EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) The mayor and police chief of a small town on the U.S.-Mexico border were among 11 suspects indicted for allegedly trafficking around 200 guns to Mexico, authorities said on Thursday.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in New Mexico said the mayor of Columbus, Eddie Espinoza, the town’s police chief Angelo Vega, and village trustee Blas Gutierrez were among those arrested on an 84-count indictment.
“Gutierrez, Espinoza and Vega were duty sworn to protect and safeguard the people of Columbus,” U.S. Attorney Kenneth J. Gonzales said in a statement.
“Instead, they increased the risk of harm that the people of Columbus face ... by allegedly using their ... positions to facilitate and safeguard the operations of a smuggling ring that was exporting firearms to Mexico,” he added.
Columbus is a small town just north of the border from Palomas, in Mexico’s northern state of Chihuahua, where more than 4,400 people were killed by drug cartels last year.
The bust followed a year-long investigation led by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, together with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Drug Enforcement Administration agencies.
The indictment alleges that between January 2010 and March 2011, the defendants conspired to buy around 200 firearms for illegal export to Mexico.
Among the weapons allegedly bought by the ring from a gun store in Chaparral, New Mexico, were a cut-down version of the Kalashnikov assault rifle — the weapon of choice for Mexican drug cartel hit men — as well as high-capacity magazines and pistols.
Charges brought included conspiracy to smuggle firearms to Mexico, and making false statements while acquiring firearms, which carry a five-year jail term and a fine of $250,000 on conviction.
The United States is presently under pressure to curb the illicit flow of guns to Mexico, where more than 34,000 people have died in drug violence since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006 and sent the army to break the powerful cartels.
The operation comes days after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder ordered an investigation into a controversial ATF operation that allowed guns bought in the United States to slip into Mexico, in the hope of nabbing major drug kingpins.
The U.S. Attorney’s office said every effort had been made to seize firearms from defendants nabbed in Columbus to prevent them from entering Mexico. It added that no guns were knowingly allowed to cross the border.
Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Jerry Norton