Eduardo Tostado was a prosperous man whose businesses and pleasures straddled the coastal border. He owned a big house and a used car lot in the San Diego suburbs, and a seafood restaurant in Tijuana.
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He was also part of the border underworld, the authorities say — a high-ranking member of the Mexican drug cartel driving much of America’s illegal marijuana trade and the cascade of violence in a 40-year drug war. Some evenings, Mr. Tostado drank tequila at the Baby Rock club in Tijuana or sipped Scotch at the Airport Lounge in San Diego. He socialized mainly with men he knew well and women he knew not at all.
His wife, Ivette Rubio, was aware of this, and they were having problems in their marriage. So when Mr. Tostado called her in June 2007 to say he had been kidnapped and needed her to sell their house to pay a ransom, she did not believe him.
“You got drunk,” she said, “and you went out, and you didn’t come to sleep in the house.”
Click, the phone went dead.
Mr. Tostado was in the hands of Jorge Rojas-López, a former member of the cartel, the Arellano Félix organization, who had turned on it. Based in the San Diego suburbs, Mr. Rojas-López was running a renegade squad of kidnappers and hit men, fighting for a piece of the marijuana market.
Across the border, the Mexican government, with $1.5 billion from the United States, is battling its drug cartels, and the cartels are battling each other. The Arellano organization has borne the brunt of these drug wars, and has fragmented into smaller crews spinning across the border like shrapnel.
“We believe there has been a splintering of the A.F.O. and that it has lost the power that they once wielded,” said Keith Slotter, the agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s office in San Diego.
The illegal drug market has never been so unsettled, drug enforcement experts say, with small elite killing squads like the one Mr. Rojas-López was running — Mr. Slotter identified three in San Diego alone — operating on both sides of the border. “”“”For three years, Mr. Rojas-López ‘s rogue squad, a mix of United States citizens and Mexican nationals, used houses in tract developments as roving bases, hunting cartel members and imprisoning their prey along bland residential streets. They secured ransoms worth millions. Payment, however, did not guarantee that the victims survived.
At stake were billions of dollars in profits from tons of smuggled marijuana, and other drugs, and the precious control of Mexican border cities like Ciudad Juárez; Nogales, in the state of Sonora; and Tijuana. Those cities are thoroughfares to the world’s most lucrative drug market — the United States. Authorities in Kansas City, Mo., and Miami are also investigating the Mr. Rojas-López’s squad for drug trafficking and slayings in their cities.
Mr. Rojas-López and eight other members of the squad, called Los Palillos, are now on trial in San Diego, charged with kidnapping 13 men and killing 9 from 2004 to 2007. Seven other co-defendants are fugitives. Since the investigation began, three more fugitive squad members have been murdered.
This account of Los Palillos in Tijuana and San Diego, based on more than 6,000 pages of court documents, testimony from 175 witnesses and co-defendants, and interviews with law enforcement officials, offers a window into how Mexico’s drug wars are playing out on American soil.
Mr. Rojas-López ’s ambitions were fueled by more than just desire for a piece of the marijuana trade. He also wanted revenge for the death of his brother, Victor, a cartel enforcer, who was killed by the Arellanos in 2003 for insubordination. Mr. Rojas-López’s squad eluded the Arellanos cartel and law enforcement officials in San Diego for three years.
Investigators heard whispers of a mutinous enforcement squad operating in the area but were unable to put the pieces together.
Relatives of the kidnap victims either avoided the police or withheld crucial information about their loved ones. Instead, they quietly sold assets on both sides of the border, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in days.
Some victims were released unharmed. Others were smothered with masking tape, shot in the stomach or pulverized with a police battering ram and dumped on a suburban street. Or they were boiled down in acid and never seen again, a technique known in Mexico as “pozole,” or Mexican stew.
