Whittier man is charged with smuggling guns destined for drug traffickers in Mexico

·3 min read

Federal authorities charged a Whittier man with directing a conspiracy to ship weaponry and ammunition to members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, a drug trafficking group that law enforcement officials describe as one of the most powerful in Mexico.

Marco Antonio Santillan Valencia, 51, was charged with conspiring to evade restrictions on the export of firearms, conspiring to launder money and possessing ammunition as a felon.

Santillan and his codefendants, including his son Marco Santillan Jr., 29, are accused of buying guns, ammunition and firearm components in Nevada, Oregon, Nebraska and Arizona and arranging to smuggle them into Mexico. The weaponry was purchased with the proceeds of drug sales, prosecutors charged.

An indictment, returned in December and unsealed last week, offers a sense of the alleged operation's scope: Stopped by law enforcement in San Bernardino County, Santillan Jr. and two others were found to be transporting 64,400 rounds of ammunition, 20 50-round ammunition belts, rifle scopes, $52,471 in cash and $10,000 in money orders, the document says.

According to the indictment, authorities seized guns and ammunition at various sites across the state: four rifles at a home in Midway City in Orange County, 77,300 rounds of ammunition in a trailer in Westlake Village, boxes of rifle components and bullets in a minivan in Whittier, and two rifles at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, where an Orange County man tried to smuggle the weapons, ammunition and cash into Mexico.

Santillan and all but one of his codefendants were arrested last week. Rafael Magallon Castillo, who was charged with conspiring to violate export restrictions, is a fugitive and believed to be in Mexico, according to a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. Magallon, 34, was last living in Oceano, just south of San Luis Obispo.

Santillan has pleaded not guilty. He was previously convicted in federal court in San Diego of conspiring to import contraband in 1994 and sentenced to six months in prison, court records show. His attorney didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

The guns and ammunition were said by law enforcement officials to be bound for members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, known by its Spanish initials, CJNG. Prosecutors cited a Facebook message in which Santillan Jr. allegedly said that “Mencho’s cartel” was “buying everything.”

Authorities say the CJNG is led by Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, known as “El Mencho.” A 55-year-old former policeman, Oseguera is the subject of a $10-million bounty offered by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

In its 2021 threat assessment, the DEA warned that the CJNG was one of Mexico's two dominant drug trafficking groups, along with the Sinaloa cartel formerly led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

The CJNG in particular has pushed synthetic drugs — chiefly methamphetamine and fentanyl — into the United States through the border cities of Tijuana, Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, agency officials wrote in the assessment. Most of the methamphetamine and fentanyl sold in Los Angeles is supplied by the group, the assessment says.

Authorities in Los Angeles warned two years ago that Oseguera’s organization was using drug proceeds to buy weapons in the United States, then smuggling the guns and ammunition to Mexico. Federal prosecutors charged four men at the time with conspiring to buy assault weapons; one of the defendants, a cook at a Santa Ana seafood restaurant, was said to have asked a DEA informant about the viability of buying several hundred AK-47s and AR-15s.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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