EL PASO, TEXAS – A federal judge on Wednesday denied bond for an El Paso Border Patrol agent and his girlfriend, both accused of smuggling guns to members of a Mexican drug cartel.
Federal agents arrested Border Patrol Agent Ricardo Montalvo, 28, and his girlfriend, Carla Gonzales-Ortiz, 29, last week after their indictment on conspiracy, firearms and smuggling charges. The couple showed no emotion after the judge announced his ruling.
An investigation into the allegations began in early 2011, after a man identified in court documents only as E.P. told agents he worked as a “straw purchaser” for Montalvo, who allegedly once tried to recruit other straw purchasers while wearing his Border Patrol uniform.
A straw purchaser is a person who fills out paperwork to buy a gun from a licensed dealer but is actually illegally buying the gun for someone else.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard Mesa made his bond ruling during a detention hearing Wednesday morning. After reviewing the possible maximum punishment of more than 10 years in prison, Mesa determined that both Montalvo and Gonzales-Ortiz are flight risks.
During the hearing, Special Agent Jesus Lowenberg, who works for Customs and Border Protection’s Internal Affairs, testified that in the fall of 2010, Montalvo and Gonzales-Ortiz became involved in buying weapons, ammunition and accessories destined for Mexico. Montalvo recruited straw purchasers by paying them for buying weapons and other items, and paid them extra if they delivered
the items to Mexico, Lowenberg testified.
The couple’s indictment states Montalvo bought ammunition and firearms, such as AK-47-type pistols favored by Mexican drug cartels. He also allegedly bought about 20,000 rounds of ammo, 97 high-capacity magazines — including 10 100-round magazines for 5.56-mm rifles — and four 37-mm flare launchers that drug cartels can convert to grenade launchers.
During a five-week span beginning in November, Montalvo allegedly spent $11,200 on weapons and ammunition, but his take-home pay as a Border Patrol agent was only $42,000 a year.
Montalvo made hundreds of calls to Mexico between November 2010 and January 2011 on one of two cellphones he kept — one apparently for personal use, and the other for “illicit activity” –ÊLowenberg testified. During the same span, Montalvo was considered a “frequent” border crosser, making six or seven visits a month to Mexico.
In January 2011, agents executed two search warrants at the couple’s home on Emerald Point Drive in far East El Paso. There, the agents seized nine weapons, a handwritten ledger with descriptions of the weapons and price markups, and a photo from Montalvo’s computer showing Montalvo, dressed in plain clothes, holding a large wad of money. Topping the wad was a $100 bill. The photo was titled “Pay Day.”
At one point, Lowenberg testified, Montalvo threatened E. P., telling him, “You know what happens to snitches? Bad things happen to snitches.” Lowenberg also said Montalvo once patted down E. P. to find out whether he was wearing a wire.
During cross-examination, Montalvo’s attorney, Sib Abraham, pointed out that the ledger didn’t have any notes indicating the weapons were indeed sold to cartel members in Mexico, although Lowenberg in turn pointed out that the weapons Montalvo and Gonzales-Ortiz allegedly bought are favored by the cartels.
Lowenberg also testified that many of the statements made between E. P. and Montalvo weren’t recorded.
Abraham also pointed out that Montalvo has several family members who live in Mexico, including siblings and his father.
Gonzales-Ortiz was charged in the case after she attempted to buy two weapons in 2010 but was denied based on her expired immigrant visa status at the time. At the time the investigation began, Gonzales-Ortiz was living illegally in the U.S. with Montalvo.
She was later granted conditional permanent legal residency, and her parents are legal permanent residents who live in Ruidoso, her attorney Leonard Morales said during the hearing.
Montalvo and Gonzales-Ortiz have a 6-month-old baby, whom Gonzales-Ortiz was breast-feeding when she was arrested, Morales said.
During the hearing, Montalvo’s U.S. citizenship was also called into question but wasn’t the basis for the federal prosecutors’ request that he be detained without bond.
Lowenberg testified that in early 2011, he and two other agents visited Montalvo’s mother and stepfather in Brownsville, where Montalvo is originally from, to find out why Montalvo’s U.S. birth certificate is flagged as fraudulent by the Texas Bureau of Vital Statistics.
Montalvo also has a Mexican birth certificate, Lowenberg said on the stand.
Lowenberg testified that Montalvo’s mother never verified whether Montalvo’s U.S. birth certificate is valid, but during cross-examination, Abraham pointed out Montalvo was enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2001 to 2005, when he was honorably discharged, and that Border Patrol agents are required to be U.S. citizens.