By Ashley Meeks
LAS CRUCES, New Mexico (Reuters) - The ousted mayor of a tiny New Mexico border town has pleaded guilty for his role in a conspiracy to run guns to warring Mexican drug cartels, authorities said on Wednesday.
Eddie Espinoza, 51, the former mayor of Columbus, pleaded guilty in federal court in Las Cruces on Tuesday to one count of conspiracy, three counts of making false statements in the acquisition of firearms and three counts of smuggling firearms from the United States.
He remains in federal custody awaiting sentencing. He faces up to 10 years in federal prison for each of the smuggling counts, five years for conspiracy and five years for each false statement charge.
Espinoza was arrested in March along with former Columbus police chief Angelo Vega, village trustee Blas Gutierrez and 10 others charged 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 almost 40,000 people have been killed in drug cartel-related mayhem since late 2006.
Federal prosecutors agreed to seal both Espinoza's plea agreement and any future plea deals of his co-defendants, who are due to go on trial in the fall. Espinoza's lawyer, Howard Anderson, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The former mayor, who also faces possible prosecution in Mexico's northern Chihuahua state on gun-running charges, did not resign until two months after his arrest and insisted he be paid his $700 monthly salary for April and May.
The gun-running scandal brought fresh notoriety to Columbus, best known for a raid by famed bandit turned revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa in 1916 that left 18 Americans dead and the isolated frontier town a smoldering ruin.
Last week, the cash-strapped community dissolved its police force as it had no budget to pay for it. Policing has since been taken over by the Luna County Sheriff's Department.
(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Steve Gorman)