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UPDATED: Former Columbus, N.M., Police Chief Pleads Guilty in Gun-Smuggling Case

LAS CRUCES — Former Columbus police chief Angelo Vega, handcuffed and dressed in a red prisoner jumpsuit, pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiracy, smuggling and public corruption charges.

The charges are in connection with a federal gun-smuggling case that also snared the border town’s mayor and a trustee.

The maximum penalty under the three charges is 35 years in prison, but under a sealed plea agreement reached with federal prosecutors, Vega is facing “much less than the maximum,” said defense attorney Jess Lilley.

“It’s not months. It’s years,” Lilley said of the sentencing range prosecutors will recommend, while declining to be more specific.

Vega is the 12th of 14 people accused in the gun-smuggling case to plead guilty since an 84-count indictment was handed up and dozens of law enforcement officials raided the town March 10. One defendant, Ignacio Villalobos, is still at large. Another member of the alleged ring, Gabriela Gutierrez, the wife of former Trustee Blas Gutierrez, is awaiting trial.

Former Mayor Eddie Espinoza and former Trustee Blas Gutierrez have both pleaded guilty in the case, in which prosecutors allege the Columbus-based group bought more than 200 weapons from a Chaparral dealer and smuggled them to Mexico in a deal with La Linea, the main enforcement arm of the Juarez drug-smuggling cartel.

Since 2008, more than 8,000 people have been killed in Ciudad Juarez and surrounding areas in violence fueled by conflict between the Juarez cartel and the rival Sinaloa cartel.

Lilley said Vega’s decision to plead guilty to the original charge, and two new ones, was based on an evaluation of the evidence.

“He (Vega) has obviously made some poor choices. Poor choices don’t make somebody a bad person,” Lilley said. “He’s ready to move on.”

Vega was originally charged with one count of conspiracy, but additional smuggling and public corruption charges were added Thursday under the plea agreement.

In a hearing on Vega’s detention conditions in late March, a federal prosecutor said the evidence against the former police chief was “ripe for additional charges,” according to hearing notes.

Federal prosecutor Steve Spitzer said that Vega was approached last October by Blas Gutierrez and Espinoza to work with La Linea to smuggle weapons from the U.S. into Mexico. Vega admitted that he was paid “well over” $10,000 for providing his services, which included conducting surveillance for the smuggling gang and pulling over three federal agents last October to try to find out what they were doing in Columbus.

According to court documents, Vega used his police credentials in February to buy thousands of dollars worth of tactical combat gear that was to be sent to Mexico. Vega bought a bullet-proof vest Feb. 18 for one of the leaders of La Linea, Spitzer said.

Spitzer also said that Vega knew that Blas Gutierrez used a Columbus police pickup truck to smuggle some of the weapons into Mexico.

After police seized a total of 20 AK-47-type pistols from Blas Gutierrez on Feb. 12 and Feb. 24 while he drove home to Columbus from Chaparral, Vega twice called a federal law enforcement agent to vouch for his co-defendant. Vega told the federal agent that Blas Gutierrez was not involved in gun-smuggling to Mexico and that the firearms purchases were legitimate, according to a recording of the conversation.

After calling the agent the first time, Vega and Blas Gutierrez spoke via telephone in a call federal agents monitored. According to a transcript of the call, Gutierrez asked Vega what the agent said.

“Nothing,” Vega said, “I just told him a … lie.”

Vega described the conversation for Gutierrez: “‘Do you vouch for him, chief? ‘Yeah, yeah … yeah.’”

Lilley said Vega, who had a 20-year career in law enforcement, “doesn’t want to make any excuses for the poor choices he made. He’s not trying to blame anybody else.”

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Aug. 22, 2011 — Feds Wrapping Up Border Gun Smuggling Case

By Jeri Clausing / The Associated Press

Federal prosecutors are close to wrapping up their case against a group of border town officials and others accused of helping to smuggle hundreds of guns into Mexico.

A change of plea hearing is scheduled in Las Cruces on Thursday for former Columbus, N.M., police Chief Angelo Vega, who faces a felony conspiracy charge. The town’s former mayor, a former town trustee and nearly a dozen other people already have pleaded guilty in the case.

If Vega changes his plea to guilty, there will be just two defendants left to resolve their charges, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in West Texas, which took over prosecution of the case. One of those is a fugitive who was never arrested. The other, Gabriela Gutierrez, is accused of making false statements, aiding and abetting and conspiracy.

Former Columbus Mayor Eddie Espinoza was the first to change his plea to guilty last month. Since then, 11 others have followed suit.

