McALLEN, Texas (AP) — Federal agents were forced to seize a dozen horses in New Mexico that are part of a racing operation allegedly laundering money for one of Mexico's most powerful drug cartels, 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 ruthless Zetas drug cartel 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 Zeta brothers among others.
Authorities estimated it would have cost Jose Trevino 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.
The government had tried to stay out of the horse business. But that's hard to do when more than 400 quarter horses make up a good chunk of the assets prosecutors want forfeited. It also could be months or even years before the forfeitures can be resolved.
Anticipating this, prosecutors got a protective order earlier this month requiring that the horses continue to be fed and housed by their current caretakers. It was unclear if the front companies listed as the horses' owners were expected to continue using money the government alleges is drug profits and the U.S. Attorney's office did not immediately return phone messages Friday.
Among the 12 horses seized Thursday at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico were Break Out the Bullets and Eye on Corona. It wasn't immediately clear where those horses were taken.
"Federal agents were concerned about getting enough food and water for the animals and also had security concerns regarding the facility at Ruidoso," the notice filed in court in Austin said.
Court documents showed there was only a week's worth of food remaining at the New Mexico stables and that, when approached by federal agents, one trainer refused to help care for the horses. Another initially agreed but then abandoned the animals because he said his dad saw media coverage of the raids and told him to get out, the document said.
John Kirby, a former federal prosecutor in San Diego who worked on money laundering cases, said seizing animals can be a headache for the government.
"When I was at the U.S. Attorney's office a guy who was in charge of forfeiture always said never seize anything that you have to feed," Kirby said. "And you think about it, I mean they need to eat, they need to be trained. The government is going to have to put some money into them to retain their value."
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 Trevino 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 Trevino and Oscar Trevino.
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.
Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber in Austin contributed to this report.