flaco asked him. “I didn’t get that last part.”

“Tell him it is a track record,” Ramiro repeated. “We have to celebrate!”

“My boss will respond later, sir,” El Flaco said. “When you—”

The phone went dead.

Carlos “Carlitos” Nayen Borbolla was 24, and he appeared coded for maximal coolness. He had hair the color of deep space, and while it was hardly short, swooping like a roller coaster, it always looked freshly cut. He seemed especially fond of gravity’s pull. He was always leaning, lounging, draping an arm, whatever he had to do to avoid supporting the entirety of his body weight, which was perfectly proportioned to his 5-foot-8 frame. He spoke with his hands, conducting each syllable with his invisible baton. When he listened—he preferred talking, but it happened—he often tucked his hands into his armpits and left his thumbs sticking out, pointing up toward his head, like, Eyes right here, people.


As a baby, Carlitos was abandoned by his parents, who felt they couldn’t properly care for him, and raised by his grandmother. But his father was a well-known restaurant owner in Veracruz, the city where they lived, and an avid horse racer, which meant Carlitos always knew where to find Dad if he needed to.

By the time Carlitos was a teenager, he was spending every weekend at one of the many unsanctioned racetracks that dotted the state of Veracruz, watching the quarter horses run. One day, Carlitos was strutting around the track when he came across a man lying in the grass. The man asked Carlitos about a quarter-horse ranch his family owned in rural Villarín. The sprawling property included a two-story house, horse stables, and, half a mile down the road, a quarter-horse bush track, perfect for match racing. But his dad had let them fall into disrepair, Carlitos explained.


The man seemed interested. He invited Carlitos to have breakfast the next morning. Carlitos agreed.

After his chance encounter with the businessman, Carlitos’s friends asked him: Do you know who that was?


“No,” Carlitos said.

“He’s the boss of Veracruz!” they told him.

That was true. His name was Efraín Teodoro Torres, Z-14. He was a former soldier in the Mexican Army, and he was among the most powerful Zetas, claiming control over the entire state of Veracruz as well as prime Texas borderland. The next morning, Carlitos and Fourteen had breakfast and drove to the abandoned ranch. Fourteen asked what kind of resources Carlitos would need to make the place suitable for the horses of a “plaza boss,” the title the cartels give to regional drug capos like Fourteen. Money, Carlitos said, and guys to run it. Fourteen sent both.


Carlitos graduated from high school soon after that, but he had no need for college. Fourteen found him work managing a stolen-credit-card ring, one of the Zeta boss’s side businesses. Carlitos did that during the week and spent the weekends at the races. He made sure Fourteen’s best horses made it to the track in shape, ready to run against the horses of whichever trafficker he was betting against that day.

It went on like that for a few years. With every race, Carlitos fit more comfortably into the inner circle of the Veracruz gangsters, even though he’d never moved a shipment or pulled a shift protecting a boss. But one evening in 2007, everything changed for Carlitos, and the balance of power in Los Zetas.


It was springtime. Carlitos was out at the races like always, this time at the ranch that Fourteen and Carlitos had refurbished in Villarín. It was six in the evening. The fading sunlight was filled with smoke from a grill. The races were over, but Carlitos was lingering near the track, clutching a bag Fourteen had asked him to hold. The bag was filled with grenades and a pistol. Fourteen was off collecting a bet somewhere nearby, flanked by a dozen bodyguards.

Carlitos saw a man they didn’t recognize walking straight down the middle of the track toward Fourteen. “You won’t outlive this one,” the man yelled. He started shooting.


Bullets flew. Carlitos hit the deck, then bailed. It didn’t take long for the news to trickle out: Fourteen, the plaza boss of Veracruz and Carlitos’s mentor and protector, was dead. Forty had ordered the hit.

A rift had developed within the Zetas. On one side were the original Zs, soldiers like Mamito and Fourteen who had defected from the military to serve as mercenaries for the powerful Gulf Cartel. They favored a more traditional business model and military practices. On the other side were Forty and Forty-Two, who wanted to split from the Gulf Cartel and preferred a more diverse portfolio of crimes, especially extortion and human smuggling.


Now Fourteen was dead, and Carlitos worked for Forty. Soon he was traveling to races all across northern Mexico, helping manage Forty’s horses when they ran against gangsters in Saltillo or Nuevo Laredo or Monclova. He also started attending races in the United States, including a second track-record-setting win for Tempting Dash in Dallas, where Carlitos mingled with Ramiro and another new player in the Zetas’ horse-racing business: Forty’s older brother José.

