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FILE – In this Nov. 1, 2012 file photo, A Dash of Sweet Heat is led into the sales ring by an unnamed Heritage Place employee during the fall mixed sale in Oklahoma City. Prosecutors in Texas say Jose Trevino Morales, a brother of two top leaders of Los Zetas, oversaw the purchase of hundreds of quarter horses at a ranch in Oklahoma. He’s charged with conspiracy to launder drug money in a case with more than a dozen other defendants. Jury selection in the trial begins Monday, April 15, 2013, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A multimillion-dollar horse breeding operation run from an Oklahoma ranch was actually a front by a notorious Mexican cartel to launder millions of dollars in drug money, prosecutors alleged Tuesday at the beginning of a trial for five defendants charged in the scheme.

Jose Trevino Morales, the younger brother of the suspected leader of the Zetas cartel, is charged with money laundering conspiracy. His trial along with four co-defendants began Tuesday in Austin, Texas.

Prosecutor Douglas Gardner told jurors Tuesday morning that Morales had been put in charge of the scheme by his brothers, who are alleged to be at the top of one of the biggest, most versatile and violent criminal organizations in the world. The scheme went through $16 million in horse-related expenses in 30 months, Gardner said.

But David Finn, Morales’ attorney, called his client a “legitimate horseman” who is being targeted by prosecutors due to his brothers’ alleged crimes.

“This isn’t some front,” Finn said. “It’s a legitimate, real business … built on the sweat of my client and his wife.”

Mike DeGeurin, attorney for co-defendant Francisco Antonio Colorado Cessa, said his client runs an environmental cleanup company in Mexico with no ties to the Zetas. DeGeurin said Cessa invested some of his money in buying and breeding horses.

Testimony was expected to begin later Tuesday.

Morales’ wife and daughter have pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

The horse operation Morales ran from a sprawling ranch near Lexington, Okla., spent millions of dollars buying horses in California, New Mexico and Texas, prosecutors said.

Workers at the Ruidoso Downs Race Track and Casino in New Mexico said his stables were known as the “Zetas’ stables,” and some of his horses were named Number One Cartel and Mr. Ease Cartel.

Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, one of Jose’s brothers, is believed to now be the leader of the Zetas cartel, which split off from the Gulf Cartel in 2010 and is known for its brutality — beheading rivals and staging mass killings.

Miguel Angel Trevino Morales and another brother, Oscar Omar Trevino Morales, are also charged in the scheme, though they remain at large.

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