By Elliot Spagat
SAN DIEGO — Members of a group of Mexican drug traffickers have been indicted in the murders of nine people in the San Diego area - including two victims whose bodies were dissolved in acid, authorities announced Thursday.
The group of 17 men also collected hundreds of thousands in dollars in ransom payments for kidnappings, the indictment alleged. Victims were abducted by men dressed in police uniforms and wearing badges while walking down the streets or in their driveways, then held in rented homes and sometimes killed, authorities said.
"Los Palillos" gang - "The Toothpicks," in English - operated in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Tijuana, Mexico, as a cell of the Arellano Felix cartel, named for one of Mexico's most notorious drug trafficking families, said Mark Amador, a deputy district attorney. The gang of U.S. and Mexican citizens moved to the San Diego area around 2002 to deal in marijuana and methamphetamine after a leader was killed in a feud inside the Tijuana-based cartel.
Nine of the 17 men indicted by a San Diego County grand jury on charges including murder, kidnapping and robbery were in custody, and the others were at large. Authorities said three other men tied to the ring were recently killed in Tijuana.
The murders and abductions allegedly occurred between 2004 and 2007. District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said the organization is "essentially dismantled."
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 cartel, 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.
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"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."