Two men suspected of creating custom-made assault rifles
By JULIA REYNOLDS
Herald Salinas Bureau
Custom made assault rifles seized by federal agents in...
Two Salinas-area men suspected of manufacturing assault weapons possibly intended for Mexican drug cartels were arrested on federal firearms charges early Wednesday.
The suspected gunrunners, Israel Espinoza, 30, of Salinas, and Manuel Lopez, 45, of Prunedale, were arrested after a seven-month undercover investigation led by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The suspects were indicted on conspiracy and weapons charges Dec. 8, and arrest and search warrants were served at daybreak Wednesday. Officials said both men are U.S. citizens.
More than 70 officers from various agencies took part in the operation, officials said.
Local police officers, sheriff's deputies and federal agents served search warrants at the men's residences in Salinas and Prunedale, and at Espinoza Furniture on East Market Street in Salinas, where several weapons were found.
Israel Espinoza's family owns the store, public records show.
During Wednesday's searches, officers found about $22,000 in cash, an assortment of firearms, 1,500 rounds of ammunition and illegal drugs.
Agents say Espinoza and Lopez were involved in assembling and trafficking assault weapons. The rifles are similar to weapons turning up in the hands of the Sinaloa Cartel of Mexico and other large-scale drug trafficking operations.
It is widely known that guns smuggled from the U.S. are a major source of illegal weapons in Mexico.
Eight custom-made weapons were on display Wednesday at a news conference in Salinas.
Last summer, ATF undercover buyers working in Salinas bought an M-1 rifle, an SKS rifle, a Ruger 9mm pistol and a Rossi .38-caliber revolver from Espinoza, according to the indictment.
But the ATF's buyers ordered custom-built assault weapons from the men. Most were brand-new semi-automatic M-16 or AR-15-type assault rifles. One was a fully automatic machine gun, another a .50-caliber assault weapon.
The firearms "were produced by them for us," said Stephen Herkins, ATF special agent in charge.
Like guns recently seized from drug cartels in Mexico, the rifles have a very unique shiny, chrome piece called a "lower receiver." While other parts of the weapons are legal in California - they can be ordered from the Internet - the lower receivers are illegal. The ones seized in Salinas did not appear to come from a traditional gun manufacturer that supplies parts to the military or police departments. These were made without serial numbers, making the guns almost untraceable.
Asked where the special lower receivers were manufactured, Herkins said that their origins "will be further investigated."
ATF spokeswoman Helen Aguallo Dunkel said she couldn't comment on where the finished weapons might have been assembled, but noted it wasn't at the Salinas furniture store where agents served a search warrant Wednesday.
According to an indictment unsealed Wednesday, Espinoza could face up to 45 years in prison and more than $1 million in fines. Besides one charge of conspiracy to sell firearms without a license, Espinoza faces 11 additional charges, including being a felon in possession of firearms.
Monterey County court records show he has a previous conviction for possessing a concealed, loaded gun. He was sentenced in 2002 to less than a year in county jail.
Lopez faces 25 years in federal prison and more than $500,000 in fines.
Both men were arraigned Wednesday in federal court in San Jose, said U.S. attorney Melinda Haag, who said she plans to continue focusing on Salinas crime. Her predecessor, Joseph Russoniello, announced last year that the city's gangs were a priority target for his office.
District Attorney Dean Flippo said the federal government's commitment to Salinas began in earnest last year at a gang "summit" held at the National Steinbeck Center.
Noting the presence of more than 150 ATF agents and other federal agencies during the mass arrests of April's Operation Knockout, Flippo said, "That was just one visit ... There will be more to come."
Details about how the ATF trafficking investigation began were not released Wednesday. Officials declined to say if they knew how many guns the men handled.
Sheriff's office spokesman Cmdr. Mike Richards said his department served as the command center for Wednesday's actions, and deputies assisted in the Prunedale warrants.
Salinas police and agents from the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and the FBI participated.
After the assault rifles bought by the ATF are no longer needed as evidence - likely a matter of years - they will be destroyed, possibly melted down and recycled, Herkins said.
The bureau wants to make sure these guns never hit the streets, he said.
"I like to say they will be the fender on a Chevy," he said.