Espinoza’s attorney, Howard Anderson, said Monday that everyone had been “pretty much lined up” to change their pleas to guilty in the case following their arrest in a federal sting in April. But he said the agreements have all been sealed so it’s unclear who might have made deals for leniency.

“It’s hard to say,” Anderson said. “It’s a question of what they could and couldn’t prove. … Obviously some have deals.”

A spokesman for Vega’s attorney confirmed the hearing was scheduled this week for Vega to change his plea.

Vega faces one count of conspiracy in the case, which could carry a sentence of up to five years. The other two town officials face potentially much longer sentences.

Blas Gutierrez, a 30-year-old former village trustee, faces up to 280 years in prison after pleading guilty to 19 counts of gun smuggling, 17 counts of making false statements in the acquisition of firearms and one count of conspiracy.

Espinoza, the 51-year-old former mayor, faces 65 years in prison for guilty pleas on one count of conspiracy, three counts of making false statements in the acquisition of firearms and three counts of smuggling firearms.

Sentencing dates have not been set. Anderson said it takes about 75 to 90 days after pleas are entered for presentencing reports to be completed.

Columbus sits just north of Palomas, Mexico, a town that has seen increasing violence as drug cartels wage war against one another, the Mexican Army and police.

The town is in dire financial straits, which current officials blame on the indicted men. Last month, the town’s board of trustees shut down Columbus’s three-member police department and reduced other employees’ hours in an attempt by new Mayor Nicole Lawson to stabilize the budget.

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Aug. 22, 2011 2:07 p.m.

By Jeri Clausing / The Associated Press

Federal prosecutors are close to wrapping up their case against a group of border town officials and others accused of helping to smuggle hundreds of guns into Mexico.

A change of plea hearing is scheduled in Las Cruces on Thursday for former Columbus, N.M., police Chief Angelo Vega, who faces a felony conspiracy charge. The town’s former mayor, a former town trustee and nearly a dozen other people have already have already pleaded guilty in the case.

If Vega changes his plea to guilty, there will be just two defendants left to resolve their cases.

Former Columbus Mayor Eddie Espinoza was the first to change his plea to guilty last month. His attorney says the plea agreements are all sealed so it’s unclear who might have made deals for leniency.

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Aug. 1, 2011 — Former Columbus, N.M., Trustee Pleads Guilty To Gun Smuggling

By The Associated Press

Another former official from the New Mexico border town of Columbus has pleaded guilty to gun smuggling charges.

United States Attorney John E. Murphy of West Texas said Monday that 30-year-old Blas Gutierrez, a former village trustee, pleaded guilty in federal court in Las Cruces to 19 counts of gun smuggling, 17 counts of making false statements in the acquisition of firearms and one count of conspiracy.

Gutierrez, who remains in federal custody pending sentencing, faces up to 280 years in prison.

Gutierrez, former Mayor Eddie Espinoza and former police Chief Angelo Vega were among a dozen people arrested in a federal sting in March. Officials said they were involved in a ring that smuggled hundreds of guns into Mexico.

Espinoza entered the first guilty plea last month. Since then, most of the defendants have pleaded guilty in the case.

No sentencing dates have been set.

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July 22, 2011 — Five More People Plead Guilty in Gun Smuggling Case

By The Associated Press

Five more people have pleaded guilty to charges in connection with a gun smuggling ring that federal prosecutors say sent hundreds of guns into Mexico.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced the pleas Friday. The charges range from conspiracy to making false statements and firearm smuggling.

The five, who pleaded guilty this week, included Vicente Carreon of Columbus, Ian Garland of Chaparral, Miguel Carrillo of Columbus and Brenda and David Christy of Deming.

Five others charged in the case also have entered guilty pleas.

Prosecutors say no sentencing dates for those who have entered pleas have been scheduled.

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July 21, 2011 — Fifth Columbus Gun-Ring Defendant Pleads Guilty

By ABQnews Staff

A fifth defendant has pleaded guilty in the case charging the Columbus police chief, mayor, a village trustee and nine others with trafficking firearms to Mexican cartels, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported.

Manuel “Coruco” Ortega, 25, of Palomas, Mexico, faces up to 15 years in federal prison for firearms smuggling and conspiracy after entering his plea Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge William P. Lynch in Las Cruces, the Sun-News said.

The 13 defendants allegedly conspired to smuggle about 200 firearms favored by Mexican cartels into Mexico between January and March of 2010, at least partially on the orders of Jesus “Mantequilla” Molinas, an inmate at the Cereso prison in Juarez, prosecutors have said.

