Houston man sentenced for smuggling guns

March 27, 2009 12:06:34 PM PDT
A Houston man who says he fears for his family's safety after working for an organization that bought military-style firearms that ended up with drug traffickers in Mexico was sentenced to nearly four years in prison on Friday. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

Prosecutors say Juan Pablo Gutierrez was one 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.

"He was arming an infantry squad," prosecutor Mark White told U.S. District Judge Gray Miller. "He wasn't just arming local street thugs. This defendant was doing something a lot more serious."

The 24-year-old pleaded guilty in January to eight counts of making false statements to a federal firearms licensee, claiming he was buying the weapons for himself.

White said Gutierrez refused to identify his customers.

But prosecutors suspect Gutierrez was purchasing the guns for a cousin, and White said Gutierrez has a cousin whose father-in-law is Osiel Cardenas-Guillen. The drug kingpin was extradited in 2007 from Mexico to Texas and is set to be tried in Houston in September.

After the court hearing, White declined to say if he knew whether the guns were purchased for Cardenas-Guillen's son-in-law.

"He's scared of the people that got him into this. That's why he didn't cooperate. He's worried for his family's safety," defense lawyer David Adler said.

Gutierrez, who was also fined $7,500, apologized to his family and friends before being sentenced, saying he didn't know where the firearms he bought would end up.

"I've hurt people who I've never met," he said.

Gutierrez bought 20 weapons from Carter's Country, a chain of four gun stores based in the Houston suburb of Spring, from October 2006 to December 2006. Five of these weapons have been recovered at crime scenes in Mexico.

Three of those included two Bushmaster assault rifles that were among an arsenal of weapons seized in April 2007 from a group of 20 suspected kidnappers and drug traffickers in Campeche, Mexico, in the Yucatan Peninsula, and another Bushmaster rifle seized in December 2007 when 11 suspected Zetas -- the Gulf cartel's infamous hit men -- were arrested in Campeche after assaulting police.

Prosecutors said Gutierrez also bought several FN 5.7 caliber pistols, semiautomatic handguns which can fire armor-piercing bullets and are popular with drug cartels. In all, Gutierrez bought weapons worth more than $17,800. The organization he worked for bought weapons worth more than $366,000.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began investigating in January 2007 after a routine inspection of Carter's Country's records. A worker at Carter's Country declined to make anyone available to comment on the case. The chain was named Houston's "best place to buy guns" by a newspaper in 2006.

Adler said guns dealers share culpability for guns going into Mexico.

"The problem won't be solved until the government focuses on the conduct of gun dealers," he said.

Authorities say that Gutierrez also used a so-called "straw buyer" to buy eight Beretta 9mm handguns. That person later cooperated with authorities.

Gutierrez could have been sentenced up to 10 years for each count he faced and fined up to $250,000.

John Phillip Hernandez, another member of this organization, pleaded guilty last year to similar charges in the case and is set to be sentenced next month.

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.

On Thursday, a South Texas man who organized a dozen others to buy guns from licensed dealers so that he could smuggle them to Mexico was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

President Barack Obama said this week he wants the U.S. to do more to prevent guns from flowing into Mexico.

Mexico has long tried to get the United States to curtail the number of guns -- many purchased legally -- that wind up south of the border, where gun laws are much stricter.

The State Department says firearms obtained in the U.S. account for an estimated 95 percent of Mexico's drug-related killings.

During her visit this week to Mexico, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States' inability to stop weapons from being smuggled across the border has caused the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians.

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