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Trial Underway In San Diego For Alleged Drug Gang Leaders

Trial for Alleged Drug Gang Leaders
Trial Underway In San Diego For Alleged Drug Gang Leaders
GUESTS:Randy Grossman, Adjunct Professor, Thomas Jefferson School of LawOctavio Rodriguez, program coordinator, University of San Diego Trans-Border Institute

CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition opening statements began yesterday in what could become the longest criminal trial in San Diego history. Two men associated with a Mexican drug cartel are accused of multiple murders on this side of the border. Prosecutors say Jorge Rojas Lopez and Juan Estrada Gonzalez led a gang that killed 9 people in the south bay. Two of the bodies were dissolved in acid. Rojas and Estrada Gonzalez are already serving life without parole for kidnapping. Now they face the death penalty. Joining me to discuss the background. The legal aspects of this case are my guests, first Octavio Rodriguez, program coordinator with the university of San Diego transporter institute. RODRIGUEZ: Thank you very much. CAVANAUGH: Professor Randy Grossman is here, welcome to the show. GROSSMAN: Good afternoon. CAVANAUGH: Now, do we know what connection these defends had to Mexican drug cartels? They're described as being leaders of a splinter group of the Arellano/Felix cartel. RODRIGUEZ: The group was part of the organization for a long time. But around 2007, a battle within the cartel started among a sprinter cell led by a member of the Arellano Felix family. When this fight in the Tijuana cartel started is when we first heard about Los Palillos conducting criminal activities here in San Diego, that was around 2007. CAVANAUGH: Now do we know, are the people involved in Los Palillos, the sprinter group, are they Mexican nationals or U.S. citizens? RODRIGUEZ: I don't know that clearly. I don't know all of them. But they're alleged to have dual citizenship, most of them. CAVANAUGH: Okay. Now, is it unusual for drug gangs that originate in Mexico to separate in San Diego? RODRIGUEZ: It is unusual, yes. We have had cases in Arizona and also here in California of groups or citizens acting on behalf of Mexican drug cartels. But we have precedent here with the Logan Heights gang back in the '80s and the '90s. And then this group of Los Palillos, it's not common, but we've seen that before. CAVANAUGH: And I think it's important to point out that the crimes that Rojas and Estrada Gonzalez are being tried for occurred somewhere during 2004, 2007. And Octavio, that was sort of the height of when drug violence was happening or at least beginning stereo evolve in Baja; isn't that right? RODRIGUEZ: It is true. And the violence reached its peak around 2007 where the battle between -- within the cartels started to be more evident. CAVANAUGH: Now, professor Grossman, prosecutors say the victims in these cases were tortured. Two of the bodies were dissolved in acid. Do you think the nature of these crimes led prosecutors to move forward with these prosecutions? GROSSMAN: That's probably part of it. But I think that prosecutors are always looking to prosecute the most serious crimes. These guys were prosecuted in the past as I understand it for kidnapping. Obviously murder with suspicious such as torture lead to a potential death penalty. CAVANAUGH: Now, prosecutors say this may be the longest trial in San Diego County history. Professor, why is that? GROSSMAN: Well, as I understand it, the prosecutors are thinking of calling 245 witnesses. That could take up to six months. So when you have that many witnesses that need to come in before the Court to testify to their personal knowledge, it takes up a lot of court time. CAVANAUGH: Why would any one -- why would a prosecutor need 245 witnesses? Can you explain that to us? GROSSMAN: That is a really good question. I know mark Amador, the deputy district attorney who's prosecuting this case. He is a very fine and able attorney. He knows what he's doing. So he must have specific reasons why he feels it's necessary. There are 15 different victims. So they may just need to set it up as far as people within the organization, outside of the organization, what they witnessed, and you have to get witnesses to testify that they actually know that this individual committed this heinous act. CAVANAUGH: So what you're saying is that some of these witnesses might have one small piece of information that the prosecutors are going to use to build their evidence to convict these two men. GROSSMAN: Exactly. And a lot of it is what we call foundational type of testimony. Just to kind of set it up and put it in context for the jurors so that they understand what led to this point. CAVANAUGH: Now, Octavio, authorities made these arrests of the