Mr. Tostado, the kidnapped businessman with the big house here, and his wife were among the pawns in this underworld, with Mr. Rojas-López demanding $2 million from Ms. Rubio for her husband’s life. The next call she received that day was not from her husband.
She did not recognize the voice: “Hey, you want me to send your husband in pieces or what?”
Call to Police Pays Off
At the time of his abduction, Mr. Tostado, a legal resident of both countries, was helping the Arellanos “pass tons of marijuana” across the United States border, according to the federal agents and José Olivera-Beritan, one of the nine suspected members of Los Palillos who is on trial for murder and kidnapping in San Diego Superior Court. “He knew in advance which trucks will be searched,” Mr. Olivera-Beritan said in a jailhouse interview. “He told us he was giving cops money under the table.”
Mr. Tostado has offered contradictory statements to agents regarding his cartel affiliation.
His wife, Ms. Rubio, took a risk that night in June 2007 by calling the police. Investigators say that it made the difference between his survival and the stories of less-fortunate kidnapping victims.
The event that spawned the renegade squad occurred in 2003, when Victor Rojas-López crossed the cartel.
One evening at Zool, a nightclub in Tijuana, members of his enforcement squad got in a fight with members of another Arellano squad over a woman. A member of Victor’s team pushed a gun into the face of a man who happened to be the brother-in-law of the cartel leader, according to grand jury testimony.
The bosses ordered Victor to kill the underling. Victor refused and was shot to death.
His younger brother, Jorge, then took over the squad, called it Los Palillos — “the toothpicks,” after Victor, his skinny brother — and fled to San Diego.
Mark Amador, a San Diego County deputy district attorney who is the lead prosecutor against Los Palillos, said that much of the evidence about what happened next came from an insider, Guillermo Moreno, an American citizen and the member of Los Palillos who pulled the gun at the nightclub Zool . “He is the witness that pulls all the pieces together,” Mr. Amador said. Mr. Moreno, who was arrested after Mr. Tostado’s kidnapping, ultimately led investigators to rental houses around San Diego used by Los Palillos. In a deal with prosecutors. he agreed to a minimum 25-year prison sentence, rather than life. At some houses, forensic investigators found DNA from victims.
When members of Los Palillos first arrived in San Diego, they lived quietly off earlier spoils. Then they went back to the work they knew best: killing and drug trafficking.
The first corpses were found on Aug. 15, 2004, decomposing in a Dodge minivan.
The police said the bodies belonged to three drug smugglers who had crossed the border to do a deal with the squad members.
The squad used safe houses with attached garages so they could move drugs or bodies in and out without being seen, Mr. Moreno, the witness, said. In many neighborhoods, the real estate bubble created a constant churn of new faces, so it was easy to go undetected.
The three smugglers expected to drop off several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of marijuana, sleep over and leave for Mexico in the morning. Instead, Mr. Moreno said, the squad waited for the men to fall asleep, then shot one of them in the stomach.
“Someone said, ‘Quit crying, you,’ ” Mr. Moreno told the grand jury. The man bled to death.
The other two smugglers were suffocated. Mr. Rojas-López is accused of stealing their marijuana and ordering Mr. Moreno to dump the bodies.
A Turf War Heats Up
The Arellanos cartel, meanwhile, ordered a former Baja California police officer named Ricardo Escobar Luna, 31, who was working for the cartel, to hunt down Los Palillos in San Diego.
But members of the squad learned that Mr. Escobar was after them and abducted him from his home in Bonita, Calif., according to testimony from Mr. Moreno. The kidnappers disguised themselves as police officers and drove up in a BMW with flashing lights.
Mr. Escobar’s wife called the police but never mentioned that her husband worked for the Arellanos cartel, according to Steve Duncan, an investigator for the California Department of Justice.
Testifying before the grand jury, Mr. Moreno described how he had overheard a discussion among squad members before the kidnapping: “Well, he’s here to kill us; we might as well kill him.”
