PHOENIX - A federal grand jury has unsealed multi-count indictments against 17 defendants in five separate cases involving the illegal trafficking of firearms from the United States to Mexico following a joint investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
On Tuesday, members of a multi-agency law enforcement task force led by HSI arrested nine people and served one summons on 10 suspects named in two of the indictments. The seven remaining defendants were previously charged and are awaiting trial. Operation Too Hot to Handle involved approximately 300 weapons - mostly AK-47-type rifles and automatic pistols -- seized here, in Mexico and in Texas. The weapons had been bought by "straw purchasers" from licensed gun stores in Arizona.
"Operation Too Hot to Handle revealed the lengths that criminal organizations will go to in illegally procuring weapons for Mexican drug cartels," said Matt Allen, special agent in charge of ICE HSI in Arizona. "With our partners at the U.S. Attorney's Office and the ATF, we will continue to aggressively pursue those who circumvent U.S. law to fuel the drug war in Mexico."
"Here in Arizona, we continue to unearth a brimming cottage industry of gun exporters to Mexican drug cartels. Now, it is clear -- they are at times multi-state enterprises," said Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke, who last month announced a similar flurry of indictments that ensnared 34 suspected gun traffickers. "We commend our partners at ICE and ATF for their commitment to dismantling firearms trafficking organizations. Additionally, I would like to send prayers and our deepest condolences, on behalf of our entire organization, to the family of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Jaime Zapata, who was killed in the line of duty earlier this week in Mexico. We would also like to wish a speedy recovery to Agent Victor Avila, who was wounded in the same attack."
Firearms traffickers often recruit "straw purchasers" to buy guns from licensed dealers. It is illegal for a purchaser to falsely declare they are buying firearms for themselves when in fact they are obtaining them for someone else.
ATF Special Agent in Charge William Newell added, "ATF, along with our partners at ICE, will continue to focus our resources on the straw purchasers of military style rifles purchased in the U.S. and utilized by drug cartels in Mexico. The violence perpetrated by the cartels will not be tolerated."
Summary of Indictments
- The Beltran-Bermudez indictment charges two undocumented aliens with possessing 222 AK-47 style rifles and five pistols. All these weapons were later seized in Texas.
- The remaining four indictments (Zapata, Resa, Macedo and Large) charge 15 people for allegedly making a false statement on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Form 4473 when purchasing firearms or agreeing with others to do so. Not only is this form required to be filled out prior to the sale of a firearm by a federally licensed firearms dealer but the dealer is also required to keep this form in its records for 20 years.
- Additionally, in the Zapata indictment both Francisco Muela Zapata and Francisco Zapata, Jr. are alleged to have recruited others to purchase firearms for them. That indictment involves 83 firearms purchased between May 18, 2010, and June 26, 2010. The Resa case is a second superseding indictment and alleges that Salvador Figueroa Resa recruited all five of his co-defendants to purchase firearms for him. Over a four-month period, the indictment charges that Resa had others buy 89 firearms on his behalf. Five of the 89 guns were purchased in August, 2010, after Resa was initially arrested and was on pretrial release.
The penalty for committing an offense while on release carries a term of imprisonment of not more than 10 years and must be served consecutive to any other sentence of imprisonment.
A conviction for making a false statement in connection with the acquisition of a firearm carries a maximum penalty of five years, a $250,000 fine or both. A conviction for being an illegal lien in possession of a firearm carries a maximum penalty of 10 years, a $250,000 fine or both.