TUCSON, AZ - Two men convicted of first-degree murder in the killing of a Border Patrol agent whose death brought to light a bungled federal gun-tracking operation known as Fast and Furious were sentenced to life in prison Wednesday in Arizona.
Jesus Leonel Sanchez-Meza and Ivan Soto-Barraza were part of a five-member crew planning to rob marijuana smugglers in the southern Arizona desert when they encountered border agents and got into a shootout. Their attorneys say they were not the shooters and acted in self-defense.
The gunbattle killed Agent Brian Terry in December 2010. His sister, Kelly Willis, said in court that the defendants knew the consequences of picking up weapons and entering the U.S.
"They knew someone could or would get hurt, but that did not stop them because their greed was much more powerful than having a conscience," Willis said.
Terry's death exposed the Fast and Furious operation in which federal agents allowed criminals to buy guns with the intention of tracking them. But the agency lost most of the guns, including two that were found at scene of Terry's death.
The operation set off a political firestorm, led to congressional investigations and became a major distraction for President Barack Obama in his first term.
The judge in the murder case restricted any mention of Fast and Furious.
Sanchez-Meza and Soto-Barraza were the first of the so-called rip-off crew to face trial. Two others remain fugitives, while another has pleaded guilty to murder. The man who assembled the crew but was not at the killing also has pleaded guilty.
"Obviously, he's very remorseful," defense attorney Ramiro Flores said of Sanchez-Meza. Flores added that his client was the youngest at age 22 when the crime occurred.
"This is very, very difficult for him, as it is for everyone involved, including the victim's family," he said.
Andrea Matheson, representing Soto-Barraza, said both defendants were the least culpable of the crew members and the man who assembled the group. She that her client made a "terrible decision" but that life in prison is not fair.
"He was not the triggerman. He was not the leader or organizer," Matheson said. "He never had any intention of killing anyone."
Terry was part of a four-man Border Patrol team from an elite tactical unit that had been in the desert for two days on a mission to arrest so-called rip-off crew members who rob drug smugglers along the border with Mexico.
As they came across Sanchez-Meza, Soto-Barraza and three others, an agent yelled "policia!" The bandits refused to stop. An agent fired non-lethal bean bags toward the thieves, who responded by firing from AK-47-type assault rifles.
Terry never had a chance to fire. He died of a gunshot wound that entered through his back.
Soto-Barraza and Sanchez-Meza, also known as Lionel Portillo-Meza, were convicted in October of charges including murder, conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery, attempted interference of commerce by robbery, assault on a federal officer and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence.
They also were sentenced Wednesday to additional prison time for some of the other charges. Most of those sentences will run concurrently with the life terms.