Federal prosecutors announced charges Tuesday against two men they say were trying to sell serious firepower to Mexican smuggling cartels.
In reality, the men were dealing with undercover federal agents posing as cartel buyers, and they managed to buy dozens of firearms, including one automatic Uzi-style submachine gun.
The case highlights the poisonous interplay between illegal immigration, deadly fentanyl and gun smuggling, with a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent describing the alleged gun dealers as offing to supply drugs while asking the supposed cartel operative if he could smuggle illegal immigrants into the U.S.
Cleveland residents Yuendry Rodriguez Hilario, 28, and Saleh Yusuf Saleh, 24, face charges of conspiracy to traffic firearms, possession of firearms while dealing drugs, and various other gun violations.
The men were arrested on March 2 while trying to hand off 40 rifles in the parking lot of a Five Guys restaurant in Cleveland, authorities said.
Text messages also showed Mr. Rodriguez Hilario offering to sell AR-style pistols with a binary trigger that would render them “close to automatic” fire. He asked for $2,500 for each of those weapons.
The undercover ATF operative repeatedly stated he was acting on behalf of a Mexican cartel, at one point saying their faction needed more weapons because they were “battling and losing.”
In all, authorities said they purchased about 90 weapons during the operation.
There was no indication that any of the weapons the men sold did end up in Mexico.
As the U.S. pressures Mexico to curtail the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs crossing north, Mexico has complained that the U.S. is the major supplier of firearms for the cartels.
Authorities said they were tipped to the two men in 2021 while investigating another gun-running operation out of New York. That operation was focused on shipping ammunition to the Dominican Republic.
According to court documents filed in the case, one of the people involved in that operation told undercover agents to get in touch with Mr. Rodriguez Hilario. He then acted as a middleman between the agents and Mr. Saleh, whom authorities fingered as the weapons supplier.
The original price list they agreed upon offered AR-15-style weapons at $3,000 apiece, M-4 rifles at $3,000, and AK-47s at $4,500 each.
In one exchange, where authorities say Mr. Rodriguez Hilario offered to sell an Uzi machine gun, he asked the undercover agent – whom he believed to be a cartel operative – if he could help with “crossing people from Mexico into the United States.”
Authorities did not say who Mr. Rodriguez Hilario wanted to be snuck in.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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