2 Mexican drug trafficking gang leaders convicted of murders, kidnappings

Defendants face death penalty

SAN DIEGO - Two leaders of a Mexican drug trafficking gang were convicted Thursday of several murders and kidnappings in San Diego County between 2004 to 2007.

Jorge Rojas Lopez, 34, was found guilty of four murders, while Juan Estrada-Gonzalez, also 34, was convicted of six counts of first-degree murder, marking a major milestone in one of the longest trials in San Diego history.

In both cases, jurors found true special circumstance allegations of kidnapping, torture and multiple murders, as well as an allegation that the killings were committed to benefit the defendants' gang.

The penalty trial phase will follow as soon as five unresolved murder charges against Rojas Lopez are decided. Both defendants face the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Jury selection in the case began a year ago and closing arguments were delivered in late October.

"This unprecedented carnage and savagery cannot stand," Deputy District Attorney Mark Amador told the jury at the outset of the trial.

After the Arellano Felix drug organization killed Rojas Lopez's brother in 2002, he and other members of Los Palillos fled Mexico and set up their drug-running operation in Kansas City and San Diego, Amador said.

The prosecutor said the members of Los Palillos were "cold, calculated, hard men" who committed evil deeds in San Diego County, including shooting at a Chula Vista police officer and murdering two men on a ranch in San Ysidro, then dissolving their bodies in acid.

"They are not the victims," Amador said of the gang members. "They're all killers."

Amador said the defendants were motivated by "greed and revenge."

The "beginning of the end" for Rojas Lopez and Estrada Gonzalez came on June 16, 2007, when they and three fellow members of their gang were arrested after kidnapping a wealthy businessman and holding him for ransom at a Chula Vista residence for eight days, Amador said.

Rojas Lopez told the victim's wife that she needed to come up with the ransom money if she wanted to see her husband again. "If not, I will send him in pieces to your doorstep," Rojas Lopez told the woman, according to Amador.

Rojas Lopez said the Arellano Felix Organization kidnapped and killed in Mexico, "but I have the balls to do it here," according to the prosecutor.

Amador said Rojas Lopez was one of four Los Palillos gang members who in 2004 lured three friends to a home in southern San Diego and eventually killed them. The victims, who were Tijuana residents, were shot and asphyxiated by having socks stuffed down their throats, Amador said. He said one of the victims had ties to drug trafficking.

Amador said both Rojas Lopez and Estrada Gonzalez participated in the August 2005 murder of a 22-year-old low-level drug dealer who was tied up, beaten, stomped or punched and dumped along a road in Chula Vista.

Two weeks later, a man was kidnapped, beaten with a police-type battering ram and killed in Bonita, the prosecutor said. Both Rojas Lopez and Estrada-Gonzalez are charged in that crime.

The defendants are already serving life-without-parole prison sentences after being convicted of kidnapping and other crimes.

Criminal defense attorney Jeremy Warren, who is not involved in the proceedings, told 10News, "The district attorney got what they wanted; each defendant convicted of multiple murders and that's significant; they'll spend the rest of the lives in prison. They'll never be released."

Warren added, "Now it's a death penalty question for the jury, but in all likelihood even if they were given the death penalty ... given all the appeals ... no one's being killed in the state of California so it's really an academic exercise but it's important to hold people accountable for homicides here in San Diego."

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