Cartel leader's brother gets 20 years in prison

FILE - In this June 12, 2012 file photo, FBI agents overlook a horse ranch under investigation in Lexington, Okla. A federal judge in Texas sentenced Jose Trevino Morales, the brother of two Mexican cartel leaders to 20 years in prison on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, for running a money laundering operation from a sprawling horse ranch in Oklahoma. Sentencing is also expected for Francisco Antonio Colorado Cessa, Fernando Solis Garcia, Eusevio Maldonado and Raul Ramirez, who pleaded guilty in April to a lesser money laundering charge. (AP Photo/Brett Deering, File)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The brother of two Mexican cartel leaders was sentenced Thursday to 20 years in prison for running a money laundering operation from a sprawling horse ranch in Oklahoma.

A federal judge in Texas sentenced Jose Trevino Morales, who was found guilty of investing $16 million of drug money in the buying, training and racing of horses across the Southwest. His brothers, Miguel Angel and Oscar Omar Trevino Morales, are believed to lead the Zetas cartel, which has expanded beyond the drug trade to become the biggest criminal group in Mexico.

Mexican authorities arrested Miguel Angel Trevino Morales in July. A New York indictment against him estimates he received $10 million per month in income from cocaine sales alone, not to mention the money brought in by the cartel's myriad illicit activities, including kidnapping, extortion, migrant trafficking, weapons trafficking, even theft of oil from state pipelines.

During the horse operation trial earlier this year, prosecutors said the money laundering operation in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico created fake companies and in some cases fixed races. Horse owners, trainers and others crafted bank deposits to mask the drug money being used to fund the operation.

Jose Trevino Morales was among 18 people indicted last year in a federal investigation that charged him with running the horse operation from a sprawling ranch near Lexington, Okla., on behalf of his brothers. Neighbors said those who worked with the ranch spent lots of cash, bought land and made improvements at a time when others in the industry were struggling financially.

More than 400 of the horses involved were seized and auctioned, and proceeds from the sales have netted the government $9 million, according to the U.S. attorney's office. The trial was held in Austin because federal authorities in Central Texas prosecuted the case.

"The activities of Mexican drug cartels have taken a terrible toll within Mexico," said U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman. "This prosecution and the sentences imposed today should send a clear message to those who would attempt to import their brand of corruption and violence into the United States. We will find you, we will prosecute you and we will seek the most severe consequences the law allows."

When U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks gave Trevino a chance to speak, he said: "I am not a Zeta. I don't have aggressive intentions toward anybody." Trevino said his defense failed him and did not allow him to testify.

Sparks said the evidence was "pretty overwhelming."

"The thing that bothers me the most is, did you have a chance to say no?" Sparks said. "Many people involved in this case did not. But you did have the chance to say no and you didn't."

IRS investigators said that in addition to the $16.2 million spent on 500 horses, the operation also spent $8.7 million in expenses, including purchasing two airplanes.

Sparks also sentenced Francisco Antonio Colorado Cessa to 20 years in prison, saying the jury had rejected his contention that the money he invested in the racehorses was his own, not illicit drug money. Colorado Cessa insisted that as a successful Mexican businessman, he had no choice but to go into business with the cartel, but federal prosecutors said his company was successful because of the Zetas, not despite them.

Sparks then sentenced Fernando Solis Garcia to 10 years and four months for his role advising the leaders what horses to buy and managing the operation.

Sparks scheduled another hearing Friday for Eusevio Maldonado and Raul Ramirez, who pleaded guilty in April to a lesser money laundering charge. Trevino's wife and daughter have pleaded guilty to lesser charges but have not been sentenced.

Sparks said it was notable that none of those convicted in the conspiracy had a criminal history, yet most got involved out of greed.