Under The Border, Down Mexico Way

On the surface, it was the American dream come alive. In just 15 years, Jose Reynoso and two of his brothers, Antonio and JesPound s, built up a hugely successful business importing food from Mexico. Their $37 million, Los Angeles County-based Reynoso Brothers Food Corp. and four other importing companies made the elder Jose, 63, the very embodiment of the immigrant success story: He lived in a 13,000-square-foot mansion, was a prominent figure in the Latino community, and was featured recently in a Los Angeles television show on immigrants. Too bad the story may now turn out to be a hoax.

Along with canned chilies, spices, and tomatoes from Mexico, the Reynoso brothers were importing tons of cocaine, according to a Sept. 28 federal indictment filed in San Diego. It alleges that the brothers were the linchpin in a cocaine-smuggling and money-laundering scheme orchestrated by Mexican drug lord Joaqun "Chappo" Guzmn.

The most damning charge: that an unfinished 1,416-foot-long, 65-foot-deep, air-conditioned tunnel under the U.S.-Mexican border was to be used as a cocaine pipeline running directly into a Reynoso canning facility within the U.S. near San Diego. There, investigators charge, trucks were to load cans of cocaine concealed as food products for distribution across the country. There was just one hitch: Prosecutors say the Reynosos relied on inaccurate San Diego County maps to construct the tunnel. So instead of leading to the warehouse, the tunnel dead-ended about 100 feet short of it.

"AIR OF LEGITIMACY." Jose Reynoso has pleaded not guilty. "There hasn't been one gram of cocaine found at his house or place of business," says his lawyer, James E. Blancarte. "They've taken a man with a long and well-established reputation and destroyed it." Meanwhile, his brothers are said to be holed up in Mexico. The tunnel was discovered in 1993 but never linked to the Reynosos until now. Though it never carried drugs, the feds allege that the Reynoso family and others were able to ship more than eight tons of cocaine from 1991 through 1993 via their food distribution network stretching from the San Diego border to Chicago, New York, and elsewhere. The indictment suggests that Guzmn, now serving a jail sentence in Mexico in connection with the 1993 murder of the Roman Catholic cardinal of Guadalajara, Juan JessPound s Posadas Ocampo, hired the Reynoso brothers in 1991 to "lend an air of legitimacy" to his organization's shipments of Colombian coke.

Key to the smugglers' success, say prosecutors, was Antonio Reynoso's ingenuity in concealment. In one case, wiretaps led authorities to cocaine-filled plastic tubs that were submerged in railroad container cars filled with soybean oil. A bust in Tecate, Mexico, in 1993 found more than seven tons of cocaine concealed in cans of La Comadre brand jalapeo chili peppers.

All that would have paled beside the operation that was allegedly being readied in the U.S. The indictment contains a detailed allegation of how Jose and JesPound s Reynoso spent $2.1 million to build a warehouse and cannery on a tract of land near the border. The crowning achievement was to have been the subterranean link to Mexico, dubbed by authorities the "narco tunnel."

The Reynoso indictments come as a blow to Los Angeles's 3.3 million Latinos. Not only does the company employ hundreds of immigrants, but the family is known for its support of Latino scholarships. "As far as we knew, this was a good, strong, family-owned business," says Steven Soto, president of the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Grocers Assn.

Well, not quite. The family already has had its share of trouble. In 1992, Jose Reynoso's son, Rene Cruz, was extradited to the U.S. after he fled south of the border to avoid murder charges. He was later convicted of slaying the owner of Los Angeles' Central Wholesale Market.

For now, the family business continues to operate. But if the U.S. Attorney's office proves its case, the Reynoso brothers' American dream is over, dead-ended in a 65-foot-deep tunnel to nowhere.

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