After Tempting Dash’s first big win in Dallas, Forty had ordered Ramiro, who technically owned Tempting Dash, to sell the horse his brother José. That way Tempting Dash’s career earnings—which would eventually reach about $675,000—could stay in the Treviño family, along with his future revenues as a breeder, which could be millions. It was a move Ramiro correctly suspected would draw unwanted attention from the FBI, DEA, and other federal agencies, and he groaned about it to friends. Around the same time, Forty started groaning about Ramiro—how he was disorganized, couldn’t keep up with his mounting bills, and was probably a snitch.


Forty called Carlitos and Ramiro to a meeting in Mexico, where he ordered Ramiro to turn over ownership records for many of his horses. Just like that, Carlitos was in. Ramiro was out. The only question was what Forty would do with him.

Even before he was pushed out, Ramiro had begun thinking that he should get out of the narco-horse-brokerage business. He had even taken some steps to end his career as Forty’s Horseman.


He knew it wouldn’t be easy; you don’t just put your two weeks in with Cuarenta. Recently, though, he’d met a man who could offer a lifeline out of the cartel’s grips. There are guys like this—call them fixers—sprinkled across the drug war’s various battlefields, on both sides of the border. Some are defense lawyers. Some are former agents, some Mexican and some American, who have retired to a life of so-called security consulting. Some are both, and some are neither. Some are former narcos themselves.

Whatever their official vocations, they all get paid to help guys like Ramiro grease up and slip free of the cartels’ clutches. One such fixer, a former Mexican intelligence officer and prosecutor now living in the States, was known to charge narcos millions of dollars for helping them find work as informants. He then turned around and charged the American government hundreds of thousands of dollars for the same introductions. The agents this fixer worked with classified him, and paid him, as a registered informant, and he did provide reams of information. But his real service was connecting the agents with narcos ready to talk.


Ramiro’s fixer was prolific. A former counternarcotics agent himself, the fixer knew investigators in every American agency working along the border, which was every American agency. Around the time Tempting Dash starting running in the States, the fixer introduced Ramiro to someone he thought he could trust: a Houston-based agent for Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, the investigative arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Ramiro and the agent met occasionally in Texas, with Ramiro telling the agent everything he knew that might help the feds locate Forty. Neither Ramiro nor his handling agent has ever acknowledged their relationship publicly, so it’s unknown exactly what, if anything, was promised. But the agent could probably help Ramiro secure immigration status in exchange for his cooperation, after which he could lie low until Forty was killed or captured. And though Ramiro wasn’t believed to be a paid informant, he likely was in line to be compensated handsomely if he helped take Forty down.


Now Forty was fading Ramiro out. But he was still in the horse business. So in the fall of 2010, as he was relinquishing his duties to Carlitos, Ruidoso flew to Oklahoma City for one of the industry’s biggest auctions. On his way, he had a layover in Houston. That’s where the DEA agents were waiting for him.

They held him for hours. The agents knew, if not then, then soon after, about Ramiro’s ongoing relationship with HSI. If he was already helping one agency, shouldn’t the DEA let him go?


Not quite. The DEA had been hearing about Ramiro from sources, and on phone calls they were monitoring between other Zeta operatives. And about 10 days before Tempting Dash won his first big race, a judge had given the DEA permission to tap Ramiro’s phone, as well as the phones of his father and friends, just in time to hear Ramiro gab about Operativo Huesos with Forty-Two. From the phone calls, it was obvious Ramiro could lead the DEA directly to Forty.

At the airport, the DEA agents threatened to prosecute Ramiro if he didn’t inform for them, too. They cut him loose, and he continued buying horses, now working for two agencies. As he flew from town to town, he sent short, cryptic emails in broken English to an email address set up by his DEA handler. “No talk more time with A and B and no see they,” he wrote in one, using code names for Forty and Forty-Two. “The A called a few minutes of this number,” he wrote in another, and gave up the phone number used by Forty.


Not long after, Ramiro was called to a meeting in Mexico, which was how, a month after Carlitos’s trophy-winning performance in Ruidoso, Ramiro ended up in a car, blindfolded, on his way to see Forty.

On the day of the meeting, Ramiro drove as instructed to a Walmart parking lot in Nuevo Laredo. He quickly realized he wasn’t the only one called to meet Forty. There were others, guys he didn’t recognize, waiting in the same parking lot, probably with the same hollow feeling in their stomachs.


An SUV arrived. Follow, the driver said, so Ramiro and the others followed, driving to a ranch not far from the border. Five more men showed up. They slipped black masks over their faces and picked up long-barreled assault rifles. Ramiro felt his heart thump.

“Where’s Papi?” Ramiro asked. He had never wanted to work for Forty. Now he called him Papi.


“Don’t worry,” someone said.

The men loaded him and the others into an SUV. They drove about five minutes away, to a new ranch, where twelve more SUVs were parked, waiting, seemingly positioned to leave in a hurry. Then they left in a hurry.


