Houston man sentenced for smuggling guns

April 17, 2009 10:18:40 AM PDT
A Houston man was sentenced Friday to just over eight years in prison for helping buy more than 100 military-style firearms, many of which ended up in the hands of Mexico's violent drug cartels. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

Prosecutors say John Phillip Hernandez was a leader of an organization of 23 people who purchased 339 weapons in a 15-month period. At least 40 of these weapons have been recovered in Mexico and three have been found in Guatemala, according to court documents.

Hernandez was sentenced after pleading guilty in July to one count of making a false statement to a federal firearms licensee.

Buying weapons is legal in Texas, but the purchaser must fill out a government form that indicates whether the purchaser plans to keep the gun for himself or give it to a third party. Hernandez claimed the guns were for himself.

His attorney, Samy Khalil, had asked for a prison term of four to five years, which was recommended under the federal sentencing guidelines. Khalil said Hernandez did not know the guns would end up in the hands of the drug cartels.

But U.S. District Judge David Hittner said Hernandez, 26, merited a stiffer sentence.

"The defendant's actions strengthened the drug cartels by arming them with arsenals that let them continue their criminal conduct," Hittner said, and led to the killings of eight people in Mexico.

Hernandez declined to make a statement before he was sentenced in front of his weeping mother and other family members.

Prosecutor Mark White said Hernandez knew the guns he bought or had others buy for him were going to Mexican drug cartel members. Informants indicated Hernandez told them the guns would be going to Mexico and that they overheard him talking about the Zetas, the Gulf cartel's infamous hit men, White said.

"The only market for these types of guns in Mexico are drug killers," White said. "He just has to know he's arming a bunch of drug hitmen... Drug hitmen kill people."

Authorities say one of the guns Hernandez bought was recovered from a bloody February 2007 daylight shooting in the resort city of Acapulco, where more than a dozen armed assailants staged simultaneous attacks against two police stations, killing five police investigators and two secretaries.

One Bushmaster assault rifle, a favorite of drug cartels, was recovered in October 2007 in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca after a confrontation between the Mexican Army and the Zetas.

Another Bushmaster rifle was recovered in the southern Mexican state of Puebla in September 2006 during an incident in which a businessman was kidnapped and murdered.

Prosecutors said Hernandez also bought several FN 5.7 caliber pistols, semiautomatic handguns which can fire armor-piercing bullets and are popular with drug cartels.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began investigating Hernandez in January 2007 after a routine inspection of records from a Houston gun dealer identified several people who had made suspicious purchases of larger numbers of military-style firearms.

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