The evidence that Mexican drug cartels are doing business in Oklahoma appears overwhelming, and while the state has not seen levels of cartel-fueled violence even close to that occurring in Mexico, the Sooner State does play an unfortunate role in the madness.
Situated almost squarely in the middle of the country and with major interstate highway corridors heading in all directions, Oklahoma possesses the location and infrastructure necessary to facilitate drug trafficking across the nation, according to law enforcement officials.
Moreover, they say the state’s restrictions on pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient of methamphetamine, means that much of the meth in Central Oklahoma originates from cartel “super” labs in Mexico or other U.S. states. Cartels are also alleged to provide much of the heroin trafficked in the region.
There is also evidence that, as the illegal drugs come north, guns that originate in or travel through Oklahoma are being moved south of the border.
As in the case of the Lexington ranch, the cartels have used the state and its abundant number of horse breeders to launder money.
While law enforcement is working to disrupt or take down cartel operations, it isn’t an easy task, especially when the enemy is a well-funded, shadowy organization more than willing to use violence and intimidation. “It’s a very dynamic process. You’ve got to understand who you’re dealing with, who their customers are, who their source of [drug] supply is out of state,” said Maj. Mike Hoskins of the Oklahoma City Police Department’s special investigations division.
“It’s all about making money. It’s a way of life for them. They want to make money any way they can. They want to avoid getting arrested or incarcerated because that disrupts the process. I don’t care what level you are on the pecking order in this drug-trafficking organization, it’s about money.”
The horse trade
On June 12, José Treviño Morales, 45, and his wife Zulema Trevino, 38, were arrested by federal agents in the Cleveland County town of Lexington at Treviño’s 70-acre Zule Farms. Seven others were also arrested in other states as part of the raid.
Treviño and the others were indicted for alleged money laundering on behalf of the Los Zetas drug cartel, a brutally violent organization with roots in the Mexican military and the former enforcement wing for the Gulf Cartel.
Prior to 2009, Treviño was a bricklayer in Texas who earned less than $45,000 a year. Within three years, however, he had bought hundreds of horses, some of which were competing in million-dollar races, according the FBI.
The purchase of horses, several of which were at Oklahoma City auctions, was allegedly funded by Treviño’s brother in Mexico, Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, second in command of Los Zetas, states the FBI affidavit.
“Even among the violent, [Los Zetas] are a violent group,” said Darrell Weaver, director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
According to the FBI, Los Zetas in 2009 began laundering its money from drug sales through the American quarter horse industry, with Miguel Treviño Morales using cartel funds to establish his brother José as the front man for the operation. The cartel employed several people to bid on quarter horses at auctions in Oklahoma, California and New Mexico. The horses were purchased with checks from legitimate Mexican businessmen who were subsequently reimbursed by Los Zetas to hide the true source of the funds.
After the purchased horses became profitable by winning races or obtaining breeding rights, they would be “sold” to Treviño or a company controlled by him, for little or no money, and sometimes under the threat of death to the owners. The affidavits state that the sales were often backdated to a time prior to the horse becoming profitable, thereby allowing Treviño to appear to legitimately make large sums of money for a minimal investment.
If found guilty, Treviño could face up to 20 years in prison.
Los Zetas del muertos
The current wave of cartel violence dates
back to 2006, when newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderon cracked down on the criminal organizations, specifically what was perhaps the most powerful of the groups, the
In 2008, Los Zetas,
whose members had origins in the Mexican military and which served as the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel, broke
away and became its own entity, according to geopolitical analysis group Stratfor
Global Intelligence. Los Zetas battled for control of the Gulf Cartel territory, leaving thousands dead and branching into new criminal enterprises such as kidnapping.
Around that time, the FBI began investigating Treviño after an informant reported that the $1.1 million sale of two horses at Oklahoma City’s Heritage Place
Auction House was being sent back to Mexico to Treviño's brothers: Los Zetas Cartel leaders Miguel Angel Treviño
Morales and his brother Omar Treviño Morales.
An informant told agents that he had met Omar in 2008 by happenstance, after the informant
tried phoning a Zeta lieutenant's cell phone and Omar answered. As it turned out, stated an FBI affidavit, the crime lord had murdered the underling for stealing from the cartel.
The informant told the FBI that Omar later asked him to set up a horse race between them. The informant said he let Omar win. It evidently was a wise strategy, as another informant told agents that Omar Treviño Morales had a man killed because the drug kingpin had lost a rooster fight to him.
The informant said Omar Treviño Morales ordered him to begin smuggling cartel cocaine across the U.S-Mexico border.
While U.S. authorities built their money-laundering case against Los Zetas, one man with an uncanny ability to pick champion horses
found himself in a seemingly no-win situation between the cartel and
U.S. agents, according to a New York Times story.
