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Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

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He procured guns from the U.S., then sent them to Mexico to fight ‘El Chapo’ loyalists in cartel civil war

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In the years after the 2016 arrest of Sinaloa cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a bloody power struggle between Guzmán’s sons and his longtime business partner has unleashed brutal violence across Mexico.

Authorities say one of the factions fighting against Guzmán’s sons — collectively known as Los Chapitos — was a prolific drug-trafficking cell with major ties to San Diego. And one of their main suppliers of the guns and other weapons they used to fight Los Chapitos was Alfredo Lomas Navarrete, a Culiacán cellphone store owner who helped coordinate the southbound flow of weaponry, some of it purchased in San Diego, through border crossings in San Diego and Arizona.

Last week, a federal judge in San Diego sentenced Lomas to 15 years in federal prison. According to prosecutors, he supplied “hundreds of weapons and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition” to the cartel cell, known as the Valenzuela Drug Trafficking Organization. Prosecutors said many of the weapons — which included .50-caliber rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers — were acquired in California, Arizona and Nevada.

“The majority of firearms trafficked into Mexico — including high caliber and assault weapons — are shipped from the United States,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Sutton wrote in sentencing documents. “The rise of privately made firearms, or ‘ghost guns,’ has only made this problem more acute. These weapons empower drug cartels to intimidate local communities, challenge state authority, and expand their deadly drug trade back into the United States.”

A 2013 paper by researchers at the University of San Diego estimated that more than 250,000 firearms per year move illegally from the U.S. to Mexico, where guns are essentially illegal for most people to own. A more recent proclamation by a Mexican government official suggests that about a half-million guns per year are illegally trafficked south of the border. And moving the guns south is easier, since travelers entering Mexico face just a fraction of the scrutiny that northbound border-crossers face.

In 2021, the Mexican government filed a $10 billion lawsuit against 10 U.S. gun manufacturers, seeking accountability for the deadly southbound flow of firearms. The suit was dismissed, however, a federal appeals court in Boston is considering an appeal by Mexico to revive the case.

Lomas, 33, was prosecuted as part of a decade-long probe into the Sinaloa cartel and its San Diego ties. Specifically, an investigation dubbed Operation Baja Metro targeted the Valenzuela drug-trafficking cell, which prosecutors allege is “a significant component of the Sinaloa Cartel and … currently one of the largest importers of cocaine into the (U.S.).”

Prosecutors allege the group was led by Jorge Alberto Valenzuela Valenzuela, who has pleaded guilty in a related case to a trio of conspiracy charges involving cocaine trafficking and money laundering. Valenzuela admitted in his plea agreement that he was a “leader in a drug trafficking organization associated with the Sinaloa Cartel” and that he ordered acts of violence on behalf of the organization.

Authorities say that in 2020, Jorge Valenzuela and his sister, Chula Vista restaurateur Wuendi Valenzuela Valenzuela, stepped into a void created by the slaying of another brother, Luis Gabriel Valenzuela Valenzuela, who was the logistics and financial operator of a money laundering network for Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, the longtime partner of El Chapo who has been at war with Los Chapitos.

Federal authorities have been attempting to dismantle the Valenzuela trafficking cell since arresting Jorge Valenzuela in late 2020 after he flew on a private plane from San Diego to Boston. Prosecutors said dozens of cellphones seized during his arrest and during a massive bust a short time later at an Otay Mesa trucking yard uncovered the breadth of the family’s operation — huge stashes of guns, drugs and cash were found at San Diego warehouses and other locations. The evidence also revealed that Wuendi Valenzuela was Jorge’s “right-hand” woman.

She pleaded guilty earlier this month to the same three conspiracy charges as her brother, with the same admission of a leadership role. Prosecutors have said Wuendi’s role was to oversee the drug trafficking proceeds moving from the U.S. to Mexico.

That was the same direction that Lomas was moving guns, other weapons and ammunition, according to his plea agreement and sentencing documents. While the Valenzuela cell sometimes used its own trafficking networks and cross-border trucking companies to smuggle firearms into Mexico, it largely relied on Lomas and other arms dealers.

The sentencing documents reveal little about exactly where or how Lomas and his co-conspirators acquired the weaponry, but allege that many of the “weapons and ammunition were acquired in the United States, including in California, Arizona, and Nevada.”

The prosecution’s sentencing memorandum contains dozens of alleged messages between Lomas and Jorge Valenzuela discussing the procurement of AK-47 rifles, grenade launchers, other high-powered weapons, ballistic vests and helmets.

“You’ve been good to me,” Valenzuela told Lomas in one written message in May 2020. “In any way that I can, you can count on my friendship.”

Lomas’ attorney did not respond to a request for comment. In a sentencing memorandum, the defense attorney wrote that his client had lived a law-abiding life as the owner of a cellphone store in Culiacán until drug traffickers began using his services.

“They purchased phones from him, and he programmed and repaired their phones, providing a large scale of business,” the defense attorney wrote. “After some time the traffickers began to ask him to do things for them and Mr. Navarrete agreed.”

The defense argued Lomas was never a member of the Valenzuela organization, but acknowledged that he knew the tasks he was performing were facilitating their drug-trafficking endeavors.

Lomas wrote the judge a letter before his sentencing “as a desperate call for help, forgiveness, and repentance,” telling the judge about his two young daughters. “I apologize from the bottom of my heart for what I did and what I caused, there is not a day that goes by that I do not regret it,” he wrote.

In pre-sentence papers, Lomas and his attorney requested a sentence of less than six years while prosecutors recommended more than 17 years.

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