A violent gang out of Mexico has migrated north of the border -- right into the suburbs of Chula Vista, just north of San Diego, Calif., and now some of its rogue members are the focus of the FBI.
Los Palillos, Spanish for "the toothpicks," already had a reputation for snatching innocent tourists off of Mexico's streets, holding them for high ransoms and sometimes killing victims despite payment.
Los Palillos leader Jorge Rojas-Lopez allegedly formed the gang, which distributes marijuana and methamphetamines, after rival Arellano Felix Organization killed his brother. Though the focus of the gang’s violence is to seek vengeance against the AFO, U.S. officials say Los Palillos is extorting money from Americans to finance its operations.
And Chula Vista is a good place for their bad business. The suburb is populated by wealthy, upper-class Mexican immigrants who left their homeland's violence to keep their families safe. But now that Los Palillos has moved in, police say it’s nearly impossible to distinguish a doctor’s mansion from one belonging to a drug trafficker -- and the suburb's residents have already suffered.
Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado is a 32-year-old businessman who was kidnapped and held for ransom in June 2007 after he was "cased" by Los Palillos, according to police. The gang demanded $ 2 million and wouldn't believe him when he said he didn’t have the money.
Eduardo's family decided to call police for help. On June 15, 2007, Los Palillos called the family to arrange the ransom drop. The following day, the FBI closely monitored as one of Eduardo’s family members delivered to the abductors $193,900 in a briefcase equipped with a hidden homing device.
The FBI followed Jorge Rojas-Lopez and Juan Francisco Estrada-Gonzales into a retail department store. The men laughed and joked as they shopped for clothes -- clothes they were buying for Eduardo, who’d been held captive in filthy conditions for eight days. Cops trailed the kidnappers when they left the store.
Eduardo was allowed to call his family to provide "proof of life" June 16 and demand that they come up with more ransom money. Meanwhile, cops were following the "shopping kidnappers"; by both air and ground to an upscale home in Chula Vista. Anticipating that this is the location where Eduardo was being held captive, SWAT agents surrounded the home.
As FBI SWAT agents prepared to enter the home at 1539 Point Dume Court in Chula Vista, kidnapper Jose Olivera-Beritan removed Eduardo's handcuffs and blindfold. Cops say Olivera-Beritan then pretended to be Eduardo by placing the handcuffs and blindfold on himself. Another kidnapper, Carlos Pena, attempted to lead Eduardo out the back door of the residence but was unsuccessful. FBI SWAT operatives quickly apprehended six kidnappers and rescued Eduardo.
Eduardo was lucky enough to escape alive with the help of the FBI SWAT team, but Chula Vista won't be safe until all gang members are stopped.
Police say Los Palillos' violent kidnappings and murders have gone on long enough. Arrest warrants have been issued for at least six suspected gang members: Hector Altamirano-Lopez, Juan Laureano-Arvizu, Ernesto Ayon, Juan Calderon, Eduardo Monroy and someone known as "Niengo."
If you have any information that can help police and the FBI track down the rest of the crew, call our Hotline at 1-800-CRIME-TV. Remember: You can remain anonymous.