The suspected leader of what a federal prosecutor called “one of the largest” gun-smuggling rings in Southern Arizona was sentenced to five years in prison this week.
The 21-person conspiracy involved lying on federal forms to buy 68 semi-automatic rifles, two semi-automatic pistols, and 75,000 rounds of ammunition at stores in Tucson, Phoenix, Glendale and Apache Junction, according to a 53-page federal grand jury indictment from March 2016.
The suspected conspirators filled out forms saying they bought the firearms for themselves, but they drove the firearms to Nogales to be smuggled into Mexico, according to federal prosecutors. Court records show several of the firearms were found in Mexico, some were seized from the suspected conspirators, and 30 were never recovered.
“There’s no telling how many additional weapons were smuggled that we’ll never know about,” federal prosecutor Angela Woolridge told Judge Jennifer G. Zipps at a Feb. 22 sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Tucson.
The conspiracy was “one of the largest weapon-smuggling organizations” in Southern Arizona, Woolridge told Zipps. The potential harm of smuggling assault rifles and ammunition to drug cartel members in Mexico “boggles the mind,” she said.
Firearms are largely illegal for private citizens in Mexico, but Mexican police and military often face off with heavily-armed drug cartel members.
Mexican authorities recovered 120,000 firearms from 2007 to 2015 that originated in the United States, according to annual reports from the firearm tracing system at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
A jury found the suspected leader of the smuggling conspiracy, Edgar Vega Barreras, guilty in November of conspiracy to smuggle goods from the United States, a common charge in gun-smuggling cases.
Zipps sentenced Vega to five years in prison Thursday, saying the sentence “isn’t sufficient for the conduct here,” but it was the maximum term allowed by law.
Vega funded and directed the firearm purchases, according to Woolridge. He also provided the means to transport and hide the firearms.
Defense lawyer Tom Hartzell said Vega was a minor participant in the smuggling ring, which included many of his relatives. Vega is a Mexican citizen and Chandler resident who made his living buying vehicles and exporting them to Mexico, according to Hartzell.
Vega may have been used by the smuggling organization as an “errand boy sent down to Mexico to bring back the cars so the bosses could put people and weapons in them again,” Hartzell wrote in a sentencing memorandum.
Woolridge countered that four members of the conspiracy who worked in separate “cells” pointed to Vega as the leader. Zipps overruled Hartzell’s objection and said the evidence showed Vega was the leader of the conspiracy.
For the 11 suspected conspirators already sentenced, their punishments ranged from probation to five years in prison, court records show. One man was acquitted.
Many of the suspected conspirators were in their late teens or early 20s and related to each other.
Minutes before Vega’s hearing, Isaac Padilla, 20, was sentenced to 15 months in prison after pleading guilty to lying on ATF forms when he bought 12 military-style rifles, two of which were recovered in Mexico, and lying to agents during the investigation.
Defense lawyer David Aguilar argued Padilla should be sentenced to probation or house arrest, saying Padilla was 18 years old when he bought the firearms and was pressured by his older brother.
Woolridge said the sentence should “reflect the seriousness of the offense” and Padilla’s young age and good behavior while on pre-trial release “only goes so far.”
Besides Vega, another figure who appeared prominently in court records is Vega’s brother-in-law Rigoberto Padilla, Jr., who pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge but has not been sentenced yet. Under his plea agreement, he could be sentenced to five years in prison.
While Vega directed the operation, Rigoberto Padilla Jr. recruited four relatives, including his brother Isaac Padilla, to buy the firearms and bring them to Mexico, according to court records.
Border-crossing records showed several instances in which Rigoberto Padilla entered Mexico the same day firearms were purchased. He would then return to the United States hours later.