RALEIGH – U.S. Attorney Michael Easley announced Wednesday that multiple charges, including conspiracy, money laundering, firearm trafficking, straw purchasing and making false statements to firearms dealers, have been brought against five individuals for their role in an alleged conspiracy to smuggle guns purchased in Eastern North Carolina to Mexico.
To date, 17 firearms, most of which were AK-47 style rifles, have been seized. Four of the five individuals are in custody following an indictment handed down by a federal grand jury late last month.
“The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act allows us to investigate and prosecute gun trafficking and straw purchasing rings that drive the flow of guns from the United States to Mexico, often fueling cartel violence in that country while enabling the fentanyl crisis here at home,” said U.S. Attorney Michael Easley. “Those who engage in international gunrunning conspiracies based in North Carolina will meet justice in our courts.”
“The impact of straw purchasing and firearms trafficking is rarely limited to a single community or city,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Brian Mein. “Those that knowingly put firearms in the hands of violent and dangerous individuals are a threat to all of us.”
“We are committed to collaborating with our law enforcement partners to investigate, disrupt and dismantle transnational criminal organizations that are responsible for the illicit export of firearms that fuel violence across our southern border,” said Ronnie Martinez, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) – Charlotte that covers North and South Carolina. “This indictment sends a strong message to weapon smugglers that law enforcement will work aggressively with the United States Attorney’s Office to combat this egregious and dangerous activity and bring those involved to justice.”
According to the indictment:
- Cortney Highsmith, age 43 of Garland, has been charged with conspiracy to make a false statement to a federally licensed firearms dealer, five counts of making false statements to a federally licensed firearms dealer, straw purchasing firearms, and trafficking firearms. Highsmith faces up to 15 years imprisonment if convicted.
- Luis Martinez, age 29 of Roseboro, has been charged with conspiracy to make a false statement to a federally licensed firearms dealer, trafficking firearms, smuggling goods from the United States, money laundering conspiracy, and alien in possession of a firearm. He faces up to 20 years imprisonment if convicted. Luis Martinez is the sole defendant yet to be arrested.
- Steven Martinez, age 26 of Tarheel, has been charged with conspiracy to make a false statement to a federally licensed firearms dealer, two counts of making false statements to a federally licensed firearms dealer, and straw purchasing firearms. Steven Martinez faces up to 15 years imprisonment if convicted.
- Roberto Martinez, age 23 of Roseboro, has been charged with trafficking firearms and money laundering conspiracy. Roberto Martinez faces up to 20 years imprisonment if convicted.
- Gilberto Hernandez, age 28 of Selma, has been charged with smuggling goods from the United States and money laundering conspiracy. Hernandez faces up to 20 years imprisonment if convicted.
The indictment alleges Highsmith and Steven Martinez purchased multiple firearms from federally licensed firearms dealers between January 27, 2023, and February 7, 2023, certifying that they were the “actual transferee/buyer” of the firearm, but later transferred the firearms to Luis Martinez, who is not a legal citizen of the country and is, therefore, prohibited from owning firearms.
It is alleged Luis Martinez then conspired with Roberto Martinez, Highsmith and Hernandez to transport the guns to Mexico. The firearms purchased by Highsmith and Steven Martinez were intercepted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officers on February 19, 2023, at the Del Rio, Texas port of entry. The vehicle carrying the guns was traveling to Durango, Mexico.
This case is being prosecuted under the new criminal provisions of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which Congress enacted, and the President signed in June 2022. The Act is the first federal statute specifically designed to target the unlawful trafficking and straw-purchasing of firearms.
Michael Easley, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina made the announcement. The Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives and Homeland Security Investigations are investigating the case and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Julie A. Childress and Chad Rhoades are prosecuting the case.