Friday, August 14, 2009
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Baja Racing News.com EXCLUSIVE
Gabriel Garcia from Ensenada reporting
Today in San Diego, California, USA, the San Diego Grand Jury indicted 17 men suspected of being members of a kidnapping and death squad who are accused of killing at least 9 people from 2004 to 2007.
What started out as a "Mexican gang", made up of US Citizens, late in the 1990's, this group took Tijuana-style violence to the upscale suburbs of San Diego County, kidnapping, torturing and killing well-to-do residents, even after some families paid large ransoms. They killed a dozen people, committed as many as 20 kidnappings and trafficked methamphetamine to Kansas City, Mo., to finance its war with the cartel in Tijuana, all from their base in San Diego County.
The gang, a rogue cell of the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix drug cartel, moved across the border, from Mexico to the USA in 2002 and posed as U.S. law enforcement, donning FBI and police uniforms and caps while snatching victims outside homes and public places, said San Diego County prosecutors.
The gang targeted people it suspected of having links to organized crime, although some victims had no known criminal or other ties. "This rogue group of individuals is responsible for a string of brutal murders and kidnappings that demonstrate the ugly reality of cross-border violence," said San Diego County District Attorney, Bonnie M. Dumanis.
The gang was a rogue faction of the Arellano Felix operation moved into Southern California in 2002, and began kidnapping and shaking down people believed to be working as smugglers and launderers for Mexican traffickers.
Court documents show it operated for several years without attracting concerted action from law enforcement, amassing a fortune that helped pay for equipment that included fake badges and police lights and uniforms.
Nine victims were killed from 2004 to 2007, and the bodies of two of them were dissolved in chemicals at a rented house in San Diego. Gang members were also charged with trying to murder a Chula Vista police officer in September 2005, peppering his car with high-caliber bullets before fleeing in a car.
Noted as a "Mexican-American" group, "Los Palillos", "the toothpicks", but was truly a group of American citizens, kidnapped victims in San Diego County and held them for ransom in suburban rental homes, said Mark Amador, a County of San Diego District Attorney, prosecutor. Mr. Amador said the kidnappers often killed their hostages whether or not they received money from the victims’ families and dumped the bodies around the county. The police said Los Palillos also used a vat of acid to liquefy two bodies. The group operated in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Tijuana, Mexico, as a cell of the Arellano Felix cartel.
Glaring spillover crime from Tijuana's criminal activities, the group was responsible for a series of drug rip-offs, robberies, ransom kidnappings and deaths-- also got involved in drug trafficking, according to authorities.
Police started getting chilling reports of criminals using tactics typically seen only on the streets of Tijuana: Men dressed in police uniforms and bullet-proof vests snatching victims in daylight and throwing them into cars before speeding off into traffic. Bodies bearing signs of torture were dumped.
The crimes haunted residents in such suburbs as Chula Vista and Bonita, where many prominent Tijuana families had moved to escape violence only to find that criminals had followed and blended into the cookie-cutter anonymity of American suburbia.
The veteran gang prosecutor leading the case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Mark Amador, said the gang was the most vicious he's ever prosecuted. "I've never seen a more ruthless, cold-blooded, sociopathic group," he said.
A break in the investigation came in June 2007, when the FBI SWAT team raided a two-story home in Chula Vista, a gang hide-out that was being used to hold kidnapping victims, where a Mexican businessman had been held captive for eight days. Lopez and four others were arrested, paving the way for more victims to step forward.
The "Mexican businessman", the victim, Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado, a Baja California "champion" off-road racer, was a "relatively well-to-do Mexican entrepreneur who had taken refuge over the border". Gonzalez, was also a well-known champion Baja California desert off-road racer, testified that he owned a car dealership and a trucking firm in Chula Vista and a seafood restaurant in Tijuana. Checking business records in the United States, its been confirmed he owns two car dealerships and a cross-border logistics business in California.
Defense attorneys, citing transcripts and FBI interviews, alleged that he had been under federal investigation and that he had smuggled drugs for the cartel, according to court documents. A Los Angeles Times check found no evidence of businesses operating at the addresses listed on licenses.
[All of this law enforcement activity didn't start until June 2007, one year after public calls for action against the widespread criminal activity in the United States, against the bi-national organized crime players.
"The investigation began when the FBI rescued businessman Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado, 32, after eight days in captivity in June 2007".
This needs to be asked of everyone going to Mexico to race. When the rubber hits the road, do your people have background checks? Your payees in Mexico, are they checked? You may be supporting criminals and cartels.
The "victim" in the court documents said, "he bought a race car from a company owned by a suspected cartel associate but asserted that he didn't personally know any of them and had never been involved in laundering money for the group".
The desert off-road racing community of southern California is soaking with the filthy-dirty criminals of the bi-national organized crime players involved in drug consumption and the entire 'daisy-death chain' of transnational crime. Knowingly and un-Knowingly.]
