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12/04/2008

2 men sentenced to federal prison for firearms trafficking

Arms traffickers were part of conspiracy to smuggle weapons into Mexico

Photo of a firearm collected by ICE special agents
Photo of a firearm collected by ICE special agents

EL PASO, Texas - Two men, who were the targets of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigation, were sentenced in federal court here Monday for their role in a scheme to purchase firearms from licensed dealers in El Paso and smuggle them into Mexico.

Jonatan Lopez-Gutierrez, 33, and John Avelar, 32, were sentenced to 48 months and 37 months in federal prison, respectively, on federal weapons-trafficking charges. In addition, U.S. District Judge David Briones ordered three years of supervised release for both men after they complete their prison terms. The judge also ordered Avelar to perform 100 hours of community service after completing his prison term.

Gutierrez and Avelar pleaded guilty Sept. 9 to one count each of conspiracy to provide false statements during their firearms purchases, and conspiracy to smuggle goods from the United States.

By pleading guilty, the defendants admitted they participated in a straw-purchasing scheme between May 2007 and March 2008. They bought more than 90 firearms from licensed dealers in El Paso and smuggled them into Mexico for buyers who could not legally purchase firearms in the United States. The straw-purchased and smuggled firearms included an assortment of pistols and rifles, including a .50-caliber rifle.

In addition to ICE, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the El Paso Police Department investigated this case.

In March, ICE and ATF special agents arrested Avelar, a naturalized U.S. citizen, and Gutierrez, of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Gutierrez had possessed a "Laser visa" to legally enter the United States.

Twenty-four weapons were seized during the eight-month joint investigation, including: a semi-automatic .50-caliber firearm, A-15 .223-caliber semi-automatic assault rifles, a 12-gauge shotgun, and .308-caliber sniper rifles; the handguns seized included: a 9 mm, and .45-, .22- and .40-caliber semi-automatic pistols.

The investigation revealed that Avelar purchased the weapons from gun shops, gun shows and via the Internet.

Avelar was charged with making false statements on an ATF federal application form, which is a firearms violation. He was also charged with conspiracy to smuggle goods out of the United States, which is a Patriot Act violation. Lopez-Gutierrez was charged with smuggling goods out of the United States, and conspiracy to make false statements on an ATF federal application form.

"In this climate of escalating border violence, it's more important than ever that law enforcement agencies work together to identify individuals who purchase firearms in the United States to illegally sell them to non-immigrants who conspire to smuggle them into Mexico," said Kevin Kozak, acting special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in El Paso.