Twin raids were carried out yesterday by anti-drugs agents on a championship-winning racehorse stable in New Mexico and an associated ranch in Oklahoma that the US authorities say were being used as a money-laundering front for one of most powerful drug-trafficking cartels in Mexico.
Ordered by the US Justice Department and first reported by The New York Times, the raids pulled the veil from what had become one of the most successful (and well financed) quarter horse racing operations in the US. It also appeared to deal a grave blow to the Zetas which in recent years has emerged as arguably the most ruthless of Mexico's warring cartels.
Among those said to be in custody last night and waiting to be charged was Jose Treviño Morales, 45, a Mexican native with legal residency in the United States and the founder of Tremor Enterprises, a horse-breeding operation in Oklahoma and New Mexico which in three short years has raised and fielded quarter horses that have won three of the most important races in the US and captured prizes worth $2.5m.
According to the authorities, Mr Morales is the elder brother of Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, a fugitive in Mexico who is believed also to be second-in-command of the Zetas. The younger Treviño is said to have ordered some of the grisliest massacres in the drugs war, including a massacre that led to the dumping of the bodies of 49 people without heads, hands or feet, along a Mexico highway in May.
An affidavit prepared ahead of yesterday's arrests alleges that the Zetas cartel has been washing as much as $1m a month through Tremor Enterprises on the American side of the border. The US authorities first began paying attention to Tremor, based at a 70-acre ranch in Oklahoma that was one of the two locations raided yesterday, in 2010 when it paid more than $1m in just one day for two broodmares.
As startling as anything is the brazen way in which Tremor carried on its business and boasted about its growing number of race victories right under the noses of the authorities. Such was their bravado that among the first batch of horses bought by the stables for $3m was one they christened "Number One Cartel". It seems that many inside the tight-knit racing community had privately started to trade gossip about how Tremor seemed to have so much money.
While quarter horse racing is to the Triple Crown or Ascot what stock car racing is to Formula One – the focus is on raw speed than endurance and the races are usually much shorter – it is especially popular in the south-western US where the prize money can be considerable. Tremor horses have recently won top trophies at Los Alamitos Race Course near Los Angeles and at Ruidoso Downs in Oklahoma.
According to The New York Times, many of the horses that ended up at the Tremor stables were chosen by an associate of the younger Treviño named Ramino Villarreal across the border in Mexico. Mr Villarreal was allegedly recruited as an informant by US agents. His charred body was founded five months later in burnt-out vehicle on a roadside outside Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican stronghold of the Zetas.