San Diego jury convicts 2 in cartel-linked murders

A jury convicted two men Wednesday of first-degree murder in the killings of two men whose bodies were dissolved in acid for a Mexican drug gang.

Prosecutors said the gruesome case is one of the worst examples of Mexico's horrific drug violence spilling over the border into the United States.

Jose Olivera Beritan and David Valencia could face maximum terms of life in prison without parole when they are sentenced July 19. Prosecutors said they were part of a group of alleged assassins acting on behalf of a Mexican trafficker who moved to the San Diego area and directed a cell that had broken away from the Tijuana-based Arellano-Felix cartel.

The men were the first to go on trial among 17 people indicted in a case involving nine killings in San Diego. Nine of the 17 remain in custody, while the others were fugitives.

The two strangled corpses were placed in 55-gallon barrels of acid heated by propane tanks on a ranch in San Diego County. More than two years after the killings, a witness led investigators to the ranch, where human remains were recovered.

Olivera was also convicted of a third count of first-degree murder of man whose body was stuffed into the trunk of a stolen car and abandoned. Valencia was not in the gang at the time of that killing, prosecutors said. Jurors found the men guilty of kidnapping but not guilty of torture.

A victim who survived was Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado. Prosecutors said he was chained and blindfolded for eight days until he was rescued in an FBI raid on a home in Chula Vista in June 2007. Authorities found three boxes of muriatic acid in the house.

Defense attorneys for Valencia and Olivera argued during the trial that two of the prosecution's key witnesses had been given deals for their testimonies and were not credible. The defense could not be reached for comment after the verdicts were read Wednesday.

Deputy District Attorney James Fontane applauded the jury and said the verdicts send a strong message that San Diego County will not tolerate the "brutality that we're seeing just south of the border."

"We will not sit by and let drug gangs conduct their business on our streets," he said.

He called it the worst case of drug violence that has been seen along the southwestern border of the United States. Despite the staggering drug violence that has sent murder rates soaring in Mexican border cities like Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana in recent years, U.S. cities directly across from them remain among the safest in the nation.

Prosecutors said the men acted on behalf of a cell called Los Palillos, or The Toothpicks. The cell broke away from the Arellano Felix cartel around 2002 when its leader was killed in an internal feud. The Arellano Felix cartel was considered Mexico's most vicious and powerful but has been largely crippled over the past decade by arrests and the killings of its top people.

During the three-month trial, prosecutors called 80 witnesses and presented 700 items of evidence.

The leader's younger brother, Jorge Rojas, moved to the San Diego area and allegedly directed the cell in trafficking drugs and kidnapping and in killing perceived rivals until his arrest in 2007. Rojas, 32, was convicted of kidnapping in 2008 and sentenced to life in prison. He will be tried later this year on additional charges that may make him eligible for the death penalty, if convicted.