A brother of two top leaders for one of the most powerful drug cartels in Mexico was convicted Thursday of buying racehorses to hide illegal drug profits.
A federal jury that deliberated for about nine hours over two days found Jose Trevino Morales, 46, guilty of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Trevino faces up to 20 years in prison.
Prosecutors say his older brothers, Miguel Angel and Oscar Omar Trevino Morales, are the leaders of the Zetas, a Nuevo Leon-based organization that has expanded beyond the drug trade to become the biggest criminal group in Mexico.
The verdict represents an important step in curbing the violence and corruption generated by the cartels, said U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman.
"The government was able to show how the corrupting influence of drug cartels has extended into the United States, with cartel bosses using an otherwise legitimate domestic industry to launder proceeds from drug trafficking and other crimes," Pitman said.
Jose Trevino Morales was one of five defendants in the three-week trial, each charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering. Three other defendants also were found guilty. A fifth was found not guilty.
Several other defendants remain at large, including Trevino's brothers. His wife and daughter have pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
Trevino watched silently Thursday as jurors delivered their verdict and were polled to confirm it. Several people in the gallery could be heard crying.
His attorney, David Finn, did not immediately comment afterward. Finn has previously accused the government of prosecuting Trevino and his family with the hope of extracting information about his brothers.
"He's honest. He's ethical. He's frugal. He's not in the dope business," Finn said.
But prosecutors accused Trevino of helping run a scheme that went through $16 million in 30 months to buy, train and race horses. Prosecutor Douglas Gardner told jurors at the start of the proceedings that the operation created fake companies and in some instances fixed races. Horse owners, trainers and others crafted bank deposits to mask the drug money being used to fund the operation, Gardner said.
"They hang themselves by their actions," Gardner said during closing arguments of Trevino and his co-defendants.
Francisco Antonio Colorado Cessa, Fernando Solis Garcia and Eusevio Maldonado Huitron also were convicted of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Jesus Maldonado Huitron, Eusevio's older brother, was found not guilty.
The trial is being held in Austin because federal authorities in Central Texas took the lead in prosecuting the case.
The prosecution witnesses included a founder of the Zetas, Jesús Enrique Rejón Aguilar, known as "El Mamito." Other witnesses said they helped funnel drug money into the United States.
One witness, imprisoned former Zetas member Mario Cuellar, described Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, believed to be a top cartel leader, as an active participant in the enterprise who kept a listing of the horses' names and prices on his cellphone.
Finn accused prosecutors of trying to "tar and feather" his client by associating him with his brothers. He declined to call any witnesses.
The horses have been seized and auctioned by the government.
Mike DeGeurin, the attorney for Colorado Cessa, said after the verdict that his client did nothing illegal.
"He bought horses that ended up not in his possession," DeGeurin said. "Was his intent to help somebody commit a crime? No."
More than 400 of the horses have been seized and auctioned, and proceeds from the sales have netted the government $9 million, according to the U.S. attorney's office.