members of this cartel in 2009. And it's been a long journey since then. There have been other prosecutions. But part of the delay according to authorities is that it was difficult to find witnesses to testify against these men. Do these drug cartels inspire a great level of fear in the community? RODRIGUEZ: That is true, Maureen, especially in Mexico. In Mexico, we're starting to see a figure which is called anonymous witness that the prosecutors use to prosecute a case given the victims don't want to unveil their identities because of possible threats against their lives. But in the case of U.S. prosecution and U.S. trials, prosecutions and trials are more effective here than in Mexico. And there's more protection against witnesses and victims. So it's probably because of the number of witnesses they had to gather for the case and not because they weren't willing to provide -- CAVANAUGH: Their testimony. >> Yeah. CAVANAUGH: And the prosecutors pointed out that among the victims that these men are accused of slaying, some of them were not related to drug trafficking at all. Didn't have any relationship to drug trafficking. Is that a common occurrence in murders that are related to drug cartels? RODRIGUEZ: That's not common here in the United States. We've seen cases of drug cartels or organizations working for drug cartels in Mexico committing criminal activities here in Mexico -- here in the United States and targeting victims. But most of them are either related to drug trafficking or we've seen cases of undocumented immigrants kidnapped by those organizations trying to get ransoms from their families in Mexico or central America. But it's not common to see them targeting regular citizens. CAVANAUGH: And Randy Grossman, since Rojas and Estrada Gonzalez are in prison for life, no parole, on their kidnapping conviction, the county seems to be putting a lot of resources into this death penalty case. Is this trial going to cost a lot? GROSSMAN: Absolutely. We're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions of dollars. When you consider the salary that's paid to the judge, the salary that's paid to court staff, there are going to be numerous bailiffs obviously to ensure security in the courtroom. There's a court reporter. There are going to be I assume translaters that are involved there. There's going to be a lot of support staff because of the using different type of visual aids, electronics. So it is very costly to conduct a trial, especially for that length of time. CAVANAUGH: And it's my understanding, we've done shows, segments on this fact that the San Diego county superior court is suffering budget cuts now. So is this likely to be a drain on resources? GROSSMAN: Without question. It's an interesting point because it raises the issue does it make sense to spend this exposure tent amount of money to prosecute these individuals, which as you say, are in prison for the rest of their lives without the possibility of parole? CAVANAUGH: Why do you think the county is pursuing this prosecution? What is the argument to bring this forward? Prosecutors like to make sure that people are accountable for the severity crimes, you already told us that. But what are the other arguments that would support this kind of a long and costly prosecution? GROSSMAN: Well, certainly you have to take into account the victims' families. They are certainly seeking closure. And right now, you have two individuals that are in prison without the possibility of parole for the rest of their lives for kidnapping. If you are a family member of one of these victims that was alleged to have been killed by these individuals, you really want closure. And the fact that they are in prison for the rest of their lives for an unrelated crime doesn't really help you get past that point. CAVANAUGH: I see. So for family members and because the prosecutor likes to make sure that someone's accountable for the most serious thing they did, does it -- do you think that it would help the community in any way? GROSSMAN: Sure. I mean, certainly the prosecutor's position is going to be we're sending a strong message. If you murder people, you will be tried for murder and possibly face death and be put to death by the State of California. So that is certainly a message they're sending. And really the idea behind the whole criminal justice system is it's not supposed to be related to money. Of course we know in reality everything boils down to the dollar. The State of California is in a fiscal crisis. You mentioned the budget cuts, not just in San Diego but throughout the entire state. It's unprecedented what they have done to the Courts. We're talking tens of millions of dollars shaved off their budgets. That affects our community very much because you have everyday citizens