PHOENIX(Reuters) - A man pleaded guilty on Thursday to two felony counts of purchasing and running high-powered rifles to Mexico from Arizona under the botched "Fast and Furious" federal sting operation tied to the murder of a U.S. federal agent.
Jaime Avila Jr. was among a ring of 20 defendants charged with buying high-powered firearms including Kalashnikov type assault rifles and Barrett sniper rifles to run to the Mexican cartels.
The purchases were made in the Phoenix area from 2009 to 2010 when a bungled U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) operation allowed more than 2,000 U.S.-bought weapons to slip across the border to Mexico.
Two of those weapons were found at the spot near the Arizona-Mexico border where U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed during a shootout with illegal immigrants in December 2010. It was not clear, however, if those weapons fired the fatal shots.
Fast and Furious was run by the Phoenix field office of the ATF and the U.S. Attorney. Its goal was to try to track guns being smuggled from the initial purchaser to senior drug cartel members.
According to court documents, Avila was recruited in November 2009 by a co-conspirator, Juan Jose Martinez-Gonzalez, to make third party straw purchases from licensed dealers. He bought 52 firearms, including powerful .308 caliber rifles and two .50 Barrett sniper rifles.
During his involvement with the ring he became aware that the guns were intended for export to Mexico, where drug cartel violence has killed more than 50,000 people since late 2006.
Avila pleaded guilty to charges of dealing firearms without a license, making false statements in acquiring a firearm and smuggling guns out of the United States. He faces up to ten years in jail upon sentencing.
Calls to Avila's attorney and the Justice Department on Thursday seeking comment were not immediately returned.
President Barack Obama's administration has been under fire over Fast and Furious, which has been under investigation by the U.S. Congress.
Republicans have questioned who in the administration knew about and approved the operation and its tactics and when. They have issued subpoenas for documents and for witnesses to testify.
Terry's family, meanwhile, has filed a $25 million wrongful-death claim against the U.S. government, saying he was killed because federal investigators allowed guns to fall into the hands of violent criminals.
(Editing by Jackie Frank)