Yearlong trial for alleged Los Palillos gang members begins in San Diego

SAN DIEGO - A top leader of a violent Mexican drug trafficking crew participated in the 2004 murders of three friends in southern San Diego, in which the Tijuana residents were shot and asphyxiated by having socks stuffed down their throats, a prosecutor alleged Tuesday.

In his opening statement in the trial of Jorge Rojas Lopez and Juan Francisco Estrada-Gonzalez, Deputy District Attorney Mark Amador said Rojas Lopez was one of four "Los Palillos" gang members who lured the victims to a home and eventually killed them. Amador said one of the victims had ties to drug trafficking.

"Jorge Rojas was the boss. He planned it," Amador told the jury.

Rojas Lopez and Estrada-Gonzalez, both 33, are charged in several killings in San Diego County from 2004 to 2007.

Rojas Lopez is charged in nine murders. Estrada-Gonzalez is accused in six. They each face the death penalty if convicted.

The bodies of some of the victims were dissolved in acid.

Amador told the jury that both defendants 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, alleged members of the Arellano Felix splinter group Los Palillos, or "the toothpicks," are already serving sentences of life without parole after being convicted of kidnapping and other crimes.

After more than two months of jury selection, opening statements originally began on March 11, only to be halted because of health concerns regarding Judge John Einhorn. He was later taken off the case and replaced by Judge David Rubin.

The trial -- expected to take nine months to a year -- could end up being the longest in San Diego County history.

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