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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
District of New Mexico

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Former Albuquerque Fireman Sentenced to Thirty Months in Federal Prison for Structuring Drug Trafficking Proceeds

ALBUQUERQUE – Steve Chavez, 33, of Albuquerque, N.M., was sentenced today to 30 months in federal prison followed by three years of supervised release for his conviction for structuring currency transactions to avoid a reporting requirement.  The court also ordered Chavez, who was a fireman with the Albuquerque Fire Department at the time he committed the offense, to forfeit the sum of $182,000 to the United States.

Chavez’s sentence was announced by Acting U.S. Attorney Steven C. Yarbrough, Special Agent in Charge Joseph M. Arabit of the El Paso Field Division of the DEA, Special Agent in Charge Carol K.O. Lee of the Albuquerque Division of the FBI, and Dawn Mertz, Special Agent in Charge of the Phoenix Field Office of IRS Criminal Investigation.

Chavez was arrested in Jan. 2012, on a 29-count federal indictment charging him and 14 co-defendants with drug trafficking, money laundering and currency structuring offenses.  The indictment charged Chavez and his 14 co-defendants with participating in a drug trafficking organization led by Homer Varela (Varela DTO) that distributed cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana in New Mexico between May 2011 and January 2012.  The indictment also charged Chavez with currency structuring and using a communications device to facilitate drug trafficking crimes.  The indictment included provisions seeking forfeiture of property constituting, or derived from proceeds obtained from the defendants’ illegal drug trafficking and financial crimes.

In April 2013, Chavez pleaded guilty to a currency structuring charge and admitted that between July 2011 and Aug. 2011, he structured currency transactions for the purpose of avoiding federal reporting requirements for deposits and withdrawals involving more than $10,000.  According to his plea agreement, Chavez committed this crime by making 37 cash deposits and withdrawals over a 55-day period as part of a pattern of illegal activity.  In his plea agreement, Chavez admitted that the purpose of his structured deposits and withdrawals was to avoid reporting requirements and thus conceal his association with Varela and his support of the Varela DTO.  Chavez also admitted brokering cocaine transactions for the Varela DTO and “cleaning” its drug money by structuring financial transactions.  According to the plea agreement, in Nov. 2011, Chavez attempted to broker a 20 kilogram cocaine transaction for the Varela DTO.  Chavez has been in federal custody since April 2013.

In Jan. 2013, Varela pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, conspiracy to launder money and money laundering.   In July 2013, Varela was sentenced to 135 months in federal prison followed by five years of supervised release.

An additional six of Chavez’s co-defendants have entered guilty pleas.  Another six co-defendants have entered not guilty pleas to the indictment and are pending trial.  The 14th co-defendant, Manuel Villa-Mayorquin, has not been apprehended and is considered a fugitive.  The charges in the indictment against the seven co-defendants who have not pleaded guilty are only accusations, and they are presumed innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The indictment in this case was the result of a multi-agency investigation into a major drug trafficking and money laundering organization operating out of the Albuquerque metropolitan area that was designated as part of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (“OCDETF”) program.  OCDETF is a nationwide Department of Justice program that combines the resources and unique expertise of federal agencies, along with their local counterparts, in a coordinated effort to disrupt and dismantle major drug trafficking organizations.

This case was investigated by DEA, IRS and FBI with support from the New Mexico State Police, the Albuquerque Police Department and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.  The case is being prosecuted by the OCDETF & Gangs Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Updated January 26, 2015