Tuesday, July 23, 2024

“Pesos” is An Eye-opening Look at Corruption on Both Sides of the Border with a Coronado Connection

Think “War of the Worlds” meets “The Sopranos” and voila! you have “Pesos: The Rise and Fall of a Border Family.” Gritty and real, the truth can sometimes be more gripping than fiction, as is illustrated in this harrowing tale detailing a family’s multigenerational journey, as they benefited from wealth and corruption across the Mexican border. Pietro La Greca Jr. wrote this compelling book about his family history, along with best-selling collaborator Rebecca Paley, who he felt captured his voice.

Writing it was a two-year process, through the pandemic, which was a cathartic time for him. “It was tough to write, and tore me up emotionally as I cried remembering the loss of my beloved mother.” Since he had always told his story through his own eyes, Paley encouraged him to get into his uncle, dad, and grandpa’s minds, as he was telling their parts of the story.

I had the opportunity to sit down with the engaging La Greca Jr. and when I asked, “Why write the story now?” he replied that he’d always been telling people about his upbringing and everyone encouraged him to share the whole tale.

But two things had to happen before he could write his family’s story. The first was the death of his dad, after which he could breathe easier, and the second was obtaining permission from the cartel to tell the story. When asked, their response was, “Pietro Sr. was one of the most honorable criminals we ever worked with.”

Born in Italy, Pietro La Greca Sr. always found ways to make money – from importing chic clothing to money laundering and other illicit pursuits – in order to support his family’s lavish lifestyle of extravagant cars, houses, and vacations. La Greca Sr. felt at home in Mexico and married Maria Gutierrez Moreno, from a well-known Tijuana family. But he was never embraced by his father-in-law, who ran the largest custom brokerage shop, Agencia Gutierrez, on the border.

Customs brokerage Agencia Gutierrez when Pietro’s grandfather, Fernando Gutierrez Moreno, built the building in the early ’60s. The original custom house brokerage began with Pietor’s great grandfather in the late ’30s and early ’40s. In this picture the U.S. Customs building next door was still under construction; it received historical certification in the last several years. Photo courtesy of Pietro La Greca Jr.
Recent photo of the building at the Tijuana-San Ysidro border. Photo courtesy of Pietro La Greca Jr.

Pietro Jr., nicknamed Picho, felt as much at home at his grandparent’s ranch, Rancho San Fernando, in Rosarito, where he spent weekends growing up, as he did in his family homes in the U.S. – in Bonita, and then in the Coronado Cays in the 1980s and ’90s, first at 58 Admiralty Cross, and then at 3 The Point. He remembers the lavish parties they hosted, in particular one for Robert Mondavi’s 80th birthday and another for a former Mexican president. The family enjoyed entertaining, and spending time on their boat and jet skis.  Another memory is grabbing sandwiches with friends at Smittie’s Deli across from The Del back in the day.

Parties at the La Greca family home in the Coronado Cays were legendary. Photo courtesy of Pietro La Greca Jr.

La Greca Sr. found a way to handsomely profit, both legally and illegally, from the deflation of the peso. With truckloads of money coming to the border to be exchanged by wealthy Mexicans, and some syphoned off to Las Vegas casinos, the intrigue of the story only escalates when the FBI discovers his schemes. Pietro Jr. didn’t fully understand where the family got their money, but his eyes were opened at age 14 when his world was upended and they were forced on the run across the U.S. after his grandfather’s arrest. The whole truth was learned later when he had to escape to Argentina after his Uncle Fernando was killed by the cartel on the Silver Strand Highway.

As an adult, Pietro Jr. distanced himself from his overbearing and corrupt father, and then used some of his father’s tricks to keep his inheritance from being sold out from under him. After a rocky start at SDSU, he got his undergraduate and graduate degrees from USD. He is currently involved in commercial real estate in Mexico and financial planning software consulting.

Pictured top left to right ~ Pietro La Greca Jr., Maria Irma La Greca, Irma Barron Gutierrez and Fernando Gutierrez Moreno. Both the pictures were in 1991 at his Uncle Fernando’s wedding. Photo courtesy of Pietro La Greca Jr.

Close with his mother, he credits her for masterfully holding everything together and keeping up appearances. She was adamant that he attend Francis Parker School, which he says helped ground him. He fondly remembers time spent with his grandfather, who always encouraged him and taught him to be humble and to work hard. This was in sharp contrast to his father who said he would fail in everything he did.

Growing up with such a lavish lifestyle, he says that although he has maintained his father’s sense of fashion, he now likes to find a deal and feels most comfortable in jeans and sneakers. He and his wife Michelle currently live in La Jolla with their nine-year old daughter. And even though he is a foodie, he is adamant that “homemade tortillas, with butter or mayonnaise and salt, evoke the feeling of home and are better than the fanciest meal.”

This book gives an inside glimpse into an era of corruption on the border that many may know little about. La Greca Jr. has had the opportunity to speak at several Coronado book clubs. In talking with Laura from the “overbooked book club” here in Coronado, she shared that her group felt “Pesos” was “an easy-to-read, well-paced caper of family loyalties, wealth and illicit cross border schemes that gave wild gains and losses, and ultimately the greatest loss, that of family.” She also commented that the audio book was well-narrated.

Here at 21, Pietro Jr. played polo both nationally and internationally. He adored his grandfather, seen in the photo. Photo courtesy of Pietro La Greca Jr.

“Pesos” is the result of sharing his stories with friends for many years, most of whom encouraged him to write a book or a movie script, which he tried to do first – three times. His family’s intriguing story will be told in an upcoming eight-part podcast on Audible in October, with talks now in the works for a television series. In getting to know Pietro Jr., the stories are endless, and he can even claim to have played in a practice polo match with King Charles of England. You’ll discover even more in this eye-opening book.

Jennifer Velez
Jennifer Velez
Jennifer fell in love with Coronado as a teenager while visiting a college friend. She vowed that someday she would make it her home, and that dream has recently become a reality. Fast forward through completing college with a BA in Journalism, Public Relations and Communications, she then went on to work with a variety of clients. She also taught Journalism and coordinated fundraising for her children’s school, and was a staff writer for San Diego Family Magazine and contributed to other parenting publications. Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to: [email protected]

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