A businessman working in Wyoming, Colorado and California, whose company is at the heart of a federal drug conspiracy investigation, allegedly had contact with the recently convicted drug lord known as "El Chapo," according to a federal civil forfeiture complaint filed Friday.

The businessman, Jose Aguilar-Martinez, owns El Potosino wholesale food distribution company in Colorado Springs -- a "front company" -- that allegedly supplied independent Mexican restaurants in Cheyenne and Laramie, and Colorado, which in turn allegedly laundered money obtained in drug sales, according to the complaint against 17 bank accounts filed in U.S. District Court.

"The scheme involved false or inflated sales by El Potosino to small, cooperating Mexican restaurants commingled with legitimate sales to the same restaurants," U.S. Attorney Mark Klaassen wrote in opposition to the defendants' request to dismiss the case. "The intended effect of the commingling was to disguise illicit drug proceeds as revenue from legitimate sales of food."

Joy Greenwald, Townsquare Media
Mark Klaassen.       Joy Greenwald, Townsquare Media

The three restaurants named in the complaint are Rodolfo's Mexican Grille and Rolando's Mexican Grille in Cheyenne, and Almanza's Mexican Food in Laramie.

The case started in 2016 when federal agents identified cash-down purchases of $10,000 or more on vehicles in Cheyenne.

Federal agents also received reports from financial institutions reporting currency transactions of $10,000 or more, or suspected larger amounts of cash subdivided into less than $10,000 deposits to try to thwart the reporting of those transactions.

The agent who wrote the report said drug trafficking is a cash-based trade, and transactions are often done with bulk cash in round numbers. Many of the transactions they observed were in round numbers.

The purchases of the vehicles and the financial institutions' reports led to looking at the buyers' restaurant businesses and their alleged food purchases from El Potosino, according to the complaint. Sometimes the restaurants would accept invoices for food they did not order or receive.

Those restaurants had bank accounts with reported transfers to El Potosino's bank account, according to the complaint.

In November, the U.S. Attorney's Office requested the forfeiture of about $1.5 million in cash from 17 bank accounts and safe deposit boxes, which are the defendants in the case. The cash was seized last summer in amounts ranging from $5,381.52 in a bank account to $428,896 in cash in grocery bags in a safe deposit box. In the latter seizure, a dog alerted to the odor of narcotics on the cash.

As part of the investigation, federal agents also received authorization to tap the phones of Aguilar and restaurant owners.

Agents determined Aguilar was in contact with a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation linked to a Sinaloa Cartel leader and that of Joaquin Guzman-Lorea -- known as El Chapo -- who was convicted of drug-trafficking and conspiracy charges earlier this month.

Likewise, phone numbers of restaurant owners were linked to multiple active DEA investigations.

For example, a phone number subscribed to Rodolfo's Mexican Grill in Cheyenne reflected contacts with telephone numbers identified in DEA investigations in Casper, Cheyenne and Colorado Springs.

In federal civil forfeiture cases, people have recourse to get back their money. Also, the federal government needs to prove civil forfeiture cases with a preponderance of evidence, unlike a criminal case in which guilt must be determined beyond a reasonable doubt.

Those who filed the claims to get their money back asserted they were not laundering money, and the money was from legitimate business activities.

For example, the owner of Rodolfo's Mexican Grill, Hilario Montejano-Aleman, responded to the allegations saying the federal government makes unwarranted assumptions and conclusions about drug trafficking, and they don't apply to him or his bank account.

"Even though the complaint is based on these drug offenses, the complaint does not provide the date, the quantity or location of any drug transactions involving the defendant property," according to Montejano's attorney Dion Custis of Laramie. "Nor does the complaint state how the monetary deposits are proceeds of specified unlawful activity of any variety or are traceable to unlawful sales of controlled substances."

The "complaint" mentioned in Montejano's response on Jan. 22 refers to the original filing by the U.S. Attorney on Nov. 13.

The government sealed the Nov. 13 complaint, and the only public information about the allegations in this civil case was revealed in responses by defendants such as Montejano.

But the details of the alleged conspiracy were revealed Friday with the new 50-page amended complaint with an easier understanding of the facts supporting the forfeiture of assets, more factual allegations of illegal conduct in the 17 bank accounts, and sanitized of confidential information so the case can be made public, Klaassen wrote.

Even so, "This case is still in its infancy," he wrote.

More From K2 Radio