Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

 

They came from all walks of life, and dealt – one way or another – in illegal gun sales.

A volunteer at an Albuquerque gun store who resold dozens of firearms subsequently recovered in crimes around the city.

A Kirtland airman who bought silencers from overseas and kept photos of rifle clips emblazoned with the names of mass shooters.

A woman who bought a pistol for her husband months before he used it to shoot a Las Cruces officer during a gunfight after killing a State Police officer.

Since 2015, nearly two dozen people have been federally charged with breaking various firearms sale laws in New Mexico.

The majority of those charged are alleged to have bought guns for people who are prohibited from buying a gun themselves. In some cases, the guns were bought for a violent Albuquerque street gang, cartels south of the border and people who the buyers knew were felons.

The practice is known as straw purchasing.

Up until recently the charge for straw purchasing amounted to a “paper violation” of lying on ATF forms that are filled out during a gun’s purchase. As a result, those sentenced often faced either probation or little prison time.

But that could all change following the June passage of the federal Safer Communities Act. The most significant gun legislation in decades, the bill included new statutes on straw purchasing and firearms trafficking that could have straw purchasers serving from 15 to 25 years in federal prison.

At least not according to the data.

Special Agent in Charge Brendan Iber of ATF’s Phoenix office said Texas and Arizona have much bigger problems and are known as “store states” – a place with lax gun laws where people from more restrictive “market states” like California go to buy guns.

“We don’t see as high a volume, and I wish I knew what the answer was, and maybe we could replicate that in the other states,” Iber said. “I don’t know the answers as to why that is and that’s OK. That’s an OK problem to have.”

Local authorities have a different perspective.

Albuquerque Police Department Lt. Ryan Nelson, with the Career Criminal Section, said he believes more than 90% of straw purchases are going undetected. It happens, by his estimation, “every single day in the city of Albuquerque.”

In New Mexico, gun stores are required to report to the ATF if someone buys two or more handguns or certain rifles at the same time or within five days of each other. Nelson said he believes many straw purchasers just go from store to store, one gun at a time, to avoid detection.

He said the majority of teens charged in violent crimes – like drive-by and party shootings – often use brand new guns bought for them by a relative or friend.

“There’s definitely an abundance of guns in juveniles’ hands. And I think that is being fueled largely because of straw purchasers,” Nelson said.

One woman charged in straw purchases, Alberta Trujillo, allegedly bought multiple guns for her 19-year-old grandson before he fatally shot her brother during a fight in June at the family’s Albuquerque home.

Nelson said youths see it as a “prestige thing” to go into a store and pick out a gun before sending someone else to buy it.

“You can shop for exactly what you want. Whereas if you’re going to do a burglary, you kind of just get what you get, if you get it,” he said. “… It’s a much safer route to (use a straw buyer) if you’re a juvenile that wants to make the conscious effort to prepare for violence.”

Nelson said, based on his observations, juvenile gun violence has risen in recent years alongside the straw purchases supplying the firearms.

Six teens have been fatally shot and eight have been arrested in Albuquerque homicides this year, according to Journal records. In 2021, there were four killed and three arrested, numbers similar to previous years.

“It’s sometimes staggering that 15-, 16-year-olds are committing multiple shootings. And we are seeing that a lot,” Nelson said.

Time-to-crime

New Mexico has had an increase in guns recovered in crimes shortly after their purchase, known as “time-to-crime,” something Iber said is one of the biggest indicators of criminal activity associated with gun sales.

“If an individual purchased a firearm (and) 30 days later it’s ending up in a crime on the streets of Albuquerque – that’s a pretty good clue that something’s up,” he said.

The shortest time-to-crime measurements, from under three months to under two years, more than doubled in New Mexico from 2018 to 2021.

In 2018, 136 firearms were recovered within three months of purchase and an additional 128 guns within a year – in 2021 those totals had risen to 384 and 335, respectively.

The average time-to-crime in the state in 2021 was just over six years, coming in 25th in the nation and only slightly longer than the national average.

The number of weapons recovered in violent crimes, like aggravated assault and homicide, also doubled or tripled in New Mexico from 2015 to 2021.

The majority of firearms recovered by law enforcement in the state were found in Albuquerque. The time-to-crime trends have increased as gun violation offenses have skyrocketed in the city, rising 218% since 2018 – something local police have attributed to a spike in gun ownership during the pandemic.

“Anybody can own firearms; as long as they’re allowed to purchase them they can buy as many as they want. When they start getting traced – as short time to crime – then that’s definitely a clue. And it piques our interest,” Iber said.

2 local gun stores lead

Several straw purchasers are alleged to have each bought and resold dozens of guns over several months. In Albuquerque the majority of alleged straw purchases were made at two gun stores: JCT Firearms and BMC Tactical.

The firearms that authorities say were straw purchased at those stores accounted for at least 85 of the more than 100 guns bought and illegally resold. Both store owners could not be reached for comment.

It is unclear how many of the straw purchased guns have been recovered.

Iber said there are consequences for a store that knowingly handles straw purchases, but detection, liability and enforcement by ATF can be “kind of a trick bag” due to the legality of buying firearms.

He said ATF does inspections every three or four years at firearms businesses, known as Federal Firearms Licensees, or FFLs, to check for compliance with policies and regulations. Iber said the agency can revoke the license of a store that is found noncompliant.

He said there’s also the criminal side where owners are “truly skirting the law” and those will be prosecuted to the full extent. Iber said most sellers are above board.

“That’s their business, that’s their livelihood. That’s how they support their families,” he said. “… They’re not trying to do things illegal. But, as in anything, you have bad apples in all batches.”

One of those bad apples was 39-year-old Joe Velasquez.

