Four U.S. suspects were arrested in a smuggling scheme to export machine guns, assault rifles and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition to a Mexican drug cartel that authorities have called the country’s bloodiest, officials said Monday.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in California’s Central District named two more suspects in the alleged scheme to move “military-grade firepower” to the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, a group that law enforcement officials in the U.S. and Mexico have said is filling a vacuum left by the capture of kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in 2016.
One of the suspects is believed to be at large in Mexico. Another is in state custody in North Carolina on unrelated charges, the prosecutor’s office said in a news release.
Most of the suspects were charged with smuggling and violating export regulations. The suspected ringleader and his son were also charged with money laundering, and two others were accused of illegal possession of ammunition.
“The defendants in this case smuggled sophisticated weaponry out of the United States to one of the most violent cartels in Mexico whose members target not only rival gangs, but innocent Mexican citizens and Mexican law enforcement,” Kristi Johnson, an FBI official in Los Angeles, said in a statement.
Marco Antonio Santillan Valencia, 51, was identified as the U.S. group’s leader. According to the prosecutor’s office, he and the others obtained the guns from two states, Nevada and Oregon, and ammunition from other states, including 10,000 armor-piercing incendiary rounds from Arizona, the release says.
Authorities seized an additional 250,000 rounds of assault rifle ammunition and 100,000 rounds of .223-caliber bullets.
Among the parts found in the group's possession were kits to assemble six rotary machine guns that could fire 6,000 rounds per minute. Authorities also found six assault rifles, the release says.
Prosecutors said Santillan's son, Marco Santillan Jr., 29, was allegedly seen in a Facebook video holding a stack of $100 bills and bragging about selling guns to the cartel.
In a message on the platform, he allegedly said the cartel is "buying everything."
The Mexican organization's leader, Nemesio Rubén Oseguera Cervantes, known as “El Mencho,” has remained elusive to authorities — despite a $10 million reward from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
After the 2016 capture of the rival Sinaloa Cartel's leader, officials said the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación unleashed a wave of violence against other groups, leaving decapitated bodies hanging from bridges and mutilated torsos in the streets.
The group has continued to traffic tons of methamphetamine and fentanyl to the U.S. each month, authorities have said.
Lawyers for Santillan and the other suspects did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.