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Feds arrest five men accused of smuggling illegally purchased guns to cartels in Mexico

By William Melhado, The Texas Tribune

Feds arrest five men accused of smuggling illegally purchased guns to cartels in Mexico” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The Justice Department arrested five men across Texas after accusing the group of illegally purchasing firearms and trafficking the weapons to drug cartels in Mexico, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas announced Monday.

In a superseding indictment filed earlier this month, the Justice Department charged each of the men with conspiracy to straw purchase firearms and to smuggle the weapons across the U.S.-Mexico border — two criminal offenses recently established by the 2022 federal bipartisan gun safety bill.

According to court documents, Gerardo Rafael Perez Jr. of Laredo coordinated the purchase of more than 100 firearms with the intent of transporting the weapons to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Four other men — Francisco Alejandro Benavides, Mark Anthony Trevino Jr., Luis Matias Leal and Antonio Osiel Casarez — were also arrested on Wednesday.

The federal government created criminal offenses for straw purchases as part of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Straw purchasing of firearms is the illegal act of buying a gun for another person who is prohibited from owning the weapon or doesn’t want their name associated with the transaction.

The Indictment named seven co-defendants alongside Perez who allegedly assisted with the purchase and smuggling of firearms across the southern border.

Court documents alleged that the co-conspirators would purchase expensive, “military-grade” guns from both licensed and unlicensed dealers before transporting the firearms out of the country. The Justice Department said that Perez’s organization allegedly purchased FNH SCAR rifles, Barrett .50 caliber rifles, FNH M294S rifles, and M1919 rifles.

“They are symbols of cartel profit, power, and prestige due in part to their high price to purchase and operate,” the indictment read. “Mexican drug trafficking cartels use these weapons to engage in battle with their enemies and exert control over their claimed territory.”

One of the defendants, Jose Emigdio Q. Mendoza, was accused of selling firearms to Perez and his associates without a license. From December 2022 to March 2023, Mendoza received approximately $170,000 for weapons he purchased from federally licensed sellers. Court documents allege that Mendoza falsified parts of firearm transaction records required by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Mendoza was arrested in March 2023, according to the Justice Department.

Gerardo Antonio Ibarra Jr. and Gerardo Corona Jr. were also named in the March 6 indictment, though the two co-defendants were also named in earlier court filings. In November 2022, Ibarra and Corona purchased two rifles from a federally licensed seller in San Antonio, “falsely certifying they were the true buyers of the guns, when in fact, the guns were destined for Mexico,” the court filing read.

Casarez was accused of smuggling the weapons across the border to Mexico where co-conspirators working with a cartel would receive them.

Two years ago, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn helped lead the passage of the landmark bipartisan gun legislation. The bill passed the Senate shortly after 19 children and two teachers were murdered in Texas’ deadliest school shooting in Uvalde.

Since the law went into effect, the Justice Department has prosecuted over 300 defendants, the federal agency told The Texas Tribune.

“Thanks to the 2022 Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, we now have a firearms trafficking statute we can use to more easily investigate the flow of firearms into illegal commerce,” Peter Carr, Justice Department spokesperson, said in a Monday statement.

Prior to those statutes, federal prosecutors charged straw purchases and trafficking activities under the Gun Control Act of 1968, which carried a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. The federal agency said few defendants had received significant sentences because straw purchasers often do not have criminal histories.

The new criminal offenses each carry maximum sentences of 15 years in prison. The Justice Department said these stronger penalties are intended to deter straw purchases and trafficking of weapons.

The Justice Department said in December that over the past five years, federal prosecutors have charged over 1,300 defendants with unlicensed firearms dealing.

Reporter Alejandro Serrano contributed to this story.

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