PHOENIX – Two men pleaded guilty to buying guns that were destined to be smuggled into Mexico, the first convictions in the federal government's botched Operation Fast and Furious.
The men were so-called "straw buyers" who acknowledged purchasing guns that they knew were headed to Mexican drug gangs.
The goal of the federal government's investigation was to catch weapons-trafficking kingpins, but firearms agents lost track of many weapons they were trying to trace to smuggling ringleaders, and some guns ended up at crime scenes in Mexico and the U.S.
Jacob Wayne Chambers and Jacob Anthony Montelongo each pleaded guilty in federal court Monday to a conspiracy charge. Montelongo also pleaded guilty to dealing guns without a license.
The pair admitted being part of a 20-person smuggling ring that is accused of running guns into Mexico for use by the Sinaloa drug cartel.
Two rifles bought by the ring were found at the scene of a December 2010 shootout near the Arizona-Mexico border that mortally wounded Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. The two guns weren't purchased by Chambers and Montelongo and instead were bought by another alleged ring member.
The investigation is the focus of an inquiry by congressional Republicans.
Several agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have said they were ordered by superiors to let suspected straw buyers walk away from Phoenix-area gun shops with AK-47s and other weapons believed headed for Mexican drug cartels, rather than arrest the buyers and seize the guns there.
The federal agency lost track of some 1,400 of the more than 2,000 weapons whose purchases attracted the suspicion of the Fast and Furious investigators.
Chambers and Montelongo acknowledged buying the guns under the false claim that the weapons were for themselves, when they were actually being bought for organizers of the ring, and to knowing that the guns were being smuggling into Mexico.
Chambers bought 79 guns from three licensed dealers in Arizona from September 2009 to December 2009 and got paid $50 for each AK-47 and $100 for a .50-caliber rifle.
Montelongo purchased 109 guns from eight dealers in Arizona from January 2010 to July 2010. He was paid $50 for pistols, $100 for rifles and $150 each for six .50-caliber rifles.
Each faces up to five years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine. Their sentencing is set for May 21.
Baltazar Iniguez, an attorney for Montelongo, and Phil Noland, lawyer for Jacob Wayne Chambers, didn't immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday.
Trial for the remaining alleged ring members is set for Sept. 25. They have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.