A Twin Cities area restaurateur used his three suburban Mexican cantinas as fronts for a vast, six-year drug operation that trafficked marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine, according to a federal grand jury indictment unsealed this week.
Aldo Escoto, the former owner of El Parian restaurants in Eagan, Long Lake and Lakeville, also staffed his restaurants with undocumented immigrant workers willing to work long hours for multiple days at a time at locations that concealed drugs and illegal proceeds, according to court documents.
Escoto, 38, of Eagan, is still at large.
He is named in a three-person indictment unsealed Monday with 46 counts that include conspiracy to distribute marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine, conspiracy to harbor and employ undocumented immigrants, and money laundering.
According to the indictment, Escoto oversaw the drug trafficking organization, the conspiracy to harbor and employ workers, and efforts to launder illegal drug proceeds. Court filings detail how Escoto used the restaurants to launder illicit proceeds and even occasionally conduct drug deals.
Escoto and an El Parian manager and unnamed co-conspirator hired many of the workers — 20 of whom were named in the indictment — and often paid them in cash and housed them in one of six properties near the restaurants, according to the indictment. Most of the workers named were from Mexico or Central America.
The El Parian restaurants Escoto opened between 2007 and 2014 are still in business. An employee at the Eagan location said Tuesday that a relative of Escoto’s took over the business earlier this month, and that the franchise plans to open a fourth location in the south metro.
The restaurants were among the many items Escoto purchased with drug money, according to the indictment. He also used the money to acquire real estate and vehicles used to transport the undocumented workers. Escoto and two others pooled $250,000 in drug proceeds to invest into the second El Parian location, according to a sworn declaration by a Homeland Security Investigations agent in a related federal forfeiture case.
HSI Agent Heidi Whereatt said federal authorities began tracking Escoto’s network in 2012 after a tip from a confidential informant. Agents conducted “hundreds of hours” of surveillance in addition to using multiple informants and cooperating co-defendants not named in the indictment, Whereatt said.
In 2013, investigators seized hundreds of pounds of marijuana and found baseball hats marked “Police” and “U.S. Border Patrol” inside a stash house, she said.
Some of the undocumented workers housed by Escoto also allegedly helped work on a marijuana growing operation in Hinckley, one informant told investigators. Escoto ordered the defendant to drive from Eagan to the marijuana farm, carrying the workers, fertilizer, propane and pickaxes, the defendant said.
Other defendants who have cooperated with authorities also described driving up to 2,470 pounds of marijuana across the country for Escoto between 2012 and 2014 and facilitating cocaine deals that included dropping drugs off in El Parian trash cans or handing them off to a cashier, according to Whereatt.
The indictment also names Rosendo Garcia-Garcia as a drug supplier for Escoto and other co-conspirators in Minnesota and elsewhere.
A third defendant, Edgar Jose Ramirez-Mendoza, distributed drugs and invested drug money with Escoto to open the El Parian II location in Long Lake, according to court documents.
Both are charged alongside Escoto with conspiracy to distribute marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine. Garcia-Garcia is free on $25,000 bail and Ramirez-Mendoza is being transferred to Minnesota from an out-of-state correctional facility, according to a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis.
Details of the investigation into Escoto’s enterprise first surfaced in a related March forfeiture case in which the government sought to seize four properties — three in Minnesota and one in Georgia — and a 2015 Nissan Altima that investigators observed being used to ship marijuana from California.
In June, U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson stayed proceedings in the forfeiture case until the related criminal investigation could be resolved.
An attorney who represented Escoto in the civil case did not immediately respond to a request for comment.