How an Austin restaurant hid an alleged drug ring

We’re in tough economic times. Consumer confidence is down and food costs are up. Everybody is looking to squeeze more money out of their operation. Most look to catering or adding a daypart. According to the FBI, Amado “Mayo” Pardo, a restaurant owner in Austin, Texas, ran a heroin ring.

Pardo, 64, was a twice-convicted murderer when he opened Jovita’s with his family in 1992, but that didn’t inhibit his success. He served enchiladas, tacos and other Mexican staples, enclosed a back patio for live music performances and hosted a steady stream of political fundraisers.

Jovita’s grew into one of the most happening combination restaurant/music venues in a town known for its live music, and Pardo was its face; he was once named the honorary “Mayor of South Austin” by the weekly Austin Chronicle.

Authorities have said they suspect he began dealing drugs decades ago. But it was only last year that, with the help of yet-unnamed informants, they began zeroing in on his operation. Soon they were staking out the restaurant at all hours and tapping Pardo’s phone.

What the FBI and Austin police say they learned—and are expected to take to trial in February in a federal case against Pardo and 14 others—is that Pardo tapped Jovita’s location, employees and other assets to peddle an estimated $6,000 in heroin daily.

According to interviews, court documents and testimony, here’s how he did it:

Cross-utilize space
Jovita’s, which has been closed since authorities raided it in June, sits prominently on South First Street, a main thoroughfare just south of downtown in the Lone Star state’s capital city.

One of its advantages is ample parking, and Pardo has a reputation among neighbors for aggressively yelling at any patrons of neighboring businesses who attempted to park in his lot. That could be because the lot, which is behind the restaurant and bordered by a creek, was used regularly by Pardo’s heroin distributors, according to the feds. One alleged distributor, Michael Martinez, was seen daily by law enforcement on stakeouts parking his car in the Jovita’s lot and walking across an elaborate series of limestone retaining walls, terraces, staircases and a small bridge separating the restaurant property from Pardo’s home.

Martinez, 66, picked up heroin and took it to a different part of town to sell, FBI special Agent Stephen Hause testified.

Given the traffic at Jovita’s, Pardo’s thinking was that using the restaurant lot for his dealers “wouldn’t draw suspicion,” Hause said.

Train staff for other roles
In addition to waiting tables and washing dishes, Pardo tapped his restaurant workers to do double duty in his criminal enterprise.

His wife, Amanda Pardo, 45, was in charge of the restaurant’s events and catering. She also allegedly oversaw “cutting” the heroin, or combining it with a dietary supplement, and packaging the mix in balloons to prepare it for street sales, Hause said.

Tatiana Huang, a 25-year-old Jovita’s employee, regularly cleaned the restaurant. She also allegedly worked with Amanda Pardo cutting and packaging the heroin.

Pardo’s nephew, Christopher Mier, 32, worked as general manager of Jovita’s and, according to the feds, also sold heroin. Mier was pulled over for speeding in May, a stop that led police to 132 grams of heroin in his car, an arrest affidavit said.

Pardo himself took pains to avoid costly mistakes. He never said “drugs” or “heroin” on the phone, often using code, like referring to the drugs as “girls,’ Hause testified. When he spoke of guns, he used the code-word “TVs.” His lawyer suggested that the talk was legitimate and surrounded Pardo’s plans to convert Jovita’s into a sports bar.

Give back to the community
Like many business owners, Pardo was not satisfied with only making money—he wanted to be a community leader. He used his restaurant as a place to hold voter registration drives and to share his ideas about uniting Mexican-Americans to lift up the poor, to unite politically and to educate their youth.
Longtime Pardo family friend Kimber Reid testified: “Mayo (Pardo) used to tell me he wanted to create a better community.”

Pardo employee and friend Joyce DiBona said Pardo preached regularly about the importance of education and has used his restaurant to counsel numerous people, young and old, through the years.

Pardo appeared to take a fatherly role with Huang, a University of Texas student. Pardo saw to it that, in addition to her job cleaning the restaurant and preparing heroin, Huang attended school.

Huang didn’t drive, so before and after her heroin work he picked her up and dropped her off at classes, federal agents testified. If he couldn’t get there, Pardo charged one of his heroin dealers with chauffeuring Huang from class, authorities said.

Pardo’s defense lawyer Ben Florey, who has denied the charges against his client, said of Pardo: “He believes strongly in education.”

Pardo faces life in prison if convicted.

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