By Ashley Meeks
LAS CRUCES, New Mexico (Reuters) - The disgraced former police chief of a small New Mexico border town will remain behind bars with the mayor and village trustee pending trial on gun running charges, a judge ruled on Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Robert C. Brack denied bail for Angelo Vega at a hearing in Las Cruces, calling the former police chief of Columbus a flight risk and "a dangerous man on perhaps the most dangerous border in the world."
Vega was among 13 people, including the mayor and village trustee of the tiny frontier town, who were charged earlier this month in an 84-count gun-running indictment.
It alleged that the defendants used their positions to facilitate and safeguard the trafficking of around 200 guns, including assault rifles, to Mexico, where about 40 people a day were killed in raging drug cartel violence last year.
"I'm particularly concerned of the mind-set of a man with a badge who sold the strength and protections associated with that badge to promote a virtual war going on south of the border," Brack told the court.
The case has brought fresh notoriety to Columbus, which is best known for a raid by bandit-turned-revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa in 1916, that left 18 Americans dead and the dusty frontier town a smoking ruin.
Also arrested with Vega on March 10 were Columbus mayor Eddie Espinoza and village trustee Blas Gutierrez, who has also requested a hearing to appeal his detention.
Noting Vega's knowledge of the region, contacts and history of frequent travel to Mexico, Brack added: "I'm not at all convinced, if we released him today, we would know where he is tomorrow."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Lichvarcik outlined new details in the case against Vega, who is charged with one count of conspiracy.
Lichvarcik alleged that Vega used his position to run the license plates of suspicious vehicles "to figure out if any law enforcement was onto them," and allowed an unmarked police truck to be used to run firearms, in exchange for $20,000 in "protection money" paid by Gutierrez.
He said Vega also used his position to purchase "tactical combat gear, including a bullet-proof vest to be smuggled" to Mexico.
"Any criminal conspiracy would salivate at the thought of having a police chief in their back pocket," Lichvarcik said.
The United States is under pressure to curb the illicit flow of guns to Mexico, where more than 36,000 people have died in drug violence since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006 and sent the army to break the powerful cartels.
The bust followed a year-long investigation led by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, together with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Drug Enforcement Administration agencies.
(Writing by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Greg McCune)