Now a pickup pulled up. Ramiro looked at the bed. It was filled with 55-gallon drums. The Zetas were known for disposing of their enemies’ bodies by tossing them into oil drums filled with acid. Forty was especially fond of the practice. Ramiro studied them.

I’ll be killed soon, he thought. I’ll be cooked soon.

Ten minutes passed, if time can really pass when you’re considering the mechanics of your own death. More likely, those minutes burrowed themselves deep inside everyone there, waiting. Waiting for Papi.


A caravan of fifteen more SUVs rolled up, brimming with men dressed in black fatigues. One pulled up close. That’s when Ramiro saw Forty, reclining in the passenger seat of one of the SUVs, nursing some kind of leg wound. He’d shot himself, Forty said. Then he started talking about horses.

After a while, Forty assigned one of his grunts to take Ramiro for a drive. The grunt pulled a blindfold over Ramiro’s eyes, and now they were driving through—Ramiro didn’t know exactly, but they were getting farther away from his car, from the bridge, from the States. Everything was black.


The blindfold came off. Ramiro’s eyes adjusted. They were at some kind of house. Forty showed up not long after and put racing on the TV. Forty was grumpy, Ramiro noticed, maybe because of the wound in his leg, but he answered Papi’s questions as best he could. They went to bed eventually and spent the next day talking horses, while Ramiro considered whether and when the drums might come into play. That night, as the sun slipped beyond the hills of Coahuila state, Forty and his men dropped Ramiro off on the side of the highway.

Ramiro managed to get back to his car and back across the border and back into Texas, where he went to see his handler at HSI. Still coming down from his visit with Papi, he waited outside the agent’s Houston office, chain-smoking and sweating through every strand of his designer shirt. He was, he knew, trapped in a maze with only dead ends. He could flee to Mexico and be killed; snitch in the States and be killed; or shut up in the States and go to prison, unless he was killed first.


The agent wanted to help, but his hands were bound in red tape. He’d been trying to get his bosses to pursue a money-laundering case, which might put an end to Ramiro’s work as an informant. But his bosses would never bite. They preferred to use Ramiro to help the Mexicans capture or kill Forty, not so another American grand jury could indict Forty, a meaningless gesture so long as he roamed free. Few had direct access the way Ramiro did. And it was only a matter of time before Ramiro got called back across the border again.

A few days after meeting with Forty, Ramiro wrote to his DEA handler, describing the ordeal. I’m going through a “living hell,” he wrote. If the government could help him escape it, they didn’t offer. The next day, the DEA agent emailed Ramiro asking what he knew about Forty.


A new year brought a new season of quarter-horse racing and quarter-horse breeding and quarter-horse bidding, and the tantalizing promise of more trips to the winner’s circle for Forty and his crew. By the spring of 2011, that promise had lured Forty, Carlitos, José, and their scores of well-bred horses even further into the sport’s spotlight. Tempting Dash, the colt picked out by Ramiro but now owned by Forty’s brother, had been retired to the stud farm, where he was racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in breeding fees—“clean money” that went straight to the Treviño family’s bottom line. Another horse picked out by Ramiro, a colt named Mr Piloto, had won the sport’s biggest race, the $2 million All American Futurity, and joined Tempting Dash in the stud barn. Meanwhile, Carlitos and Jose had taken to spending millions at the auction houses, flooding the sport with much-needed cash.


It would be another year before they all realized, but the group’s continued success had drawn the attention of an industrious group of agents and snitches who’d infiltrated the cartel’s money-laundering scheme. Those informants included Ramiro, technically. But he’d been basically out of the business, lying low, on his way, hopefully, to escaping the drug war’s clutches unscathed. Then, that March, Forty called Ramiro back to Mexico.

Friends urged him not to go. Ramiro saw no choice.

His family, including his parents, still lived in Monterrey, well within the Zetas’ reach.


He agreed.

He went alone this time, crossing the Colombia Bridge, just south of Laredo. Sometime after that, his car was found engulfed in flames at the bottom of a 30-foot embankment. There was no identification found in the wreckage, and the male body inside the car was so badly disfigured—by something heavy being slammed repeatedly into his face, and then by the car being sent over the cliff—that authorities had a tough time ID’ing him. But eventually they confirmed that it was Ramiro, the original Horseman.


Carlitos had been in Mexico that spring day, too. He eventually would be arrested for his role in the Zetas’ money-laundering scheme, and would quickly offer to snitch on everyone else involved. By early 2017, he would be out of prison, expected to receive a special visa in exchange for his service to the government. That day, though, he was still Forty’s loyal new horseman, so he just stood by and watched Ramiro die.

From the book BONES: Brothers, Horses, Cartels, and the Borderland Dream by Joe Tone. Copyright (c) 2017 by Joe Tone. Published this month by One World, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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