Border police chief pleads guilty to running guns to Mexico

LAS CRUCES, New Mexico Thu Aug 25, 2011 6:26pm EDT

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LAS CRUCES, New Mexico (Reuters) - The ousted police chief of a tiny New Mexico border town pleaded guilty on Thursday to conspiracy to run guns to a brutal Mexico drug cartel.

Former Columbus Police Chief Angelo Vega pleaded guilty in federal court in Las Cruces to conspiracy and new charges filed on Thursday of aiding in the smuggling of firearms and extortion under color of law.

Vega, who appeared in court in shackles and a red jumpsuit, faces up to 35 years in federal prison and $750,000 in fines at sentencing, which has yet to be scheduled.

He was arrested in March along with former Columbus village trustee Blas "Woody" Gutierrez, former mayor Eddie Espinoza and 10 others, charged in an 84-count gun-running indictment. Since then, a couple from the nearby town of Deming has also been charged with participating in the conspiracy.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Spitzer said Vega was approached by Espinoza and Gutierrez in October 2010 and asked to work for a member of the brutal La Linea organization.

Formed by renegade police officers in the northern Mexico state of Chihuahua, La Linea act as enforcers for the Juarez cartel, a group based in Ciudad Juarez that controls some of the main drug trafficking routes into the United States.

From October to March, Vega was paid more than $10,000 to conduct counter-surveillance for the cartel, use a village-owned Ford F150 truck to run guns to Mexico and use his official position to try and arrange for the return of already-seized firearms to Gutierrez, Spitzer said.

At La Linea's request, he was also paid to carry out an official traffic stop on three Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents.

On February 10, Vega purchased thousands of dollars in body armor, boots, helmets and clothing, including a bulletproof vest for a La Linea leader who has not been named in public documents, Spitzer said.

Of the 15 defendants ultimately arrested, 14 have pleaded guilty. The only remaining co-defendant, Gutierrez's wife, is still scheduled to go on trial in the fall.

Prosecutors said that between January 2010 and March 2011, Vega's co-defendants, including the former mayor, used their positions to facilitate and safeguard the trafficking of around 200 guns worth about $70,000, including assault rifles, to Mexico, with Gutierrez running the conspiracy.

More than 40,000 people have been killed in drug cartel-related mayhem there since late 2006.

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 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 Tim Gaynor and Cynthia Johnston)

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