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El Charro restaurants cited in US undocumented workers case

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Search warrants executed yesterday at 10 Mexican restaurants in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma resulted in 14 arrests in connection with a federal racketeering conspiracy to hire undocumented workers.

In all, 19 defendants are charged in the 64-count case, including the restaurant group’ owner, president, CFO, controller and sales manager, according to a news release from the office of Teresa Moore, acting U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri.

Jose Luis Bravo, 51, a naturalized U.S. citizen, of Claremore, Oklahoma, is identified in the indictment as the leader of the enterprise through his Joplin-based company, Specialty Food Distribution. In the Springfield market, he owns El Charro restaurants among others under Bravos Group LLC, the release said.

The indictment, a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations case initially handed down by a federal grand jury in Kansas City, on Aug. 10, was unsealed and made public Aug. 25 upon the arrests and initial court appearances of the defendants.

According to the release, Jaime Ramirez-Ceja, 42, a citizen of Mexico residing in Lebanon and manager of the El Charro restaurants in Springfield and Lebanon, is among eight current or former managers also charged for their roles at restaurants in Butler, Springfield, Lebanon, West Plains, Willow Springs and St. Robert in Missouri, and in Overland Park, Great Bend and Augustus in Kansas.

The indictment alleges that from July 2003 to Aug. 10, 2021, 17 of the 19 co-defendants were part of an organized criminal enterprise that smuggled Mexican, Guatemalan and El Salvadoran nationals who were not authorized to live or work in the United States. U.S. Homeland Security Investigations agents allege the conspirators harbored them in Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, to work at restaurants operating as LLCs in states throughout the Midwest. According to the indictment, conspirators did not pay the appropriate state and federal payroll taxes, overtime wages and worker's compensation for the employees.

Also, the indictment alleges the racketeering activity included fraud in connection with identification documents, fraud and misuse of visas and other documents, and money laundering. Investigators allege 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 I-9 forms and required wage and hour reports, and assisting them with the acquisition of false IDs, including Social Security numbers.

In all, the indictment identifies 31 limited liability companies operating 45 Mexican restaurants in multiple states and at least an additional 11 companies involved in restaurant supply and logistics, real estate and construction. The restaurants received goods and services from Specialty Food Distribution and another company, Intel Solutions LLC, which federal inspectors say was formed “as a way to conceal and minimize the level of involvement in the inspected restaurants by members and associates of the criminal enterprise,” the release said.

Other area restaurants named in the indictment that allegedly employed undocumented workers are La Paloma in Springfield, Iguana Azul and Los Sauces in Nevada, and El Charro in Marshfield, Neosho, West Plains and Joplin – each identified during HSI inspections in 2019.

This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Rudolph R. Rhodes IV. It was investigated by HSI and IRS-Criminal Investigations, according to the release.

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