A federal grand jury has indicted two men whose alleged plan to smuggle thousands of rounds of ammunition into Mexico in the engine compartment of a car ended in a predictably explosive fashion at the Pilot Travel Center in Rio Rico.
Francisco Eduardo Santana Lopez, 19, of Phoenix, and Aaron Jazziel Cordova, 21, of Rio Rico, are accused of abandoning a burning Chevy Cobalt in the Pilot parking lot May 31 as its cargo apparently detonated from the heat. On July 11, they were indicted at U.S. District Court in Tucson on one count of conspiracy and one count of smuggling goods from the United States.
According to a complaint filed June 14 against Santana, he drove a vehicle from Mexico into the United States on May 31 and, along with a man identified in the subsequent indictment as Cordova, drove to an ammunition retailer in Phoenix. There they paid $2,278 in cash for 200 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition, 2,000 rounds of 7.62 x 51-millimeter ammo and 2,000 rounds of 7.62 x 39-millimeter bullets.
The men then drove to Cordova’s house in Rio Rico, where they unpacked the ammo from large boxes and stashed it in open spaces around the engine compartment, according to the indictment. Joined by an unidentified female, they drove south toward Mexico on Interstate 19.
While they were driving, the ammo began to explode – likely due to the heat from the engine. They pulled off I-19 at Exit 12, drove to the truck stop, abandoned the vehicle and fled, according to the complaint.
“The vehicle continued to burn and the ammunition continually exploded in the parking lot of the truck stop until firefighters and police arrived to make the scene safe,” according to the indictment.
Meanwhile, another co-conspirator picked up the three passengers at a gas station and drove them to Mexico, according to the indictment.
On June 13, Santana tried to enter the United States through an unspecified port of entry in Nogales and was arrested. Court records show that a federal judge later ordered that he be released on his own recognizance to reside in a halfway house in Phoenix. His trial has been set for Sept. 5.
It does not appear that Cordova has been arrested, though he has spent time in prison for another criminal plot that went wrong in the Exit 12 area, according to records.
In that case, he and another man were being pursued by state police as they drove south on I-19 in a stolen pickup in March 2015. They abandoned the truck near the exit and tried to flee into the desert before they were arrested. Cordova was sentenced in June 2015 to two years in state prison for a pair of convictions stemming from the incident.
The July 11 indictment alleges that the smuggling conspiracy involving Santana and Cordova extended beyond the botched May 31 ammo run. It also accuses them and other unnamed co-conspirators of ordering and purchasing firearms and gun components in Arizona for the purpose of smuggling them into Mexico.
On June 21, 2017, the document says, one of the conspirators purchased a parts kit and tripod assembly for an M1919A4 machine gun from an online retailer. On July 6, 2017, the parts were received by Santana at an address in Phoenix.
Meanwhile, on June 29, 2017, a side plate for a machine gun was delivered to another address in Phoenix, addressed to Santana.
The indictment also alleges that on July 12, 2017, Santana ordered four grenade barrels from an online retailer using the same email address he used in the purchase of the parts kit and tripod. And on July 22, 2017, he reportedly bought a Barrett .50-caliber rifle from a seller in Phoenix. It was later delivered to someone in Mexico.