According to the Times, Ramiro Villarreal was essentially made an offer he couldn’t refuse by Miguel Angel Treviño Morales to pick prime horses at auction for Treviño. Villarreal had been responsible for picking and purchasing Tempting Dash, a horse he grudgingly turned over to Treviño.
According to the Times, U.S. Drug
Enforcement Agency agents detained Villarreal in Houston on his way
to Oklahoma for a horse sale in September 2010. They gave him two options: Go to jail or become an informant and try to
lure Miguel Angel Treviño Morales across the border. Villarreal
pleaded that he was too nervous to pull off the ruse off, but eventually relented.
At the end of that year, the 38-year-old Villarreal was brought to a meeting with Miguel Treviño Morales, reported the Times. Blindfolded, he waited with bodyguards for the cartel boss to arrive.
Miguel Treviño Morales finally showed up — but with another man who had been bound and blindfolded. When the kingpin asked if Villarreal had betrayed
him, the terrified man insisted that he had not.
According to the Times, Miguel Treviño Morales then excused himself and shot the other bound man in
the head. Villarreal fainted. When he came to,
Miguel Treviño Morales was slapping him and laughing. He reportedly told Villarreal that next time it would be Villarreal who would have to do the shooting.
Villarreal said he hoped there wouldn't be a next time.
But there was.
On March 10, 2011, Villarreal's body was found in a burned-out car in Mexico.
The arrests of major players in a Mexican drug cartel in rural Oklahoma didn’t come as a big surprise to some in Oklahoma law enforcement.
“They are migrating from Oklahoma City and Tulsa to more rural communities in Oklahoma,” said Weaver, “where they can set up their illicit trade.”
Police officials say the drugs coming into the state from Mexico go to street gangs, who then sell on the street.
“I think the biggest thing we understand here is the cartels prey on drug addicts,” said Maj. Hoskins. “They know as long as they have drug addicts, it’s good business for them.”
In addition to using Interstates 35 and 40 for moving drugs throughout the nation, Weaver said, some cartels have taken to growing marijuana in isolated parts of Oklahoma. OBNDD agents have busted at least six such setups in the past few years. One of those included a Washita County operation, where a sign in front warned trespassers that the place belonged to a cartel and that thieves would be shot.
“Having done this for 25 years, what worries me the most is the violence these people bring to Oklahoma,” Weaver said. “They do not negotiate over a steak dinner at the steak house. They negotiate with AK-47s.”
Way of the gun
The cartels aren’t just bringing drugs — and the potential for violence — to Oklahoma; they’re also shipping it out.
In 2010, former OBNDD agent Francisco Javier Reyes and others allegedly helped orchestrate “straw buying” of semiautomatic rifles in Oklahoma intended for transport to Texas where their serial numbers would be removed. The guns would then be smuggled into Mexico.
In federal court Reyes pleaded guilty to charges that he paid straw purchasers to buy up to 34 guns, ranging from AK-47s and SKSes to .50 caliber Bushmaster rifles.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives does not have — and is not allowed in its Congressional funding authorization to have — a real-time database for gun purchases. The law allows some federally licensed firearms dealers to sell guns from “private collections” without filling out paperwork normally required for such purchases.
Straw purchases of guns was the focus of the recent “Fast and Furious” political scandal, in which guns secured by straw buyers in Arizona were later turned over to Mexican drug cartels.
Last August, the ATF announced that sales along the U.S.-Mexico border of more than two semiautomatic rifles by a federally licensed firearm dealer to an individual must be reported to the agency.
That requirement has survived a few congressional attempts to do away with it. The ATF reported earlier this year that it had received 3,000 reports reflecting the purchase of more than 7,300 rifles.
Of that figure, Texas accounted for more than 1,900 multiple sales reports for some 4,600 rifles.
The data have spurred about 120 criminal investigations, according to the ATF. “It’s a whole different animal in and of itself that at some point is going to have to involve new legislation in place for these [federally licensed firearm] dealers, guys who say they have a private collection,” Hoskins said.
He recounted a recent OKC traffic stop in which semiautomatics were hidden under the hood of a vehicle en route to Mexico.
“I think there’s certainly some area there to, at some point, look at when it comes to gun-trafficking, what the true seriousness of that is here,” Hoskins said. “Not just Oklahoma City, but other major cities throughout the United States.”
Officials concede it’s difficult to tell exactly which cartels are operating in OKC. The OBNDD contends it has seen activity by the Juarez, Sinaloa, Gulf and Zetas cartels since the late 1990s. OKC police executed a major bust of a Sinaloa cartel lieutenant in the early 2000s.
“They want to own a city, whether it’s the Sinaloa, Zetas or la Familia, or whatever cartel group,” Hoskins said. “If they can say, ‘We own Oklahoma City,’ it’s a win for them. We don’t want that to happen.”