Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
The federal criminal cases against brothers Sergio and Jesus Samaniego-Villa have all the earmarks of a typical Mexican-based drug operation: drugs, guns, money and even statuettes of Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde, commonly known as the patron saints of drug trafficking.
But even in an Albuquerque metropolitan area with plenty of gun violence, it’s not every day officers pull over a vehicle and find the driver – in this case Jesus Samaniego-Villa – wearing an armored vest with a 30-round AR-15 magazine clipped to it.
In the back seat of the extended cab pickup truck, Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies found what prosecutors describe as an “arsenal” of rifles, a machine gun, night vision goggles, drugs and more than $33,000 in cash.
There are four related cases involving the brothers and five other defendants in federal court.
Sergio, 30, faces drug charges and Jesus Samaniego-Villa, faces gun charges. The brothers, from Culiacán, the heart of Sinaloa, are both in the country illegally.
It’s a complicated legal landscape with the brothers charged in only two of the cases. But court documents indicate prosecutors and agents believe all the defendants in the four cases were acting on Sergio’s behalf.
This isn’t the first drug-related business venture in Albuquerque for Sergio Samaniego-Villa, the alleged leader of the organization.
He was deported in 2012 while facing state drug charges in Bernalillo County after bonding out of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center.
According to federal court documents, an FBI task force started investigating Sergio’s drug trafficking organization in February 2018 and bought a half pound of heroin and a quarter pound of cocaine last year. Sergio Samaniego-Villa and his wife, Jessica Moya, 26, were arrested while delivering the drugs to undercover agents.
They were initially charged in state court with drug trafficking and released on their own recognizance.
They were supposed to stay in New Mexico but went to California and, according to court documents, missed court dates in Albuquerque. And, the records allege, they continued to sell drugs here through intermediaries – basically taking “orders” by phone in California and having them “filled” here through members of their organization.
In the relative scheme of drug dealing in Albuquerque, where undercover federal agents routinely buy multiple pounds of heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine in a single transaction, Sergio Samaniego-Villa and his wife are considered mid-level drug dealers.
But he has been persistent, and according to court documents, has connections into the heart of the Mexican territory controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel, raising his profile with the FBI task force.
In August 2018, a day after the FBI bought more drugs from Sergio Samaniego-Villa’s group, BCSO deputies stopped his brother, Jesus, driving a 2017 GMC Sierra pickup truck in the South Valley.
They found eight rifles, six handguns, night vision goggles, armored vests, more than $33,000 and a small amount of cocaine. Two of the rifles – one fully automatic and classified as a machine gun – had been reported as stolen.
Jesus Samaniego-Villa and his two passengers were charged with possession of stolen firearms in state court, where prosecutors were going to have to fight to keep the three men in jail.
Within days, before the defendants had a chance to try to persuade a state court judge to release them pending further hearings, the U.S. Attorney’s Office took the case and the three were charged in federal court with possessing a machine gun, among other charges.
In November, federal prosecutors also took over the state drug case against Sergio Samaniego-Villa and Moya and filed additional drug charges against two other men believed to be involved with the organization.
All seven have been ordered held in custody.
The drug cases are still in the early stages but the gun case is heating up.
Defense attorneys in the machine gun case want all the evidence thrown out, arguing that the BCSO traffic stop was a pretext and therefore the subsequent search that found the stolen machine gun and rifle was illegal.
Prosecutors argue that the traffic stop was routine and the search of the pickup truck was legal.
They say that after 11 p.m. on Aug. 9, Deputy Mitchell Skroch and others were responding to a domestic violence call on Foothill Drive SW, when a pickup truck left a dirt lot near the residence.
One of the deputies told Skroch the alleged domestic call offender might have left the scene in the truck, so Skroch followed it.
After the pickup truck passed through the intersection of Arenal and Coors SW, Skroch said he saw the truck drive over the solid white line into the bike lane for three or four seconds. Skroch then pulled the truck over.
Defense attorneys point out that Skroch originally said the truck passed over the “dotted-line” separating traffic lanes, which they say is evidence the stop was a pretext.
Skroch approached the truck driven by Samaniego-Villa but talked to the passenger in the front seat, Daniel Landeros-Garcia, because Samaniego-Villa doesn’t speak English and Skroch doesn’t speak Spanish.
