Witness: NM ex-police chief on cartel's payroll

AP News
Posted: Sep 26, 2013 11:46 AM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A former police chief in a New Mexico border town collected more than $2,000 a month from the Juarez Cartel in exchange for protection and help with smuggling drugs and guns, a former town official testified Wednesday.

Blas "Woody" Gutierrez, the former Columbus village trustee, told a federal court that former Police Chief Angelo Vega also received $1,500 each time he allowed the cartel members to use village vehicles, including police cruisers, for the syndicate's various operations, the Albuquerque Journal reported (http://bit.ly/1929zPJ ).

That testimony came in a trial involving Danny Burnett, a former school superintendent who is charged with leaking information about a federal wiretap investigation into a Columbus gun and drug smuggling ring.

It was the first time such details from the 2011 gun smuggling case have been made public since many of the defendants have pleaded guilty.

Vega is the key prosecution witness in the case against Burnett, the husband of Assistant U.S. Attorney Paula Burnett, who has not been charged with any crime.

Gutierrez faces 10 years in federal prison for his guilty plea to 37 counts of smuggling, illegally purchasing firearms and conspiracy linked to the case.

Vega also testified Wednesday that he didn't remember exactly how much he was paid or how long he worked for the cartel. But he admitted running background checks and license plates at the request of cartel members and buying military gear at law enforcement supply stores for members of the Juarez Cartel and its enforcement arm, La Linea.

Gutierrez said Vega told him that he had a friend whose wife worked in the U.S. Attorney's Office and that the friend told Vega their telephones were tapped.

Gutierrez said he was not sure Vega was telling the truth until the two men met in Columbus and Vega destroyed his new phone in front of Gutierrez.

"He did it to show he wasn't messing around," Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez also testified that Vega claimed his friend could make the case go away for $20,000.

Other government witnesses testified that no one in the U.S. Attorney's Office could make a criminal case "go away" and that it would be impossible in an investigation as intensive as the one targeting the Columbus gun smuggling ring.

Assistant U.S. attorneys involved in the investigation testified that the quantity and quality of telephone conversations dropped after Feb. 17, 2011, the day Vega had lunch with Danny Burnett at an Albuquerque restaurant.

Gutierrez, Vega and former Mayor Eddie Espinoza were among more than a dozen defendants who pleaded guilty in the case.