EL PASO, Texas - Special agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) on Wednesday and Thursday arrested a local man and two Mexican nationals suspected of conspiring to smuggle various firearms into Mexico.
ICE and ATF special agents arrested John Avelar, 32, a naturalized U.S. citizen, at his El Paso home. Jonatan Lopez-Gutierrez, 32, and Jose Amador-Villalpando, 50, both of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, were arrested at the Stanton Street Bridge before they entered Mexico. The federal agents found several assault-type firearms concealed in roofing materials in the back of the van Lopez-Gutierrez intended to drive back to Mexico.
The eight-month joint investigation resulted in seizing 24 weapons, 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. The investigation is ongoing.
Avelar is charged with making false statements on an ATF federal application form, which is a firearms violation. He is also charged with conspiracy to smuggle goods out of the United States, which is a Patriot Act violation.
Lopez-Gutierrez and Amador-Villalpando are charged with smuggling goods out of the United States, which is a Patriot Act violation, and conspiracy to make false statements on an ATF federal application form, which is a firearms violation. The two men also face additional charges regarding non-immigrants illegally possessing firearms without a license.
"Buying such weapons from legitimate sources is perfectly legal," said David F. Fry, deputy special agent-in-charge of ICE Office of Investigations in El Paso. "However, it's illegal to purchase firearms and then sell them to non-immigrants in the United States who intend to smuggle them out of the country."
ATF Acting Special Agent in Charge Michael A. Golson Sr. said, "This is an example of the type of cases ATF is working in order to prevent firearms from being smuggled into Mexico and to alleviate violence on both sides of the border.
"This investigation exemplifies the benefits of working together in a partnership. It further shows the cooperative efforts between ATF, ICE and Mexican law enforcement officials. We will continue to work with them as well as other agencies to combat this problem."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard Mesa ordered all three men held without bond Friday during their initial appearance in federal court. The men remain in U.S. Marshals custody at the El Paso County Detention Facility awaiting trial.