Donna man sentenced in conspiracy to traffic AK-47s

McALLEN — A Donna man involved in a conspiracy to smuggle assault weapons was sentenced Monday.

Juan Jose Rodriguez Jr. will serve more than two years in federal prison after U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa sentenced him to 30 months behind bars during a sentencing hearing Monday morning.

Rodriguez is one of four defendants facing charges in connection with a federal investigation that sought to expose an attempt to buy and then smuggle firearms from the U.S. into Mexico beginning last June.

The 23-year-old man is only the second person to be sentenced in connection with the aforementioned conspiracy.

Last October, Rodriguez pleaded guilty to count two of the indictment, smuggling goods, court documents show.

As part of his plea deal, the court agreed to dismiss the remaining two counts against him.

According to the complaint filed against Rodriguez and three other defendants, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations agents, working with agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, worked an undercover operation that led to the arrest of Jose Manuel Lopez-Gallegos, Rodriguez, Gerardo Perez-Martinez, and Narciso Zapata.

In early April, Hinojosa sentenced Zapata, 37, of Pharr, to seven months in prison for his role in the conspiracy.

Zapata, a  U.S. Army veteran, apologized to the court, his family and his peers during his sentencing and added that he made a mistake when he tried to help out a friend who was interested in smuggling assault-style weapons, specifically AK-47s, into Mexico.

Agents began surveillance on the four men on June 1, 2017, when an “unnamed co-conspirator,” made contact with a “UC,” or undercover officer, regarding the purchase of firearms. A day later, the officer offered the unnamed co-conspirator, later identified as Zapata, the opportunity to buy 10 AK-47 rifles. During this conversation, Zapata said the rifles were headed to Mexico, the complaint states.

On June 6, agents arrested both Lopez-Gallegos, who met with the undercover officer and inspected the assault rifles, and Rodriguez, who accompanied Lopez-Gallegos as a passenger in the vehicle.

Moments before his arrest, Lopez-Gallegos inspected and paid the undercover officer for four AK-47 rifles, the complaint states.

“During a post-Miranda interview, Lopez-Gallegos stated that the unnamed co-conspirator had instructed him to negotiate and purchase the AK-47 rifles from the UC,” the court record shows.

According to Lopez-Gallegos’ interview with agents, Rodriguez, who Lopez-Gallegos said he met mere moments before the scheduled purchase of the AK-47s, was the person who had the money for the purchase of the rifles.

At the sentencing hearing Monday, Rodriguez’s attorney, Brownsville-based Sheldon Weisfeld, said his client had gotten himself involved with a bad crowd after becoming addicted to crack cocaine; but that he’s now aware of the poor decision he made.

“When I met this man, he was 20 pounds lighter,” Weisfeld told the court.

Rodriguez, who has been in custody since his arrest last June, apologized to the court and said despite his circumstances, his incarceration these nearly 12 months has helped him to remain clean and off drugs.

Hinojosa, in handing down Rodriguez’s sentence, said he would place him in a facility where he may receive drug treatment, should he choose to do so. 

Rodriguez will also be placed on two years of supervised release upon completion of his prison term.

Lopez-Gallegos and Perez-Martinez are slated to appear for future court proceedings in connection with this case.