By: Bruce E. Buchanan
Sebelist Buchanan Law

The owner of many Mexican restaurants in several states, including Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma, along with the company’s president, CFO, controller, and sales manager are among 19 defendants charged in a 64-count indictment involving federal racketeering (RICO) conspiracy to hire undocumented workers.

The federal indictment alleges 17 of the 19 co-defendants were part of an organized criminal enterprise from July 2003 to August 10, 2021, that smuggled Mexican, Guatemalan, and El Salvadoran nationals who were not authorized to live or work in the United States. Conspirators allegedly harbored them in Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Four of the co-defendants created a network of restaurants operating as LLCs in states throughout the Midwest. Jose Luis Bravo, the owner, and his co-conspirators allegedly supplied these restaurants with undocumented workers to staff positions at the restaurants. According to the indictment, conspirators did not pay the appropriate state and federal payroll taxes, overtime wages, and worker's compensation for the unauthorized employees.

In addition to smuggling and harboring undocumented workers, the indictment alleges the racketeering activity included fraud (in connection with identification documents), fraud and misuse of visas and other documents, and money laundering. Members and associates of the criminal enterprise shielded unauthorized employees from detection by immigration authorities by eliminating records of their employment, paying them by personal check and in cash, failing to maintain complete and accurate Forms I-9 and required wage and hour reports for these employees, assisting them with the acquisition of false identification documents (such as Social Security numbers and alien resident documents), and making false statements to immigration authorities and law enforcement officials.

According to the indictment, 31 limited liability companies (LLCs) operated 45 Mexican restaurants in multiple states and at least an additional 11 companies were involved in restaurant supply and logistics, real estate, and construction. These 45 restaurants received goods and services from Specialty Food Distribution and another company, Intel Solutions, LLC. After federal inspections occurred at restaurants affiliated with conspirators, the indictment says, they formed Intel Solutions to assume those administrative duties, in name only, as a way to conceal and minimize the level of involvement in the inspected restaurants by members and associates of the criminal enterprise. Intel Solutions later changed its name to Entel Solutions, LLC.

According to the indictment, Bravo supplied unauthorized alien workers to managers at restaurants in which he had a financial interest. Bravo arranged to have undocumented workers smuggled into the United States to work at these restaurants and other businesses, the indictment says. Bravo allegedly assisted these aliens with obtaining fraudulent documents that would allow them to work in the United States. He allegedly helped secure transportation and lodging for them en route to restaurants where they were to work.

Jose Razo, as the president of Specialty Food Distribution, allegedly employed unauthorized workers at Specialty Foods Distribution as salesmen and warehouse workers and directed other employees to limit these workers’ exposure to potential immigration inspections. Jose Razo also allegedly counseled restaurant managers on how to manage, document, and compensate unauthorized workers in ways that would minimize their detection by immigration officials.

According to the federal indictment, the investigation began when the Kansas Department of Labor contacted Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) regarding allegations that unauthorized aliens were employed at the Bravos Mexican Grill in Overland Park, Kansas. When HSI announced a Form I-9 inspection on July 16, 2018, agents discovered that 14 of the 17 Bravos employees whose I-9 forms had been inspected were ineligible to work. During another inspection of Bravos on February 28, 2019, agents identified eight unauthorized aliens working there. Five of those employees had been identified previously as ineligible to work.

On June 7, 2019, HSI inspected 10 restaurants in Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Those restaurants operated under LLCs, doing business as El Charro (Claremore, Oklahoma, Butler and Springfield, Missouri), Playa Azul (Great Bend, Pratt, and Wichita, Kansas), Iguana Azul and Los Sauces (Nevada, Missouri), and La Paloma (Springfield, Missouri). All of them were found to have employed unauthorized workers. Approximately 68 percent of the employees audited at the restaurants were not authorized to work in the United States.

On September 13, 2019, HSI agents inspected restaurants in Missouri and Kansas that were affiliated with the defendants. Those restaurants operated under LLCs doing business as Cantina Bravo (St. Robert), Cantina Bravo Grille (Webb City, Missouri), El Charro (Neosho, Marshfield, and Joplin, Missouri, West Plains and Pittsburg, Kansas), Maria's Mexican Grill (Great Bend), and Playa Azul (Augusta). All of the restaurants were found to have employed unauthorized employees.

If this indictment scares you concerning your company’s I-9 compliance, I recommend you read The I-9 and E-Verify Handbook, a book I co-authored with Greg Siskind, and available at