McALLEN — A Florida gang member pleaded guilty Friday after he bought guns for federal agents posing as a Mexican drug cartel.
Lawrence James Panka pleaded guilty Friday counts of drug and weapons conspiracy before U.S. District Judge Randy Crane.
Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrested Panka after a month long, undercover operation that began in Pharr and concluded in Sarasota, Fla., where they caught him as he was cutting into a brick of cocaine, court records show.
The investigation began in September 2012, when ATF agents learned Panka had been traveling to Pharr looking to sell automatic rifles to Mexican drug cartels for $2,000, or one ounce of cocaine, each.
An ATF agent posing as a Mexican drug cartel member looking for guns met in November with Panka, who told him that he could bring him automatic rifles that could be taken to Mexico.
The following day, Panka called the agent and asked if he had the necessary connections to get him five kilograms of cocaine and 400 pounds of marijuana, court records state. The agent said he had to garner approval from his bosses to make those deals, but that it could be done.
Soon after, the agent called Panka and said his bosses agreed to trade drugs for guns. The first trade was supposed to be a half kilo for 16 rifles and a second kilo as a deposit for additional weapons.
On Dec. 11, Panka brought two enforcers with him as they met with a group of undercover ATF agents posing as Mexican cartel members to finalize the guns for drug trade. The agents took three kilos of cocaine and asked Panka to pick one. Once the kilo had been picked, Panka cut into it to test it, but was immediately arrested along with his enforcers.
Panka’s sentencing date has not been set.
The alleged co-conspirators in the case, Brandon Houston and Jantzen Wheeler, are expected in court Tuesday for a final pre-trial hearing. Both also face drug and gun conspiracy charges.
Ildefonso Ortiz covers courts, law enforcement and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at Iortiz@themonitor.com, at (956)683-4437 or on Twitter, @ildefonsoortiz.