SAN DIEGO —Two members of a Mexican organized crime group that terrorized border communities were found guilty Wednesday of taking part in the strangling deaths of two men whose bodies were later dissolved in lye and dumped at a ranch outside San Diego.
The mens' ruthless tactics were the trademark of a gang that broke off from the drug cartel waging war in Tijuana nearly a decade ago, according to prosecutors. The Palillos, or Toothpicks, came to the San Diego area in 2003 after splitting from the notorious Arellano Felix drug cartel.
Jose Olivera Beritan, 38, and David Valencia, 42, described as two mid-level members of the gang, were the first of 12 defendants to go to trial in a sweeping case being handled by prosecutors in San Diego.
Olivera and Valencia worked for the alleged leader, Jorge Rojas, a former member of the Tijuana cartel whose brother was killed by cartel bosses. Vowing revenge, Rojas moved his cell to San Diego County, where his gang began trafficking drugs and kidnapping and killing rivals, according to U.S. law enforcement officials.
The rampage alarmed authorities in San Diego, which had been largely spared of spillover violence. From 2004 to 2007, the gang is believed to have slain nine people and attempted to kill a Chula Vista police officer by firing high-caliber rounds into his vehicle.
Gang members donned police uniforms and bullet-proof vests, kidnapped people off the streets and recruited members in Mexico who were experts at disposing of bodies, according to authorities. They often scattered toothpicks next to their victims as a calling card.
"They're trained assassins," Deputy Dist. Atty. James Fontaine said. "These are guys who could blend in, drive nice cars, go into fancy restaurants and rent nice houses where they could hold victims.... The body count they amassed speaks to how dangerous they were."
Olivera and Valencia both had a role in the murders of two men who were lured to a two-story house in San Diego's Paradise Hills neighborhood under the guise of a drug deal. Instead, they were kidnapped, held for ransom for two weeks and then strangled.
Their bodies were dissolved in two 55-gallon drums of lye in a room off the kitchen. While the remains dissolved over two days, gang members barbecued meats in the backyard to disguise the odors drifting over the residential neighborhood, Fontaine said.
Olivera's primary job for the gang was to guard stash houses used to hold kidnapping victims. When FBI agents raided a stash house in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista in 2007, Valencia put on a blindfold and handcuffs, trying to play a victim. The actual victim, a champion off-road racer from Baja California who had been held for eight days, later identified his captor.
Valencia, a Tijuana native, was responsible for finding suitable victims, often focusing on people with a criminal past who would not summon authorities. A common tactic was to lure victims with the promise of sex. One young woman used by the gang as "bait" in the Chula Vista case also faces kidnapping charges.
Both defendants face maximum terms of life in prison without parole when they are sentenced this summer. Ramos, the alleged gang leader, is scheduled to go to trial later this year. He is already serving a life term in prison after his conviction in 2008 on a kidnapping charge.
Six others indicted in the case remain fugitives.