On Aug. 20, 2005, Mr. Rojas-López took a police battering ram into the bedroom where the former police officer was tied up, according to testimony by Mr. Moreno.
Meanwhile, Mr. Moreno went outside to water the lawn and keep an eye on the neighbors, he said. When he went back inside, he saw blood on the walls.
Victor Escobar, the former officer’s brother, told investigators that he had paid the squad $600,000 for his freedom, but he never had much hope. “Yeah, I knew they’d kill my brother,” he said. “But what else could I do?”
By September 2005, the police were beginning to understand that the killings around San Diego were related, but they still did not know how. The case began to unravel when two squad members with automatic rifles and pistols bungled the kidnapping of an Arellanos cartel trafficker in a cul-de-sac in Chula Vista, in broad daylight.
A police cruiser chased the gunmen to a strip mall parking lot and was barraged by bullets.
The gunmen were caught later that day and eventually convicted for attempted kidnapping and the attempted murder of a police officer.
Within a few years, Los Palillos had become a minicartel with a drug trafficking network that snaked through Ensenada, Tijuana, San Diego and on to Missouri and Florida, according to federal agents.
Two Cuban nationals ran Los Palillos operations in Kansas City, Mo., Mr. Moreno, the witness, told federal officials.
In September 2006, a woman in the small farming community of Jameson, about 50 miles north of Kansas City, heard gun shots and found two bodies near a barn. Deputies discovered a 47,000-foot marijuana garden behind rows of corn stalks. Members of Los Palillos were arrested on suspicion of killing local rivals, according to the authorities.
By 2007, according to authorities, the renegade squad had made millions of dollars. Mr. Rojas-López wore Rolex watches. Photographs on MySpace showed his squad members hoisting drinks at trendy San Diego bars.
In May 2007, two more drug smugglers, both 33, were kidnapped, but their bodies were never found. Mr. Moreno told federal agents that the bodies were dissolved in a vat of acid.
Beer, Soccer and Arrests
Before he was kidnapped, Mr. Tostado was worried. A man had left an extortion note at the front door of his home, recorded by his security camera. Armed with a picture of the man, Mr. Tostado drove down to Tijuana to find some answers.
Mr. Tostado, an avid off-road racer, who admitted in court that he had socialized with members of the Mexican underworld and had accepted a $200,000 race car from the Arellano family, learned that the man in the photo was a Los Palillos member.
A few weeks later, an acquaintance introduced Mr. Tostado to a woman from Tijuana named Nancy. On June 8, Nancy invited Mr. Tostado to her home in Chula Vista. Mr. Tostado walked in carrying bottles of Cognac and whiskey. Hands grabbed him from behind in the darkened room. Someone fired a Taser, immobilizing him.
Mr. Tostado was held for eight days while Los Palillos negotiated by phone with his wife. He said that he drank beers with his abductors, who watched soccer on television and smoked marijuana.
Occasionally, Mr. Rojas-López would vent angrily about the Arellanos.
“They have killed my family and my brother,” Mr. Rojas-López told him. “I had to do something, and I have the nerve to do it over here.”
By June 16, Mr. Rojas-López had agreed to accept $193,000 in cash. Wiretapped calls recorded them directing the drop off of the ransom money.
On June 16, 2007, federal agents arrested the squad leaders, Mr. Rojas-López and Juan Estrada-Gonzalez, the second-in-charge, after they dropped the money off at a motel. Another team of agents stormed the house and freed Mr. Tostado.
Later that day, as Mr. Tostado recounted his experience to federal agents, he pledged to leave the underworld behind.
“I think I need to start over again,” he said. “I’m reborn right now.”
Mr. Tostado is keeping a low profile these days. He sold his house in Chula Vista and no longer races the off-road circuits in Mexico.
He sold his restaurant in Tijuana, too, after someone left three barrels in front of it in 2008. They were full of bones and acid.
By SOLOMON MOORE
December 9, 2009