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Robert C. Ponce, 43, of Carlsbad, pleaded guilty last week in federal court in Las Cruces to drug trafficking and firearms offenses.

Ponce is the eighth of 10 defendants charged as the result of a multi-agency investigation into a criminal organization trafficking large quantities of methamphetamine and firearms in southeastern New Mexico to plead guilty.

The investigation was initiated by the DEA, ATF and the HIDTA Region VI Pecos Valley Drug Task Force and initially targeted a meth-trafficking organization operating in southeastern New Mexico that was supplied by Daniel P. Bruton, 39, of Artesia, and Marcos A. Martinez, 31, of Roswell.

The investigative team quickly expanded to include HSI, the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Border Patrol, the New Mexico State Police, the Chaves County Metro Narcotics Task Force, and the Eddy County Sheriff’s Office, and the investigative targets expanded to include other drug traffickers in Eddy and Chaves counties.

During the investigation, law enforcement authorities seized more than 2.5 kilograms of methamphetamine and 44 firearms.

Ponce, Bruton and Martinez were charged along with seven other co-defendants in a 34-count indictment filed Oct. 3, 2017. The indictment alleged Martinez, Bruton and their co-defendants conspired to violate the federal narcotics trafficking and firearms laws from May 2017 through October 2017 in Eddy and Chaves counties and elsewhere in New Mexico.

The indictment includes 55 overt acts that discussed the conspiracy’s operations, including the quantities of meth, ranging from multiple ounces to five pounds, allegedly distributed by the defendants on a routine basis. It also describes the firearms, including assault rifles, that allegedly were to be smuggled into Mexico, allegedly used by the defendants in relation to their drug trafficking activities.

During last week’s proceedings, Ponce pleaded guilty to conspiracy, use of a communication facility to further the commission of a drug trafficking crime, possession of meth with intent to distribute, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. In entering the guilty plea, Ponce admitted that during July 2017, he conspired with his co-defendants to distribute meth in Eddy County. Ponce further admitted that on July 28, 2017, he was in possession of approximately 2 ounces of meth and a loaded firearm in his vehicle when he fled law enforcement officers.

Ponce admitted that if the meth had not been seized by law enforcement, it was his intention to distribute it to other individuals. Ponce acknowledged he was prohibited from possessing firearms or ammunition in July 2017 because of his prior felony convictions for possession of a controlled substance, being a felon in possession of a firearm, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and forgery.

At sentencing, he faces a statutory mandatory minimum penalty of five years and a maximum of 40 years in federal prison.

Seven of Ponce’s co-defendants have entered guilty pleas and three have been sentenced: Chelcy A. Vasquez, 26, of Dexter, pleaded guilty Feb. 5 and was sentenced July 18; Erick L. Miranda-Santos, 22, of Artesia, pleaded guilty April 5 and was sentenced Sept. 18; Kenneth R. Dickerson, 57, of Carlsbad, pleaded guilty June 27 and was sentenced Sept. 6; Isela Hernandez, 27, of Roswell, pleaded guilty April 16; Martinez pleaded guilty June 14; Linda M. Watts, 28, of Carlsbad, pleaded guilty June 20; and Bruton pleaded guilty July 6.

Sentencing hearings for Ponce, Bruton, Martinez, Watts and Hernandez have yet to be scheduled.

Two co-defendants, Jerry O. Twaddle, 38, and Ethan G. Watts, 28, both of Carlsbad, have entered pleas of not guilty to the charges against them.