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07/20/2011

4th guilty plea entered in New Mexico firearms trafficking case

Defendant is among 11 charged, including an ex-mayor and a former police chief of Columbus, N.M.

EL PASO, Texas — A fourth person charged in a firearms-trafficking case pleaded guilty in federal court on Monday following a multi-agency investigation led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Ricardo Gutierrez, 25, of Columbus, N.M., pleaded guilty on July 18 before U.S. Magistrate Judge William P. Lynch in Las Cruces, N.M. Gutierrez pleaded to conspiracy, making false statements in acquiring firearms, and smuggling firearms from the United States.

Gutierrez faces up to 10 years in federal prison for each of three smuggling counts, up to five years in federal prison on the conspiracy charge, and up to five years on each of three false-statement charges. Gutierrez is currently out on a $10,000 unsecured bond pending sentencing.

The police chief, mayor and a trustee of the village of Columbus, N.M., were among 10 people arrested March 10 for their roles in a firearms-trafficking ring. The criminal enterprise was based in Columbus. The defendants are charged in an 84-count indictment.

On July 13, Eddie Espinoza, former Columbus mayor, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy, three counts of making false statements in acquiring firearms, and three counts of smuggling firearms from the United States. He faces up to 10 years in federal prison for each of the smuggling counts, up to five years in federal prison for the conspiracy charge, and up to five years on each of three false-statement charges. Espinoza remains in federal custody.

Former Police Chief Angelo Vega, and Blas Gutierrez, ex-village trustee in Columbus, as well as four other defendants are awaiting trial. Ignacio Villalobos, one of the defendants, has not been apprehended and is considered a fugitive.

The indictment alleges that, between January 2010 and March 2011, the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to purchase firearms to illegally export to Mexico. During this 14-month period, the defendants allegedly purchased about 200 firearms from "Chaparral Guns," a store owned and operated by defendant Ian Garland.

According to the indictment, the defendants purchased firearms favored by the Mexican Cartels, including AK-47-type pistols, weapons resembling AK-47 rifles but with shorter barrels and without rear stocks, and American Tactical 9mm pistols. The defendants allegedly obtained firearms from Chaparral Guns by falsely claiming they were the actual purchasers of the firearms; in fact they were acting as "straw purchasers" who were buying the firearms on behalf of others.

During the investigation, law enforcement officers seized 40 AK-47-type pistols, 1,580 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition, and 30 high-capacity magazines from the defendants before they crossed into Mexico. 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, efforts were made to seize firearms from the defendants to prevent them from entering into Mexico, and no weapons were knowingly permitted to cross the border.

Alberto Rivera, 40, of Columbus, N.M, and Eva Gutierrez, 22, of Las Cruces, N.M., both pleaded guilty on July 15 in connection to the same weapons-trafficking investigation.

Rivera pleaded guilty to conspiracy, making false statements in the acquisition of firearms, and smuggling firearms from the United States. Eva Gutierrez pleaded guilty to conspiracy, and making false statements in the acquisition of firearms.

Rivera faces a maximum of 10 years in federal prison for each of nine smuggling counts and up to five years in federal prison for each of a remaining 10 counts. Eva Gutierrez faces up to five years in prison for each of two counts. Rivera remains in federal custody. Eva Gutierrez is out on conditions.

No sentencing date has been scheduled for any of the defendants.

This investigation has been designated as part of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) program. The principal mission of OCDETF is to identify, disrupt and dismantle the most serious drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and money laundering organizations, and those responsible for the nation's illegal drug supply.