OKLAHOMA CITY — Federal agents raided a sprawling ranch in Oklahoma and a prominent quarter horse track in New Mexico on Tuesday, alleging the brother of a high-ranking official in a Mexican drug cartel used a horse-breeding operation to launder money.
An indictment unsealed Tuesday accused Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, a key figure in the Zetas drug operation, of setting up a horse operation that a younger brother operated from a ranch near Lexington, Okla., south of Oklahoma City. Millions of dollars went through the operation, which bought, trained, bred and raced quarter horses throughout the southwestern United States, including the famed Ruidoso Downs track in New Mexico.
"This case is a prime example of the ability of Mexican drug cartels to establish footholds in legitimate U.S. industries and highlights the serious threat money laundering causes to our financial system," said Richard Weber, the chief of the IRS'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.
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 so the Zetas' involvement would be masked. They would often pay in cash, or use fake names.
Since 2008, the operation racked up millions of dollars in transactions in California, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, prosecutors said.
The Zetas are one of Mexico's two most powerful drug cartels, with a reputation for being 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 the state of Nuevo Leon, and a series of smaller group killings.
During the raids Tuesday, dozens of federal agents swarmed the New Mexico race track, wearing bulletproof vests and collecting evidence. At least two horses were taken away.
Seizure warrants were issued for 41 horses deemed the operations' most valuable, in an effort to prevent their being taken to Mexico. The government sought an order to ensure the care of 384 other horses at the ranch, which sits among rolling hills about 40 miles south of Oklahoma City.