- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The mayor, police chief and a trustee of the small border town of Columbus, N.M., were among 11 people named in a federal grand jury indictment for their alleged roles in a firearms-trafficking ring that sought to buy weapons for drug smugglers in Mexico, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Those named in the 84-count indictment handed up last week included Columbus Police Chief Angelo Vega, Mayor Eddie Espinoza and Blas Gutierrez, village trustee. They were among 10 men and one woman named as members of a trafficking ring operating across the border from Puerto Palomas, Chihuahua, Mexico, where a raging turf battle is ongoing between warring drug gangs.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Las Cruces, N.M., 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. Chief Vega, Mr. Espinoza, Mr. Gutierrez and seven other defendants made their initial appearances Tuesday in the federal court in Las Cruces.

One of the defendants who was named in the indictment — Ignacio Villalobos, 24, of Columbus — has not been apprehended and is considered a fugitive. 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 ICE Special Agent in Charge Manuel Oyola-Torres, who heads the agency’s El Paso, Texas, field office.

“ICE 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,” he said.

The investigation has been designated as part of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force program, whose mission 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 this month, the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to purchase firearms for illegal export to Mexico. During this 14-month period, the indictment said, the defendants 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 9 mm pistols. The indictment said the defendants 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 7.62 mm 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 the defendants.

As part of the investigation, ICE officials said efforts were made to seize firearms from defendants to prevent them from entering Mexico, and no weapons were knowingly permitted to cross the border.

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,” said U.S. Attorney Kenneth J. Gonzales in New Mexico.

Also named in the indictment were Ian Garland, 50, of Chaparral, N.M.; Alberto Rivera, 40, of Columbus; Miguel Carrillo, 30, of Columbus; Ricardo Gutierrez, 25, of Columbus; Manuel Ortega, 25, of Palomas, Mexico; Vicente Carreon, 26, of Columbus; and Eva Lucie Gutierrez, 21, of Las Cruces.