LOS ANGELES – A federal grand jury indictment alleging a scheme to smuggle weapons and ammunition to one of the world’s most violent and dangerous transnational criminal organizations has led to the arrest of four defendants, the Justice Department announced today.
The arrests on January 19 are the result of Operation Semper Infidelis, a Los Angeles Strike Force investigation that targeted a domestic weapons trafficking organization that provided firearms and ammunition to the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), one of the largest and most violent drug cartels in Mexico. In conjunction with the arrests, authorities unsealed a 23-count indictment that charges six defendants with conspiring to violate federal export laws by illegally bringing the weapons and ammunition to CJNG operatives in Mexico.
The indictment alleges that a Whittier man led the gun trafficking organization that used narcotics proceeds to purchase assault rifles, hundreds of thousands of rounds of assault rifle ammunition, and numerous machine gun parts and accessories – some of which were smuggled into Mexico, mostly since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This case alleges a scheme to provide military-grade firepower to a major drug trafficking organization that commits unspeakable acts of violence in Mexico to further its goal of flooding the United States with dangerous and deadly narcotics,” said United States Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison. “We will continue our efforts to dismantle drug cartels by targeting their leadership and well as their soldiers, intercepting their narcotics and ill-gotten financial gains, and prosecuting those who provide the resources that allow the cartels to engage in acts of violence.”
“The defendants in this case smuggled sophisticated weaponry out of the United States to one of the most violent cartels in Mexico whose members target not only rival gangs, but innocent Mexican citizens and Mexican law enforcement,” said Kristi K Johnson, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “Interdictions by our task force, coupled with this indictment, have dealt a blow to firearms trafficking groups on which this cartel relies to facilitate their violent operations.”
The indictment charges all six defendants in a conspiracy to violate export administration regulations that “restrict the export of items that could make a significant contribution to the military potential of other nations or that could be detrimental to the foreign policy or national security of the United States.” The indictment further charges five of the defendants with various attempted smuggling counts. The leader of the organization and his son are charged in a money laundering conspiracy, and two of the defendants are charged with being felons in possession of ammunition.
The six defendants named in the indictment are:
- Marco Antonio Santillan Valencia, 51, of Whittier, the alleged leader of the organization that obtained and supplied weapons, firearms parts and ammunition to the CJNG;
- Anthony Marmolejo Aguilar, 30, of Whittier, who is currently in state custody on separate charges in North Carolina;
- Marco Santillan Jr., 29, of Pahrump, Nevada, who is the son of the alleged leader of the ring and who was arrested in Oregon;
- Michael Diaz, 33, of Moreno Valley;
- Luis De Arcos, 51, of Midway City; and
- Rafael Magallon Castillo, 34, of Oceano, who is a fugitive believed to be in Mexico.
At their arraignments on January 19 in United States District Court in Los Angeles, Santillan, De Arcos and Diaz entered not guilty pleas and were ordered to stand trial in March. Santillan Jr. was ordered to appear for an arraignment in Los Angeles on February 2.
The indictment alleges that members of the Santillan gun trafficking organization obtained firearms in Oregon and Nevada, consolidated shipments in or near Pahrump and Whittier, and smuggled the prohibited items to Mexico. The organization further obtained ammunition from various states – sometimes anonymously ordering pallets of bullets – to be delivered to a stash location in Nevada.
The conspiracy, which the indictment states began no later than March 2020 and operated for about one year, also obtained thousands of rounds of .50-caliber armor piercing incendiary rounds in Arizona, consolidating them in Nevada before attempting to smuggle them into Mexico.
That indictment states that on May 26, 2020, in a Facebook message, “Santillan Jr. informed another individual that members of ‘Mencho’s cartel’ – referring to the CJNG – ‘are buying everything’ – referring to firearms and firearms parts.” Later that day, according to the indictment, Santillan Jr. sent a video of himself via Facebook holding a fanned stack of $100 bills and saying the “sale of firearms to the CJNG was profitable.”
During the Semper Infidelis investigation, authorities seized six assault rifles, over 250,000 rounds of assault rifle ammunition, over $300,000 worth of weapons parts and kits to assemble several “mini-guns” – six-barrel rotary machine guns capable of firing up to 6,000 rounds per minute.
Marmolejo, Santillan Jr. and Diaz allegedly made large purchases of .50-caliber armor piercing incendiary ammunition and .223-caliber ammunition that was to be transported to Mexico. Days later, on July 31, 2020, in operations in Pahrump and San Bernardino County, law enforcement seized firearms parts and ammunition, including well over 100,000 rounds of .223-caliber and approximately 10,000 rounds of .50-caliber armor piercing incendiary ammunition.
An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty in court.
The charge of conspiracy to violate export administration regulations carries a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison, while the attempted smuggling counts each carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Since the January 19 takedown, authorities continued efforts to arrest Magallon, but they are now seeking the public’s assistance in bringing him to justice. Anyone with information about Magallon’s whereabouts is asked to contact the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office at (310) 477-6565.
The Los Angeles Strike Force is led by the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the United States Attorney’s Office. Homeland Security Investigations, IRS Criminal Investigation, the Los Angeles Police Department and the United States Marshals Service are members of the Strike Force. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the South Gate Police Department provided substantial assistance during this investigation.
Assistant United States Attorneys Benedetto L. Balding and Christopher C. Kendall of the International Narcotics, Money Laundering, and Racketeering Section are prosecuting this case.
Operation Semper Infidelis is part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) Strike Force Initiative, which provides for the establishment of permanent multi-agency task force teams that work side-by-side in the same location. This co-located model enables agents from different agencies to collaborate on intelligence-driven, multi-jurisdictional operations to disrupt and dismantle the most significant drug traffickers, money launderers, gangs, and transnational criminal organizations.