Federal agencies are going after top leaders of a Mexican drug cartel for allegedly laundering money using race horses in New Mexico and other states in the U.S.
In a multistate sweep, federal agencies said a network of people connected to the Mexican drug cartel known as the Zetas has been allegedly laundering money by buying, training and racing horses at tracks including Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico.
Federal agents were forced to seize a dozen horses in New Mexico that are part of a racing operation allegedly laundering money for the Zetas, after their trainers refused to continue caring for them, prosecutors said in court documents filed Friday.
Prosecutors had hoped a previous protective order would force companies used to front the alleged operation to pay for the continued care of more than 400 horses. But the government has had to take custody of 12 abandoned this week.
The seizure notice came the same day an FBI agent testified in Austin that a Texas horse trainer accused of helping the Zetas launder money would be in danger if released on bail. Eusevio Maldonado Huitron, 48, was arrested earlier this week as part of a money laundering indictment that named two high-ranking Zetas brothers among others.
Authorities estimated it would have cost Jose Treviño Morales, a third brother charged with running the U.S. horse operation, $200,000 a month to care for the hundreds of horses involved. In the indictment unsealed Tuesday in Austin, prosecutors allege millions of dollars in drug profits were funneled through the group's quarter horse activities in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and California.
Also in Austin on Friday, FBI agent Haskell Wilkins testified that investigators found bank statements in the home of Maldonado, the trainer, indicating about $24,000 in personal accounts belonging to his young children. He also described a picture found inside of Maldonado allegedly posing with Jose Treviño and a winning horse named "Tempting Dash."
Wilkins said the photo shows Trevino's children using their hands to make the numbers "40" and "42" - alleged Zeta nicknames for Miguel Treviño and Oscar Treviño.
Wilkins testified Maldonado would likely be at risk if freed on bond.
"There would definitely be some flight to avoid any type of retaliation," Wilkins said.
A judge scheduled the hearing to continue Monday and Huitron will remain in jail until then.
N.M. Gov. Susana Martinez said the horse racing industry in the state needs to make some changes to prevent this kind of illegal activity.
"This is something that New Mexico does not want to have any part of," Martinez told ABC-7.
Federal agents charged seven people, including two top Zetas drug gang leaders, with laundering money using quarter horses raced at several tracks in the country.
"In the United States of America, we cannot allow that kind of criminal activity to spillover unanswered," Martinez said.
Federal agents raided the Ruidoso Downs Racetrack and Casino on Tuesday wearing bulletproof vests and collecting evidence, including at least two horses.
The El Paso Times reports Miguel Angel Treviño, a top leader of the Zetas, bragged he fixed the 2010 All-American Futurity Race at Ruidoso Downs to win almost $1 million.
"It is another black eye, but I feel that our state commission on the horse racing is really taking a leadership role and making sure that we start to consider imposing the national standards for horse racing in reference to testing horses," Martinez said.
Martinez said if the state starts testing more horses and for more types of drugs, they can catch illegal activity like this sooner.
"To adopt the national standards is a huge step for New Mexico to make sure that we don't get those kinds of horses or those kinds of folks that come here with drugged horses that end up winning those races," Martinez said.
Officials at Ruidoso Downs said there is no evidence behind allegations that drug cartel members paid gatekeepers to hold back horses competing against their 2010 All American Futurity winner, Mr Piloto.
The allegations were raised in an affidavit supporting a raid this week on Zeta drug gang members accused of laundering millions of dollars through quarter horses. The affidavit revealed two informants told investigators that a leader of the cartel bragged that he had paid $10,000 for the horses to be held.
Track general manager Shaun Hubbard said officials have reviewed the race from every angle and found no evidence of any horse being denied a fair start.
The affidavit also asserts Mr Piloto was given an illegal performance-enhancing substance 15 days before the race. Hubbard said winning horses are routinely tested by the state.