Alleged Zeta horse trainer held despite bail order

A federal judge ruled Monday that a Texas horse trainer charged with conspiring to launder money for Mexico's powerful Zetas drug cartel should be released on bond, rejecting the prosecution's argument that the threat of cartel reprisals against him was so severe it could harm the surrounding community.

Eusevio Maldonado Huitron remains in custody while federal prosecutors appeal the decision. He ran a horse farm in Bastrop County south of Austin and is among 15 people charged with helping the Zetas launder millions of dollars through quarter horse operations in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and California.

After listening to a string of witnesses in a bail hearing that stretched over two days, U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin said he was setting conditions for Maldonado Huitron's release, but he didn't immediately make them public. The appeal means those conditions will now be reviewed by a U.S. District Judge.

Prosecutors conceded that they had no evidence Maldonado Huitron was violent but said there was a risk he could flee to Mexico and disappear given his family ties in that country. However the greater danger in releasing him from federal custody, they argued, was the threat posed by the Zetas targeting him and his family — and by extension, the community at large.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Fernald said she was limited on what she could say in open court prior to trial. But she argued that Maldonado Huitron should remain in custody given the "nature and seriousness of the danger to any member of the community," due to both "the nature of this organization and the seriousness of the potential retaliation, not just to him but to his family members and anyone else."

That argument was based on testimony Friday from FBI agent Haskell Wilkins, who said the defendant was a serious flight risk due to the possibility he could be targeted by the Zetas.

But Maldonado Huitron's attorney, assistant federal Public Defender Jose Gonzalez-Falla, countered Monday that "we haven't heard anything to indicate" his client's guilt. He said prosecutors' arguments of "'trust us, it's in the indictment'" is not enough.

Gonzalez-Falla said that Maldonado Huitron was an illiterate horse trainer who posed no threat to the Zetas. An associate of Huitron Maldonado's from El Paso testified Monday that the trainer was actually dismissed weeks before his arrest because his horses were underperforming, which the defense attorney said meant his client was now even less important in the eyes of the cartel.

"Why on earth would they hit my client?" he asked. "What has he done? He's a horse trainer."

Also testifying Monday was Huitron Maldonado's brother, Jesus, who when asked if he knew what the Zetas were answered through an interpreter, "just what you hear on TV."

"From what they say, they killed a lot of people in Mexico and then they toss the bodies out," the elder Huitron Maldonado testified.

Gonzalez-Falla said his client had a right to get paid for his services no matter who hired him, adding that the government's arguments were based only on "a bunch of rumors about receiving some money." He said prosecutors feared the ferociousness of any possible reprisals, "just because they're the Zetas and they're bad and they kill people and take their heads off."

"What does that have to do with my client?" he asked.

Austin sided with the defense, saying Maldonado Huitron's family might be targeted, but that the threat was no less acute if the defendant was in prison. He said the only risk to the lager community he could see may be "someone's horse might get beat in a race if Mr. Huitron trains the horse."

Austin also said he appreciated the flight risk, but couldn't imagine the defendant fleeing to Mexico given how powerful the Zetas are there.

Maldonado Huitron is "frankly, a lot better off in the United States than in Mexico, which is the only place I can see he'd flee to," the judge said.