Army recruiter admits funneling guns to drug cartel
By GUILLERMO CONTRERAS | San Antonio Express-News | Published: December 14, 2016
SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Tribune News Service) — A former Army recruiter from San Antonio has admitted he funneled dozens of assault rifles to operatives of Mexico’s Gulf Cartel last year by organizing other soldiers to help him buy the weapons.
Sgt. Julian Prezas, who is facing a disciplinary discharge from the military, pleaded guilty in two separate cases Monday to a total of five counts of lying on federal firearms forms and attempting to export defense articles to Mexico.
Prezas, 36, acknowledged acquiring 42 guns — 23 of which were seized and forfeited to the government during the investigation. However, a co-defendant who became an informant told agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that Prezas sold him 13 AR-15s, some 50 to 60 AK-47s and a shotgun last year.
That co-defendant, who was not identified in court documents, told agents he met Prezas after Prezas posted on a Facebook group he had 1,000 magazines of ammunition for sale in the Rio Grande Valley, Prezas’ plea deal said.
The co-defendant bought the ammunition and asked for more, court documents said. Prezas also began selling him rifles with the serial numbers obliterated — and the co-defendant told Prezas that the guns were going to Mexico, the plea deal stated.
During the investigation, agents used another confidential informant to buy firearms from Prezas in August 2015 and watched Prezas as he loaded five of them into his government vehicle at his recruiting station in San Antonio and drove to Pharr in the Rio Grande Valley. There he delivered the weapons to the informant, who paid him $61,000 and specifically told Prezas that the guns were going to the Gulf Cartel, according to the plea deal and other court documents.
Prezas also sent the informant pictures of body armor via text message, offering to sell each vest for $300, though it was not clear from the documents if that part of the deal went through. The ATF declined to comment on the investigation, citing pending cases.
When he was arrested in September 2015, Prezas had 17 guns he was taking to the informant and told agents he figured the firearms were going to Mexico, probably to a “cartel or something,” his plea deal said.
The plea agreement said that, between April 6, 2015, and Aug. 27, 2015, Prezas used co-defendants Thomas John Zamudio, Ricardo Esparza Salazar and Christopher Brown — servicemen he met in the military — to buy at least 42 guns for him.
In all the transactions, Prezas supplied Zamudio, Salazar and Brown with the money to purchase the firearms and paid them a cut for their efforts, making the trio “straw buyers,” the Prezas plea deal said. The three have pleaded guilty to making false statements on federal firearms forms and await sentencing.
Prezas’ lawyer, George Dombart, said his client is a decorated veteran who supports the right to bear arms but misunderstood regulations over the sales of guns.
“Sometimes, the line gets blurred on public versus private sales,” Dombart said. “Once he became aware that his conduct was illegal, he accepted responsibility.”
In January, Facebook announced it was banning the private sale of guns and ammunition on its site and on Instagram, which it also owns. The move was applauded by gun violence prevention groups that advocate for closing the so-called “private sale” loophole, which allows gun owners in most states to legally sell their guns without a background check.
But sales have continued on private groups on Facebook and the ATF notes the proliferation of social media networks has been a challenge in the fight to control illegal gun distribution.
“It is an issue and has been an issue,” said Crisanto Perez Jr., assistant special agent in charge of the ATF in San Antonio, speaking generally, not specifically about the Prezas case. “Social media gives them a new way to (skirt) the law. It’s not regulated.”
Prezas and his co-defendants are not the first members of the military to be charged in such situations. A handful of cases have been scattered around the country, such as two members of California’s National Guard assigned to the armory in El Cajon, California, who were charged last year with selling ammunition and high-grade weapons to someone they believed was working for a Mexican drug cartel.
Spc. Jaime Casillas, 22, of El Cajon, California, and Staff Sgt. Andrew Reyes, 34, of La Mesa, California, reportedly wore their uniforms during at least one transaction, according to court documents. The sales were allegedly made to an undercover federal agent posing as a cartel member.
Prezas faces up to 10 years in prison on the lying charges, and up to 20 years in prison on the attempted exportation count. Sentencing is set for March 23 before U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia. Prezas’ co-defendants, who are no longer in the military, each face up to 10 years in prison.
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