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Man held in '98 Baja massacre

Arrested in East L.A., he is turned over to Mexican authorities. His wife says he didn't take part in 19 killings.

August 25, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer and Francisco Vara-Orta | Times Staff Writers

U.S. officials have arrested a man in East Los Angeles who is suspected in the gruesome 1998 killing of 19 men, women and children in Baja California, one of the bloodiest episodes of drug violence in Mexican history.

Authorities with U.S. Immigration and Customs En- forcement and the U.S. Marshals Service arrested Jesus Ruben Mancada on Thursday evening as he walked barefoot from his home to take out the trash.

To streamline Mancada's transfer to Mexican authorities, they told him that he was wanted for an immigration violation. Mancada agreed to be deported and walked across the border Friday night into the waiting hands of Mexican police officers and soldiers.

Mancada, 33, is accused of being one of several military-clad gunmen who stormed a ranch in El Sauzal, near Ensenada, on Sept. 17, 1998, pulled victims from their beds, herded them onto a patio and shot them to death. Among the victims were children ages 2 and 1. The killings purportedly stemmed from a marijuana trafficking dispute.

Mexican authorities arrested three suspects within a couple of months and obtained arrest warrants for several others, including Mancada.

Mancada, 33, told U.S. immigration officials that he crossed into San Ysidro in December 1998 and spent the last decade living in California and Oregon, said Brian M. DeMore, Los Angeles field office director of ICE's Office of Detention and Removal.

He and his wife, Carmen, have four children and lived most recently in a narrow, one-bedroom apartment their landlord had converted from a garage. Mancada worked a series of jobs to support his family, including driving a taxi, doing construction and slinging produce in an East Los Angeles warehouse. A back injury from an automobile accident limited the work he could do in recent years, his wife said.

Carmen Mancada said she and her husband were together on the day of the 1998 massacre in an Ensenada motel room, "like young couples do." She said he had been falsely accused.

Mexican police searched the home of Mancada's father after the killings but found no evidence of drugs or weapons, Carmen Mancada said. The scrutiny caused the couple to flee to the United States, where they raised two boys and two girls, now between 3 and 9.

"We thought the authorities or the drug cartels were going to come after him," Carmen Mancada said in Spanish during a tearful interview Sunday afternoon at the family's apartment in the 900 block of Woods Avenue. "We've lived in fear for 10 years already, not knowing who or what would come after us. We came to the United States because we were scared of the Mexican government."

Mexican authorities describe Mancada differently. The Mexican attorney general said in a news release that Mancada was an associate of the Arellano Felix cartel, one of the country's most powerful organized crime operations in the 1990s, and that he was one of the gunmen involved in the massacre.

Mexican officials have yet to disclose the evidence that allegedly ties Mancada to the slayings. Fernando Castillo, press secretary for the Mexican attorney general's office, issued a statement praising the cooperative law enforcement effort that resulted in Mancada's arrest.

"This is a major breakthrough for Mexican law enforcement," Castillo said. "We have been actively seeking this fugitive since the brutal slayings 10 years ago. His capture this week is a direct result of the ongoing cooperative efforts involving our office and law enforcement agencies in the United States. Our borders will not be barriers to bringing violent criminals to justice."

United States immigration officials began surveillance of Mancada last week after receiving information about his whereabouts. They arrested Mancada outside his home and told him they believed that he was in the country illegally, DeMore said.

On Friday, officials took Mancada to San Ysidro, where he crossed the border and was met by what appeared to be about 500 Mexican police and soldiers, DeMore said. Fearful of an ambush aimed either at killing Mancada or freeing him, Mexican officials took the unusual precaution of clearing all vendors and taxi drivers from the border area.

"He believed we were enforcing immigration laws. At the time, he probably was not aware that he was going to have to own up to the crimes he'd committed in his country," DeMore said.

Mancada's wife, meanwhile, said she did not know that her husband had been jailed in Mexico until she was told about the arrest by a reporter.

She said she planned to return to Ensenada to find hotel receipts that she said could help prove they were in a hotel together on the day of the killings.

"That's the way Mexico operates. If something big happens, the government swoops in and makes all these arrests and puts people away just to grandstand and say, 'Oh, we got them,' " she said. "He is innocent, though, and he always told me that if one day they came back after him that the truth would come out. I want to know what evidence they have on him."

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stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

francisco.varaorta@latimes.com

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