A former member of the U.S. military from San Antonio has been arrested on charges that he led a ring that smuggled hundreds of high-powered rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition to a faction of the former Zetas drug cartel in Mexico.
José Joaquín Soto Jr., 36, was arrested in San Antonio along with three alleged accomplices in a joint investigation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Homeland Security agents.
Soto got many of the guns from Brian G. Morris of Yoakum, who is being investigated over allegations of dealing firearms without a license, according to a criminal complaint. Some of the weapons were recovered at crime scenes, through gun seizures or after shootouts with authorities in Mexico.
Officials said Soto was once a Marine, but that could not be verified Monday. His Facebook page shows him in an Army uniform wearing Ranger pins, and it says he was with the 75th Army Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning, Ga.
Morris, 55, told federal agents that he supplied .50-caliber rifles, and AK- and AR-style rifles to Soto or his accomplices: Alex Bautista, 28, and Derek Quintanilla, 29, both of San Antonio, according to court records.
Another alleged accomplice, Samuel Cardenas, 26, of San Antonio, delivered cash in bulk to Morris to place an order for firearms and allegedly obtained the cartel’s “guns of choice” from other sources, too. All were working for “the boss,” identified in the affidavit as Soto.
The group spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on guns, firearm parts and ammo, purchased from sources in San Antonio, throughout Texas and online, the affidavit said.
Soto, Bautista, Quintanilla and Cardenas are charged with illegal exportation of items on the munitions list, dealing firearms without a license and conspiracy. Soto, Bautista and Quintanilla were taken into custody late last week and are scheduled for probable cause and bond hearings on Wednesday in federal court in San Antonio.
Cardenas, who was released on bail Friday, faces a probable cause hearing Wednesday. A woman and two men that officials say were sent by the cartel to pick up a load in Laredo have been charged there with trying to export items on the munition list.
Morris is not charged yet, but “admitted to his role in a ‘guns to cartel’ firearms trafficking scheme,” the affidavit said. “Ultimately, Morris acknowledged that he had indeed acquired over 225 firearms on behalf of individuals Morris identified as Quintanilla, Bautista and Soto. Morris further stated he believed the firearms acquired for this group to have been smuggled to an unidentified cartel in Mexico.”
Morris told agents he “built out” 40 AR-style rifles from lower receivers and at least 15 machine guns for the group, making them “ghost guns” — virtually untraceable — but was told that Soto’s “clients” didn’t want nondescript guns, preferring firearms with the manufacturer’s markings and logos.
Retired ATF special agent Davy Aguilera, who was previously head of the San Antonio ATF office, said it’s common for gun-trafficking rings to use middle men.
“There are straw purchasers and then you have guy who is taking (the guns) and making them automatic,” Aguilera said. “That makes them more expensive. It’s a money-making ring.”
What is not common, Aguilera said, is for members of the U.S. military, former or current, to arm a foreign group.
“I don’t think you’re going to have a Marine, or an active duty, supplying the narco-traffickers just to arm them,” Aguilera said. “I can’t see a soldier arming another army unless there’s money involved.”
In eight months alone, Morris spent $122,225 to buy more than 170 firearms from just one licensed gun dealer in suburban Houston — 70 of them were AK-style rifles, 86 were AR-style, six .50-caliber rifles, and three pistols, the affidavit said. The rest were acquired from other licensed sellers in Victoria, Houston, Dallas and Las Vegas, according to the affidavit.
And Morris was just one supplier to the group. Its members went to gun shows, sporting goods stores and pawn shops in search of guns, ammo and other items for the cartel, the affidavit said.
Authorities have been recovering weapons in Mexico linked to Soto at least as far back as 2015, when in December of that year, a CMMG, .223 caliber AR-style rifle, was found at a crime scene in Reynosa. The ATF traced it to a gun shop in Alabama, where Soto bought it in 2008 while he was stationed at Fort Benning, the affidavit said.
The affidavit cites intelligence information that said Soto works with Noe Hernandez, an accused immigrant smuggler who works for the Cartel del Noreste, one of the splinter groups that remain from the split of the Zetas cartel. The affidavit said a source told agents that Soto, “a former Marine” who was born in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and grew up in Laredo, on the Texas side of the border, travels to Mexico to test-fire the weapons Hernandez helps him smuggle there before the two “receive full payments from members of the CDN.”
Further investigation by Homeland Security and the ATF found that Soto’s group spent nearly $130,000 on more than 13,000 AR and AK-style ammunition magazines from an online gun supply store, CDNN Sports, the affidavit states. Ammunition sales are not subject to the same federal regulations as firearms, and in most states, bullets can be bought online or in person with zero oversight.
“This investigation has identified another $150,000 spent acquiring over 225 ‘AR’ and ‘AK’ style rifles, along with .50-caliber rifles, that are believed to have been smuggled through Laredo, Texas, into Mexico to arm a cartel,” the affidavit said.
As part of the investigation, agents said, they saw Soto take firearm-related items to a stash house in Laredo. Border crossing records show he and various accomplices took many trips south of the border to deliver the weaponry in various vehicles, including some that had the same Mexican license plates, the affidavit said.
Agents also said they saw Soto and accomplices take items to storage units in San Antonio and Laredo, and pick up firearm-related items from the storage unit in Laredo.
In a raid of the stash house in mid-November, agents found 13 guns, .223/7.62 caliber ammo, five AR-style receivers, 50 ballistic plates, 65 rifle magazines, a 40mm grenade launcher, other gun parts and accessories and nine sealed boxes of AK or AR-style rifle magazines.
On Nov. 30, agents saw a Suburban and a Ford Fusion pick up thousands of rounds of ammo, magazines and 20 ballistic helmets from the Laredo storage unit. Agents arrested the driver of the Suburban, Juan Jose Garcia-Cruz, and the driver of the Fusion, Gina Gibeaut Morales. Also arrested was the driver of a third vehicle who met with the pair, Hector Hugo Olivas.
Garcia-Cruz told agents he was picking up the load because he owed the cartel money, while Gibeaut said she was to be paid $500 to help transport some of the items.