A week after a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives whistleblower described how agents allowed hundreds of U.S. weapons to slip into the hands of Mexican gunrunners, authorities rounded up the mayor and police chief of a small New Mexico town for allegedly conspiring to send weapons across the border.
In a statement announcing the arrests, U.S. officials made a point of saying that none of the guns involved in the alleged conspiracy were knowingly allowed to go into Mexico.
A federal indictment unsealed Thursday said the officials in tiny Columbus, N.M. conspired to buy guns favored by Mexican cartels such as AK-47-type pistols, weapons resembling AK-47 rifles, and American Tactical 9 mm caliber pistols, according to the Associated Press.
The defendants bought about 200 weapons to illegally export to Mexico from January 2010 through March 2011, authorities said. Twelve of the guns were found in Mexico.
Columbus Mayor Eddie Espinoza and Police Chief Angelo Vega were among 11 defendants accused of firearms and smuggling charges in the indictment. Prosecutors say the defendants falsely claimed they were buying guns for themselves when they were actually acting as “straw purchasers” to buy weapons on behalf of others.
“As part of the investigation, every effort was 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 Gonzales said in a statement.
The investigation began after a Border Patrol agent found a large number of firearms in a vehicle, Gonzales said. The priority during the yearlong probe was to keep firearms from reaching Mexico, he said. “We did everything we could,” he said. “When we knew when defendants had firearms in their possession, we seized those firearms.”
Last week, a Center for Public Integrity reported the ATF and federal prosecutors investigating gun-running by drug cartels allowed hundreds of guns to be bought and kept by straw buyers in expectation that they might cross the border. A front-line ATF agent, John Dodson, told the Center that he feared the ATF strategy would allow AK-47s to slip into the hands of Mexican drug lords and gun runners, and two of the weapons later turned up at the scene of a fatal shooting of a U.S. agent.
Following publication of the story, the ATF ordered an immediate review of the agency’s efforts to combat Mexican gun trafficking.