The victim, went to the home expecting to meet a woman. Instead he was beaten, cuffed, shot with a Taser and thrown into a small room. Family members eventually paid nearly $200,000 in ransom money. At the trial, defense attorneys, citing FBI interviews, alleged that Gonzalez had smuggled drugs for the cartel.
Gonzalez, in his testimony, denied the accusations of any affiliation with criminal activities, though, records indicate he is wanted in Mexico.
From the August 29, 2007 Press Report:
""A Mexican businessman testified Tuesday that his Mexican captors boasted they were unafraid to kidnap people in the United States as they tortured him in a suburban home.
Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado, 32, haltingly recounted his captors' threats and demands for money in the first hours after a woman lured him to a home in a quiet cul-de-sac the night of June 8 with the promise of sex.
Instead, he was jumped, beaten and shot with a stun gun by at least four men who blindfolded and bound him.
The leader of the group, a Mexican man, said they would free him for $2 million and warned him to take the demand seriously.
"He said it's not the first time, he did it before, he has the balls to do it over here in the U.S., not in Mexico, the kidnapping," Gonzalez said during the second day of preliminary hearings in San Diego Superior Court.
[A local resident, in the same neighborhood of the house used to kidnap and torture Gonzalez, said this week, after the new indictments were made public, "after they found that guy in the house, agents moved into the house with shovels, they were FBI".
At least two kidnapped, tortured and acid dissolved bodies were found buried in the backyard of the kidnap house. These findings were made after the 2007 kidnap victim was rescued.
The Gonzalez kidnapping occurred after a 2006 public call on law enforcement authorities to control the state of widespread lawlessness that appeared to be ignored at the time, with bodies being found all over the border.
Bodies of innocents and noted bi-national criminal players.
Many found on the United States side, with no public mentions of cautionary information from any authority, whatsoever. Possibly because they didn't know what was going on at the time.
In fact, the local San Diego FBI office went as far as calling the local public release of demands for 'greater law enforcement' as "an over-reaction". Clearly, with the release of the indictments today, prove, the federal, state and local authorities had no grip on the situation. What other animals are on the streets, today?]
Six men pleaded not guilty to charges of kidnap for ransom after Gonzalez was rescued in a federal raid on June 16 from a home in Chula Vista, a suburb just north of the U.S.-Mexico border.
The defendants -- four Mexican citizens, one Cuban and one U.S. citizen -- could face life in prison without the possibility parole if convicted.
The men are believed to be members of a kidnapping and murder organization called Los Palillos -- or, The Toothpicks -- that is suspected of involvement in several unsolved murders in San Diego County over the past several years.
Prosecutors say the group may have targeted members of the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix drug cartel, in the United States.
[This was after the fallout between the United States contingent of the AFO, in 2002. Since 1982, AFO used American gang members as gunmen in Mexico. According to Mexican law enforcement sources, American gang members were used to kill a Catholic Cardinal, the attempted assassination of Tijuana journalists and until 2002, used in drug distribution into the United States.
So, this group indicted today, was closely tied to the AFO, giving them intimate information, that led to their bloody vendetta, targeted against known people and business in the United States. Known criminal targets and known innocents. People not involved in any criminal activity or the drug trade.]
Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, has witnessed a spate of kidnappings in recent years, often linked to drug violence.
Defense attorney Guadalupe Valencia, who represents one of the alleged kidnappers, questioned Gonzalez about his ties to members of the Arellano Felix cartel.
Gonzalez said he recognized the men at off-road races in his hometown of Ensenada and that he bought a race car from a company owned by a suspected cartel associate but asserted that he didn't personally know any of them and had never been involved in laundering money for the group.
"I've seen them at the races, that's all," said Gonzalez, who owns two car dealerships and a cross-border logistics business in California. "You cannot talk to people like that."
Prosecutors have said they do not know why Gonzalez was targeted, other than his wealth and prominence as a champion off-road racer and owner of a seafood restaurant in Tijuana.
Gonzalez testified Monday that he knew he was being targeted as early as May, when a man called to ask for $50,000 in exchange for the names of kidnappers.
"Why didn't you go to the police?" Valencia asked during cross-examination Tuesday. "Is it because you didn't want them to investigate you?"
"That's not the case," said Gonzalez. "I didn't have all the information, and they weren't going to do anything. It was hard to get the FBI involved too."
He said he told his wife to call the agency if he went missing and hired a private investigator.
Weeks later, Gonzalez said, a friend who is among the men charged in the abduction introduced him to a beautiful woman called Nancy, who invited him for drinks at the salmon-and-turquoise stucco house as a ruse.
He said his kidnappers refused to believe him when he initially told them he couldn't raise the $2 million.
