NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – How are convicted criminals and even violent kids getting their hands on guns? Oftentimes, the guns are stolen; but the majority of the time, federal law enforcement says qualified New Mexicans are buying guns for people who shouldn’t have them. Local, state and federal police are working to track down these so-called straw purchases, but the crime can be tough to catch and even harder to prove.
On January 12, 2022, Alberta Trujillo called 9-1-1 to report a shooting inside her Albuquerque home. “My grandson just shot my brother. Hurry!” she told the 9-1-1 operator.
When APD responded, they found Daniel Trujillo dead in the living room. His great-nephew, Domenic Mora, admitted to police he pulled the trigger.
“I heard the pop and I closed my eyes, and he just fell,” Mora told investigators.
“He’s dead to me,” Alberta Trujillo said in her interview with APD.
She is Mora’s Grandma. APD asked if she had ever seen him with guns. She answered, “I said I don’t like ’em. I’m afraid of ’em. Get ’em out of here.” But when executing a search warrant on her home after the shooting, detectives found 11 guns. Just four months after the shooting, federal court records revealed Mora’s Grandma straw purchased at least three of those guns for him.
“On a straw purchase, someone is going in there, buying the firearm for somebody else and lying on the form that it is in fact for them when it really wasn’t,” explained Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Special Agent Brendan Iber.
The court records stated Trujillo confessed to federal law enforcement that her Grandson ordered the guns online and she went to the store to buy them for him. The first time this happened, he was underage, just 16 years old.
“Prohibited persons cannot go in and buy a firearm. So they try to find innovative ways to get in there and get a hold of these things to help with their drug trade, to help with their violent actions,” Iber continued.
He said family members with clean records often do the job. That’s how Omar Felix Cueva had a gun when New Mexico State Police Officer Darian Jarrott pulled him over in February 2021. Court records show Cueva’s wife, Laura Swanquist-Chavez, admitted she bought it for the convicted felon in August 2020. 162 days later, Felix Cueva used the gun during the stop to shoot and kill Officer Jarrott.
The number of days between when a gun is legally bought and when police recover it it called the ‘time to crime.’ “And the shorter time to crime is a little bit of a clue for us, right? Because usually people that are buying firearms for hunting or you know, for home protection or whatever, they’re not really getting rid of those firearms after 79 days,” Iber explained.
The time frame is generated by an electronic trace or Etrace. “It is typing the gun information into a website that is hosted by the ATF,” APD Commander Nicholas Sanders said. “We enter that information. We have an agency code, we provide serial number, make, model and some other identifiers and we submit it to the ATF.”
Sanders oversees APD’s Scientific Evidence Division inside the agency’s Crime Lab. “Pretty much any firearm that we received and that is connected to a criminal nexus, we will enter it into Etrace,” Sanders explained. In return, within 24 hours, investigators learn who bought the gun, as well as where and when they did so.
For example, APD recovered a gun after Julian Mayes was killed on July 25, 2021 at an apartment complex in Albuquerque. A federal search warrant showed the gun was later traced to a Roswell man. He was not the shooter, the ATF believes he is the supplier of the gun. The search warrant reveals Etraces of other guns confiscated from his home show he could be the supplier in at least five other criminal investigations across New Mexico.
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“It’s assistance and the investigatory leads,” Sanders said. An Etrace answers the question — how did the suspected criminal get a gun? And while the ATF believes it’s typically through a straw purchaser, Iber said the agency can’t know how bad the problem is because police agencies aren’t required to trace guns. Right now, he said, only 50% do. “We are missing a lot of data there. If we could get every single law enforcement agency to trace their firearms, we would have a much broader sense of really what’s going on, Iber added.
“Sitting in this position for a relatively short amount of time, and seeing it from this view, it is new to me,” New Mexico’s U.S. Attorney, Alexander Uballez, said. “And I think it’s an important focus.” Since Uballez became the state’s U.S. Attorney in May 2022, KRQE noticed an uptick in the number of straw purchasing investigations. His Office charged eight people with the crime in 2022, compared to just one person a decade ago. There are also several search warrants executed in 2022 that have not yet led to charges.
“It works both from beginning and from when we seize a gun, where did it come from? And then, we take a gun from a drug trafficker, where is it going?” Uballez explained. He said the straw-purchased firearms often go to the Mexican cartels, which is why he met with law enforcement in Mexico City to talk about the issue. “It’s the same organizations who are the buyers of the firearms going south that are shipping the fentanyl up north,” Uballez said.
But, firearms trace data from the ATF shows the vast majority of guns straw purchased in New Mexico are going to other New Mexicans. So, Uballez is focused on Albuquerque, too. “In a particularly violent city, where, where it seems like we have shootings on a daily basis, stopping the flow of firearms to those who mean others ill is incredibly important,” he said.
Larry Archuleta is one example. Uballez’s Office said he supplied an Albuquerque gang with pistols, rifles and shotguns for at least a year and a half. Federal law enforcement caught Archuleta after he bought 33 firearms at 3 gun stores across the city in just 5 months. He is charged with straw purchasing 24 of those guns. Court records state a gang member used the app Snapchat to tell Archuleta what to buy.
“These criminals are very — if they’d only put their ingenuity towards real business … They’d probably make a lot of money,” Iber said.
The ATF admits straw purchasing is a difficult crime to prove because they do not often have a Snapchat or text message to make their case for them. Iber said investigators do get tips from vigilant gun store employees.