SAN DIEGO (AP) — Two members of a breakaway Mexican drug gang dissolved their victims' corpses in vats of acid in a gruesome display of Mexican cartel tactics played out on U.S. soil, a prosecutor told jurors.
The defendants held two kidnap victims in the master bedroom of an average San Diego home as ransom payments were negotiated, said Mark Amador, a San Diego County deputy district attorney. After being dragged downstairs and strangled to death in June 2007, the bodies were placed in two 55-gallon barrels of fluids.
Attorneys for the defendants — Jose Olivera Beritan, 38, and David Valencia, 41 — were scheduled to make opening statements Thursday.
A cooperating witness eventually led investigators to Valencia's San Diego ranch, where they discovered bones, teeth and body remains that appeared like brownish gelatin, Amador told jurors in his opening statement Wednesday.
The technique of dissolving bodies in liquid is common among warring Mexican cartels but extremely rare on U.S. soil. It allows for evidence to be destroyed.
"This is not typical. This not normal. This is extraordinary — here, at least," Amador said.
Amador said the liquids are typically made of supplies that can be purchased at stores. Jurors were shown photos of three boxes of muriatic acid found in one holding house in Chula Vista, a San Diego suburb.
Beritan and Valencia are charged with murdering and kidnapping two people in San Diego, while Beritan is charged with a third murder. They are the first to go on trial among 17 people who were indicted in 2009 in what authorities said was a campaign by a Mexican drug gang to export its violent ways to the United States.
Beritan is also charged with an attempted kidnapping in January 2007. The victim was allegedly abducted in a San Diego suburb by assailants wearing police uniforms and managed to escape. The victim is expected to testify.
Prosecutors say the defendants belonged to "Los Palillos" — "The Toothpicks" in English — a cell of the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix cartel that broke away around 2002 when its leader was killed in an internal feud. The leader's younger brother, Jorge Rojas, moved to the San Diego area and allegedly directed the cell in trafficking drugs and committing nine murders and a series of kidnappings until his arrest in 2007.
Rojas, 32, was convicted of one kidnapping in 2008 and sentenced to life in prison. He will be tried later this year on additional charges that may make him eligible for the death penalty, if convicted.
The group's targets were sometimes suspected or confirmed drug traffickers, authorities say.
The two whose bodies were dissolved in acid include a drug trafficker, said Amador, who did not reveal the other victim's occupation in his opening statement. The home where their bodies were dissolved was equipped with sheets of wood and fans.
"It was a mess to do this, and it stunk," Amador said.
The group's demise came in June 2007 when the family of one kidnap victim, Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado, called the FBI for help, Amador said. Families of previous victims refused to contact authorities.
The prosecutor described Gonzalez as a wealthy businessman but acknowledged he is suspected by some of ties to the Arellano Felix cartel. A young woman allegedly lured him to a home in Chula Vista, where he was chained and blindfolded in a closet for eight days while his captors demanded $2 million from his pregnant wife.
The family paid $193,000 in a package equipped with a tracking device that the FBI used to locate the victim. Gonzalez, who was rescued in a SWAT raid, is expected to testify at the trial.
The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks.