LAS CRUCES – The former mayor of the village of Columbus, 52-year-old Eddie Espinoza, was sentenced Thursday to four years and three months in federal prison for his role in a gun-smuggling ring that included the town’s police chief and a village trustee.
Starting with an early morning raid in March 2011, Espinoza, police chief Angelo Vega, trustee Blas Gutierrez and 10 others were arrested on charges they violated federal laws by purchasing firearms for the true buyers at a Chaparral gun dealership before the weapons were smuggled into Mexico.
Espinoza, who was in his second term as mayor of the town of 1,800 when he was arrested, had faced 10 years in prison for each of three counts of firearm smuggling and five years each for three counts of making false statements in the purchase of firearms and a single conspiracy charge. Espinoza had pleaded guilty to all seven counts in July.
According to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of West Texas, Espinoza admitted that from January 2010 to March 2011, he conspired with associates to use or act as so-called “straw men” to buy weapons smuggled into Mexico.
Espinoza himself bought a total of 16 firearms from Chaparral Guns in Chaparral that he admitted knowing were to be smuggled into Mexico where a bloody power struggle between warring drug cartels has claimed thousands of lives over the last five years.
One AK-47-type pistol Espinoza bought in January 2011 was found two months later at a crime scene in Ciudad Juárez, authorities said.
Authorities said Espinoza also leased an El Paso apartment, costing $3,600 for three months’ rent, which was used to store the purchased weapons and as a gathering place for members of the ring.
Also disclosed during Tuesday’s sentencing hearing was the fact that Espinoza had allowed former trustee Gutierrez and others to use city-owned vehicles to transport firearms bought by straw buyers to Mexico.
Espinoza is the fourth of 12 convicted defendants to be sentenced in the case. No other dates to sentence remaining defendants have been scheduled. One defendant, a Deming man, died from natural causes before being sentenced.
The 13th defendant in the criminal case, Gabriela Gutierrez, the wife of Blas Gutierrez, is awaiting trial on related charges.
In addition to his prison term, federal Judge Robert Brack ordered Espinoza to be placed under supervised release for three years after completing his prison term.
— This article appeared on page C02 of the Albuquerque Journal