Sergio Mucino was working at restaurants in the Pittsburgh area a few years ago when he heard about a Mexican restaurant in the suburbs of Buffalo that had gone bankrupt.
The Mexico City native bought it and opened Don Tequila on North Buffalo Road in Orchard Park. Don Tequila burned down in 2012, but that was no deterrent for Mucino. He opened four restaurants – three sit-down places known for their margaritas and scorching plates of Mexican comfort food and a counter service taqueria in Kenmore beloved by Buffalo foodies.
He was planning to open two more restaurants when immigration authorities, last week, raided his four businesses.
Mucino, 42, was arrested as were 24 others.
Federal prosecutors have charged Mucino with harboring illegal immigrants and failing to pay taxes. His restaurants were pulling in $50,000 a week each, "none of which is reported for state or federal taxes," the complaint alleged, adding that about $15,000 was stored in safes at the different restaurants, with the balance of cash stored at Mucino's residence on Main Street in downtown Buffalo.
When he appeared in court Tuesday, Mucino had beside him one of Buffalo's most powerful defense attorneys, Joel Daniels.
He was out on $85,000 bail later that day and on Friday, the taqueria, La Divina Mexican Store on Delaware Avenue, was back open for business.
Standing off to the side, watching the lunch crowd of more than 40 customers, Mucino counted his blessings. The cashier at the humble Delaware Avenue storefront rung up orders nonstop, six line chefs worked at rapid pace to fill the orders and cheerful Mexican music filled the brightly lit establishment.
"It feels great to be open. I'm so thankful," said Mucino.
At the front of the store greeting customers and fielding phone calls from other customers calling ahead with orders was Yeslin Greason, Mucino's wife and the mother of their toddler twin girls.
"Just seeing the support of so many Buffalonians makes us happy to be open again. We have to be open. No way can we close," Greason said.
And while positive vibes abounded Friday at La Divina, with customers commenting on how happy they were to be back at one their favorite places, there was an unmistakable current of uncertainty.
"I've heard really good things about this place and I wanted to try it in case it gets shut down again," said Bethany Conway, a former Kenmore resident visiting from Washington, D.C.
Allegations against Mucino
The criminal complaint, based on an investigation of 2 1/2 years with assistance from confidential informants, alleges a complex effort to defraud the government and make use of illegal immigrants.
Each of Mucino and manager Jose Sanchez-Ocampo's restaurants grossed about $50,000 a week, "none of which is reported for state or federal taxes," it alleged.
"...the majority of Mucino's workforce is comprised of undocumented aliens with the exception of approximately one or two legal employees per location. SOI2 [an informant] stated the undocumented employees are paid weekly in cash and the legal employees receive payroll checks," it said.
The workers receive $500 to $800 in cash.
The informant, a former employee, claims to have been fired after voicing concerns "about the amount of undocumented employees and the failure to declare the proper income," according to the complaint.
Homeland Security Special Agent Patricia Calleri estimated 38 employees had been residing "within nine apartments and two houses," all of them located in close proximity to the restaurants.
"More specifically the nine apartments are being rented and paid for by Sergio Mucino, Jose Sanchez-Ocampo and other individuals connected to the criminal organization," Calleri stated.
In September 2015, Mucino and Sanchez-Ocampo approached a real estate agent seeking accommodations for their employees, explaining that the workers “enter the United States on work visas, stay for one year, and then return to Mexico,” Calleri stated.
The business partners paid cash for two houses: $155,000 for the residence at 149 North End, Kenmore, and $68,000 for the other at 4024 Union Road, Cheektowaga. But neither partner is listed as the buyers. Instead, Marguin Sanchez, the nephew of Sanchez-Ocampo, was listed as the purchaser.
The nephew, an American citizen, faces the same allegations as his uncle and Mucino, violating U.S. laws that make it a crime to harbor, conceal, and hire “unauthorized aliens” for the purpose of “commercial advantage or private financial gain.” If convicted, they could each face a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Appetite for business
A trim 170 pounds at 5-foot, 10 inches, Mucino says he works seven days a week and hopes to open yet another restaurant in a former school just across the street from La Divina.
