McALLEN — A federal judge sentenced a former Hidalgo County law enforcement officer to four years in prison Monday for using his job as a gun store manager to falsify paperwork and illegally send weapons to Mexico, where they were recovered after a deadly shooting.

Fifty caliber ammunition sits on the counter of the Gun Rack, a gun store now closed in McAllen. Then manager, Jose Cruz, seen in the back was sentenced to four years in prison on Monday for his role in selling weapons that ended up in fatal Mexico gun battles. Oct. 23, 2019
(Photo by Valerie Gonzalez)

U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents arrested Jose Cruz, 49, on Dec. 5, 2019. A judge released him on bond a week later. Cruz managed the Gun Rack, a gun store on Old Business 83; it has since closed down.

The federal complaint details Cruz falsified firearm transaction records known as ATF form 4473. Cruz added firearms to the forms of customers buying other inventory. When he received the extra weapons delivered, the manager would sell them to other customers. It was the only way he could “protect himself,” he said during Monday’s sentencing hearing.

“He was basically acting under the direction of other people,” Richard Gould, Cruz’s public defender, said.

The gun store manager fathered children in a previous relationship and was helping in the rearing of another child in his current marriage, according to Gould. He was in debt, and that may have contributed in part, his attorney said.

Then he began receiving veiled and unveiled threats from people who knew intimate details of his life. Gould didn’t provide any details about the threats or explain why Cruz didn’t report them to law enforcement.

Gould urged the judge to consider how Cruz’s involvement began before Crane handed down his sentence. Cruz had already entered a guilty plea to the smuggling charge on May 1.

U.S. District Judge Randy Crane focused on the 50-caliber magazines and ammunition sent to Mexico which he described as “huge.”

While the criminal complaint attributed the sale of nearly 80 weapons to Cruz — a majority of which were AK-47 style rifles — the federal government doesn’t know exactly how many weapons he sold to criminals who later used them in Mexico.

Crane said U.S. agents managed to connect 69 firearms and about 500 rounds of assorted ammunition back to Cruz, a number the prosecutor called “a conservative figure.” Agents established the connection through documents, corroborating testimony from Cruz, and tracing weapons after they were used south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Crane noted: “After a gunfight where there were multiple people killed.” Then the weapons were confiscated and the serial numbers led investigators to The Gun Rack and Cruz, Crane explained. ATF agents then appeared at the door of the buyers whose receipts were padded with the false sales.

The number of weapons and the place of the shooting was not disclosed.

Aside from weapons, there was some unaccounted money.

Crane asked Cruz about money advanced for purchases that weren’t completed, apparently referencing a written confession that wasn’t filed in court. Cruz explained the money, close to $140,000, was entered into the business and the purchase orders were submitted. Due to recalls, some items were on hold and never delivered, Cruz said.

“I’ve already lost a lot of things,” a remorseful Cruz said, appearing in a button-up shirt and tie during his virtual sentencing.

“I hope that my previous years of helping people out are taken into consideration,” Cruz told Crane as he read from a prepared statement.

Up until Nov. 8, 2019, Cruz was working as a reserve deputy for the Precinct 3 Hidalgo County Constable’s Office. His job history included serving 22 years in law enforcement positions in Mission, Palmview, Hidalgo and the county, according to state records.

He also mentioned in his personnel file working in Yugoslavia for two years with the United Nations as a peacekeeper.

The government prosecutor called his law enforcement background a “double-edged sword.” As such, he would know the danger of these weapons especially as the dangerous aspect of firearms ending up in Mexico.

Cruz was extended some leniency.

The sentence for his crime had a range of 46 to 57 months. Crane sentenced him to 48 months in prison, the lower end of the scale.

After serving time, he will be placed on supervised release for three years. Cruz will need to turn himself in after the holidays, on Jan. 4, 2021.