By Robert Gray
EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) - A Border Patrol agent, accused of buying guns in the United States and smuggling them to Mexico for use by drug cartels, must remain in jail pending a detention hearing later this week, a U.S. Magistrate Judge ruled on Tuesday.
Ricardo Montalvo, 28, and his girlfriend Carla Gonzales-Ortiz, 29, briefly appeared in court for the first time since their arrest on Monday. They are charged with conspiracy to buy firearms and more than 20,000 rounds of ammunition to be smuggled into Mexico.
They are accused of acting as "straw purchasers" of at least nine firearms between November 2010 and January 2011. Straw purchasers say they are purchasing weapons for themselves but conceal the true buyer.
A grand jury indictment accuses Montalvo and Gonzales-Ortiz of purchasing guns, including five AK-47-type pistols, two .380-caliber pistols, and two .22-caliber rifles. The guns are favored by Mexican drug cartels, the indictment says.
The pair are accused of purchasing more than 20,000 rounds of ammunition, 97 high-capacity magazines and four 37mm flare guns, which are sought by Mexican cartels for conversion into grenade launchers, the indictment says.
The indictment does not say if the weapons were actually smuggled into Mexico. Montalvo, who is based in El Paso, Texas, had been on administrative desk duty since January 2011 when the investigation started.
Mexican cartels rely on purchases of firearms in the United States and the Mexican government has often complained about the smuggling across the border.
The arrest of Montalvo and Gonzales-Ortiz came only days after three men pleaded guilty to charges of trafficking high-powered rifles and other guns to Mexico from Arizona under the botched "Fast and Furious" federal sting operation.
Republicans have criticized President Barack Obama's administration for allowing the Fast and Furious program - under which a government agency permitted weapons smuggling across the border in order to try to nab the criminals in a sting operation.
The failed operation embarrassed the administration and led to some calls for Attorney General Eric Holder to resign.
Montalvo and Gonzales-Ortiz will be arraigned at a hearing on Friday, said Terri Abernathy, senior litigation counsel.
(The story was corrects to say flare gun in fifth paragraph, not flair gun)
(Editing by Greg McCune and Lisa Shumaker)