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Verdicts reached in ‘Los Palillos’ Mexican gang trial; to be announced Thursday

Verdicts were reached Wednesday in the trial of two Mexican drug trafficking gang leaders accused of participating in kidnappings, murders and other crimes in San Diego County between 2004 to 2007.

Jorge Rojas Lopez and Juan Estrada Gonzalez, both 34, face the death penalty if convicted.

The verdicts will be announced Friday morning in the courtroom of Judge David Rubin, culminating a trial that started last year. Jurors heard testimony for more than seven months, and closing arguments were delivered in late October.

Rojas Lopez is charged in nine murders; Estrada-Gonzalez in six.

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

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.

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 were arrested, along with three fellow members of their gang, after kidnapping a wealthy businessman and holding him for ransom at a Chula Vista residence for eight days, Amador said.

Rojas Lopez told the kidnapped victim's wife that she needed to come up with the ransom money if she wanted to see her husband again, the prosecutor said.

"If not, I will send him in pieces to your doorstep," Rojas Lopez told the woman, according to Amador.

Amador also quoted Rojas Lopez as saying the Arellano Felix Organization kidnapped and killed in Mexico, "but I have the balls to do it here."

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 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 prison sentences without the possibility of parole after being convicted of kidnapping and other crimes.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated the verdicts were reached Thursday.

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