Five Guatemalan nationals, including a Metro Police officer and three naturalized U.S. citizens, have been indicted on weapons charges by a federal grand jury in Nashville, officials announced Tuesday at a news conference.
The indictment is part of a yearlong joint investigation by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to stop the flow of illegal weapons to Central American drug cartels, rival gangs and other criminal enterprises.
According to the indictment, Julio Cesar Rojas-Lopez was the ringleader of an alleged conspiracy to legally purchase semi-automatic pistols, revolvers, and ammunition for export to the Republic of Guatemala. The firearms and ammunition were being smuggled to members of the Lorenzana and Mendoza drug cartels located in Guatemala, officials said.
Metro Police officer Edwing Ronal, Donald Efren Franco, Denis Franco, Luis Armando and Monterroso Pineda were recruited by Rojas-Lopez to purchase the weapons, according to the indictment. He
Members of the two drug cartels, which authorities say control trafficking routes through Guatemala for drugs headed to Mexico, allegedly controlled most of the decision-making from Guatemala. They allegedly gave Rojas-Lopez a supply order of what to purchase and when to smuggle the weapons out of the U.S., the indictment claimed. Thousands and thousands of dollars were then wired to Rojas-Lopez for the purchase and export of firearms and ammunition.
From June 2008-July 2009, the defendants purchased 23 firearms and attempted to purchase five more guns and ammunition. Eighteen of the 23 fraudulently purchased firearms were smuggled to the Republic of Guatemala.
ATF and ICE agents seized the remaining five firearms.
All five suspects were expected to turn themselves in Tuesday.
Morales, a former Metro Police patrolman, was decommissioned in July when the department was made aware of his role in the alleged conspiracy, according to a statement from Metro Police. He was fired Sept. 15 after a disciplinary hearing.
Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas said he had been with the department about two years.
“There’s no reason to believe any other members of Metro Nashville Police Department were involved,” he said, adding that Morales did not abuse his policing authority in the alleged conspiracy.
Because the guns were purchased legally, the shops that sold them — Franklin Gun Shop, Goodlettsville Gun Shop, Specialty Arms II in LaVergne, Bass Pro Shops in Nashville, and Guns and Leather in Greenbrier — are in no way culpable, said James Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the Nashville ATF field office.
“This case was investigated as part of ‘Armas Cruzadas,’ an ICE-led bi-lateral program designed to identify, disrupt and dismantle trans-border weapons-smuggling networks” said Michael A. Holt, special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in New Orleans. “The operation aims to stop the illegal export of weapons from the United States into the hands of drug cartel organizations.”
If convicted, each man could face a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.