By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - A man who bought two high-powered rifles later discovered at the scene of a slain U.S. Border Patrol agent's murder was sentenced to nearly five years in prison on Wednesday for his role in the botched "Fast and Furious" federal sting operation.
Jaime Avila Jr., 25, was one of 20 defendants charged with purchasing Kalashnikov-type assault weapons and Barrett sniper rifles for Mexican drug cartels.
On Wednesday, Avila was sentenced to 57 months, the maximum penalty recommended by prosecutors in U.S. District Court in Phoenix.
The gun buyers were part of a botched operation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that allowed more than 2,000 weapons to illegally slip across the U.S. border into Mexico.
The failed operation, triggered by gun purchases made in the Phoenix area from 2009 to 2010, was envisioned as a way to track guns from the buyer to senior drug cartel members. Federal agents who ran the operation focused on building cases against the leaders of a trafficking ring, and did not pursue low-level buyers of those firearms.
In April, Avila pleaded guilty to two felony counts of conspiracy and engaging in firearms dealing without a license.
He was not charged in the December 2010 death of agent Brian Terry, who was killed near the Arizona-Mexico border in what authorities said was a shoot-out with illegal immigrants.
It was not clear if the two weapons Avila purchased fired the fatal bullets.
Robert Heyer, the slain agent's cousin, told District Court Judge James Teilborg it was important to give Avila the maximum sentence allowable under federal law.
"You have the ability to send a message to every law-abiding citizen of this great nation that this type of crime will not be tolerated," Heyer said in a statement read in court before sentencing.
"You also have the ability to send a message to Brian's family and friends that justice has been served."
Avila's attorney could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
Avila bought 52 firearms during the operation, including powerful .308 caliber rifles and two Barrett sniper rifles, after being recruited into the ring in November 2009, according to court records.
Prosecutors said Avila became aware the guns were intended to go to Mexico, where drug cartel violence has killed tens of thousands of people since 2006.
Five suspects from Mexico have been charged in Terry's murder.
The killing sparked an election-year firestorm between the administration of President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans, who criticized the government for allowing the program and called on Attorney General Eric Holder to resign.
The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives found Holder, the nation's top law enforcement official, in contempt for withholding documents related to the gun-running probe.
Terry's family has filed a $25 million wrongful-death claim against the U.S. government, saying he was killed because federal investigators allowed guns to fall into the hands of violent criminals.
(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Stacey Joyce)