LAS CRUCES, N.M. - 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, which was the focus of an investigation by special agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
A federal grand jury in New Mexico indicted 11 members of the trafficking ring on firearms and smuggling charges. The criminal enterprise was based in Columbus, a small border village across from Puerto Palomas, Chihuahua, Mexico.
The defendants charged in the 84-count indictment include Columbus Police Chief Angelo Vega, Mayor Eddie Espinoza, and Blas Gutierrez, village trustee in Columbus. Defendant Ignacio Villalobos has not been apprehended and is considered a fugitive.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); and the U.S. Attorney's Las Cruces Branch Office participated in the yearlong investigation.
Ten of the 11 defendants were arrested without incident Thursday morning by teams of federal, state and local law enforcement officers. Vega, Espinoza, Gutierrez and seven other defendants are scheduled to make their initial appearances March 11 in the federal courthouse in Las Cruces.
Federal agents also executed 10 search warrants at eight residences, a business, and at the Columbus Police Department.
"Identifying and arresting individuals involved in criminal activities, especially weapons and drug trafficking, in our Homeland is a national security priority for ICE," said Manuel Oyola-Torres, special agent in charge of ICE HSI in El Paso. "ICE HSI special agents will continue working shoulder-to-shoulder with our federal, state and local law enforcement partners to stop the flow of drugs, weapons and other contraband across the U.S.-Mexico border."
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.
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," 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, when 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 defendants to prevent them from entering into Mexico, and no weapons were knowingly permitted to cross the border.
U.S. Attorney Kenneth J. Gonzales of the District of New Mexico, said, "Gutierrez, Espinoza and Vega were duty sworn to protect and safeguard the people of Columbus, N.M. Instead, they increased the risk of harm that the people of Columbus face every day by allegedly using their official positions to facilitate and safeguard the operations of a smuggling ring that was exporting firearms to Mexico. Today's indictment reflects our unwavering resolve to ensure safety along our Southwest border, and to expose and prosecute corrupt officials who seek to profit at the expense of the citizenry they are sworn to protect."
Charges Against Defendants:
- Ignacio Villalobos, 24, of Columbus: conspiracy and firearms smuggling;
- Blas Gutierrez, 30, of Columbus: conspiracy, making false statements in connection with acquisition of firearms, firearms smuggling;
- Eddie Espinoza, 51, of Columbus: conspiracy, making false statements in connection with acquisition of firearms, and firearms smuggling;
- Angelo Vega, 40, of Columbus: conspiracy;
- Ian Garland, 50, of Chaparral, N.M.: conspiracy, making false statements in connection with acquisition of firearms, and firearms smuggling;
- Alberto Rivera, 40, of Columbus: conspiracy, making false statements in connection with acquisition of firearms, and firearms smuggling;
- Miguel Carrillo, 30, of Columbus: conspiracy, making false statements in connection with acquisition of firearms, and firearms smuggling;
- Ricardo Gutierrez, 25, of Columbus: conspiracy, making false statements in connection with acquisition of firearms, and firearms smuggling;
- Manuel Ortega, 25, of Palomas, Mexico: conspiracy and firearms smuggling;
- Vicente Carreon, 26, of Columbus: conspiracy and firearms smuggling; and
- Eva Lucie Gutierrez, 21, of Las Cruces: conspiracy and making false statements in connection with acquisition of firearms.
John E. Murphy, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas, and his El Paso Branch Office staff also assisted with the investigation. The Chihuahua State Police in Palomas, Mexico, and the Secretariat of Public Security in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, also supported the case.
The U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), New Mexico State Police, the Las Cruces Police Department, the El Paso (Texas) Police Department, and other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies also assisted.
An indictment is only an accusation. All criminal defendants are entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.