Mayor gets 51 months in prison in U.S.-Mexico gun case

(Reuters) - The ousted mayor of a small New Mexico border town who helped run nearly 200 firearms to a violent Mexican drug cartel was sentenced on Thursday to 51 months in prison, authorities said.

Eddie Espinoza, 52, the former mayor of Columbus, received the sentence from U.S. District Judge Robert Brack in federal court in Las Cruces, New Mexico, U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman said.

Brack also ordered three years of supervised release for Espinoza, who pleaded guilty in July 2011 to conspiracy, three counts of making false statements in the acquisition of firearms and three counts of smuggling firearms from the United States.

Espinoza, who faced up to 50 years in prison, is among 12 defendants who pleaded guilty to charges in the gun-running conspiracy.

From January 2010 until March 2011, Espinoza bought 16 firearms from Chaparral Guns in Chaparral, New Mexico, falsely stating on federal forms he was buying them for himself, even though he knew they were illegally destined for Mexico, prosecutors said Thursday.

Espinoza also agreed to allow former Columbus Village Trustee Blas Gutierrez, the alleged ringleader of the conspiracy, and others, to use city-owned vehicles to transport the weapons south over the border, they said.

The guns were among 193 Kalashnikov-type assault weapons and 9 mm pistols purchased by the conspirators, who used their positions to enable trafficking of the around $70,000 worth of firearms to Mexico.

Some of those weapons were later recovered at drug busts and implicated in murders in Mexico, where more than 55,000 people have been killed in cartel-related mayhem since 2006.

Prosecutors said tactical gear and body armor were also smuggled to the Ciudad Juarez-based La Linea criminal organization, sometimes using village vehicles.

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

Espinoza is the fourth defendant to be sentenced in the case. Vicente “Tito” Carreon was sent to prison in March for 46 months, Brenda Christy received two years’ probation in April for making a false statement in the acquisition of a firearm, and Ian Garland, the owner of Chaparral Guns in Chaparral, New Mexico, received a five-year prison sentence in May.

Gutierrez, the former village trustee and Espinoza’s nephew, remains in federal custody awaiting sentencing. He faces up to 280 years in prison, while former Columbus police chief Angelo Vega could be sentenced to 35 years. All have pleaded guilty.

Gutierrez’s wife, who has not pleaded guilty, was set to start trial in April in Las Cruces, but Pitman’s office said on Thursday that case is “pending litigation.” A final defendant, Ignacio “Nacho” Villalobos, remains a fugitive.

Vega, who was not charged in the gun purchases, bought thousands of dollars in body armor, boots, helmets and clothing, including a bulletproof vest for a La Linea enforcer, who has not been named in public documents.

No other sentencing dates have been scheduled.

Editing by Tim Gaynor