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For 19 months, federal agents hunted gun-runners sneaking weapons from Texas to Central America by watching a Houston salvage yard owner, sometimes as he went to work or picked up his children at school.

They tracked his cellular phone calls and videotaped the comings and goings of his business with a secret camera mounted on a telephone pole across the street. Then, according to testimony in federal court Tuesday, dozens of agents moved in on Nationwide Import Car Salvage on North Shepherd late last week, as well as at least three homes.

The plot they allege to have uncovered underscores not only the growing role of Guatemala in the international drug and weapons business, but also is unique in that it involved an organization run and operated by people with no previous criminal records.

The Houston group would have perhaps evaded the law if it weren’t for a gun dealer dropping a dime on them by calling the feds, according to testimony by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent Gaetano Beato.

Agents seized computers and financial documents and arrested the business owner, Guatemala native Joel Linares, 35, as well as a Conroe couple who were allegedly his employees in crime.

They are accused of being part of a Linares-led plot that moved at least 105 illegally bought guns from Houston to Mexico and Guatemala, where some ended up in the hands of cartel gangsters.

In seeking their release on bond, their lawyers have sought to show that the defendants have clean backgrounds and have never been accused of any crimes, and are not a violent threat to the community.

What may have been the crew’s final undoing was what federal agents contend was an attempt to sneak $2.5 million worth of heroin into the United States by stashing it in the drive shaft of a pick-up truck.

A team of ATF and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were watching in November 2009 as Linares met outside the salvage yard with two other men, Fernando Huezo, 28, a California native who lives in Conroe and had family in Guatemala, and Felix Dallas-Ortega, a Cuban who lives here.

Dallas’ age is unclear, as is where he is charged.

Acting on Linares’ orders, prosecutors contend that the next day, Huezo and Dallas headed to the border in separate vehicles.

Huezo guided him into the border city of Matamoros, located across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, as well as put him in touch with people there who would trade out his drive shaft for one loaded with 17.9 kilograms of heroin.

Three have confessed

As he came back into the United States, Dallas was arrested and confessed, according to ATF.

Also later caught was Huezo and Huezo’s his common-law wife, Jenni Cortez, 26.

Cortez and Huezo have confessed to their roles in the plot, Beato testified.

All documents related to Cortez’s case have remained sealed, even five days after she was arrested.

She is said to have purchased at least 43 semiautomatic pistols and rifles since September 2008 at a cost of about $42,000, according to a news release from the Justice Department. She allegedly received about $200 for each purchase.

At least 15 of those guns were recovered in Mexico or Guatemala and later traced back to Cortez.

The others were allegedly purchased by her husband.

A recent U.S. State Department report notes that Guatemala’s role in the drug world has expanded as the government of neighboring Mexico has intensified pressure on drug cartels, leaving organizations looking for new ways to move places to expand as well as bring mayhem and bloodshed.

Authorities repeatedly have said that a vital part of the cartels doing business is being able to outfit their private armies with U.S.-made weapons.


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