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Recent jaw-dropping California gun smuggling case is a sign of a bigger issue

A person holding an AR-15 rifle
A member of the United Front of Community Police of Guerrero holds an AR-15 rifle manufactured in Hartford, Conn., in Filo de Caballos in the Mexican state of Guerrero, on April 25, 2019.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
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Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Jan. 27. I’m Justin Ray.

A troubling gun-smuggling case in California is a symptom of the bigger issue of weapons from the U.S. ending up in Mexico.

A Southern California man has been charged with directing a conspiracy to ship weapons to a drug trafficking group that law enforcement officials describe as one of the most powerful in Mexico.

Federal authorities charged Marco Antonio Santillan Valencia, 51, of Whittier and three other alleged members of the operation (including his son, Marco Santillan Jr.) with conspiring to evade restrictions on the export of firearms, conspiring to launder money and possessing ammunition as a felon.

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The details in the case are eye-opening. Stopped by law enforcement in San Bernardino County, Santillan Jr. and two others were found to be transporting 64,400 rounds of ammunition, 20 50-round ammunition belts, rifle scopes, $52,471 in cash and $10,000 in money orders, according to an indictment unsealed recently.

The guns and ammunition were said to be bound for members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, known by its Spanish initials, CJNG, according to law enforcement. Prosecutors cited a Facebook message in which Santillan Jr. allegedly said that “Mencho’s cartel” was “buying everything.”

Santillan has pleaded not guilty. His attorney didn’t immediately return a Times request for comment.

The bigger picture

What remains underdiscussed is the fact that many weapons found in Mexico came from this side of the border.

“Gun control is one of the most divisive political issues in the United States, but the debate rarely considers how lax American gun laws have fueled violence in Mexico,” as Kate Linthicum wrote in a 2019 article.

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Between 2014 and 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ran nearly 80,000 traces for the Mexican government to see where weapons found in the country originated. The ATF found that 70% of firearms recovered came from stateside. However, the agency states an important caveat: Many other weapons recovered in Mexico were not submitted for tracing, meaning the number is likely an undercount.

As many as 150,000 people were killed in Mexico as a result of organized crime between 2006 and the end of 2018, according to the Trace, a nonprofit journalism organization. You might be wondering how much Mexico’s own guns are playing a role in the carnage. But Mexico has very strict gun regulations. In fact, there is only one gun store in the entire country.

“We kill each other, and you send the bullets,” Salvador Alanis Trujillo, 40, of the United Front of Community Police of the State of Guerrero, said bluntly to The Times.

Related reading:

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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L.A. STORIES

Movie theater safety during COVID, the sequel: This time it’s personal. Two years into the pandemic, have health experts and industry leaders’ updated recommendations made moviegoing safer? “I think it’s OK to go to the theater, but go with protection,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin with the American Public Health Assn. Los Angeles Times

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UCLA gymnastics stood together against racial injustice, then was ripped apart by it. Two gymnasts told The Times a teammate used a racial slur, which prompted a university response that some gymnasts of color found to be insufficient. “I know for a fact that myself and my Black teammates suffered greatly,” one Bruins gymnast said. Los Angeles Times

UCLA gymnasts join hands during a pre-match ceremony honoring the Black Lives Matter movement.
UCLA gymnasts join hands during a pre-match ceremony honoring the Black Lives Matter movement in 2021 at Pauley Pavilion.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Students would get $500 a month under a new Universal Basic Income pilot project proposal from state Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose). If passed, five California campuses would pilot the program: Fresno State, CSU Los Angeles, San Francisco State, CSU East Bay, and San Jose State.

In a recent interview with the Fresno Bee’s Ed Lab, Cortese said cash payments would be more helpful for students because their needs change and evolve. Cash would give students flexibility. “The big idea is that it’s less prescriptive,” Cortese said. Fresno Bee

The city of Modesto paid $1.25 million to settle a lawsuit that alleged it was responsible in a 2015 incident in which a student was hit in a crosswalk near Modesto High School. The lawsuit alleged that the city knew the crosswalk was dangerous and had a history of collisions but failed to make it safer. Modesto denied the allegations in court filings, and the city denied any responsibility in its settlement agreement. The city spent $280,155 in legal costs and $79,104 in other costs defending itself, bringing the total to a little more than $1.6 million. The city paid the first $1 million from its own funds, and its insurance paid the balance. Modesto Bee

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Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer to retire, giving Biden his first appointment. Breyer, a California native and 1994 appointee of President Clinton, is the senior member of the three-justice liberal bloc, and his retirement is unlikely to change the court’s ideological balance. Still, his retirement provides President Biden and Democrats a golden opportunity to reenergize voters after recent setbacks. Los Angeles Times

Nancy Pelosi’s decision to run again leaves one big mystery. The House speaker’s plan to seek reelection extends one of San Francisco’s longest-running, most-fevered political guessing games: Who will succeed the Democrat when she finally does step aside? Los Angeles Times

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
As she announces her reelection campaign, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), shown in 2021, ends speculation that she will retire leading up to the midterm elections.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

CRIME, COURTS AND POLICING

State authorities are investigating after members of a Riverside County gang task force shot and killed a man suspected of selling fentanyl in Hemet last week. The California attorney general’s office announced Tuesday that it would independently investigate the shooting, which occurred at 11:36 p.m. Jan. 18. Los Angeles Times

A map of the Inland Empire shows where a man was fatally shot by a Riverside County gang task force in Hemet.

Killing of LAPD officer brings scrutiny to one of L.A.’s oldest and largest gangs. Seven decades ago, Latino youths in South Los Angeles banded together to form a gang called Florencia. Over the years, demographic and social shifts have weakened many street gangs and caused some to die out altogether. Florencia did the opposite, law enforcement officials say. The gang is now at the center of the killing earlier this month of an off-duty Los Angeles police officer. Los Angeles Times

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CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Palm Springs International Airport surpassed its all-time passenger record for the month of December, the seventh-straight monthly record broken, officials said. The total passenger count for December was 276,527, an 8.6% increase from the previous record set in December 2018, according to officials. Additionally, the total passenger count for the entirety of 2021 was 2,092,943, an increase of 67% compared with 2020. KESQ

Video captures Laguna Hills student shouting racist slurs at Black basketball player. An Orange County mother is speaking out after her son faced racist comments during a basketball game Friday night against Laguna Hills High School. Los Angeles Times

Sacramento EMTs overwhelmed amid Omicron wave. NBC News went inside Sacramento County Emergency Medical Services Agency, speaking to emergency medical technicians who are overwhelmed amid the wave of the Omicron variant. While riding along with the team, one member said: “People are overworked. We’re working as much as we can. I don’t know how much longer we can do it.” NBC News

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: Sunny 73 San Diego: Sunny 67 San Francisco: Sunny 63 San Jose: Sunny 68 Fresno: Sunny 66 Sacramento: Sunny 61 Porcupines need love too.

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AND FINALLY

Also, I recently asked readers for the music they listen to when they want some nostalgia in their lives. Here is a response from Bill Barnes:

My jukebox is a set of music videos I watch on YouTube. These videos bring me back to my childhood in Escondido and my time in L.A. as a college student and a new husband and father. I’m talking about the 1960s and 1970s. For my memories of the 1960s in the golden era of California music, there’s nothing like the videos of the Mamas and the Papas. For the ‘70s, I really enjoy the videos of Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles. Those groups were the titans of the airwaves back then and with good reason. My favorites: “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon) by the Mamas and the Papas, “Silver Springs” by Fleetwood Mac and “Hotel California” by the Eagles. Oh, the days of a sunlit future in the Golden State!

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.

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