Indictment Links Prominent Texas Family’s Horse Stable to Zetas Money-Laundering Case

Grahams have made campaign contributions to Texas' top elected officials

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A prominent Texas family with connections to the state’s top officials is alleged to have purchased and boarded horses for a Mexican drug cartel engaged in money laundering, according to court records.

Federal indictments recently unsealed in Austin allege that 14 defendants with Spanish surnames used elite U.S. racehorses to launder millions of dollars of drug money for Mexico’s ruthless Los Zetas cartel. The indictments also implicate the renowned Southwest Stallion Station breeding stables outside Austin, run by a veterinarian named Charles Graham and his grandson Tyler. Over the past decade, they have contributed almost $250,000 to federal and state politicians led by Texas’ top three officials. In 2008 Gov. Perry appointed Dr. Graham to the now-defunct Texas Department of Rural Affairs. The Grahams haven’t been charged with wrongdoing, and their names don’t appear in the indictments. But allegations made against their stables in the indictments suggest that the Zetas cartel paid the Grahams a small fortune in recent years. In all, Tyler Graham bought more than $1 million worth of horses that ended up in the hands of the Zetas cartel, which made at least $550,000 in payments to the Grahams’ stable, according to trade publications and the indictment. The Grahams didn’t respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

While never mentioning the Grahams, the money-laundering indictment alleges that the Zeta conspirators paid their Southwest Stallion stables $550,000 last July to board and breed Zeta racehorses. One way the cartel laundered money, according to the indictment, was to let cartel flunkies hold title to a horse until it won a big race or became lucrative through the sale of breeding rights. Then backdated contracts were drawn up suggesting that Jose Treviño—one of three brothers at the center of the conspiracy—presciently bought the champ on the relative cheap just before it hit the big leagues, according to the indictments. One Zeta horse was not-so-subtly christened Number One Cartel.

In 2010 Tyler Graham went to Oklahoma City to attend the horse auction at Heritage Place, a 40-acre facility co-owned by Charles Graham, according to TRACK Magazine. Amid a global economic crisis, average sales prices at the auction increased by 14 percent over the year before. Driving this inflation, Tyler Graham placed the winning bids on the event’s two most-expensive horses. He bid $250,000 for a young mare named Coronita Cartel and a record $875,000 for the breeding mare Dashin Follies. TRACK Magazine reported at the time that Graham shipped the mares home to Southwest Stallion Stables—but not on his own account. The trade publication reported that Graham “was acting as an agent for an undisclosed buyer who reportedly is a Mexican resident.”

Describing that same auction, the recent indictments allege that defendant Jose Treviño “directed the purchase” of both horses “in a nominee name.” Then a company controlled by Mexican businessman Alejandro Barrandas allegedly wired more than $900,000 while defendant Luis Gerardo Aguirre allegedly supplied another $100,000 in cash, according to the indictments. Two other defendants allegedly then paid to board the horses for six weeks at the stables before the prize horse were shipped to Jose Treviño’s Oklahoma ranch, according to the indictment.

In August, Tyler Graham posted photos on Facebook of some of his yearlings, including Tahiti Cartel. Sired by Carona Cartel, the horse sold at Heritage Place in September 2011 for $50,000. Among Graham’s friends on Facebook: Ramiro Villarreal, a gifted Mexican horseman who Miguel Treviño, the second-highest ranking Zeta, recruited to help build his quarterhorse enterprise. At some point, Villarreal reluctantly became a DEA informant, according to The New York Times; in March 2011, his charred remains were found in a car outside Nuevo Laredo.

Trade publications and the recent indictments indicate that Tyler Graham bought more than $1 million worth of horses that wound up with the Zetas and that cartel made at least $550,000 in payments to the Grahams’ stable. It’s not clear if the Grahams knew who they were buying horses for. The copy of the indictments made public redacts the name of one unknown defendant.

Not in doubt are the Graham’s political connections. Since 2001, the Grahams have contributed $32,025 to Perry’s campaign account, accord to state records. They’ve also donated to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst ($17,100), House Speaker Joe Straus ($15,500), a San Antonio Republican, and state Sen. Kirk Watson ($15,500), an Austin Democrat.