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January 28 , 2008

The Toothpicks: A Mexican Cartel in San Diego


If you think cartel-style violence only happens in Mexico, meet the leaders of the Toothpicks, currently serving life sentences and in danger of the death penalty in a trial expected to be the longest in San Diego history.

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Eddy Tostado met Jorge Rojas Lopez and Juan Francisco Estrada-Gonzalez and five other Toothpicks in a rented house in Chula Vista. One man grabbed Eddy’s feet and another grabbed his back.  Two men dressed in police vests and hats, their faces covered with ski masks, ran toward him. They were carrying rifles. Eddy tried to shake them off, but one of the masked policemen hit Eddy on the bridge of his nose with the back of a rifle. Then they hit him with the rifle in the back and on the legs. He heard and felt the stun gun after that. With each shock delivered to his spine and the soft tissue of his lower back he heard dak, dak, dak, dak. Ten times in less than a minute.

Eddy started to shake, and he fell facedown on the floor. Everything that had been in his bowels and bladder came out. He was nearly unconscious, and he couldn’t move to get away. They went on hitting and kicking him. On the back of his head, he felt a single hard blow. They handcuffed him behind his back. They taped his ankles together. They put a towel over his head. All he could see were the shoes of the men walking around him and the guns lying on the floor — two handguns and one rifle.

In Spanish, they said, “You’re not so tough anymore.”
“Look at you now,” they said.
“You stink.”

They left him like that for a few minutes, mocking him for the stink he made, and then they wrapped him with a towel and dragged him to the back of the house, where they blindfolded him and stopped to take roll. Eddy heard them count to seven in Spanish. Seven against one. They didn’t say anything else to him, but they took Eddy’s Rolex and went off to another room. He could hear their voices but not the words.

Then one voice in particular, the one he would come to know well, told Eddy, “You know what this is. We want money from you, and you’re not going until you pay us.”

This is how Eddy Tostado’s eight days as a hostage began in June of 2007.  If he had not been rescued, the Toothpicks might still be at large, abducting Mexican nationals with ties to organized crime, tying them up in rented houses, demanding ransoms, and sometimes, whether the money was paid or not, killing the victims and dissolving their bodies in acid.  But Eddy Tostado was different from the other expatriates in one important respect: before he disappeared, he told his wife if he were ever kidnapped, she should go to the FBI.

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