By Jason Buch
Updated 7:11 pm, Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Laredo gun smuggler, who police say ran a cell of the Zetas drug cartel, admitted Thursday to working with the same arms traffickers who provided the gang with a machine gun used in the killing of a U.S. agent.

In November 2010, Nicolas Sanchez Reyes, 50, tried to smuggle 40 weapons into Mexico. But the guns, mostly rifles and machine pistols, were seized near the border.

Prosecutors said the guns came from the Dallas-area weapons buyers who earlier that year had purchased a Draco AK-47 pistol used in the killing of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Jaime Zapata.

Zapata, a Laredo-based agent working in Mexico, and ICE Agent Victor Avila were forced off the road in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí by cartel gunmen in February 2011. Zapata was killed and Avila was wounded in the confrontation.

Sanchez also faces three counts of capital murder for killings that state prosecutors say were ordered by Zetas leaders in Mexico. He has pleaded not guilty to those charges.

Sanchez was “working on smuggling arms into Mexico, not in doing hits for the Zetas,” said his attorney, J. Eduardo Peña.

A legal permanent resident and Laredo freight forwarder, Sanchez guilty Thursday to one count of exporting weapons to Mexico. He faces up to five years in prison.

One of his alleged underlings and three members and associates of a U.S. prison gang also pleaded guilty Thursday to kidnapping charges.

Police believe Sanchez oversaw the Zetas muscle in the Laredo, the gang's most important smuggling point into the U.S.

The investigation into the kidnapping, homicides and gun-trafficking began with an operation by the Drug Enforcement Administration in Chicago targeting Zetas who were smuggling drug proceeds.

That investigation led to the seizure of more than $20 million in cash heading south from Chicago, Philadelphia and Dallas and it led agents to Sanchez, who prosecutors say answered to the gang's leadership in Mexico. Millions of dollars were seized in and near San Antonio.

A Laredo police detective testified during a 2011 court hearing that the department was contacted in September 2010 by DEA agents involved in the money smuggling investigation. More than $1 million of the Zetas' money had gone missing, the detective testified, and agents tapping the gang member's phones had overheard Zetas leaders ordering a Laredo-based cell to find the thief.

The investigation revealed details about three homicides ordered by the Zetas, overseen by Sanchez and carried out by members of the Hermandad Pistoleros Latinos prison gang, the detective said.

The wiretaps also led investigators back north. Federal agents traced Sanchez's weapons smuggling to the Zetas' Dallas-based suppliers, Otilio Osorio and his brother Ranferi, a former U.S. Marine. One month earlier, Otilio Osorio had purchased the machine pistol used in the attack on Zapata, according to court documents. Both brothers are serving time in federal prison.

Zapata's family, in a lawsuit against the federal government, has given a different version of events.

They alleged that Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents engaged in a “gun-walking” investigation, in which firearms were allowed to enter Mexico in order to uncover their buyers. Zapata's family drew comparisons to Fast and Furious, a disastrous investigation by the ATF in Arizona that allowed gunmen to get their hands on a weapon that was used during a shootout that killed Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in 2010.

Four others pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges related to the September 2010 kidnapping attempt that Laredo police broke up after being alerted to it by the DEA. Pablo Cerda, 36, who prosecutors allege was one of Sanchez's underlings; along with Ernesto Zaragoza-Solis, 29, and Efrain Garza, 31, who were Pistoleros gang members, pleaded guilty to kidnapping conspiracy charges. They face up to five years in prison. Grace Diaz-Martinez, 33, admitted to being an accessory after the fact.

Dozens of people have been charged in connection with cash smuggling, including Eduardo “Don Aldo” Treviño, 51, who prosecutors say oversaw from Mexico the transportation of drug proceeds.

The investigation also uncovered a small trafficking organization that smuggled cocaine through San Antonio to Florida.

Zetas and prison gang members enter pleas in Laredo - San Antonio Express-News