A former U.S. Marine from Whittier is facing federal charges alleging he led a six-man scheme to smuggle weapons and ammunition to one of the most feared transnational drug cartels in Mexico, federal prosecutors announced Monday.
Marco Antonio Santillan Valencia, 51, and three other alleged members of the operation were arrested last week in Southern California as part of a federal investigation dubbed Operation Semper Infidelis, a play on the Marines’ famous motto, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
In conjunction with the arrests, Los Angeles authorities unsealed a 23- count federal court indictment charging the six defendants with conspiring to violate federal export laws by illegally bringing the weapons and ammunition to cartel operatives in Mexico.
The indictment alleges that Santillan led the gun trafficking operation that used drug money to purchase assault rifles, hundreds of thousands of rounds of assault rifle ammunition, and machine gun parts and accessories. Some of the items were smuggled into Mexico.
The defendants allegedly 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,” Kristi K. Johnson, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, said in a statement.
The case has “dealt a blow to firearms trafficking groups on which this cartel relies to facilitate their violent operations,” she said.
The five other defendants named in the indictment are:
— 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.
The defendants were arraigned last Wednesday in federal court in downtown 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 Feb. 2.
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 six-barrel rotary machine guns capable of firing up to 6,000 rounds per minute, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.