The mayor and police chief of a tiny New Mexico border town best known for a raid by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa nearly a century ago were among 11 people accused Thursday of participating in a ring that illegally sent firearms to Mexico.
A federal indictment alleges the defendants have engaged in a conspiracy — based in Columbus, N.M. — to buy the firearms since January 2010. Law enforcement officers executed search warrants Thursday at eight residences, a business and the Columbus Police Department.
The indictment, which stems from a yearlong investigation, alleges the defendants purchased firearms favored by Mexican cartels, including AK-47-type pistols, weapons resembling AK-47 rifles — but with shorter barrels — and American Tactical 9 mm caliber pistols. Authorities also said that 12 firearms purchased by defendants were later found in Mexico.
Mayor Eddie Espinoza, Police Chief Angelo Vega, and town Trustee Blas Gutierrez were among those accused of firearms and smuggling charges in the 84-count indictment, which was unsealed Thursday afternoon.
The defendants bought approximately 200 firearms over a 14-month period from Chaparral Guns in Chaparral, N.M., which is owned by defendant Ian Garland, authorities said. They're accused of falsely claiming they were buying the firearms for themselves when they were really acting as "straw purchasers" — buying firearms on behalf of others.
The U.S. Attorney's Office says one of the 11 defendants, Ignacio Villalobos, remains at large and is considered a fugitive. The other 10 are set for initial appearances Friday in federal court in Las Cruces.
The office said investigators didn't knowingly allow weapons to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Law enforcement officers seized 40 AK-47 type pistols, 1,580 rounds of ammunition and 30 high-capacity magazines from defendants before the items crossed the border.
The Associated Press left a message on Espinoza's cell phone seeking comment. No listing could be found for Vega or Gutierrez. Listings also could not be found for two of the other three village trustees, and a woman who answered the phone at the home of the third trustee, William Canfield, said he had no immediate comment.
Columbus lies just a few miles north of Palomas, Mexico. It sees tourists curious about Villa's March 9, 1916 raid, which took place 95 years ago Wednesday.
An estimated 500 to 600 revolutionaries attacked Columbus before dawn in the raid, setting buildings in the business district on fire. U.S. 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 left 18 Americans dead, most of them civilians. Some 70 to 75 revolutionaries also died.
In recent years, Columbus' four-man police force has turned over several times, and Vega is the village's seventh police chief since Espinoza was elected mayor in March 2006.
Vega initially came to Columbus as interim chief in April 2009 after resigning as marshal in the community of Mesilla a few months earlier.
Espinoza placed him on leave last November for unspecified reasons. Trustees reinstated Vega in January, saying he'd been on leave for months with no action taken against him.
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.