"I said it was difficult, that I didn't have money like that," Gonzalez testified. "He didn't believe me, he told me so, because I dress good, I have good cars."
Gonzalez said the day after his abduction, he called home and told his pregnant wife to sell their house and raise money from friends. At the time, his wife refused to believe he was being held hostage and hung up the phone after accusing him of partying all night.
Gonzalez said he offered his captors Rolex watches.
Gonzalez was rescued by the FBI SWAT team after eight days in captivity. His wife and cousin gave the abductors $193,900 using a briefcase with an FBI homing device hidden inside, according to investigators. An FBI airplane tracked the car back to the house where Gonzalez was being held.""
From the September 30, 2008 Press report:
The Tijuana restaurant where authorities found three trash barrels filled with what they believe are human remains is owned by a man who was kidnapped in Chula Vista last year.
The man, Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado , is a witness in the state's case against his alleged captors. Ironically, across the border in Tijuana, he's wanted for kidnapping and ties to organized crime.
US Drug Enforcement officials suspect he's a high ranking member of Tijuana's Arellano Felix Drug Cartel.
The discovery of the presumed corpses outside Gonzalez Tostado's restuarant emphasizes that the recent spate of gruesome killings in Tijuana. The sign on the barrels also threatened the life of "The Engineer" -- a nickname for Fernando Sánchez Arellano, head of the Arellano Felix cartel -- and "those who hang out with The Engineer," The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
The barrels at Mariscos del Pacifico Restaurant, were discovered Tuesday. The same day, two bodies with their heads shrouded in tape were discovered several miles away near a water tower.
On Monday, a total of 16 bodies were discovered in Tijuana in two locations.
U.S. sources told the Union-Tribune that Mariscos del Pacifico, which specializes in seafood, belongs to Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado, who was kidnapped last year and freed by U.S. agents. The gang that carried out the kidnapping is said to target members of the Arellano Felix group, although Tostado denies any connections to drug gangs.
The find also shows that the drug war does not stop at the San Diego - Tijuana border. It is also being waged in the United States.
On Tuesday, Tijuana authorities found what they believe are the remains of three bodies in trash barrels outside the seafood restaurant Mariscos Del Pacifico. Two more bodies, who's heads were covered with duck tape, were found in another location.
Authorities believe at least 18 murders in Tijuana since Monday are tied to organized crime. Both Monday and Tuesday the city awoke to corpses dumped around the city. The quantity of bodies that have been gruesomely tortured and killed has shocked the region.
The dead are the latest casualties in the US Mexico border region's ongoing drug war.""
Back to todays developments...
The Chula Vista officer attacked in 2005 was responding to an attempted abduction. After a chase through residential neighborhoods, the suspects' car stopped near a shopping center and two gunmen jumped out. One stood on each side of the car as they fired more than a dozen rounds. The officer ducked inside his car and escaped injury.
The Chula Vista police officer has left the Chula Vista police force, citing stress from the assault, according to Amador, the prosecutor.
Of the eight fugitives, some are believed to have fled to Mexico. U.S. authorities said their Mexican counterparts are assisting in the investigation.
Some of the gang members were U.S. citizens who lived in upscale homes. They rented several other residences where they kept hostages. Neighbors, said authorities, would see groups of young men coming and going but didn't suspect criminal activity.
The Chula Visa case in June 2007 was typical of the murky methods used in the crimes. The DNA analysis of the evidence, said authorities, was the largest undertaken by the San Diego Police Department, a two-year effort staffed by three full-time analysts. The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the San Diego County Sheriff's Department also assisted.
Since then, the police have arrested nine members of the organization, including its leader, Jorge Rojas Lopez, who is charged with nine counts of murder. Mr. Lopez and eight other men are in prison for murder and other charges. Eight members of the group are at large, and three have been killed in gang violence since the investigation began two years ago, Mr. Amador said.
Some members of Los Palillos, most of whom grew up and went to high school in San Diego, once worked as hit men in Tijuana, Mexico, for the Arellano Félix organization, one of the drug cartels in Latin America, behind much of America’s illegal marijuana trade, according to the authorities.
But in 2002, cartel bosses had the leader of Los Palillos at the time, Victor Rojas Lopez, assassinated, Mr. Amador said. The victim’s brother, Jorge Rojas Lopez, took over the crew, helped to break two other members out of a Mexican prison and moved the operation to San Diego, Mr. Amador said.
By August 2004, the crew had begun kidnapping and killing people, Mr. Amador said. “They got hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars of ransom money for several kidnappings,” he said. “Sometimes they would kill the victim, and in other cases they would release them.”
Capt. Jim Collins, who leads the homicide unit of the San Diego Police Department, said: “They all came in as separate homicides, and then we started linking them together. We had two in our city, and as the case developed we found out about two others that had been killed in our city and disposed of in Mexico. We also found out about three victims in Chula Vista.”