that may have never had any brush with the law but citizens need access to the Courts for civil matters. You're always going to get precedents for criminal matters because of the constitution, right to speedy trial, etc. With closing different courthouses, closing courtrooms, consolidation, not being able to hire more staff, we are really, really limited here. And if you go into court and you want to follow suit because somebody messed up your landscaping, you may not have the opportunity to do that. CAVANAUGH: Not to belabor the point, but if indeed this trial goes on for months and months and costs millions of dollars, will there be a spillover effect? Will that mean there is less money for other prosecutions? GROSSMAN: As the defense attorney, our feeling is always the state has unlimited funds, and the District Attorney's Office with their unlimited resources seems to come up with the money. So I'm not really in a position to tell you that they will not have money for other prosecutions. Bonnie Dumanis who is the District Attorney of San Diego, I know her very well, she is extremely competent. I'm sure she's managing that budget and there are not going to be crimes that are not prosecuted because of the amount of money spent in this matter. CAVANAUGH: And we invited her on this show, she was not able to join us today. Octavio, Randy mentioned that the DA may be using this trial to send a message. Do you think this message might go out to other drug trafficking groups in San Diego? RODRIGUEZ: I'm not clear about that, Maureen. We've seen cases of even kingpins such as the Arellano Felix brothers which were leaders of big criminal enterprises, and they haven't been condemned to the death penalty. So I don't know if this is necessary for being -- of course it's a very gruesome act of violence the accused committed. But I'm not certain whether it's convenient to spent much amount of money in doing that when you're not treating the same way higher leaders of those organizations. CAVANAUGH: Right. And remind us, haven't the level of drug trafficking and violence decreased significantly since the days of these crimes in 2007? &%F0 RODRIGUEZ: From 2007 to 2011 we've seen a steady increase. Though in 2012, we see some sort of level off or decrease in violence. So apparently in 2013, we're seeing an increase again in the levels of violence in Mexico. CAVANAUGH: Now, professor, even if these two men are convicted of these crimes and witnessed to death, is it likely that they will ever be executed? GROSSMAN: Certainly. The laws are still in the books here. California has not voted to abolish the death penalty here, but you never know what's going to happen in the future. CAVANAUGH: Aren't there about 600 people in front of them though on death row? GROSSMAN: Right. And we're not Texas. That's for sure. And people don't put to death as often. And something may change with the legislator. You about you also need to remember too when you are in prison, depending on what you're there for, and if you're there for life, that will affect the different amenities, if you will, and the different privileges if any that you receive while you're housed. CAVANAUGH: So you're telling us that -- I didn't realize this, that people on death row, their lives in prison are harder in some way? GROSSMAN: Well, they're certainly different. Depending on your classification, when you are in prison, you may have different ability to go out to the yard, you may have different ability when you can watch TV. You may have different abilities if you can work in the prison and receive certain benefits that way. CAVANAUGH: I see. Well, we'll have to see how this prosecution proceeds. About I want to thank you both for giving some kind of context for it. Thank you both very much. RODRIGUEZ: Thank you very much, Maureen. GROSSMAN: Thank you. Have a great afternoon.

A trial is underway in San Diego of two alleged Mexican drug gang leaders accused of up to nine murders in San Diego.

Jorge Rojas Lopez and Juan Francisco Estrada Gonzalez are being tried for murders that occurred between 2004 and 2007. Some of the victims’ bodies were dissolved in acid.

The defendants are alleged leaders of Los Palillos, described as a mini cartel made up of defectors from Tijuana’s much larger Arellano-Felix Cartel.


Prosecutors say Los Palillos, which means "The Toothpicks," used a network of houses in Chula Vista and San Diego to smuggle drugs, hold kidnapping victims ransom and murder them.

The two defendants now on trial are already serving life sentences for earlier convictions including kidnapping.

Their trial in San Diego Superior Court is expected to last up to a year.

Corrected: April 20, 2024 at 3:26 AM PDT
KPBS' Maureen Cavanaugh, Patty Lane and Peggy Pico contributed to this segment.