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New Mexico official denied bail on gun-running charges

By Ashley Meeks

LAS CRUCES, New Mexico (Reuters) - A trustee of a New Mexico border village will remain behind bars with the mayor and police chief pending trial on charges they ran guns to warring drug cartels in Mexico, a judge ruled on Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Brack denied bail for Blas Gutierrez at a hearing in Las Cruces, calling the former trustee of Columbus a dangerous flight risk who had abused his public trust "to fuel the war that's going on south of the border" in Mexico.

Gutierrez was among 13 people, including the mayor and police chief of the tiny frontier town, charged last month in an 84-count gun-running indictment.

It alleged that the defendants used their positions to facilitate and safeguard the trafficking of around 200 guns, including assault rifles, to Mexico, where about 40 people a day were killed in raging drug cartel violence last year.

Arguing against bond, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Nammar said Gutierrez was "an organizer and a leader" of the ring which acquired guns through so-called third-party "straw purchases."

"From the first straw purchase case to the last, the evidence shows Mr. Gutierrez organized them all," Nammar said. "He did this while he was supposed to be representing the people of Columbus."

Gutierrez's attorney, C.J. McElhinney, argued that the charges of conspiracy, weapons smuggling and making false statements in the acquisition of firearms neither involved violence, nor carried mandatory prison terms on conviction.

"This is not smuggling grapefruit," Brack countered, adding that Gutierrez had already been dishonest in telling the court he only made monthly trips to Mexico. Gutierrez had actually made 53 trips across the border in a recent 13-month period, the court found.

Brack also questioned Gutierrez's finances, saying he had been "unemployed for many months," but nevertheless drove a brand new vehicle with a $700 monthly payment.

"I see no visible source of support - and a lifestyle that raises concerns," Brack added.

Dressed in a red prison jump suit, Gutierrez kept his palms pressed together beneath his chin and his eyes on the judge for most of the hearing.

He turned to his wife Gabriela, who is also charged with conspiracy in the case, to mouth "I love you" at the end of the hearing. Gabriela Gutierrez is bailed pending trial.

The case has brought fresh notoriety to Columbus, best known for a raid by bandit-turned-revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa in 1916 which left 18 Americans dead and the dusty frontier town a smoking ruin.

Also arrested with Gutierrez on March 10 were Columbus mayor Eddie Espinoza and police chief Angelo Vega. Both have been denied bond at previous hearings.

The United States is under pressure to curb the illicit flow of guns to Mexico, where more than 37,000 people have died in drug violence since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006 and sent the army to break the powerful cartels.

(Writing by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Jerry Norton)

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