SAN DIEGO (AP) — Three men pleaded not guilty Tuesday to plotting to murder a Southern California couple suspected of owing money to a drug cartel in what a prosecutor called another glaring example of cross-border violence.
The defendants were working on the orders of the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix cartel — one of Mexico's oldest and once most powerful drug trafficking organizations, Deputy District Attorney Mark Amador said.
Among the defendants is Jorge Sillas, 28, whose older brother, 33-year-old Juan Sillas, has emerged as one of Tijuana's most violent hit men over the past two years, authorities said.
Juan Sillas has not been charged in the murder-for-hire case, but the criminal complaint said he offered to pay an assassin $50,000 for the killings.
Other defendants in the case are Victor Gonzalez, 29, and Danny Cepallo, 34.
Amador said the defendants planned to kill a couple said to owe money to the cartel. But when the elder Sillas learned there were four more people in their house, he ordered everyone killed, except for a disabled girl, the prosecutor said.
The plot was foiled when authorities raided the home of Jorge Sillas in Palmdale last week and arrested the three defendants. During the raid, agents seized two AR-15 rifles, more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition and about $20,000 in cash.
Superior Court Judge David Szumowski set bail at $1 million each and scheduled a hearing for March 17. If convicted, the men could face up to life in prison.
Jorge Sillas' attorney, Michael Harkness, said his client is an American citizen with no criminal record. He declined further comment.
The elder Sillas — known as "Ruedas," or "Wheels" in English — is suspected by authorities of being responsible for many of the border city's more than 800 murders last year. He remains at large.
He is also implicated in the kidnapping of a niece of Sinaloa cartel heavyweight Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada last year at a fast food restaurant in Tijuana's tony Zona Rio district, according to Mexican army Gen. Alfonso Duarte, who oversees northwest Mexico. The army rescued the niece.
"He's a hot-tempered individual," said Javier Salaiz, an agent for the California attorney general's office. "He just goes off the deep end."
The state attorney general's office said last week that Sillas sought to hire assassins to target people in California who owed large sums of money believed to be proceeds from drug sales.
California authorities called Sillas a lieutenant in the Arellano Felix cartel, but Duarte and other Mexican authorities say he broke with the group in late 2009 in a dispute with cartel boss Fernando Sanchez Arellano, after Sillas tipped off federal authorities to a rival's large shipment of methamphetamine at the Tijuana airport.
Sillas belongs to the cartel, but it is a relationship "full of backstabbing and double-sided deals," Salaiz said.
State authorities say Sanchez Arellano is implicated in the ongoing investigation of the planned murder in Southern California that began last year, but he has not been charged.
The case is one of the highest-profile allegations that Tijuana's drug-fueled violence has spilled into Southern California.
In 2009, members of a group of Mexican drug traffickers known as "Los Palillos" — or "The Toothpicks" — were indicted in the murders of nine people in the San Diego area, including two victims whose bodies were dissolved in acid.
The group of 17 men also collected hundreds of thousands in dollars in ransom payments for kidnappings, according to the indictment in San Diego Superior Court. Victims were abducted by men dressed in police uniforms and wearing badges while walking down the streets or in their driveways, then held in rented homes and sometimes killed, authorities said.
The murders and abductions occurred between 2004 and 2007.
Last year, a federal indictment in San Diego named 43 defendants — many from the San Diego area — who were suspected of working for Sanchez Arellano.
Neither case has gone to trial.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
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