A JCT employee told the ATF that Velasquez worked at the store in a part-time capacity and the business owner said Velasquez worked there several years in a volunteer capacity and was not “an official employee ‘on paper.’”

The owner referred to Velasquez as a “general helper” who assisted with sales, showed guns and doled out ATF forms to customers – the same forms he is accused of lying on.

Velasquez caught the eye of ATF in July 2021, according to court records, after 13 guns recovered in “suspected criminal activity” were traced to him as the buyer. Ten of the guns had a short time-to-crime.

Additionally, agents said, Velasquez had 25 guns transferred to him between August 2019 and June 2021, 16 of them at JCT Firearms. Velasquez initially denied making straw purchases but eventually pleaded guilty, admitting that he was “a dealer in firearms without a license.”

Velasquez said he bought and resold nearly two dozen guns to people on Jason’s Guns, a Craigslist-like gun market, “to pay bills.”

Others made straw purchases to feed a drug habit.

Martin Martinez allegedly told ATF agents he bought guns for two men, knowing they were felons, for hundreds in cash and fentanyl pills, according to court records. The 32-year-old said he had been addicted to various drugs since 2010.

Agents said Martinez walked into two Albuquerque gun stores, in February and March, and bought a gun while in the company of another man. In both instances the men looked over guns together but it was Martinez who made the purchase.

Both guns were recovered by authorities within weeks, according to court records, one in a pistol-whipping case where suspects fled police and another in a drug possession arrest. Agents said the guns were found with the men who initially went with Martinez to the store.

Two men allegedly involved in straw purchases told ATF agents they solely bought guns for criminals.

Larry Archuleta, 23, allegedly told agents he bought at least 28 guns for a San Jo gang associate named Juan between May 2020 and January 2022.

Archuleta said “Juan” would tell him what guns they wanted and Archuleta would buy and deliver them, according to court records. Agents said records showed Archuleta bought 18 guns over the past year and a half from BMC Tactical, “essentially buying the same firearm over and over.” He also reportedly had 37 guns transferred to him since May 2020, spending more than $15,000.

Archuleta told agents he was paid in pot and that he knew “the consequences of my actions for me lying on this paperwork,” according to court records.

The ATF zeroed in on 24-year-old John Chavez after a convicted felon sold a gun to an undercover agent that was traced back to Chavez, according to court records. The traced gun had reportedly been used in an August 2020 shooting in Albuquerque.

Records showed Chavez bought at least 25 guns from BMC Tactical and JCT firearms between November 2019 and late 2020. Agents said a JCT employee told them there would be one or two people waiting outside for Chavez when he came in to buy a gun, and Chavez “always knew what he wanted and had cash in hand.”

In an interview, Chavez told agents he purchased several of the guns for “El Chapo,” according to court records. Chavez described El Chapo as a drug dealer and gang member who he knew was violent after he robbed someone at gunpoint with Chavez in the car.

“You realize people are getting shot out here with guns that you put on the streets?” an agent asked Chavez in an interview. Chavez replied, “That wasn’t my intention.”

Iber said even one gun obtained in a straw purchase is “one too many.”

“Those are ending up on the streets and causing a lot of heartache in communities …just one straw purchase is bad enough… and ATF is committed to stopping all of that as we can, so we don’t rest, we don’t rest,” he said.

Changes with new law

Many of the ATF’s cases in the state are making their way through the court process, but those who have been convicted and sentenced faced a variety of punishments, depending on the circumstances.

Genovevo Alvarez, a 58-year-old green card holder, is serving more than six years in federal prison for buying nearly three dozen guns in Las Cruces and, by his own admission, reselling them in Mexico for double the price.

Meanwhile, Kirtland airman Charles Brent Justice was sentenced to just over a year and a half behind bars for buying and importing illegal weapons. The 29-year-old, according to court records, was living on base in 2020 when he had a silencer shipped to him from China.

Investigators learned he had also been shipped other banned items, like a switch that turns a pistol into a machine gun. Authorities found 17 guns, three silencers and large amounts of ammo at his on-base home.

On Justice’s phone investigators also found tutorials of how to use a coat hanger to turn a rifle into a machine gun, how to make explosives and photos that “indicated he could pose a potential threat to the public.”

Those photos included rifle clips that had the names of mass shooters written on them in white ink, like Alexandre Bissonnette and Luca Traini.

Iber said the landmark federal gun legislation passed in June – with new statutes on straw purchasing and firearms trafficking – will give punishments “a little more teeth” and sentences of 15 to 25 years.

Officer shot and killed

Laura Swanquist-Chavez is awaiting her sentence. She faces up to 10 years.

The 36-year-old bought a pistol in August 2020 at a Deming pawn shop “at the behest” of her husband Omar Cueva, 39, a convicted drug smuggler, according to a plea agreement. She said she gave the gun to Cueva and “he carried it regularly.”

She told investigators that on Feb. 4, 2021 Cueva had left their house unannounced and the handgun she bought him was gone. That day Cueva, on his way to a drug deal, shot and killed State Police Officer Darian Jarrott with a rifle during a traffic stop.

Federal and local authorities chased Cueva to Las Cruces — exchanging gunfire along the way – where Officer Adrian De La Garza used a pit maneuver to stop Cueva’s truck. By then, Cueva had switched from the rifle to the pistol his wife bought him.

In dramatic lapel video, Cueva is seen running up to De La Garza’s vehicle firing the pistol, wounding the officer in the shoulder in a close-quarter gunfight. De La Garza fell to the ground and fired beneath his vehicle at Cueva’s legs until he retreated under a hail of bullets from an army of encroaching law enforcement.

When the dust settled on the debris-strewn highway, Cueva was on the ground motionless, his body riddled with bullets. The 9mm his wife bought lay beside him on the asphalt.