PHOENIX - A man who bought two rifles found at the scene of the fatal shooting of a federal agent near the Arizona-Mexico border pleaded guilty Thursday to two felony charges in the federal government's botched gun smuggling investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious.
Authorities say Jaime Avila Jr. was a member of a 20-person ring accused of buying guns and smuggling them into Mexico for use by the Sinaloa drug cartel. Two AK-47 variants bought by Avila from a suburban Phoenix gun store were found in the aftermath of a December 2010 shootout that mortally wounded Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry near Nogales, Ariz.
Avila, 25, faces up to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to dealing guns without a federal license and conspiracy to deal guns without a license, make false statements in a gun purchase and smuggle goods out of the U.S. A sentencing hearing is set for June 25.
Prosecutor Timothy Coughlin told the judge that Avila served as a straw purchaser for the ring and bought 52 guns on its behalf, including two .50-caliber rifles, though the indictment charged him with buying six guns.
There was no mention during the hearing of Terry's death or the guns found at the shootout scene. It remains unclear whether the fatal bullet came from one of the two guns recovered at the shooting scene or from another gun.
Federal authorities have faced harsh criticism since Terry's shooting for allowing suspected straw gun buyers to walk away from gun shops with weapons, rather than arrest the suspects and seize the guns there.
Terry was killed in a shootout with bandits in a canyon north of Nogales. The shooting broke out as Terry and three other agents tried to catch five suspected illegal immigrants believed to be bandits who rob illegal immigrants as they sneak into the United States.
Manuel Osorio-Arellanes of El Fuerte, Mexico, was shot during the gunfight and is charged with second-degree murder in Terry's death. Osorio-Arellanes isn't charged with being a member of the alleged gun smuggling ring.
Avila, who hasn't been charged in Terry's death, was accused in the gun smuggling case of claiming to buy five AK-47 variants and one .50-caliber rifle for himself when he was actually making the purchases on behalf of the ring.
Mexico's drug cartels often seek out guns in the United States because gun laws in Mexico are more restrictive than in the United States.
The goal of the U.S. government's gun smuggling investigation was to catch weapons-trafficking kingpins, but firearms agents lost track of many weapons they were trying to trace to smuggling ringleaders, and some guns ended up at crime scenes in Mexico and the U.S.
The investigation is the focus of an inquiry by congressional Republicans.
Several agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have said they were ordered by superiors to let suspected straw buyers walk away from Phoenix-area gun shops with AK-47s and other weapons believed headed for Mexican drug cartels, rather than arrest the buyers and seize the guns there.
The federal agency lost track of some 1,400 of the more than 2,000 weapons whose purchases attracted the suspicion of the Fast and Furious investigators.
Another member of the ring, 23-year-old Joshua David Moore, pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiracy and dealing guns without a license and faces up to 10 years in prison. Prosecutors say Moore bought 141 guns as a straw purchaser for the ring, though the indictment puts that number at 53.
So far, four members of the alleged gun smuggling ring have pleaded guilty, and one alleged ring member was expected to change his plea Thursday.
Trial for the remaining alleged members of the gun smuggling ring is set for Sept. 25. They have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.