'I Grew up in Luxury, but My Family Had a Secret'

I was 13 years old when my dad bought me a Piaget Polo. It wasn't my birthday or Christmas. He bought the must-have luxury sports watch of the 1980s for everyone in my family, just because. So my mom, uncle, grandmother, father and I had matching, solid gold timepieces. "You're not wearing this on the playground," my mother said as she placed my watch in the safe.

That's life when your dad is one of the most notorious money-launderers in Mexican history. I wasn't upset when my mom took the watch. I had more than any kid could ever need or want. Dad coolly peeled off five C-notes every week for my allowance, cash I could and did spend on whatever I wanted. If my friends and I went to McDonalds or Carl's Jr. after school or baseball practice, I picked up the tab for everyone.

Later, I would pay our high school janitors to buy us beer. "We put two 24-packs in the back of your car," a janitor reported before I slipped him an extra $40. Oh, and that car he was talking about? It was an all-white Mercedes-Benz 500 S Class with white rims. While trying to see what it could do, I got my car up to 170 mph on Route 52 in San Diego.

If that sounds obnoxious, that's because it was. My father, Pietro La Greca, was an Italian-born conman, who arrived in the United States in the '60s with one desire: to live the American dream writ large. He found his fortune south of the border, but brought his spoils back to San Diego, where we lived in a 10,000-square-foot home on the water, in one of the city's wealthiest enclaves.

Pietro La Greca Jr. as a Teenager
Pietro La Greca Jr. with his grandfather at Rancho Santa Fe Polo Club in San Diego, California.

My dad, a vain megalomaniac, spent money to prove he was a big shot. In his typical Brioni suit and slicked back hair, he glided into a Rolls Royce dealership and put one on the credit card for my mom, who had her own chauffeur. Even though he verbally abused my mother all the time—his temper was so legendary he earned the moniker "the barker in Brioni"—he lavished her with gifts. Once, while in Vegas, he picked her up a quarter-of-a-million-dollar diamond necklace.

Attending one of San Diego's most exclusive private schools, I was surrounded by classmates who were as wealthy as, if not much wealthier than, me. Their families occupied the upper echelons of conservative, white San Diego society. Where they might own a sailboat they docked at the San Diego Yacht Club, we had a 36-foot Sea Ray, four jet skis, and a Bayliner ski boat that we kept at a private slip on our property. When I ran into an old classmate the other day, he reminded me that my family once brought polo ponies to do an exhibition on the school's football field. "Who does that?" he laughed. "Pietro La Greca."

I knew we were the loud Latins, but I had no idea we were crooks—until my dad's money-laundering scam went sideways. During the collapse of the Mexican Peso in the early '80s, Mexicans were desperate to protect their money in the worst economic period in their country's history.

My dad, who had a knack for finding the opportunity in devastation, found success in a string of foreign exchanges he opened along the border. Catering to an elite group that included a major drug cartel, a Las Vegas casino, and a major American bank, my dad earned the moniker, "The King of the Peso." Enough was never enough for my father, who used his chain as a front to launder vast amounts of money for his powerful clients.

Pietro La Greca Sr.
Pietro La Greca Sr. at a dinner. This man was nicknamed "Mexico's real-life Don Corleone."

Our family went on the lam when I was 14, after my grandfather was arrested for money laundering in Mexico. When my father stood in the kitchen and told my mother and grandmother we couldn't stay at home or cross back into Mexico because our lives were in danger, images of The Godfather came to my mind. "We're that kind of family?" I wondered to myself, but I soon adjusted.

As we hit the road in a van to outrun the law and other scarier forces gunning for us, my dad was in no mood to answer questions. It wasn't until much later while working on my book that I learned the full extent of my father's criminal activities.

In my research, I came upon an old newspaper clipping about my dad where he was dubbed "Mexico's real-life Don Corleone." While he dressed and acted the part of a Hollywood gangster, his real power came from his unparalleled network of contacts, whom he could call on at any time for a favor. If you needed an article to tarnish someone's rep, he had reporters from the major Mexican dailies in his pocket. Want a facelift by southern California's top surgeon? Pietro La Greca had his direct dial. And, of course, if you needed to hide millions stolen from Mexican government contracts in bank accounts, property, and merchandise in the U.S., he was your man.

Before my father crossed the wrong people, we were the toast of Mexico. We spent our weekends there at the family ranch.We even went on vacation with Mexico's secretary of education and his family to Egypt. They shut down the pyramids at night, which normally drew about 3,000 visitors, to give us a private showing.

At the San Ysidro port of entry between San Diego and Tijuana, one of the busiest and biggest in the world, we never waited in line or got questioned by Mexican customs officials, who knew us by name. When it came to the border, there were VIPs—and then there was my family.

Pietro La Greca Jr. Now
Pietro La Greca Jr. has had a career in software sales and commercial real estate. He has recently written a memoir about his late father.

There was a dark side, too. Safety was clearly an issue. With that much money all around us and kidnappings a frequent problem in Mexico, my father hired ex–Navy SEALs to follow and guard each of us wherever we went. I had a bodyguard packing heat following me through the mall, but I was never scared. Even when we went on the lam, my dad's bravado and confidence that money solved everything gave me a feeling of invincibility.

If I was afraid of anyone, it wasn't the cartel or corrupt Mexican officials but my own father. As a little kid I always made sure to be in bed and asleep before he returned home from his late nights at the office or around his corner table at Matteottis, an old-school Italian restaurant in downtown Tijuana. The odds were greater of getting a belting if I were awake. As I got older, I recognized his impatience and recklessness went far beyond our family dynamic. My dad didn't care about consequences—a trait that eventually brought him down when he went "all-in" on three business opportunities, and leveraged everything we had, and lost everything.

Despite it being my father's belief, I learned that money can't solve everything. In fact, it can destroy quite a lot. I have had a good career in software sales and commercial real estate, but I am not driven by money. I don't care about the size of my house, the speed of my cars, or the make of the watch around my wrist. The health and happiness of my wife and daughter are now my most prized possessions.

Pietro La Greca Jr. is the author of PESOS: The Rise and Fall of a Border Family, which is out November 1, 2022.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.