Editor's Note: Initial reports from Luna County Sheriff Raymond Cobos indicated the men were also detained on drug-related charges. The indictment unsealed Thursday afternoon does not make mention of any drug charges, only firearms trafficking.
The mayor and police chief of the Village of Columbus, N.M., were among 10 people arrested Thursday morning on allegations of buying firearms in the U.S. to illegally export to Mexico, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Mexico.
The defendants charged in the 84-count indictment include Angelo Vega, the Columbus chief of police; Eddie Espinoza, the mayor of Columbus; and Blas Gutierrez, a village trustee in Columbus.
Ten of the 11 defendants were arrested without incident Thursday morning by teams of federal, state and local law enforcement officers, and will make their initial appearances Friday in the federal courthouse in Las Cruces.Cruces, N.M.
Ignacio Villalobos has not been apprehended and is considered a fugitive, according to the U.S. attorney's office in New Mexico. The officers also executed 10 search warrants at eight residences, one business and the Columbus Police Department office.
The indictment is the result of an intensive yearlong investigation initiated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and ICE Homeland Security Investigations, that later expanded to include the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Attorney's Las Cruces Branch Office.
The indictment alleges that, between January 2010 and March 2011, the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to purchase firearms for illegal export to Mexico. During this 14-month period, the defendants allegedly purchased about 200 firearms from Chaparral Guns in Chaparral, N.M., which is owned and operated by defendant Ian Garland.
According to the indictment, the defendants purchased firearms favored by the Mexican Cartels, including 40 AK-47-type pistols, weapons resembling AK-47 rifles but with shorter barrels and without rear stocks, and American Tactical 9 mm caliber pistols.
The defendants allegedly obtained firearms from Chaparral Guns by falsely claiming they were the actual purchasers of the firearms, when in fact they were acting as "straw purchasers" who were buying the firearms on behalf of others, according to the indictment.
Officers also seized 1,580 rounds of 7.62 ammunition and 30 high-capacity magazines from the defendants before they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. The indictment alleges that 12 firearms previously purchased by the defendants later were found in Mexico and were traced back to these defendants. As part of the investigation, every effort was made to seize firearms from defendants to prevent them from entering into Mexico, and no weapons were knowingly permitted to cross the border.
U.S. firearms agents estimate that around 80 percent of the weapons used by Mexican drug traffickers come from the United States, where cartel leaders are hiring Americans with clean records to make the purchases for them, according to an NBC News report in December. In the past four years, Mexican authorities say they have seized 90,000 weapons from their nation's drug war, according to the the NBC News report.
The Luna County Sheriff's Department has restricted the Columbus Police Department, which consists of four police officers, from using their radio frequencies and databases to maintain integrity, Luna County Sheriff Raymond Cobos said. Cobos was heading to the Columbus City Hall on Thursday morning to talk to the remaining city council trustee members about the situation.
"Violation of public trust is probably one of the most heinous crimes that can be perpetrated on the public," Cobos said. "I mean it's horrible....it affects everybody, everybody feels it. I know my officers feel it. The reaction I have and my department and probably other elected and public officials is the reaction of dismay. We're disheartened this occurred but basically what I have to do is make sure I reinforce the feeling that public safety is going to be maintained in Columbus regardless of whatever the circumstances are."
This is not the first time there has been trouble in Columbus.
Espinoza had placed Vega and another Village of Columbus employee on administrative leave Nov. 22 because of "budgetary concerns," according to a report in the Deming Headlight newspaper in November. In mid-January, Columbus trustees reinstated Vega as police chief while Espinoza was on a trip to Albuquerque because no action had been taken, according to an Associated Press article in January.
Columbus has had eight police chiefs since March 2006.
In 1996, when Vega was a Lincoln County deputy sheriff, he was indicted on charges of extortion and intimidating a witness. A plea agreement reduced those charges to a misdemeanor, and Vega was placed on probation.
Columbus, which lies just a few miles across the border from Palomas, Mexico, sees tourists attracted by Pancho Villa's raid on March 9, 1916 - 95 years ago Wednesday. The isolated town of about 1,800 is the site of Pancho Villa State Park, which houses exhibits about the raid and the U.S. Army's subsequent unsuccessful 11-month expedition into Mexico to chase down Villa.
Indictments Summary of the Indictment Below (Read full indictment here.
Count 1 of the indictment charges all eleven defendants with conspiracy to smuggle firearms from the United States to Mexico and with making false statements in connection with the acquisition of firearms. If convicted of this charge, each defendant could receive a sentence of five years of imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. Counts 2 through 42 of the indictment charge certain defendants with making false statements in connection with the acquisition of firearms; a conviction on any one of these counts carries a maximum penalty of five-years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. Counts 43 through 84 of the indictment charges certain defendants with unlawfully concealing and facilitating the transportation of firearms knowing that the firearms were intended for exportation from the United States. The maximum penalty for a conviction on any one of the exportation counts is ten years of imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.
Charges Against Individual Defendants
Ignacio Villalobos, 24, of Columbus, NM, is charged in three counts of the indictment: conspiracy (Count 1) and two counts of firearms smuggling (Counts 78 and 82).
Blas Gutierrez, 30, of Columbus, NM, charged in thirty-seven counts of the indictment: conspiracy (Count 1); seventeen counts of making false statements in connection with acquisition of firearms (Counts 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, 13, 16, 17, 21, 22, 25, 26, 31, 35, 39 & 41); and nineteen counts of firearms smuggling (Counts 43, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 51, 53, 55, 56, 60, 61, 64, 65, 70, 75, 77, 80 & 83).
Eddie Espinoza, 51, of Columbus, NM, is charged in seven counts of the indictment: conspiracy (Count 1); three counts of making false statements in connection with acquisition of firearms (Counts 19, 23 & 30); and three counts of firearms smuggling (Counts 58, 62 & 69).
Angelo Vega, 40, of Columbus, NM, is charged with conspiracy in Count 1 of the indictment.