Oklahoma ranch and New Mexico racing track raided as federal agents claim Zetas gang bought horses with drug money
US federal agents have raided a ranch in Oklahoma and a prominent horse track in New Mexico, alleging the brother of a high-ranking official in a Mexican drug cartel used a horse-breeding operation to launder money.
An indictment unsealed on Tuesday accused Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, a key figure in the Zetas drug operation, of setting up a horse operation that his younger brother operated from a ranch near Lexington, Oklahoma. Millions of dollars are said to have gone through the operation, which bought, trained, bred and raced quarter horses – a popular US breed of racing horse – throughout the south-west of the US, including the Ruidoso Downs track in New Mexico.
“This case is a prime example of the ability of Mexican drug cartels to establish footholds in legitimate US industries and highlights the serious threat money laundering causes to our financial system,” said Richard Weber, the chief of the Internal Revenue Service’s criminal investigation unit.
Seven of the 14 people indicted were arrested, including Jose Trevino Morales and his wife, Zulema. Another Trevino brother was also charged.
Prosecutors asked that no bond be set for Trevino, fearing he would either flee or intimidate witnesses. He declined to comment at the courthouse.
The indictment describes how the Trevino brothers and a network quietly arranged to purchase quarter horses with drug money at auction and disguise the source of the funds used to buy them so that the Zetas’ involvement would be masked. They are said to have often paid in cash, or used fake names, which helped keep the owners and the origin of the money a secret.
Since 2008, the operation, Tremor Enterprises LLC, has allegedly racked up millions of dollars in transactions in New Mexico, Oklahoma, California and Texas, prosecutors said.
Some horses carried names with drug references, like Coronita Cartel. Over time, the horses and the operation earned a place on some of the most elite stages in the industry. One horse, named Mr Piloto, won a $1m prize at Ruidoso Downs; another, named Tempting Dash, won the Dash for Cash at Lone Star Park race track in Grand Prairie, Texas.
The New York Times first reported the raids and the alleged connection to the Zetas cartel on its website on Tuesday, citing a months-long investigation and several anonymous sources.
The Zetas are one of Mexico’s two most powerful drug cartels, with a reputation for being its most ruthless and willing to commit atrocities. The cartel was blamed for the 2010 massacre of 72 Central American migrants in the Texas border state of Tamaulipas, the dumping of 49 mutilated bodies on a Texas-bound highway in Nuevo Leon, and a series of smaller group killings. The cartel is also accused of funnelling millions of dollars to politicians and law-enforcement officials in Tamaulipas in a case under investigation by federal authorities in the US.
During the raids on Tuesday, dozens of federal agents swarmed the New Mexico race track, wearing bulletproof vests and collecting evidence. At least two horses were taken away. The federal government seeks the seizure of several horses, claiming they were used to further a crime. Among those being sought is Mr Piloto.
A raid also was conducted at the ranch about 40 miles south of Oklahoma City. At least half a dozen agents wearing fatigues and FBI baseball caps were still at the ranch early in the afternoon.
The director of the Oklahoma Quarter Horse Racing Association said Jose Trevino had quickly earned a reputation for always paying his bills and shelling out handsome prices for some of the top horses in the country.
“They were also recognised for taking care of their business. They paid their bills and didn’t cause any trouble. You didn’t have a food vendor or veterinarian calling to say they couldn’t get these guys to pay their bills. They were good citizens in the horse industry,” Debbie Schauf said.
She said it was common for buyers based out of the country to pay cash for horses, but that several transactions were noteworthy for their value.
“It didn’t raise a lot of eyebrows when these guys came to the sales and started paying cash. What raised eyebrows was the quality of the horses they were buying and the amount of money these mares cost,” Schauf said.
Shaun Hubbard, general manager of the Ruidoso Downs race track and casino, said the track officials knew little about the raid but were co-operating with federal authorities.
Telephone messages left at the ranch in Lexington were not immediately returned.