An assault rifle seized during the July arrest of one of Mexico's most violent drug lords —Miguel Angel “Z-40” Treviño Morales — has been traced to a shady gun seller whose home in Big Spring was searched last week and netted what authorities said was a “small arsenal.”
More than 10,000 rounds of ammunition, 76 guns and $15,000 in cash were seized from Manuel "Manny" Rodriguez, 65, who was sentenced in 2002 to 47 months in the federal penitentiary after being caught in California selling machine guns and other firearms without a license.
Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Homeland Security Investigations also found that some of Rodriguez's customers, perhaps unbeknownst to Rodriguez, were supplying the Zetas with assault rifles and specifically seeking sellers like Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, agents found, had been selling guns from various tables at SAXET gun shows by exploiting the so-called “gun show loophole.”
By posing as a private seller disposing of his “personal” collection, he was circumventing rules that required him to get a license and to conduct background checks on his buyers, authorities contend. And, because he is a convicted felon, Rodriguez should not have had guns in the first place, they argue.
He is charged, for the moment, with being a felon in possession of a firearm.
“A cooperating witness indicated he and others would go to Manuel Rodriguez and his son to buy AK-47s from them,” ATF special agent Christopher Benavides testified at the bail hearing. “They would then give (the weapons) to others who would smuggle them to the Zetas.”
When Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Hulings asked if that was the only link to the Zetas that agents found, Benavides dropped a bombshell.
Benavides said he and another agent traced a “Century Arms AK-47 variant” recovered in Mexico to a “cooperating citizen” in San Antonio.
That person, Benavides said, then sold the gun to Rodriguez's son, and Rodriguez is believed to have sold it to someone else at one of the gun shows.
“This gun was recovered from Miguel Treviño, Z-40, along with other firearms and some cash during his arrest,” Benavides said. “Z-40 was head of the Zetas at the time.”
In July, a Mexican navy helicopter tracked the 40-year-old Zetas leader, known by his radio call sign “El 40,” “Z-40” “Cuarenta” and other variants of the number in Spanish, on a rural road near the Texas line outside Nuevo Laredo. He was arrested and is being held in a Mexican jail.
Under cross-examination by Rodriguez's lawyer, Benavides said he had no evidence that Rodriguez knew that any of his guns would wind up in the hands of the Zetas or make their way its leader who had reportedly ordered hits in Laredo and whose bloodthirstiness was known on both sides of the border.
During an investigation that lasted several months, agents watched, then videotaped Rodriguez at the gun shows in San Antonio and Austin. In an undercover sting, an agent bought a Intratec 9mm Uzi from Rodriguez for $650 at an Austin gun show, Benavides said.
During last week's raid, agents intercepted Rodriguez as he and his son left home towing a trailer to another gun show, Benavides said. There were numerous guns in the trailer, and several more were found in the home - almost half of them assault-style rifles along with ammo and a safe with $15,000, Benavides testified.
In a pitch to keep Rodriguez locked up, prosecutor Hulings told U.S. Magistrate Judge John Primomo that Rodriguez “has been in and out of jail” since he was 22 for a variety of crimes including assault, and “has a lot of trouble complying with the law.”
Hulings added that Rodriguez owes more than $260,000 in child support in California - so much that the Texas Attorney General has tried to garnish his wages - yet hid $15,000 in suspected proceeds from the sale of guns.
“He's well aware he cannot possess guns,” Hulings argued. “He was selling to people without checking where (the guns) were going. He was in possession of a small arsenal.”
The arguments did little to sway the judge, until Primomo learned that Rodriguez was on probation on an unrelated offense last year while selling guns.
“I was ready to release him on bond until I heard that,” Primomo said. The judge ordered Rodriguez held pending trial.
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