By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Three men pleaded guilty on Thursday to charges of trafficking high-powered rifles and other guns to Mexico from Arizona under the botched "Fast and Furious" federal sting operation tied to the murder of a U.S. federal agent.
Jaime Avila Jr., Joshua David Moore and Kenneth James Thompson were among a ring of 20 defendants charged with buying and running high-powered firearms including Kalashnikov-type assault rifles, 5.7mm pistols and Barrett sniper rifles to the Mexican cartels.
The purchases were made in the Phoenix area from 2009 to 2010 when a bungled U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives operation sought to determine how guns were being smuggled to Mexican drug cartels.
As many as 2,000 weapons were sold by gun dealers to people believed to be straw purchasers for the cartels, fewer than 600 of which had been recovered by January of this year.
Two of those weapons were found at the spot near the Arizona-Mexico border where U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed during a shootout with illegal immigrants in December 2010. It was not clear, however, if those weapons fired the fatal shots.
Fast and Furious was run by the Phoenix field office of the ATF and the U.S. Attorney. Its goal was to try to track guns being smuggled from the initial purchaser to senior drug cartel members.
Avila was named as the primary defendant in the suit. According to court documents, he was recruited in November 2009 by a co-conspirator, Juan Jose Martinez-Gonzalez, to make third-party straw purchases from licensed dealers. He bought 52 firearms, including powerful .308-caliber rifles and two .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifles.
During his involvement with the ring, he became aware that the guns were intended for export to Mexico, where drug cartel violence has killed more than 50,000 people since late 2006.
All three defendants pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to deal in firearms without a license, making false statements in acquiring a firearm and smuggling guns out of the United States.
Avila and Moore also pleaded guilty to a second count of willfully engaging in firearms dealing without a license.
Upon sentencing on June 25, they face up to 10 years in prison, while Thompson faces up to five years.
Calls to Avila's attorney and the Justice Department on Thursday seeking comment were not immediately returned.
President Barack Obama's administration has been criticized over Fast and Furious, which has been under investigation by the U.S. Congress.
Republicans have questioned who in the administration knew about and approved the operation and its tactics and when. They have issued subpoenas for documents and for witnesses to testify.
Terry's family, meanwhile, has filed a $25 million wrongful-death claim against the U.S. government, saying he was killed because federal investigators allowed guns to fall into the hands of violent criminals.
(This story corrects third graph to show not all guns reached drug traffickers)
(Editing by Jackie Frank and Lisa Shumaker)