The mayor and police chief of a tiny New Mexico border town best known for a raid by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa nearly a century ago were among 11 people accused Thursday of participating in a ring alleged to have illegally sent firearms to Mexico.
A federal indictment said the defendants have engaged in a conspiracy _ based in Columbus, N.M. _ to buy firearms since January 2010. Law enforcement officers executed search warrants Thursday at the Columbus Police Department, a gun shop and eight homes.
The indictment alleges the defendants purchased firearms favored by Mexican cartels, including AK-47-type pistols, weapons resembling AK-47 rifles _ but with shorter barrels _ and American Tactical 9 mm caliber pistols. Authorities also said 12 firearms purchased by defendants were later found in Mexico.
Mayor Eddie Espinoza, Police Chief Angelo Vega, and town Trustee Blas Gutierrez were among those accused of firearms and smuggling charges in the 84-count indictment unsealed Thursday afternoon.
The defendants bought approximately 200 firearms over a 14-month period from Chaparral Guns in Chaparral, N.M., which is owned by defendant Ian Garland, authorities said. They're accused of falsely claiming they were buying the firearms for themselves when they were actually acting as "straw purchasers" _ buying firearms on behalf of others.
Border state gun shops are a chief source of weapons smuggling into Mexico, and Mexican officials fighting that country's increasingly violent drug cartels have complained to U.S. officials about the flow of firearms. American authorities have, in turn, stepped up their scrutiny of travelers leaving U.S. soil.
The investigation began after a Border Patrol agent found a large number of firearms in a vehicle, U.S. Attorney Kenneth 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."
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which took part in the investigation, has recently faced criticism after both CBS News and the non-profit Center for Public Integrity reported that agents investigating gun-running by drug cartels allowed hundreds of guns purchased in the U.S. to go into Mexico.
The agency and prosecutors let the guns cross the border as they were building cases against traffickers, the center reported.
Thursday's indictment said law enforcement officers confiscated 40 AK-47 type pistols, 1,580 rounds of ammunition and 30 high-capacity magazines from defendants before the items crossed the border.
The dozen firearms found in Mexico and traced back to the defendants got through the border in the early stages of the investigation, while investigators were still trying to piece things together, Gonzales said.
The Associated Press left a message on Espinoza's cell phone seeking comment. No listing could be found for Vega or Gutierrez.
Listings also could not be found for two of the other three village trustees, and a woman who answered the phone at the home of the third trustee, William Canfield, said he had no immediate comment. A dispatcher who answered the phone at the Columbus Police Department also had no comment.
The U.S. Attorney's Office said one of the 11 defendants, Ignacio Villalobos, remains at large and is considered a fugitive. The other 10 are set for initial appearances Friday in federal court in Las Cruces.
Columbus lies just a few miles north of Palomas, Mexico. It sees tourists curious about Villa's March 9, 1916 raid, which took place 95 years ago on Wednesday.
An estimated 500 to 600 revolutionaries attacked Columbus before dawn in the raid, setting buildings in the business district on fire. U.S. soldiers with the 13th Calvary at Camp Furlong, on the outskirts of Columbus, set up machine guns in the town to fight Villa's forces. The raid left 18 Americans dead, most of them civilians. Some 70 to 75 revolutionaries also died.