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Oklahoma ranch linked to Mexican drug cartel's money laundering operation

| Tuesday, April 16, 2013, 8:00 p.m.

AUSTIN — A multimillion-dollar horse racing and breeding operation run from an Oklahoma ranch was actually a front for a notorious Mexican cartel to launder millions of dollars in drug money, prosecutors alleged Tuesday at the beginning of a trial for five defendants charged in the scheme.

Jose Trevino Morales, the younger brother of the suspected leader of the Zetas drug cartel, is charged with money laundering conspiracy. His trial along with four co-defendants facing the same charge began Tuesday in Austin, Texas.

Prosecutor Douglas Gardner told jurors that Trevino had been put in charge of the scheme by his brothers, who are alleged to be at the top of one of the biggest, most versatile and violent criminal organizations in the world. The scheme went through $16 million in horse-related expenses in 30 months, Gardner said.

Gardner painted a picture of a conspiracy in which horse owners, trainers and others crafted bank deposits to hide the true source of the operation's funding. He said they set up companies that bought horses with the cartel's money and even fixed the outcome of horse races.

“The Zetas make money by drugs, extortion, bribery and send the money to the U.S. to buy racehorses,” he said.

Gardner alleged Trevino, 46, ran the operation for his brothers — Miguel Angel Trevino Morales and Oscar Omar Trevino Morales. He alleged a Mexican businessman, Francisco Antonio Colorado Cessa, bought horses for the Zetas through his oil services company, which authorities say was also a front for the drug cartel.

The three other defendants on trial — Fernando Solis Garcia, Eusevio Maldonado Huitron and his older brother Jesus Maldonado Huitron — are accused of buying horses for the cartel or laundering money through personal accounts.

But David Finn, Morales' attorney, called his client a “legitimate horseman” who is being targeted by prosecutors due to his brothers' alleged crimes.

“This isn't some front,” Finn said. “It's a legitimate, real business ... built on the sweat of my client and his wife.”

Mario Cuellar, a government witness and former Zetas member, said he was responsible for funneling drug money from Mexico into the United States for buying horses. He described Miguel Angel Trevino Morales as an active participant who kept a listing of the horses' names and prices on his cellphone.

Jose Trevino Morales initially didn't want to get involved but eventually did in 2009 when he purchased a horse called “Tempting Dash,” said Cuellar, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence on a drug charge.

The trial was expected to last several weeks.

Morales' wife and daughter have pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

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