Cartel Launders Drug Money Via Horse Racing

By Adam K. Raymond 06/13/12

Mexico's Zetas cartel has been running a horse-racing operation in the US, right under everyone's noses.

Feds remove a horse from a stable
in New Mexico yesterday.
Photo via

Mexico's "Las Zetas" drug cartel is one of the most brutal crime syndicates in the world—known for beheading enemies before publicly disposing of their hacked-apart bodies. But that's not all they're capable of; they've reportedly been running a highly-successful horse breeding operation in the US for years, and using it to launder millions in drug money. The reigns were taken from them yesterday when the Justice Department closed down the operation, arresting Jose Trevino, a high-ranking cartel member, and several of his minions. The Zetas' excursion into horses started in 2006 when cartel boss Miguel Angel Trevino met Ramio Villarreal, a man with a knack for finding under-appreciated quarter-horses. Soon the racing operation had a name, "Tremor", and some of the best horses in the country. But as the money and the wins rolled in, suspicion grew. Other horse operations became wary of Tremor, and the company's largess drew the attention of the law. In late 2010, the DEA picked up Villarreal and convinced him to work as an informant to help bring down Miguel Ángel Treviño. He couldn't do it. In March of 2011 Villarreal's incinerated car was found, with him inside.

As recently as last week, Tremor horses were wowing spectators at tracks in the Southwest, but that might change after Jose Trevino's arrest. At the very least, the cartel's habit of funneling $1 million a month through the company looks set to end. As far as their ability to get one by the general public for so long, it's “so far out there it’s hard to believe,” says former prosecutor Morris Panner. “Maybe they were using some kind of perverse logic that told them they could hide in plain sight, precisely because people wouldn’t believe it or question it.”

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Adam K. Raymond covers politics and sports for New York Magazine. Visit Adam's website and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.