Four of Buffalo’s most popular Mexican restaurants found themselves with some unexpected visitors Tuesday – federal agents looking for undocumented workers and criminal suspects.
By the end of the day, 25 people were arrested and the restaurants’ owner, Sergio Ramses Mucino, was facing charges that he and two others harbored workers living in the country illegally.
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At the heart of the case is the allegation that Mucino, 42, used undocumented workers from Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala and elsewhere at his four restaurants – Don Tequila on Allen Street, Agave on Elmwood Avenue, El Agave in Cheektowaga and La Divina Mexican Store in Kenmore.
He is also accused of grossing about $50,000 a week at each of the restaurants but failing to report that as income for purposes of state and federal taxes.
As part of the raid, agents seized a 2016 Cadillac Escalade and a 2009 Porsche Boxster.
“This was a 2 1/2-year-long intensive investigation,” said Kevin D. Sibley, special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Buffalo.
Among those charged with helping Mucino are Jose Sanchez-Ocampo, 37, and Marguin Sanchez, 22. They face a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Mucino, who was arraigned in federal court and released on bail, did not comment, but his attorney was quick to assure his client’s customers that the restaurants would resume business despite the federal charges.
“The restaurants are open and the public is welcome,” Joel Daniels, one of Buffalo’s most prominent defense lawyers, told reporters Tuesday.
In recent years, Mucino’s restaurants have emerged as popular venues for people looking for authentic Mexican food and, in the eyes of many, filled a void among Buffalo’s ethnic food venues.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian J. Counihan said Mucino, with the assistance of Sanchez-Ocampo and Sanchez, operated the four restaurants and made all decisions regarding hiring.
Counihan also claims the majority of the workforce at the restaurants were undocumented employees who were paid in cash. The criminal complaint also claims Mucino’s employees worked six days a week, 14 hours a day and were paid $500 to $800 a week.
“We have reason to believe 38 people were working at the restaurants,” he said.
Prosecutors say ongoing surveillance also found dozens of Hispanic individuals who worked at the restaurants were living in nine apartments and two houses rented and paid for by Mucino and Sanchez-Ocampo or purchased by Marguin Sanchez.
Investigators said there was no evidence any of the defendants forced the employees to work long hours for low pay so charges of human trafficking were never considered.
“We don’t see any evidence of force, fraud or coercion,” said Sibley.
Counihan said the investigation took a turning point in August when Orchard Park Police encountered 13 people, including Sanchez and Sanchez-Ocampo, at a school playground and discovered many of them could only produce Mexican identification.
Ultimately, 10 of the 13 were taken into custody.
Two months later, one of Buffalo’s most popular restaurant owners is also facing federal charges.
In the complaint against Mucino, investigators point to a former employee turned manager who cooperated with the investigation. They claim the manager was fired last year after voicing concern about the large number of undocumented employees and the restaurant’s failure to properly report its income.
In addition to Mucino, prosecutors also filed criminal charges against Juan Carlos Bernal-Lujano, 51, Miguel Sanchez-Ocampo, 30, Abel Cruz-Martinez, 46, Aida Ramirez-Arellano, 23, Alejandro Valadez-Leon, 47, and Aracelli Lopez-Martinez, 33.
The other people arrested Tuesday will face administrative, not criminal charges, and possible deportation.
Mucino appeared Tuesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder and was ordered released on bail.