SAN DIEGO – Two men were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole Friday for their roles in a Mexican drug gang that dissolved victims' bodies in acid.
Jose Olivera, 38, got five consecutive life terms and David Valencia, 42, got two consecutive life terms for charges including murder and kidnapping. They were the first defendants to go on trial in a case that prosecutors say is one of the worst examples of Mexican drug violence spilling across the border into the United States.
A jury convicted both men in May of strangling two victims after holding them for nearly three weeks at a San Diego home in 2007, then dissolving their corpses in acid. Olivera was convicted of murdering another man whose body was left in a car trunk.
San Diego Superior Court Judge John Einhorn said the men deserved maximum sentences for crimes that were "reprehensible, antisocial and damaging to the fabric of the San Diego community" as anything he has witnessed in 18 years on the bench.
"If ever there were two individuals that deserved absolutely no breaks, it's the two before this court today," the judge said.
Warring drug cartels have inflicted staggering violence on Mexican cities along the U.S. border, but San Diego and other U.S. border cities have generally been spared, boasting some of the lowest murder rates in the United States.
The kidnappings and murders pinned to "Los Palillos" -- or "The Toothpicks" in English -- were highly unusual for their brutality. Prosecutors say abductors masqueraded in police uniforms, kidnapping rivals or wealthy people for ransoms and disposing their bodies in trunks, along roadsides or in acid.
The group operated in the San Diego area from 2004 to 2007, according to prosecutors. It was disbanded when the FBI rescued a man who was kidnapped after being lured on a date by a woman who feigned she was attracted to him and the victim's family paid $193,000 in ransom money.
Authorities said they group defected in 2002 from the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix cartel, which gained notoriety during the 1990s for dissolving the bodies of rivals in slow-burning vats of acid.
Olivera and Valencia were the first of 17 defendants to go to trial, charged with killing two men even after the family of one victim paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom. A trial is scheduled to begin in November for Jorge Lopez, 33, and Juan Estrada, 40, whom authorities identify as ringleaders.
The trial against the alleged ringleaders is expected to last nine months to a year, said Mark Amador, a deputy district attorney. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against both men, who are already serving life sentences for other crimes.
More than 80 witnesses testified during the three-month trial against Olivera and Valencia. Defense attorneys argued key prosecution witnesses were granted leniency for testifying and were not credible.
Neither man said anything at Friday's hearing beyond waiving rights to appear at restitution hearings for the victims.
Valencia chatted with his attorney as the judge rendered the sentences and smiled occasionally during the hearing. Olivera occasionally glanced toward the floor as the sentences were read and showed no emotion.