LAS CRUCES — Former Columbus Police Chief Angelo Vega, handcuffed and dressed in a red prisoner jumpsuit, pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiracy, smuggling and public corruption charges.
The charges are in connection with a federal gun-smuggling case that also snared the border town’s mayor and a trustee.
The maximum penalty under the three charges is 35 years in prison, but under a sealed plea agreement reached with federal prosecutors, Vega is facing “much less than the maximum,” said defense attorney Jess Lilley.
“It’s not months. It’s years,” Lilley said of the sentencing range prosecutors will recommend, while declining to be more specific.
Vega is the 12th of 14 people accused in the gun-smuggling case to plead guilty since an 84-count indictment was handed up and dozens of law enforcement officials raided the town March 10. One defendant, Ignacio Villalobos, is still at large. Another member of the alleged ring, Gabriela Gutierrez, the wife of former trustee Blas Gutierrez, is awaiting trial.
Former Mayor Eddie Espinoza and trustee Blas Gutierrez have both pleaded guilty in the case, in which prosecutors allege that the Columbus-based group bought more than 200 weapons from a Chaparral dealer and smuggled them into Mexico in a deal with La Linea, the main enforcement arm of the Juárez drug-smuggling cartel.
Since 2008, more than 8,000 people have been killed in Ciudad Juárez and surrounding areas in violence fueled by conflict between the Juárez cartel and the rival Sinaloa cartel.
Lilley said Vega’s decision to plead guilty to the original charge, and two new ones, was based on an evaluation of the evidence.
“He (Vega) has obviously made some poor choices. Poor choices don’t make somebody a bad person,” Lilley said. “He’s ready to move on.”
Vega was originally charged with one count of conspiracy, but additional smuggling and public corruption charges were added Thursday under the plea agreement.
In a hearing on Vega’s detention conditions in late March, a federal prosecutor said the evidence against the former police chief was “ripe for additional charges,” according to hearing notes.
Federal prosecutor Steve Spitzer said Vega was approached in October by Blas Gutierrez and Espinoza to work with La Linea to smuggle weapons from the U.S. into Mexico. Vega admitted he was paid “well over” $10,000 for providing his services, which included conducting surveillance for the smuggling gang and pulling over three federal agents in October to try to find out what they were doing in Columbus.
According to court documents, Vega used his police credentials in February to buy thousands of dollars worth of tactical combat gear that was to be sent to Mexico. Vega bought a bulletproof vest Feb. 18 for one of the leaders of La Linea, Spitzer said. Spitzer also said that Vega knew that Blas Gutierrez used a Columbus Police Department pickup to smuggle some of the weapons into Mexico.
After police seized a total of 20 AK-47-type pistols from Blas Gutierrez on Feb. 12 and Feb. 24 while he drove home to Columbus from Chaparral, Vega twice called a federal law enforcement agent to vouch for his co-defendant. Vega told the federal agent that Blas Gutierrez was not involved in gun-smuggling to Mexico and that the firearms purchases were legitimate, according to a recording of the conversation.
After calling the agent the first time, Vega and Gutierrez spoke via telephone in a call that federal agents monitored. According to a transcript of the call, Gutierrez asked Vega what the agent said.
“Nothing,” Vega said, “I just told him a … lie.”
Vega described the conversation for Gutierrez: ” ‘Do you vouch for him, chief?’ ‘Yeah, yeah … yeah.’ ”
Lilley said Vega, who had a 20-year career in law enforcement, “doesn’t want to make any excuses for the poor choices he made. He’s not trying to blame anybody else.”