Feds Indict Mayor, Police Chief Of Border Town As ATF ‘Gunrunner’ Program Faces Heat

March 15, 2011 5:45 a.m.

Eleven people — including the mayor, police chief and a town councilman in Columbus, N.M. — have been indicted by the feds for alleged involvement in an international gun running scheme that may have fueled violence south of the border.

Ten out of the eleven defendants charged in the trafficking ring will be arraigned Tuesday on charges of conspiracy, smuggling and making false statements in connection with firearms purchases, according to federal officials.Mayor Eddie Espinoza allegedly served as a straw buyer for 22 pistols and stored weapons in an apartment he leased in a gated El Paso, Texas complex, reports the Wall Street Journal. The feds say Police Chief Angelo Vega bought bullet-proof vests and other body armor to be smuggled and participated in a cash pickup in Albuquerque. They also say he called federal agents twice to try to intercede on behalf of a village councilman, Blas Gutierrez, who was also accused in the smuggling scheme.

The charges come at a trying time for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which is facing criticism for the way it handled Project Gunrunner, a national initiative targeting illegal gun trafficking on the Mexico border. A senior ATF agent has told media outlets that ATF supervisors ordered agents not to intercept weapons made in suspicious sales — but instead to monitor them to see where the weapons ended up.

ATF’s acting director Kenneth E. Melson ordered an evaluation of the program, asking “a multi-disciplinary panel of law enforcement professionals to review the bureau’s current firearms trafficking strategies.” But some, including Sen. Chuck Grassley, are questioning whether the Justice Department’s Inspector General can be trusted to properly investigate allegations.

“At first, ATF and the Justice Department repeatedly denied the allegations, asserting that they were ‘false.’ However, now that I have presented extensive documentary evidence supporting the claims, Attorney General Holder has asked the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (DOJ-OIG) to conduct a review,” Grassley wrote in a letter sent last Tuesday.

The ATF’s work on the border has long been dogged by controversy. Last November, a Justice Department Inspector General report found “significant weaknesses in ATF’s implementation of Project Gunrunner undermine its effectiveness” and concluded that ATF was not sharing information with other federal agencies, was not properly communicating with Mexican officials and was focusing too much of their effort on low-level gun traffickers while ignoring the bigger cases.

The Obama administration has been so nervous about Project Gunrunner that in 2009, they ordered the ATF to clear all media requests directly by the Justice Department, according to internal e-mails obtained by TPM through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. A number of e-mails remind staffers that “DOJ Office of Public Affairs wants to review and approve all national/international media requests on southwest border-related issues before interviews are conducted.”

In the Columbus, N.M., investigation, a news release said that “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 Justice Department said that 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 12 firearms previously purchased by the defendants later were found in Mexico and were traced back to these defendants.

“This investigation, along with the countless others that ATF and HSI have pursued jointly over the past several years, provides further proof that the trafficking of firearms to Mexico continues to be a significant problem,” William Newell, Special Agent in Charge of the ATF Phoenix Field Division, said in a statement. “The good news is that all the agencies involved in this investigation were fully committed to joining forces to stop this activity and the results speak for themselves.”

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