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Man sentenced to 27 mos. for illegally buying & reselling 82 firearms
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Man sentenced to 27 mos. for illegally buying & reselling 82 firearms

Gun purchased in Arizona linked to murder in Mexico

  • A member of the National Guard working at the Mariposa border crossing in Nogales in 2018.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comA member of the National Guard working at the Mariposa border crossing in Nogales in 2018.

A 23-year-old Arizona man was sentenced to 27 months in prison for illegally buying at least 82 firearms from more than a dozen gun stores across the state and illegally re-selling the weapons, including one linked to a murder in Mexico.

Jorge Zuniga-Aguilera was sentenced on Sept. 13 by U.S. District Judge Douglas L. Rayes after he pleaded guilty to making a false statement during the purchase of a firearm. Under the original indictment, Zuniga-Aguilera faced 38 counts of false statements, however, prosecutors agreed to a single count as part of a plea agreement entered earlier this year.

Known as "straw purchasing," the practice of buying a gun in a purportedly legal manner on behalf of someone who cannot legally buy a firearm is a frequent source of arms for drug cartels and other criminals. It's also a crime under federal law.

Between September 2020 and June 2021, Zuniga-Aguilera acted as the straw buyer of at least 82 firearms from 15 Arizona gun stores, including Murphy's Gun Store and a Sportsman's Warehouse location in Tucson. Zuniga-Aguilera obtained the guns for a "person whom he knew did not have legal status in the United States—and who therefore could not legally purchase firearms—in exchange for money," said Yvette Cantu, a Justice Department spokeswoman.  Zuniga-Aguilera, a resident of Arizona City, Ariz. lied about where he lived, and lied about "being the true purchaser of the firearms," she said. 

Zuniga-Aguilera was indicted in September 2021, and arrested a few days later in Nogales, Ariz. 

Prosecutors did not name the person who sought weapons through Zuniga-Aguilar, nor did they describe the firearms he bought at the each of the gun stores during his straw-purchase spree, only outlining how he sometimes hit the same store within days or weeks of his previous purchases.

Two of the weapons he purchased were recovered by law enforcement officials in Mexico City, Mexico, said Cantu. And, one of those weapons was used to murder a Mexican citizen, she added.

Following his prison sentence, Zuniga-Aguilera faces three years probation. 

"Border security means protecting our neighbor’s sovereignty," said United States Attorney Gary Restaino in a statement. "When American guns flow south into Mexico, we all lose. Straw purchase prosecutions are an important step in securing the border and protecting communities in both countries."

"ATF is committed to stopping illegal firearms trafficking both within the United States and internationally," said Brendan Iber, Arizona's special agent in charge for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to identify and stop straw purchasers and those persons or organizations enabling straw purchasers."

Last week, federal agents arrested 25-year-old Josue Lopez Quintana after ATF investigators linked him to the purchase of a gun part used in the AR-15 rifle used to ambush and kill Pima County Constable Deborah Martinez and two others at a North Side apartment complex last month. Last November, Lopez-Quintana purchased a lower receiver for an AR-15-style rifle, and later sold the part to the shooter.

And, in late August, a 37-year-old man was sentenced to 36 months in prison after he illegally bought at least 40 weapons in Arizona, and sold them without a license violating federal law.

While the ATF seeks to halt straw purchases, U.S. Customs and Border Protection continues to intercept firearms bound for Mexico.

Last week,  CBP officers in Nogales intercepted several AK-47-style rifles in two attempts. On Sept. 18, officers stopped a vehicle attempting to leave the US with four AK-47 assault rifles and an "AK-47 pistol" hidden in the "cargo area of a vehicle," said Michael Humphries, the director  and on Sept. 22, officers found four AK-47-style rifles hidden in the trunk of a car. And, over the summer, CBP officers in Nogales intercepted

So far, CBP officials in Arizona have intercepted over 300 weapons heading into Mexico this year, according to agency statistics. 

Over the summer, federal prosecutors in Tucson began highlighting cases under the Project Safe Neighborhoods Program, what the Justice Department called a  "centerpiece" the agency's violent crime reduction efforts, combining federal, state, and local investigations. PSN, officials said is an evidence-based program "proven to be effective at reducing violent crime."

Through the project, several agencies and governments work together to "identify the most pressing violent crime problems in the community and develop comprehensive solutions to address them."

"As part of this strategy, PSN focuses enforcement efforts on the most violent offenders and partners with locally based prevention and reentry programs for lasting reductions in crime," said Cantu.

One case involved a former Arizona Department of Corrections officer who was was part of a smuggling ring involving at least two others who bought three weapons from gun dealers in Tucson, and then smuggled the guns—including a Russian light-machine gun—along with 500 magazines made for AK-47-style rifles, through Nogales, Ariz. into Mexico.

And, in late July, two Phoenix-area brothers were prosecuted after they sold a "ghost gun" and an inert hand grenade to an undercover officer who told them she would smuggle the weapons into Mexico. One man also attempted to smuggle a .30-caliber Browning machine gun, along with 2,000 rounds through the border crossing in Nogales, Ariz.

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