By ABC-7 Web Producer Leonard Martinez
The mayor and police chief of the Village of Columbus, N.M., were among city officials indicted Thursday morning on allegations of firearms violations and drug trafficking.
The defendants charged in the 84-count indictment include Angelo Vega, the Columbus chief of police; Eddie Espinoza, the mayor of Columbus; and Blas Gutierrez, a village trustee in Columbus.
Ten of the eleven defendants were arrested without incident this morning by teams of federal, state and local law enforcement officers, and will make their initial appearances Friday in the federal courthouse in Las Cruces. Defendant Ignacio Villalobos has not been apprehended and is considered a fugitive, according to the U.S. attorney's office in New Mexico. The officers also executed ten search warrants at eight residences, one business establishment, and at the office of the Columbus Police Department.
The indictment is the result of an intensive year-long investigation initiated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), that later expanded to include the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Attorney’s Las Cruces Branch Office.
The indictment alleges that, between January 2010 and March 2011, the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to purchase firearms for illegal export to Mexico. During this 14-month period, the defendants allegedly purchased approximately 200 firearms from Chaparral Guns in Chaparral, New Mexico, which is owned and operated by defendant Ian Garland. According to the indictment, the defendants purchased firearms favored by the Mexican Cartels, including AK-47-type pistols, weapons resembling AK-47 rifles but with shorter barrels and without rear stocks, and American Tactical 9 mm caliber pistols. The defendants allegedly obtained firearms from Chaparral Guns by falsely claiming they were the actual purchasers of the firearms, when in fact they were acting as “straw purchaser” who were buying the firearms on behalf of others.
During the investigation, law enforcement officers seized 40 AK-47 type pistols, 1,580 rounds of 7.62 ammunition, and 30 high-capacity magazines from the defendants before they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. The indictment alleges that twelve firearms previously purchased by the defendants later were found in Mexico and were traced back to these defendants. As part of the investigation, every effort was made to seize firearms from defendants to prevent them from entering into Mexico, and no weapons were knowingly permitted to cross the border.
The Luna County Sheriff's Department has restricted the Columbus Police Department - which consists of four police officers - from using their radio frequencies and databases to maintain integrity, Cobos said. Cobos was heading to the Columbus City Hall on Thursday morning to talk to the remaining city council trustee members about the situation.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) El Paso spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa confirmed their agents were involved in the ongoing investigation in Columbus and that Drug Enforcement Administration and Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agents were assisting in the operation.
"Violation of public trust is probably one of the most heinous crimes that can be perpetrated on the public," Cobos said. "I mean it's horrible....it affects everybody, everybody feels it. I know my officers feel it.The reaction I have and my department and probably other elected and public officials is the reaction of dismay. We're disheartened this occurred but basically what I have to do is make sure I reinforce the feeling that public safety is going to be maintained in Columbus regardless of whatever the circumstances are."
Espinoza had placed Vega and another Village of Columbus employee on administrative leave on Nov. 22 because of "budgetary concerns," according to a Deming Headlight report in November. In mid-January, Columbus trustees reinstated Vega as police chief while Espinoza was on a trip to Albuquerque because no action had been taken, according to an Associated Press article in January.
Columbus has had eight police chiefs since March 2006.
In 1996, when Vega was a Lincoln County deputy sheriff, he was indicted on charges of extortion and intimidating a witness. A plea agreement reduced those charges to a misdemeanor, and Vega was placed on probation.
Columbus, which lies just a few miles across the border from Palomas, Mexico, sees tourists attracted by Villa's raid on March 9, 1916 - 95 years ago Wednesday. The isolated town of about 1,800 is the site of Pancho Villa State Park, which houses exhibits about the raid and the U.S. Army's subsequent unsuccessful 11-month expedition into Mexico to chase down Villa.
An estimated 500 to 600 revolutionaries had attacked Columbus before dawn, setting buildings in the business district on fire. Soldiers with the 13th Calvary at Camp Furlong, on the outskirts of Columbus, set up machine guns in the town to fight Villa's forces.
The raid lasted until dawn and left 18 Americans dead, most of them civilians. Some 70 to 75 revolutionaries also died.PrintEmail