Some of the weapons were allegedly found at the scene of a murder, a kidnapping and a drug bust in Mexican border towns, according to the Sun-News report.

The defendants allegedly paid Chaparral Guns about $70,000 for the AK-47 pistols and American Tactical 9mm pistols, the Sun-News said.

Four other defendants, including former Columbus Mayor Eddie Espinoza, have pleaded guilty in connection with the case over the past week.

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7:26pm 7/18/11 — Fourth Person Pleads Guilty in Gun Smuggling Case

By The Associated Press

A fourth person has pleaded guilty to charges in connection with a gun smuggling ring that federal prosecutors say sent hundreds of guns into Mexico.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said 25-year-old Ricardo Gutierrez of Columbus, N.M., appeared Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge William P. Lynch in Las Cruces and pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy, three counts of making false statements while acquiring guns and three counts of gun smuggling.

No sentencing date has been scheduled for Gutierrez, who faces up to 50 years in prison.

Gutierrez is one among a dozen people — including former Columbus Mayor Eddie Espinoza, former Columbus police Chief Angelo Vega and former Columbus Trustee Blas Gutierrez — charged in the federal sting.

Espinoza and two other people charged in the case — Alberto Rivera and Eva Gutierrez – entered guilty pleas last week.

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July 15, 2011 — Two More Guilty Pleas in Border Gun Smuggling Case

By The Associated Press

Two more New Mexicans accused of helping to smuggle hundreds of guns across the border have pleaded guilty.

Prosecutors say 40-year-old Alberto Rivera of Columbus and 22-year-old Eva Gutierrez of Las Cruces entered the pleas during a hearing in Las Cruces on Friday.

Rivera pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, making false statements in the acquisition of firearms, and smuggling firearms from the United States.

Gutierrez pleaded guilty to conspiracy and making false statements in the acquisition of firearms.

Earlier this week, former Columbus Mayor Eddie Espinoza entered the first guilty pleas in the case, which is scheduled to go to trial in October.

Espinoza, former Columbus police Chief Angelo Vega and former Columbus Trustee Blas Gutierrez were among a dozen people charged in a federal sting in March.

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July 13, 2011 — Former Columbus, N.M., Mayor Pleads Guilty to Gun Smuggling

By Jeri Clausing / The Associated Press

The former mayor of a small New Mexico border town has pleaded guilty to charges that he participated in a gun smuggling ring that federal prosecutors said sent hundreds of guns into Mexico, authorities said Wednesday.

Eddie Espinoza faces 65 years in prison. The 51-year-old was arrested in March along with two other Columbus town officials — police chief Angelo Vega and former trustee Blas Gutierrez. The three were among a dozen people charged in the federal sting.

United States Attorney John E. Murphy of West Texas announced Wednesday afternoon that Espinoza pleaded guilty 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 during a hearing Tuesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge William P. Lynch in Las Cruces.

“I am glad to hear about it,” said Rosemary Zamora, who lost her job as a town police officer earlier this week because of the town’s dire financial condition, which current officials blame on the indicted men.

“It’s affected the whole community. We can’t even get any grants because the government doesn’t trust Columbus anymore,” she said.

Earlier this week, the town’s board of trustees shut down Columbus’s three-member police department and reduced other employees’ hours in an attempt by new Mayor Nicole Lawson to stabilize the budget.

The village will rely on the Luna County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement. Sheriff Raymond Cobos said deputies have always patrolled the area anyway and he’ll shift resources to cover the village.

Columbus sits just north of Palomas, Mexico, a town that has seen increasing violence as drug cartels wage war against one another, the Mexican Army and police.

Former Mayor Martha Skinner said she was surprised anyone would plead guilty, and she speculated that Espinoza did so because he has kidney problems and is on dialysis. Skinner said she anticipates it will take the town five to 10 years to recover financially.

“We have had a terrible time trying to reorganize,” she said. “There is no money. He spent every single dime we had. So things have not been good.”

A spokesman for Murphy said Tuesday’s hearing was called after Espinoza decided to enter the plea. A sentencing date hasn’t been set and hearings haven’t been scheduled for anyone else in the case.

Espinoza faces up to 10 years in federal prison for each of the smuggling counts; up to five years in federal prison for the conspiracy charge as well as each of the false statement charges. Espinoza remains in federal custody. No sentencing date has been scheduled.

“It’s just sad to know that there still people like that around,” Zamora said after learning of Espinoza’s plea. “For a police officer, that’s got to be the lowest thing ever.”

 

 

 



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