Money Launderer Had Business Partner Kidnapped Over Rights to Passion of the Christ Prequel, Pleads Guilty

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Maurico Sánchez Garza had a pretty diverse set of business interests. There was the commercial real estate development, with him owning some 37 acres off Babcock Road that he'd hoped to turn into an apartment complex. Mauricio, along with his brother Alejandro Sánchez Garza, also bought the old Maggie's restaurant on San Pedro, transforming it into the posh Barbaresco Tuscan Grill and Enoteca. When the place reopened in 2009, guests encountered a semi-nude woman laying on a table, her body strategically covered with food. Mauricio was flashy, a high-roller, a Dominion-dweller. 

He was also apparently into movies. Through a strange set of circumstances, Mauricio happened onto the rights for Myriam, Mother of Christ, a prequel to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, a script penned by the same screenwriter behind the unlikely box office megahit. 

Federal prosecutors say it was all possible because of drug money Mauricio laundered in and around the San Antonio area – possibly even as a financier for Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán's infamous Sinaloa Cartel. When the feds first went after Mauricio, he absconded to Mexico, where he remained on the lam for more than five years until this past summer, when authorities extradited him to San Antonio to face charges of conspiracy to launder money and extortion. Court records show that on Thursday, he pleaded guilty to both counts against him in federal court, facing up to 20 years in prison on each charge when he goes before a judge for sentencing early next year. 

The case of the Sánchez brothers is just one of many to hit the federal courts in in recent years as prosecutors in South Texas continue to build cases against businessmen and former public officials in Mexico who they say gobbled up millions in real estate to launder money obtained via drug sales, government fraud, corruption and extortion.

If you believe the feds, the Sánchez brothers were just continuing the family business. Federal officials have alleged that their father, a Guadalajara real estate magnate, once laundered money for Rafael Caro Quintero, a pioneer of the Mexican drug trade (the Express-News calls him "one of the godfathers of Mexico’s drug cartels"). In addition to funneling the drug lord's money through real estate in Mexico, the feds claims the Sánchez family even owned a house in Mexico where a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agent was tortured and killed by cartel hitmen in the mid 1980s.

When Mauricio Sánchez Garza's brother, Alejandro, pleaded guilty to a money laundering conspiracy charge in a San Antonio federal court three years ago, his lawyer insisted the family was probably just confused because money laundering is "a gray area of law." That same lawyer, David Dilley, represented Mauricio and told the Express-News on Thursday that his client pleaded guilty to hopefully avoid the risk of a long prison sentence. As for the extortion part, he told the daily, "I believe his participation in extortion was minimal but risky enough not to go to trial."

The Sánchez brothers reportedly got involved with the Passion of the Christ follow-up project in 2006. As this incredibly entertaining Esquire piece chronicles, the film's screenwriter had high hopes for the movie but desperately needed financing. He eventually stumbled onto a rich Mexican businessman with ties to the entertainment world, who ultimately found Sánchez and another man named Arturo Madrigal who agreed to finance the project. 

But by 2008, the project had become tied up in litigation with the screenwriter, and Mauricio Sánchez Garza decided he'd rather sell the script to a Hollywood producer for quicker payoff. Madrigal disagreed. So, according to federal prosecutors, Sánchez orchestrated to have Madrigal's brother kidnapped and held for ransom, threatening to kill him if Madrigal didn't sign over the movie rights – which he promptly did. 

Beverly Hills film producer Mary Aloe bought the script for $1 million just weeks after the kidnapping, according to Esquire. Eventually, she scrapped it as hopelessly tainted upon learning of its origins, telling the magazine, "You don't go out and purchase a religious script thinking that you're going to have Scarface show up."  


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