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Men may be tied to Mexican smuggling ring

Two North Texas men arrested last week while passing through Denton County with a cache of guns may be involved in a ring smuggling weapons into Mexico, authorities said Wednesday.

Victor Manuel Villalpando of Burleson and Norberto Estrada of Fort Worth remain in the Denton County Jail on federal holds.

"Gun smuggling, in particular, is a high priority for the ATF right now," said special agent Tom Crowley of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. "Drugs are being smuggled up here north from Mexico and guns are going back down there in return. It's a big problem."

The men were arrested Oct. 23 after Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper David Farrell noticed a white 2007 GMC Yukon northbound on Interstate 35W without a front license plate.

Farrell stopped the SUV and learned through a records checks that Villalpando, who was driving, did not have a valid driver's license, according to an arrest affidavit.

The trooper also noticed that Villalpando was nervous.

Farrell found out why when he searched the SUV. He found "numerous assault-type rifles, ammunition, loaded rifle magazines, body armor, 20 ski masks and three loaded handguns" in the rear seat and cargo area.

As the SUV was being searched, Villalpando fled on foot. After more officers and a police helicopter arrived, Villalpando was found hiding in a muddy creek bed.

Estrada, who did not flee, also was arrested, authorities said.

The serial numbers on many of the weapons were "obliterated or altered," the affidavit stated. The guns had been loaded into the SUV at Villalpando's home in Burleson.

Authorities later learned that both men were already part of an active investigation into a ring suspected of smuggling weapons from the United States to Mexico.

Most of the guns being smuggled into Mexico end up in the hands of drug cartels, Crowley said.

"They are not only fueling the violence there, but often the people trafficking guns into Mexico are the same people who supplying local gangs here with weapons," he said. "So it is not just a border problem."

Villalpando and Estrada could face charges of unlawful possession of firearms with removed serial numbers that had been transported in interstate or foreign commerce. ALEX BRANCH, 817-390-7689