Three top officials from a New Mexico border town who are accused in a scheme to illegally buy guns in the U.S. and send them to Mexico will remain jailed, after a judge denied their bail requests Tuesday, saying the evidence against them was "pretty damning."
Columbus Mayor Eddie Espinoza, former Police Chief Angelo Vega and town trustee Blas Gutierrez were among a dozen defendants in the case arraigned before U.S. Magistrate William Lynch.
Prosecutors allege the three conspired to buy guns from another defendant, Ian Garland of Chaparral, N.M., and then smuggle them across the Mexican border for use by drug cartels. Some of the more than 200 guns purchased over 14 months were found in a drug bust in Juarez, Mexico, prosecutors said.
"This shows they were buying the guns on behalf of organized crime," said prosecutor Nathan Lichvarcik. "They bought the guns in chunks, and they sold them in chunks."
Defense attorneys repeatedly said the prosecution has yet to prove it was the accused who smuggled the guns into the neighboring country.
"My client legally bought the guns. How they got to Mexico, not even the government can tell you," said Charles McElhinney, Gutierrez's attorney.
Gutierrez, 30, faces 37 charges of conspiracy, along with smuggling guns and posing as a "straw purchaser" of weapons. According to wiretaps cited by the prosecution, Gutierrez would get calls from an inmate in a Mexican prison, instructing him to buy the guns.
Espinoza, 51, is charged with seven counts of conspiracy, lying during the purchase of guns, and smuggling. His attorney requested his release on the basis of a medical condition that requires kidney dialysis three times a week. The judge denied the petition.
Vega, 40, was removed from his police chief post after the three officials were arrested last week. He faces only one count, conspiracy, but prosecutors did not go easy on him. They asked that Vega also be denied bail.
Citing a wiretap, Lichvarcik related how Vega received a call from Gutierrez after Gutierrez was stopped with guns by a law enforcement officer. Gutierrez asked the then-police chief to contact the officer and use his authority to help Gutierrez recover the guns, which Vega did, the prosecutor said. After that, Gutierrez called Vega again to ask what he had told the officer.
Vega responded that he lied to the officer, Lichvarcik said.
"The wiretap is pretty damning," the judge told Vega. "There's no two ways about it."
Aside from the three officials, nine other defendants were arraigned Tuesday on related charges. All of them, including the 50-year-old Garland, pleaded not guilty.
Two of the indicted, the only females in the group, were released on $10,000 bond. One more postponed his detention hearing until Thursday, and the rest were to remain jailed.
Dozens of relatives of the indicted filled the court's visitors benches during Tuesday's hearing. Many of them were parents of the younger defendants. They exchanged glances with their children as they were brought before the judge.
An attorneys petition to have all the defendants present to expedite the proceedings was denied after the U.S. marshal in charge of court security said it was not safe to have all 12 accused in court while there was such a large crowd present.
The original indictment names 11 defendants, one of whom is still at large. One of the female suspects was added to the indictment over the weekend.
About 1,800 people live in Columbus, a collection of largely one-story buildings and trailer homes. The town sits just north of Palomas, Mexico, which has seen increasing violence as drug cartels wage war against one another, the Mexican Army and police.