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Tucson Police officer handed over 6 years in prison for Mexican gun smuggling case

July 11, 2017  |  Posted by: Francesca Falzarano
Tucson Police officer handed over 6 years in prison for Mexican gun smuggling case

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A gun smuggling attempt gone wrong in Nogales, Arizona, along with a daring bust at an airstrip in Sinaloa, led U.S. authorities to a gun store on the northwest side of Tucson.

Federal agents learned about rifles powerful enough to shoot down a helicopter, two false home invasions, dozens of fraudulent gun sale records, and a former police officer accused of stealing the identities of individuals he arrested as part of a plot to smuggle firearms across the border.

Joe Santiago-Valles, a former police officer in Tucson from 2012 to 2014, was sentenced on July 6th to 6½ years behind bars after he pleaded guilty to 30 counts of forging federal firearm records, identity theft, and tampering with witnesses. The prosecution of co-conspirator Timothy Veninga, who was a federally licensed firearms dealer, is pending.

The investigation of 34-year-old Valles and 48-year-old Veninga was launched in March 2016 when U.S. Customs and Border officers in Nogales apprehended a man attempting to smuggle a Kel-Tec PMR-30 pistol across the border into Mexico, according to Tucson.com.

Although the gun’s serial number was destroyed and painted over, authorities managed to recover the number and traced the firearm back to a purchase the day prior at Ballistic Firearms, which Veninga operated out of his house. Valles also managed a gun-painting business out of the same residence.

When federal authorities examined records at the shop, they found something strange: The names of Valles’ family members repeatedly appeared in the forms required for gun sales by the ATF.

“Every family member had a .50 cal,” Chris Bort, ATF Special Agent, testified at the sentencing hearing on Thursday, which he called a “huge red flag” pointing toward gun smuggling.

Joe Santiago-Valles (Source: Tucson Police Department)

One Barrett .50-caliber rifle — a model Bort said was preferred by cartels and had been used to shoot down police helicopters in Mexico — traced to Ballistic Firearms was confiscated by the Mexican military at an airstrip in Culiacan, Sinaloa back in September.

The bust at the airstrip came after the arrest of a man with three firearms earlier that day in the border city of Mexicali, Rio Doce reported. The Mexican military learned that a delivery was going to be made and went to the airstrip.

The pilot of the Cessna saw authorities approaching and attempted to take off, but the driver of a military truck drove into one of the plane’s wings to stop it. Along with the .50-caliber rifle, the Mexican military also seized four AK-47s.

Similar to the Nogales raid, the serial number of the Barrett .50-caliber rifle at the airstrip was damaged and painted over. However, an ATF attaché in Mexico took pictures of the gun, which were used to trace it to a Tucson man who purchased the gun at Ballistic Firearms.

The ATF routinely traces firearms seized in Mexico to dealers in the U.S., including 120,000 between 2007-2015.

However, the only link the Tucson man had with Ballistic Firearms was that Valles had taken him into custody in 2014 for a DUI. ATF agents discovered records from the arrest, which contained the man’s birthdate and other information required for ATF forms when they searched Valles’ residence.

When authorities tracked the man down, who was not charged in the scheme, he burst out laughing at the idea he could purchase an $8,000 rifle. He told agents he is only able to pay his bills by dealing plasma and receiving payments for child support.

Another individual, whose name appeared on over two-dozen sales, was arrested by Valles, who kept the man’s information. He was declared mentally incompetent by the Arizona court system, according to federal prosecutor Serra Tsethlikai. He lives with his mother and is only allowed to carry enough money for his bus fare.

The former police officer from Tucson, Arizona, has been sentenced to six and a half years in federal for arms trafficking

Bort testified that Valles’ brother told police that the cash to purchase the guns came from an unknown person Valles met on more than one occasion in a parking lot.

Authorities recovered only one of the weapons, and Judge James A. Soto required Valles to pay $62,000 as part of a forfeiture for 31 guns.

Those firearms, which were sold from 2015 to 2016, are “the tip of the iceberg,” Tsethlikai stated. “We can only guess how many made it to Mexico.”

After the ATF had inquired about gun sales, the defendants set up two “fake home invasions” and destroyed the rest of the records. Not only did detectives lose important information, but two individuals who matched the false description Valles and Veninga gave to sheriff’s deputies faced police with drawn guns.

Agents were so “shocked” during their trip to the gun shop they took “covert photos” of the documents. Agents learned that Valles recruited his brother, sister, and sister’s boyfriend to sign ATF forms saying they purchased the guns. Valles paid them a few hundred dollars for each form.

After ATF agents had questioned relatives, who were not charged, one of them consented to wear a device and meet with Valles.

During the recorded meet up at an apartment complex, Valles told them to not cooperate with police and said the guns were “out of the country.” He also indicated that he “got rid of the paperwork.”

KVOA | KVOA.com | Tucson, Arizona
Assistant public defender James Smith asserted that prosecutors were attempting to “elicit the boogeyman of cartel violence in Mexico” but could not confirm that Valles was involved in gun smuggling.

Smith also challenged the validity of the recorded discussion, which was made months after the bust in Nogales. Valles had no way of knowing where the firearms went, Smith maintained.

Smith referenced a case in which four people of Sahuarita and Green Valley were charged in 2015 for smuggling guns concealed as metal artwork to Hong Kong. One of them was sentenced to 8½ years behind bars.

That case included charges of gun smuggling and cash laundering, which Smith added were not filed against Valles. Instead, he contended that his client only broke laws having to do with the ATF forms.

“You’re telling me this is a forms case and not a guns case?” Judge Soto said to Smith. “You’re going to have a hard time convincing me.”

However, Soto rejected Tsethlikai’s request for an increase in sentencing due to an association with gun trafficking, indicating that the prosecution had shown Valles was aware of that the guns were going to Mexico but had not presented enough proof to confirm that he knew the guns were going to drug cartels.

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