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Los Palillos’ Mexican Drug Trafficking Leaders Begin Death-Penalty Phase

Opening statements are scheduled Tuesday in the penalty phase of trial for two leaders of a Mexican drug trafficking gang who face the death penalty or life in prison after being convicted of several murders and kidnappings in San Diego County.

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 in a trial that began in January 2013.

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 between 2004 and 2007 to benefit the defendants' gang.

A mistrial was declared when jurors told Judge David Rubin they were hopelessly deadlocked on five murder counts against Rojas Lopez and other counts.

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, prosecutor Mark Amador said at the outset of the trial.

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.

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 in a Chula Vista home for eight days, Amador said.

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.

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

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