In Pancho Villa Echo, Modern Raid Shakes Small Town
The complete article and more photos are here.
An armed raid in the wee hours of the morning nearly a century ago has long defined this town. There is a Pancho Villa State Park here, a Pancho Villa Cafe and historical markers pointing out where Villa, a revolutionary leader from Mexico, crept across the border with a group of men and opened fire here.
“Grandpa died over there,” said Richard R. Dean, the unofficial historian of Columbus and a descendant of one of the 18 Americans killed. Recounting that long-ago battle, based on family letters and conversations he had with a great-uncle who survived it, he speaks of bullets whizzing back and forth on Broadway and a panicked population huddling in their homes.
But there is another, more recent predawn raid for which Columbus has also become linked.
Ninety-five years and a day after the infamous Villa raid, another group of armed men crept into Columbus. And their operation this past March 10 was just as closely linked to the internal strife in Mexico as Villa’s foray on March 9, 1916.
Nicole S. Lawson, a resident awoken by the commotion earlier this year, recounted what took place outside her front window.
‘I was sleeping, and I heard a very big bang and then shouting,’ she recalled. ‘Someone was yelling through a bullhorn, although I couldn’t hear what they were saying. There was a helicopter overhead, and out the window I could see red lights flashing and a lot of people with guns.’
They were agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Drug Enforcement Administration. They led away in handcuffs Columbus’s mayor, police chief, village trustee and numerous others accused of smuggling guns, ammunition and body armor across the border to Mexican outlaws.
Columbus, with 1,800 residents, sits just across the border from Las Palomas, a Mexican town about 75 miles west of El Paso. Many families have relatives on both sides of the line. Hundreds of children cross every morning from Las Palomas to attend school in Columbus. But drug violence has strained the relationship. Columbus residents recount how the mayor of Las Palomas was killed some years back and how a popular dentist was taken away, never to be seen again. Although such violence has not spread to Columbus, residents say, the influence of the drug trafficking groups in Las Palomas has definitely reached north.
Of the 15 defendants in the arms smuggling case, one is still on the run, and one has stuck to her “not guilty” plea. The case was transferred from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New Mexico to the office for West Texas in June, without any explanation.
Daryl Fields, public affairs officer for the West Texas U.S. Attorney’s Office, told nmpolitics.net the case was transferred but wouldn’t say why.
‘I can confirm to you that the case you are inquiring about will now be supervised by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas,’ he said. ‘No further comment will be made at this time.’
Before that, all the pleas were “not guilty”. After that, the guilty pleas started flowing.
Here’s an article about the former police chief’s day in court yesterday.
Vega had previously pleaded not guilty to taking part in the conspiracy, in which he and his co-defendants allegedly purchased about 200 firearms - 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 - from Chaparral Guns in Chaparral and smuggled them to members of the Juárez-based La Linea cartel between January 2010 and March 2011.
In raids, law enforcement seized 40 of the AK-47 type pistols, more than 1,500 rounds of ammunition and 30 high-capacity magazines before they crossed the border, and found another 12 firearms in Mexico that were traced back to the defendants. Three others were found on three dead individuals in an SUV in Juárez, and others were found at a narcotics bust there, according to federal prosecutors.
Six of the smuggled weapons - three AK-47-type pistols and three pistols nicknamed “cop killers” - were purchased around Jan. 9, 2010, by straw purchasers in Arizona, according to court documents, leading to accusations from defense attorney C.J. McElhinney that the Columbus smuggling case was connected to Operation Fast and Furious. The undercover operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed thousands of guns to cross into Mexico so agents could see where in the drug cartels they would eventually end up.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Texas has neither confirmed nor denied whether the weapons in Gutierrez’s case were connected with the controversial sting, but said Thursday they were researching the matter.
Emphasis added. A possible connection there might have something to do with the case being moved. They still aren’t commenting on that.