Incidents bring worries of drug cartel activity

By Mark Arner and Anna Cearley

June 30, 2007

A man was lured to a Chula Vista house where he was held for eight days earlier this month until U.S. authorities rescued him and detained five suspects on kidnapping charges.

The house is about a mile from where Mexican-drug-trafficking suspects shot at a Chula Vista police officer in 2005. And it's about three miles from where a body was found dumped that same year, the suspected work of Mexican drug groups.

U.S. authorities haven't provided many details of the June 8 kidnapping, but law enforcement sources who asked not to be named because of the case's sensitivity say the incident is being investigated for a connection to Mexican crime groups.

They say investigators have been tracking a series of unusual crimes around the South Bay in which the primary suspects are former members of Mexico's Arellano Félix drug cartel.

The renegade group, apparently acting out of vengeance, has been kidnapping and killing suspected Arellano members north of the border in recent years, according to the sources.

The group's presence reveals yet another vulnerability of the once-dominant Arellanos, who controlled the flow of drugs into California and parts of Arizona for almost two decades. Many of the drug group's top leaders have been arrested, and some are dead. The kidnappings attributed to the splinter group could be the latest in a wave of splits within the cartel and challenges from rivals.

It's also a reminder that U.S. communities aren't immune to the problems that have plagued Mexico for years.

Deputy District Attorney Mark Amador declined to confirm or deny whether the recent kidnapping was related to feuding drug traffickers but said the number of kidnappings in San Diego County that have characteristics similar to kidnappings in Mexico has increased.

“Every law enforcement agency is concerned about this,” he said.

There were three reported kidnappings for ransom in San Diego and Imperial counties in the year that ended Sept. 30, 2002, and 12 in the year that ended Sept. 30, 2006, according to FBI data.

Though the FBI's data doesn't say where the kidnappings took place or whether drug groups were involved, the majority of kidnappings in 2006 have had ties to Mexico, according to information the FBI provided in response to a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

A representative of the FBI, which is investigating the Chula Vista case, declined to comment on it.

The actual numbers of kidnappings is likely higher because people are often too intimidated to report it.

Amador said the 32-year-old kidnapping victim rescued this month was lured to the Chula Vista home on Point Dume Court. He was held for eight days while the kidnappers demanded a ransom from his family, Amador said. The relatives paid $200,000, and the FBI rescued him June 16, Amador said.

U.S. authorities say they don't want to compromise any investigations by revealing more. They also want to encourage people to step forward with information on the June kidnapping and to report other incidents.
“Regardless of who the victim is, we're going to do everything we can to get the person back safely,” Amador said.

It's unclear whether the victim lived in Chula Vista full-time, but the sources said he had ties to Baja California.

A Chula Vista police report about the kidnapping referred to another street in a different part of the city. The report didn't specify whether the victim lived in that Rancho del Rey gated community or what connection it had to the crime. The kidnapped man's name doesn't show up in a listing of property records.

Residents interviewed in the upscale area expressed concern that Mexican drug groups could be targeting their neighbors.

Growing numbers of wealthier Baja California residents, including some of the residents in this gated community, are living north of the border for safety reasons. Some who live in San Diego County are business owners who have been kidnapped in Mexico because they have money. Others are involved in drug trafficking.

As long as drug traffickers and their family members don't face charges in the United States or extradition in Mexico, they can blend into communities here. Sometimes they use false identities to throw off investigators.

Jan Ronis and Guadalupe Valencia, attorneys for some of the five men arrested in connection with the kidnapping, declined to comment on the case.

It's unclear how many of the region's kidnappings have been committed by the renegade group and how many by the Arellanos – and how many are unrelated. A spokesman with the Drug Enforcement Administration declined to comment on any ongoing investigations.

The problem isn't limited to Chula Vista, but police officials there say they are aware of a spill-over effect from Mexican drug groups and are working with other agencies to combat it.
Chula Vista police Sgt. David Eisenberg, who declined to comment on the kidnapping case's underlying causes, said he has noticed more kidnapping and extortion reports over the past two years, though he couldn't quantify them.

“We get calls like 'My husband isn't home for dinner and he's coming from Rosarito Beach,' or 'People are calling and trying to get money from us or threatening us,' ” he said.

According to the FBI information on kidnapping cases in the past decade, ransom demands were as high as $2 million.

The house where the June 8 kidnapping victim was held is now empty. The rental company that manages it, Kitty Hawk Realty of Chula Vista, posted an eviction notice on the door. A Kitty Hawk representative declined to comment on the case.

Neighbors say a group of men moved into the property several weeks before the raid. The day the kidnapped man was rescued, a caravan of sport utility vehicles pulled into the cul-de-sac and rifle-wielding federal authorities surrounded the home, using a loudspeaker to warn the suspects they were surrounded.

Neighbors said they didn't hear any shots fired, and afterward authorities started taking men out of the house.

Eisenberg said it's important to protect kidnapping victims and to keep investigations secure, but he said he also believes border communities need to be better prepared to confront organized crime.

“We need to understand the true extent of cross-border crime spillover and what the threats are so we can plan for it,” he said. “There are threats at the immediate level of kidnapping and extortions, but also threats to institutions if law enforcement or the political process gets corrupted.”