By Ashley Meeks
(Reuters) - The first defendant in a conspiracy involving leaders of a tiny New Mexico border town who ran guns to violent Mexican drug cartels has been sentenced to nearly four years in prison, U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman said on Thursday.
Judge Robert Brack sentenced Vicente "Tito" Carreon to 46 months in prison on Wednesday in federal court in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Pitman said. Brack also ordered three years of supervised release for Carreon.
Though not a ringleader in the larger conspiracy, Carreon was observed at a stash house concealing 20 9 mm pistols in luggage later taken by village truck to a bus station in El Paso, Texas, in January 2011, according to the indictment.
The next month, Carreon helped dispose of packaging for 10 more 9 mm pistols in Chaparral, New Mexico, He pleaded guilty to the crimes in July 2011.
Former Columbus police chief Angelo Vega, former mayor Eddie Espinoza and former Columbus village trustee Blas "Woody" Gutierrez are among the 12 who pleaded guilty in the conspiracy.
Gutierrez, who remains in federal custody awaiting sentencing, faces up to 280 years in prison, while Espinoza could be sentenced to 50 years and Vega to 35.
Gutierrez's wife, who has not pleaded guilty, is scheduled to begin trial next month in Las Cruces. A final defendant, Ignacio "Nacho" Villalobos, remains a fugitive.
The public affairs office of the U.S. Attorney's Office in El Paso said on Thursday that no other sentencing dates have been scheduled.
Prosecutors said that between January 2010 and March 2011, the defendants used their positions to facilitate and safeguard the trafficking of around 200 guns worth about $70,000, including assault rifles, to Mexico.
Some of those weapons were later recovered at drug busts and murders in Mexico. Prosecutors said tactical gear and body armor were also smuggled to the Ciudad Juarez-based La Linea organization, sometimes using village vehicles.
Formed by renegade police officers in the northern Mexico state of Chihuahua, La Linea act as enforcers for the Juarez cartel, a group based in Ciudad Juarez that controls some of the main drug trafficking routes into the United States.
Prosecutors had asked Carreon be imprisoned for 87 months due to the severity of the ongoing violence in Mexico, which has left about 50,000 people dead in cartel-related mayhem since late 2006.
The gun-running scandal brought fresh notoriety to Columbus, best known for a raid by famed bandit-turned-revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa in 1916 that left 18 Americans dead and the isolated frontier town a smoldering ruin.
Last July, the cash-strapped community dissolved its police force as it had no budget to pay for it. Policing has since been taken over by the Luna County Sheriff's Department.
(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Cynthia Johnston)