"I work seven days a week, about 60 hours," he said.
Mucino says he came up with the name La Divina from a restaurant in Acapulco, Mexico.
"I knew that restaurant and liked the name. It means divine,” said Mucino, who comes from successful roots in Mexico City.
Mucino is a legal permanent resident of the U.S. “My father is an attorney and my mother is a schoolteacher.” He graduated from Fairmont State College in West Virginia with a degree in business and began working in restaurants in the Pittsburgh area, where his younger brother lives when he heard about the Orchard Park business for sale.
He now has four restaurants -- a new Don Tequila in Allentown, Agave on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, El Agave on Union Road in Cheektowaga and La Divina in Kenmore. Plans are in the works for a second restaurant in Kenmore and an upscale tequila and street food restaurant on Genesee Street in downtown Buffalo.
His wife is a restaurateur, too. She is the owner of Pasion, an Allentown eatery that specializes in Latin dishes. Her business, she said, is unaffected by the federal investigation.
Mucino says he cannot discuss the criminal case against him, though he hopes it will be resolved in a manner that allows him to continue to succeed in America.
"I hope things are cleared up," he said. "I have to see what happens."
Mucino verified an incident listed in the criminal complaint against him: At about 1:30 a.m. Aug. 8, 13 of his workers from the El Agave in Cheektowaga went to an Orchard Park school playground after completing their work shifts for some apparent relaxation.
When Orchard Park police responded to a call to investigate, they found the group playing basketball on the grounds of South Davis Elementary School.
"Many individuals could only provide Mexican ID cards, which caused Orchard Park Police to contact United States Border Patrol. Border Patrol ultimately responded and took 10 of the 13 present for further processing," the complaint stated, adding that the 10 ended up charged with illegal entry into the country.
Recalling the incident, Orchard Park Police Chief Mark F. Pacholec said, "It's not a normal call we get, a bunch of people shooting hoops at a playground at 1:30 a.m. We don’t know why they were there. "
Strong community support
Greason, whose parents are attorneys, said she was amazed to see customers lining up outside La Divina in the rain before it reopened at 11 a.m. Friday. By about 1 p.m., she said an estimated 100 customers had passed through the doors.
“More than anything, we appreciate the community’s support. That’s why we stayed in Buffalo to raise our family,” she said.
The support has also included two protests against the government, one in front of Don Tequila’s at 73 Allen St. on Thursday morning and another Thursday afternoon in front of the U.S. Immigration Court on Delaware Avenue in downtown. Protesters say the government is separating immigrant families and denying them the chance to work.
A sign taped to the front window of Agave at 765 Elmwood Ave. states in big red letters: "Keep Our Amigos, Send them home? THIS IS HOME!!" Dozens of smaller messages of support were scrawled around those words.
George Dolce, a regular La Divina customer who returned Friday, described the investigation as being about politics – in his opinion.
“Big and small employers tell workers not to report to the government because they will get sent back home,” said Dolce, who runs a Buffalo catering business.
He said he noticed “some new faces” working behind the food preparation counter and wondered if the tacos would be as good as before the raids.
After devouring his order, he went over to Greason and offered a critique: “I’d say you're 95 percent. By next week, you’ll be 100 percent.”
The criminal charges against Mucino and the others – illegal immigration from Mexico and who is and who isn't paying their fare share of taxes – have dominated the upcoming presidential election. Republican nominee Donald Trump has said he'll "build a wall" between the U.S. and Mexico and deport millions of illegal immigrants. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton promises a different approach that could result in a path to American citizenship.
Mucino said he didn't want to dive into that debate.
But his lawyer offered this: “He came here legally and worked hard, 24-7, and built up a successful business,” Daniels said. “He’s the kind of immigrant this country needs. He’s providing opportunities for people to work.”