HOUSTON – One of Mexico's most powerful and violent drug cartels intended a racehorse-buying operation to be a clandestine means of laundering its illegal proceeds in the United States, prosecutors say.
But the millions of dollars spent — sometimes in the form of duffel bags stuffed with cash — on horses named with names such as Number One Cartel and Mr. Ease Cartel, it wasn't long before authorities learned of the alleged scheme and reined it in.
The federal investigation resulted in indictments last year against 18 individuals. Now, at least four of the accused in the money laundering scheme, including the brother of two of the top leaders of the Zetas drug cartel, are set to go on trial Monday in an Austin federal courtroom.
The trial, which could last up to six weeks, is expected to offer insight into the internal workings of the Zetas, as well as highlight what some cartel experts say was a rookie mistake by an organized crime outfit: drawing attention to yourself.
"It's just sort of flashy, ostentatious behavior that is not smart if you are involved in organized crime," Howard Campbell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso who has studied drug cartels, said of the racehorse-buying operation's high profile.
Federal authorities have accused Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, believed to now be the leader of the Zetas drug operation, of setting up the horse operation that his younger brother, Jose Trevino Morales, ran from a sprawling ranch near Lexington, Okla. The operation spent millions of dollars buying horses in California, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, prosecutors said.
Authorities allege Jose Trevino Morales and his wife, who had lived in North Texas before moving to Oklahoma, did not have the means to support the ranch operation, which bought, trained, bred and raced quarter horses throughout the Southwest, and that drug money paid for everything.
Neighbors said those who worked with the ranch spent lots of cash, bought land and made improvements at a time when others in the industry were struggling financially.
Workers at the Ruidoso Downs Race Track and Casino in New Mexico said Jose Trevino Morales' stables were known as the "Zetas' stables."
The U.S. Attorney's Office in San Antonio, which is handling the case, declined to comment on Friday about the trial.
Jose Trevino Morales' attorney, David Finn, said his client is not guilty of money laundering, describing him as a hard-working person who learned to raise horses while growing up on a ranch in Mexico.
"This is not about Jose Trevino Morales and his family. This is about his brothers and their alleged criminal activity in Mexico," Finn said. "He is not involved in any Zeta activity ... They couldn't get the brothers so they are focusing on my client."
Miguel Angel Trevino Morales and another brother alleged to be a top Zetas leader, Oscar Omar Trevino Morales, were also indicted. But they — along with five others also charged — remain at large. Three others indicted have pleaded guilty, including Jose Trevino Morales' wife and daughter.
Campbell said while the racehorse-buying operation might have been a creative way to launder money, it was also "really stupid because it was so public."
"The smarter people launder money more discreetly," he said.
Campbell attributed the mistake to the Zetas' relative inexperience as an independent drug trafficking group. Originally a band of assassins made up of ex-special forces soldiers from the Mexican Army, the Zetas worked for the Gulf Cartel before splitting off in 2010.
The Zetas, known for beheading rivals, have been blamed for some of Mexico's most shocking atrocities and mass killings.
"The Zetas seem to be a little more out of control and not as sort of hip to how they should operate in order to avoid getting caught," Campbell said. "They've learned their lesson in this case."
George W. Grayson, an expert on Mexican politics and drug cartels at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., said the Zetas might have been drawn to the idea of using a horse-buying operation because of their love of such animals, especially thoroughbreds.
"With horses and laundering money, you have a daily double on which they thought they couldn't lose," said Grayson, who co-authored "The Executioner's Men: Los Zetas, Rogue Soldiers, Criminal Entrepreneurs and the Shadow State They Created."
Campbell called the upcoming trial a "slam dunk" for prosecutors, citing the extensive evidence.
Grayson said he doesn't think the shutting down of the horse-buying operation was a major blow to the Zetas' operations.
"It's a thorn in their side but not a dagger in their heart," Grayson said.
Follow Juan A. Lozano at http://www.twitter.com/juanlozano70