Town official pleads guilty to running guns to Mexico
LAS CRUCES, New Mexico
LAS CRUCES, New Mexico (Reuters) - An ousted official of a tiny New Mexico border town pleaded guilty on Monday to conspiracy to run guns to warring Mexican drug cartels.
Blas "Woody" Gutierrez, 30, a former Columbus village trustee, pleaded guilty in federal court in Las Cruces 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.
No family or friends were present as Gutierrez, in shackles, a red jumpsuit and slip-on shoes, made his admission in a nearly empty courtroom.
Gutierrez, who remains in federal custody awaiting sentencing, 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 -- a total of 280 years and $9.25 million in fines.
Under the "most important" part of the sentencing agreement between Gutierrez and the United States, he will serve just 10 years in prison, said Gutierrez's attorney, C.J. McElhinney, of Las Cruces. McElhinney called a 10-year sentence "appropriate."
U.S. Magistrate Judge William P. Lynch also noted that if the sentencing judge rejects that agreement, Gutierrez will be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea.
Gutierrez was arrested in March along with former Columbus police chief Angelo Vega, former mayor Eddie Espinoza and 10 others, charged in an 84-count gun-running indictment. Since then, a Deming couple has also been charged with participating in the conspiracy.
With Gutierrez organizing the conspiracy, prosecutors allege that between January, 2010 and this March, the defendants used their positions to facilitate and safeguard the trafficking of around 200 guns worth about $70,000, including assault rifles, to Mexico. Almost 40,000 people have been killed in drug cartel-related mayhem there since late 2006.
After paying the police chief for "protection," Gutierrez bought weapons, tactical gear and body armor, and smuggled the items to the Ciudad Juarez-based La Linea drug cartel, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Spitzer. At least some of the trips were made using village vehicles, for which Gutierrez paid the former mayor, Spitzer said.
The former trustee, who also faces possible prosecution in Mexico's northern Chihuahua state on gun-running charges, did not resign until four months after his arrest.
Defense lawyer McElhinney said that six of the weapons Gutierrez pleaded guilty to smuggling -- three AK-47-type pistols and three pistols nicknamed "cop killers" that were purchased around January 9, 2010 by straw purchasers in Arizona -- came from Operation "Fast and Furious."
The U.S. Attorney's Office in El Paso was not able to immediately confirm or deny the allegation. Fast and Furious is a scandal involving allegations that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) deliberately allowed guns to be sold and smuggled into Mexico in a sting operation gone bad. Congress and the Justice Department are investigating the operation.
Two remaining co-defendants -- Gutierrez's wife and the ex-chief -- are due to go on trial in the fall.
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 month, 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 Greg McCune)