When Sergio Garcia-Rico of Chula Vista, Calif., made his frequent trips across the border from California to Mexico,
the 53-year-old quadriplegic man was carrying much more than a spare wheelchair in the back of his specially-equipped van.
But it wasn't until Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) contacted the ATF San Diego Field Office about an investigation HSI had undertaken into Garcia-Rico's cross-border activities that a special agent with the ATF got involved.
"Once HSI briefed us on their investigation, it was apparent Garcia-Rico had straw purchased several firearms from gun stores in southern California," the agent said. Court records show looking into those purchases bore investigative fruit.
Garcia-Rico later admitted he had purchased firearms at gun shops and gun shows in several California cities, and had lied on forms, stating the firearms were for his personal use. Purchasing weapons for others is also known as "straw purchasing."
ATF works to prevent straw purchasing as part of its effort to fight violent crime. A straw purchase is a purchase in which the actual purchaser uses someone else - a.k.a. the "straw person" to purchase the firearm and complete the paperwork. Generally, the straw purchaser is used because the actual purchaser is not eligible to conduct a transaction because he or she is a felon or other prohibited person. However, a straw purchase occurs even when the actual purchaser is not a prohibited person but wants to remain anonymous in the transaction. The crime committed is knowingly making a false statement on the Form 4473 indicating that the straw purchaser is the actual purchaser, when this is not the case.
Partnering with HSI, the ATF special agent on the case pursued the investigation and obtained federal search warrants for Garcia-Rico's home and another residence belonging to a relative believed to be involved in the scheme. On Jan. 21, 2014, the search warrants were executed after Garcia-Rico was arrested when he attempted to cross into Tijuana, Mexico at the U.S.-Mexico border. A search of his van by DHS Customs and Border Patrol revealed Garcia-Rico was attempting to transport not just firearms and firearm parts into Mexico, but numerous high capacity firearm magazines stashed inside of the van's door panels and thousands of rounds of ammunition ? ammunition which he had secreted in various parts of the spare wheelchair he stored in the back of the van. A search of his home revealed additional firearms, ammunition, several pounds of narcotics, and a large amount of cash. Additionally, during the search of Garcia-Rico's home, agents found documents related to a residence in Tijuana. The following day, ATF agents based in Tijuana, Mexico, armed with this information, were able to recover additional firearms at the home in Tijuana- firearms that had been purchased by Garcia-Rico just five weeks before.
All of that firepower was not for his personal use. Garcia-Rico also admitted he purchased firearms and ammunition with the intention of delivering it to the Knights Templar cartel, a branch of the La Familia Michoacana, a drug cartel based in the Mexican state of Michoacan. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Knights Templar cartel is one of the primary sources of methamphetamine entering the U.S. through San Diego.
On Dec. 18, 2014, Garcia-Rico was convicted in federal court and sentenced to 70 months in prison for knowingly making a false statement in the acquisition of a firearm, attempting to smuggle goods from the United States, and possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute. Garcia-Rico was also ordered to forfeit his house, the weapons and ammunition found in his van at the time of his arrest, as well as approximately $11,000.
"It is obvious that these weapons are being used to kill people," U.S. District Judge Dayna Sabraw told Garcia-Rico at his sentencing. "I think that is plain as the day is long. That is what these weapons and munitions are used for." he concluded.
Calling the defendant a "bold and brazen gun trafficker," Andrew Haden, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, added, "It is not difficult to perceive - when you are personally delivering assault weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition - what is going to happen to those weapons, what that ammunition is for, and the amount of blood that is now on Mr. Garcia's hands."