Jurors selected in Los Zetas money laundering case

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More than 100 potential jurors crowded into United States District Judge Sam Sparks’ courtroom to await selection for what promises to be a rare window into the inner workings of one of Mexico’s most notorious drug cartels.

After several hours worth of preliminary questioning, 16 jurors were chosen, finalizing the initial stage in the trial of five men accused of laundering millions of Los Zetas drug-cartel dollars through the U.S. quarter horse business. Opening statements are expected to begin Tuesday morning.

The money laundering exploits of Jose Trevino Morales, who is the brother of two of Mexico’s most feared cartel leaders — Miguel Angel and Omar Trevino Morales — will be the trial’s central focus. The two are known within the notorious Zetas cartel as “El 40” and “El 42,” respectively.

Morales faces one charge of conspiracy to launder money along with four other individuals. Also accused are Francisco Colorado Cessa, a Mexican businessman; horse trainer Eusevio Maldonado-Huitron and his brother Jesus Maldonado-Huitron, an Austin homebuilder; and Fernando Solis Garcia, a quarter horse expert.

Authorities say illicit drug money was invested in companies throughout the Southwest to train, breed and race quarter horses. Prosecutors said the horses had names like Carrera Cartel, Chanel Chic and Number One Cartel. The intricate network also included at least one person involved in the running of illegal firearms.

Prosecutors will aim to shed more light on the transnational nature of Los Zetas’ network. According to statistics published by the Austin American-Statesman, the case is one of the largest money laundering investigations ever to be prosecuted in Central Texas.

UT professor of criminal justice Michael Lauderdale said Central Texas is prone to cartel-related activities because of the current political climate in Mexico, and Texas’ geographic proximity to the border. Cartel bosses will continue to seek out legitimate US businesses to “wash” and conceal their illicit earnings, Lauderdale said. 

Lauderdale said cartel bosses find Austin appealing because of the amount of wealth already in the city and the large influx of visitors Austin gets per year. Cartel-related activities like money laundering would go relatively unnoticed, Lauderdale said, and Texas’ geography facilitates the distribution of illicit drugs to the rest of the United States.