Tuesday, April 12, 2011

New Mexico Mayor, Police Chief Arrested on Gun Smuggling Charges

[Columbus, NM/Palomas , Chihuahua Border Crossing: Photo- Through Gates of Grace blog]
The mayor (of conspicuously indeterminate political affiliation), chief of police and village trustee of a small New Mexico border town were arrested by federal law enforcement officers last month on charges of illegally transporting firearms they had purchased to Mexico. The Federal indictment alleges that at least a dozen of the guns purchased were recovered in Mexico while Vega used his law enforcement credentials to purchase body armour and other tactical gear unavailable to the general public and re-sell it to Mexican criminals.
The defendants charged in the 84-count indictment include Angelo Vega, the Columbus chief of police; Eddie Espinoza, the mayor of Columbus; and Blas Gutierrez, a village trustee in Columbus. Ten of the 11 defendants were arrested without incident Thursday morning by teams of federal, state and local law enforcement officers, and will make their initial appearances Friday in the federal courthouse in Las Cruces, N.M.

The officers also executed 10 search warrants at eight residences, one business and the Columbus Police Department office.

The indictment is the result of an intensive yearlong investigation initiated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and ICE Homeland Security Investigations, that later expanded to include the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Attorney's Las Cruces Branch Office.

The indictment alleges that, between January 2010 and March 2011, the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to purchase firearms for illegal export to Mexico. 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 purchasers" who were buying the firearms on behalf of others, according to the indictment.

[You can read the full indictment (PDF file) here]

According to the El Paso Times Chief Vega has had prior run-ins with the law over the last 16 years.

in 1996, he was indicted by a grand jury on two counts of extortion, a third-degree felony, and two counts of intimidation of a witness, a fourth-degree felony. The charges stemmed from a 1995 incident in Lincoln County when Vega allegedly threatened a woman who had been wrongfully arrested a day earlier, telling her that she would be prosecuted unless she agreed to work as an undercover narcotics officer and sign a written apology in which she agreed that her arrest was appropriate. Vega made the threats even though he knew at the time that paperwork was being prepared to dismiss charges against the woman, according to the grand jury record. He eventually reached a plea agreement with then Attorney General Tom Udall in which he pleaded guilty to one count of false imprisonment, a misdemeanor.

In 1998 he was appointed police chief by Carrizozo Mayor Manny Hernandez. After being arrested in 2001 on stalking and harassment charges, which were later dropped, Vega departed in early 2005 to accept a job with the New Mexico Juvenile Justice Division. It was in 2006 that then state Sen. Lee Rawson publicly voiced concerns about Vega's criminal background, even bringing his concerns to then Gov. Bill Richardson.

"I think this is a personal attack toward me, and it's very unfortunate," Vega said at the time.

After resigning for "personal reasons" in June 2006 as director of the J. Paul Taylor Juvenile Justice Center, the state's Southern New Mexico juvenile jail west of Las Cruces, Vega moved up to the top law enforcement position in Mesilla, town marshal, on March 12, 2007.

Several months after a dispute with former Mayor Michael Cadena, Vega was removed from office March 11, 2008, a day short of what would have been one year in office. He was reinstated that June, but resigned the next February to become the village chief of police in Columbus.

Columbus trustees unanimously approved his hiring.

Columbus as seen from Pancho Villa State Park: Image- Wikipedia
The village of about 1700 abuts the town of Palomas in the northern portion of the Mexican state of Chihuahua and is perhaps best known for being raided by Pancho Villa in 1916. Presently it is home to the nearby Pancho Villa State Park. Over the last five years, however, Columbus has had no less than 8 police chiefs, with mayor Espinoza disbanding the entire police force at one point.

After the arrests of Vega and Espinoza, the Luna County Sheriff Raymond Cobos had recommended to the Columbus board of trustees that they suspend the remaining three police officers on the force until they could be independently vetted and cleared of any wrongdoing.

1 comment:

  1. Name that political party and the name of the Governor that covered up for them...