Captain Collins also said that a man who owned businesses in Mexico was kidnapped in San Diego and taken to Mexico for ransom. Captain Collins said that victim did not have any involvement with drug cartels. But Mr. Amador said others might have.
One factor that complicated the investigation of the deaths was the reluctance of some families to report the kidnappings of their relatives to the police, Mr. Amador said. The kidnapping crew threatened to kill their hostages if law enforcement officials became involved, he said, adding that most of the families were Mexican immigrants who might have lacked confidence in the police because of their experiences with the police and other authorities in Mexico.
Five men named in the 22-count indictment already have been convicted of other crimes, including alleged ringleader Jorge Rojas Lopez, 30, who was sentenced in January to life in prison without parole for a 2007 kidnapping in Chula Vista that sparked the investigation.
Rojas pleaded not guilty Thursday, showing no emotion as he stood in a courtroom with his hair slicked back into a short ponytail. Seven others also pleaded not guilty.
Rojas, whose brother's murder in Tijuana allegedly prompted the gang to flee to San Diego, is charged with all nine murders, starting with a triple homicide in 2004. Residents found seven corpses dumped in San Diego and suburban Chula Vista and Bonita. Two bodies were allegedly dissolved in acid at a rented San Diego house in May 2007.
Two men are accused of trying to kill a Chula Vista police officer in 2005 after a bungled robbery led them on a wild chase through a shopping center. The officer was allegedly shot at 19 times but never hit. Two other men already have been convicted in that case.
None of the victims were ever charged with a crime, though evidence suggests that some may have been linked to the Arellano Felix Organization-cartel (AFO), Amador said.
Rojas harbored deep animosity toward the cartel for the death of his brother, who was nicknamed "El Palillo," or "The Toothpick," possibly for his spiked hair.
"If somebody had money in the United States and was thought or perceived to be connected to the (Arellano Felix cartel), that person would be targeted, and often times in those cases, they were brutally murdered even if their family paid ransom," Amador said.
The crimes described in the indictment are common a few miles away, south of the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, where warring drug gangs are largely responsible for more than 800 murders in the city last year. The Arellano Felix cartel, which rose to power in the late 1980s and weakened considerably in recent years, is known for dissolving bodies of their victims in vats of liquid.
Mexico's drug-fueled violence has prompted some wealthier Tijuana residents to move to spacious new homes in the gated communities and quiet streets of Chula Vista, a city of 230,000 people where some of the crimes in the indictment allegedly occurred.
The grand jury received testimony from more than 120 witnesses who said the assailants used handguns and tasers to rob, kidnap and kill victims, authorities said.
The investigation began when the FBI rescued businessman Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado, 32, after eight days in captivity in June 2007. Prosecutors say he was lured to a Chula Vista house by a woman, tased by men in police uniform and bound.
Several arrests were made and authorities seized AK-47s, bulletproof vests and other evidence. Amador said witnesses soon began to talk.
"It was basically the break in the case," he said. "All of a sudden people started coming up, giving information, knowing that some of these suspects were in custody."
Systemic, nationwide corruption is rampant in Mexican police agencies, human rights groups say, and cartels operate with impunity in border towns, assassinating Mexican police officers, lawyers and judges. Now, cases of corruption in United States law enforcement are also being turned over.
Two leaders of the group were convicted of kidnapping for ransom last December and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Two other abductors pleaded guilty, and two defendants are still
In the new indictment, the alleged ringleader, Jorge Rojas Lopez, is charged with nine murders and numerous special circumstance allegations, making him eligible for the death penalty if convicted.
Fourteen other defendants face similar charges and could also be
eligible for the death penalty.
Deputy District Attorney Mark Amador alleged that Rojas Lopez formed the Los Palillos marijuana and methamphetamine distribution ring after the Arellano Felix Organization killed his brother.
"Jorge Rojas Lopez has a deep animosity for the AFO," the prosecutor said. Rojas Lopez and Juan Laureano Arvizu are also charged with attempted murder of a peace officer for a Sept. 28, 2005, attack in which 19 shots were fired at a Chula Vista police officer.
Rojas Lopez, 30, Jesus Lopez-Becerra, 30, Juan Francisco Estrada-Gonzalez, 36, Edgar Frausto Lopez, 35, Jorge Salvador Moreno, 38, Jose Leonel Olivera Beritan, 35, and David Valencia, 39, all pleaded not guilty today and were ordered held without bail. A status conference was set for Sept. 2.
The District Attorney's Office is seeking the public's help in locating
eight defendants. CrimeStoppers is offering up to a $1,000 reward for
information that leads to their arrest. Anyone with information was asked to call 1-888-580-8477.
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Sources: AP, UPI, LA TIMES, SD UNION, El Mexicano, AFN, Various Law Enforcement Contacts.
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