At that point, other deputies started to arrive, and one took Samaniego-Villa from the truck.
Deputies reported that they “noticed” that Samaniego-Villa, in body armor, was wearing an empty holster and asked where the firearm was located.
After some confusion as to whether the handgun was in the back of his pants or in the back seat of the truck, deputies figured out it was in the back seat.
Skroch then asked Landeros-Garcia to get out of the truck because there was a gun inside. When he complied, Skroch saw a large amount of cash on the center console.
Meanwhile, Skroch has testified he wasn’t aware of a third person in the back seat of the truck at that point, because the windows were tinted. After putting Jesus Samaniego-Villa in handcuffs and Landeros-Garcia in the back of Skroch’s patrol car, deputies returned to the truck to see if anyone else was inside.
Skroch testified that deputies then found Christian Meza-Samaniego – a cousin of Sergio and Jesus and also in the U.S. illegally – in the back seat sitting next to a “pile” of guns.
Of the three men, only Landeros-Garcia had a driver’s license. Jesus Samaniego-Villa had a Mexican voter ID card and Christian Meza-Samaniego didn’t have any ID.
After a deputy who could translate Spanish arrived, Samaniego-Villa was asked to sign a consent form allowing deputies to search the truck. He wouldn’t sign the form, but told deputies they could remove the cocaine – roughly two grams.
Deputies didn’t take the guns out of the truck at that point but began to check on the firearms to determine if they were loaded. Deputy Ryan Stoffel wrote down the serial numbers of the eight rifles and six handguns. Two of the rifles, including the fully automatic machine gun, came back as stolen.
According to Skroch, Jesus Samaniego-Villa said the three men were out shooting in the desert and went to the house on Foothill SW, where the alleged domestic violence incident occurred, to feed horses in a nearby lot.
Jesus told deputies the truck belonged to Landeros-Garcia’s mother, which a computer check confirmed. But Jesus Samaniego-Villa’s attorney later argued that his client had purchased the truck and had Landeros-Garcia’s mother register it in her name, because Samaniego-Villa couldn’t, since he was in the country illegally.
Defense lawyers have argued that under those facts none of the three men in the truck that night had standing to consent to, or refuse, any search.
Senior U.S. District Judge James Parker hasn’t ruled yet on the traffic stop or the searches.
Deputies conducted an inventory of the truck before having it towed.
In addition to the rifles and handguns, they also discovered magazines for various types of firearms, two ballistic Kevlar helmets, two sets of night vision goggles, a gas mask, an electronic wire detection device (to determine if someone was covertly recording), and two flashbang grenades, along with $33,289 in cash – approximately $3,580 on top of the front center console with the rest wrapped in a plastic bag and hidden under the back seat.
The statuette of Santa Muerte was found on the dashboard next to a model of a skull, and Jesus Malverde was on top of the cash on the center console.
After Sergio Samaniego-Villa and Jessica Moya left for California, members of the FBI task force used confidential informants to telephone the couple and place drug orders.
One of the informants said he/she had been buying drugs from Sergio Samaniego-Villa for three years.
In July, members of the task force had one informant place an order for an ounce of methamphetamine and three ounces of heroin. The drugs were delivered 40 minutes later by Samuel Rodriguez-Velazquez, who agents describe as a transporter for Sergio.
On Aug. 8, the agents had the informant place a second order for four ounces of methamphetamine and three ounces of heroin for a price of $3,300.
Agents had been able to figure out where Rodriguez-Velazquez lived and were able to follow him before the delivery, trying to find where he picked up the drugs.
He proved difficult to tail, making U-turns in the middle of side streets and turning into parking lots. But agents did see him meet with Jesus Samaniego-Villa – who was driving the same GMC pickup truck pulled over by BCSO deputies the next night.
After Rodriguez-Velazquez met with Jesus Samaniego-Villa, the drugs were delivered later that day to the informant and subsequently turned over to task force agents.
Rodriguez-Velazquez was arrested at that point, but was indicted on federal drug charges in November.
Agents also served a search warrant on Rodriguez-Velazquez’s former roommate, Fernando Gomez-Montez, and found drug ledgers, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and a handgun. Gomez-Montez was also indicted by a federal grand jury in November.
Like the other five, Rodriguez-Velazquez and Gomez-Montez are being held without bond.