(CBS) NEW YORK - Nineteen people have been indicted in a gun bust that began as a narcotics investigation after an aspiring rapper posted photos of weapons and cash in the social photo-sharing mobile app, Instagram.
Authorities said Monday a pair of gunrunners smuggled firearms into New York City by hiding them in luggage they carried on discount buses that offered cheap fares and lesser odds of getting caught.
An undercover city police officer posing as a gun broker for criminal customers bought 254 weapons from the men in dozens of transactions since last year - the largest gun seizures in the city in recent memory.
One of the guns was an assault rifle that was disassembled and transported in a girlfriend's zebra-striped bag, authorities said.
The alleged smugglers, Walter Walker and Earl Campbell, were among 19 people arrested in New York and in North and South Carolina - states where the guns originated - as the result of a 10-month investigation.
An aspiring rapper from Brooklyn was also charged.
Walker and Campbell were arrested earlier this month by local police in their home states, authorities said.
According to CBS New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said "New York is the safest big city in the nation, but year after year, illegal guns flow into our city from states that don't have common-sense laws that keep guns out of the hands of criminals."
New York has some of the nation's strictest gun-control measures and Bloomberg has crusaded for tougher laws in other states.
"There is no doubt that the seizure of these guns has saved lives," the Mayor said at the news conference.
Wiretap evidence showed that sellers in the Carolinas knew the weapons were destined for New York, said Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan.
"Perhaps the two most disturbing aspects of the gun-trafficking operation were the simplicity of the business model, and the complete indifference of the gun suppliers to the mayhem their actions would cause here in New York City," Brennan said. "The marketing strategy was buy low, sell high and keep a low profile."
The gun case was a spinoff of a drug investigation in Brooklyn that turned up Instagram photos of handguns and wads of cash posted by the rapper. Wiretap and other evidence led investigators to Walker, 29, of Sanford, N.C. and Campbell, 24, of Rock Hill, S.C., who were smuggling guns separately but using the same middleman in New York City, authorities said.
The two tapped a loose network of suppliers in their hometowns, authorities said. Some guns were obtained on the black market, while others were bought from gun dealers using straw buyers to get around one-gun-a-month restrictions.
"The problem is that the gun laws passed now, so it's like now I can only buy a gun from a gun store every 30 days," Campbell complained in one conversation, according to an indictment. "So I had to, like, pay different people to keep buying different guns."
Before heading to New York, Campbell would get photos of the guns his suppliers were offering and send the images to the undercover officer, authorities said. Both defendants would travel to the city carrying a dozen or more handguns, rifles and shotguns in bags that were stowed in luggage compartments of Chinatown-based carriers also favored by drug couriers, investigators said.
One of the discount bus companies charges $60 one-way from Raleigh, N.C., to New York. The fare is about half that charged by Greyhound, which, unlike the Chinatown buses, requires identification for boarding.
Walker met two times last year with the middleman and the undercover officer at the rapper's Brooklyn recording studio to sell the undercover firearms, the indictment said. He also alleged sold weapons to the undercover in April in Manhattan.
In January, the undercover officer met with Campbell and his girlfriend, who was carrying assault rifle parts in her zebra-striped suitcase, authorities said. The woman struggled to assemble the weapon in the backseat of a car by using a YouTube instructional video she called up on her smartphone, investigators said. When she failed, the undercover bought the pieces anyway for $1,100, they said.
The station reports the guns sold for $160,000 according to the 552 count indictment.
Walker and Campbell face multiple counts of criminal sale of a firearm and other charges. Names and details of the other 17 people involved have not been released.