Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Femme Fatale Kidnapper Of CAF Members Has Appeal Denied In US Court

"HEARST" for Borderland Beat

In August 2021, a U.S. appeals court denied the reopening of the case of Nancy Michelle Mendoza Moreno, a young woman who was sentenced to double life imprisonment for having kidnapped members of the Arellano Felix cartel almost 10 years ago to collect thousands of dollars for their ransom as part of a revenge driven plot by Los Palillos.

Who are Los Palillos?

Around 1986 a Mexican drug cartel known as the Tijuana Cartel (or Cartel de Arellano Félix, CAF), headed by Benjamin Arellano-Felix and his brother, Ramon, took over the lucrative drug-trafficking corridor between Tijuana and San Diego. Benjamin was the leader of the CAF. Ramon was his enforcer and right-hand man who intimidated rival drug traffickers and cultivated relationships with corrupt officials. At its height the AFO had thousands of people working for it.

In early 2002 Ramon was killed in a shootout in Mexico and Benjamin was arrested and extradited to the United States. Their brother, Javier Arellano-Felix ("El Tigrillo"), became the leader of the CAF. When Javier was arrested in 2006, the CAF leadership passed to a nephew of the Arellano-Felix brothers: Fernando Sánchez-Arellano.

Between 1998 and 2002 Victor Manuel Rojas-Lopez, alias "El Palillo", was the leader of an CAF crew based in Tijuana known as "Los Palillos," or "The Toothpicks." Victor's brother, Jorge Rojas-Lopez, assisted him in leading the group. The major criminal activities of Los Palillos were drug trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion. 

Left, Jorge Rojas-Lopez and right, Juan Estrada-Gonzalez, his second in command.

In 2002, Victor Manuel Rojas-Lopez was killed by the CAF. The motive is unclear although prominent theories include it being a dispute over a woman or because Victor was independently trafficking drugs without turning the profits over to the CAF.

Due to the murder of his brother, Jorge Rojas-Lopez broke all ties with the CAF and brought his group to San Diego in the United States. Jorge, alongside his new second-in-command Juan Estrada-Gonzalez, personally vowed revenge against the CAF as retribution for Victor Manuel. 

The Kidnapping of Jorge Garcia Vasquez

According to the Attorney General’s Office, Nancy Michelle Mendoza Moreno got into kidnapping CAF drug traffickers because she was the girlfriend of Juan Estrada-Gonzalez, the second-in-command.

Through intelligence work done by Los Palillos, they were able to determine that the high ranking CAF member Jesus Labra Aviles, alias “Chuy Labra” had a sister living in a city in California called Chula Vista.

His sister was married to Jorge Garcia-Vasquez. By following Jorge, they discovered he regularly went to the gym 24-Hour Fitness in Bonita. 

Nancy Michelle Mendoza Moreno signed up to become a member at the Bonita 24-Hour fitness on January 15, 2007. Moreno visited the gym six times between January 18 and January 31, 2007. All six times she entered the gym at around 8:00 a.m.

Sometime in January 2007 Moreno approached Vasquez, who had never seen her before. Moreno said her name was "Nancy" and asked Vasquez if he could help her with some exercises. Moreno told Vasquez she was Mexican but did not tell him her last name. After Vasquez helped her exercise, Moreno told him she would see him the next day and left.

Nancy Michelle Mendoza Moreno.

The next day and on a few occasions after that, Moreno came to the gym when Vasquez was there and asked him for help. Moreno told him she was from Tijuana and was living with her aunt, who was supporting her. Two or three times, after they had worked out, Moreno and Vasquez went to eat at an IHOP in National City. Vasquez drove Moreno there in his SUV; Moreno left her grey Chevy Equinox at the gym.

On January 31, Moreno arrived at the gym shortly after Vasquez arrived. While they were working out, Moreno asked Vasquez whether he could suggest some protein supplements and Vasquez agreed to take her to a store to buy some. Vasquez suggested they go in his car, but Moreno said, "No. Let's take mine."

As they were leaving the gym in her car, Moreno received a call on her cell phone. When Moreno finished talking on the phone, she told Vasquez her aunt forgot her key and she had to drop a key off for her. She told Vasquez she would put the key under the doormat and then they would leave. According to courtroom transcripts, Moreno drove the two of them in her car. 

Law Enforcement Quarterly (LEQ) magazine disagrees with the official court version saying that Moreno asked Vasquez to drive and he obliged. Moreno appeared nervous during the drive and kept looking in the car mirrors. LEQ adds that Vasquez noticed during the drive that Moreno was actually speaking quietly into her phone while he drove. 

When they reached Rio Drive, their vehicle went down a side street and a van with flashing blue and red lights pulled up behind them. Five or six men got out of the van. They were wearing police gear and yelled, "Police!" Suspecting that the men were not law enforcement officers, Vasquez locked the car doors. Moreno unlocked them.

A taser shaped like a pistol that was later presented as evidence in the trial of a Los Palillos member. 

Vasquez regained consciousness in a small room that appeared to be a family room. The kidnappers had taken his watch, wallet, credit card and cash. Two men arrived at the house about half an hour later. They referred to Vasquez by his alias "El Kilino", and told him they wanted money and were not going to kill him. When they demanded $2 million, Vasquez responded he did not have it. 

The men told him to gather the money from his brother-in-law Don Chuy. Vasquez told the men Labra had been in custody since 2000 and he had no way of contacting him. The kidnappers then had him call a friend and business partner, Antonio Ortiz, tell Ortiz he had been kidnapped, and ask Ortiz to gather ransom money. Vasquez made a similar call to his wife. 

Vasquez testified the kidnappers held him for 22 days. He was taken to an upstairs bedroom, and he was blindfolded and handcuffed. The kidnappers put him in a closet, warned him they had guns, and told him they would kill him if he tried to escape. Two or three people guarded him. One had a Cuban accent; another called himself "Juanito." Occasionally individuals who seemed to be in charge came into the room and talked to the guards.

While Vasquez was held captive, his nephew (Chuy Labra's son), Jesus Manuel Labra-Felix, received a call from Vasquez's wife. She told him Vasquez had been kidnapped, asked for financial help, and said Felix should contact a man named "Antonio" in Tijuana who would take over from there. Felix got the money from his companies and in several payments a total of $300,000 was paid.

On February 22, 2007, the kidnappers told Vasquez he was leaving. They gave him his wallet, car keys, and a phone, and told him the phone was to allow them to contact him because they wanted more money. They told Vasquez that if he did not raise another $150,000 to $200,000, they were going to kidnap his nephews.

The kidnappers then escorted Vasquez, who was still blindfolded, to a white Escalade. Vasquez testified that they made him crouch down in the back of the vehicle. The kidnappers drove Vasquez to Terra Nova Plaza, where he was released and one of his brothers was waiting for him in the parking lot. When he returned home, Vasquez told his wife to warn his nephews about the kidnappers' threat. After he learned about the threat, Felix raised another $140,000 and had it delivered to the kidnappers.

The Kidnapping of Eduardo Tostado

In June 2007 Eduardo Tostado, a wealthy Mexican businessman, lived with his wife and their daughter in Chula Vista. Tostado owned several businesses in Mexico and a car dealership called Motorland in the United States. Eduardo Toastado was also a well-known drug trafficker of the Arellano cartel.

Tostado lived in a gated community that required a code to gain access. In May 2005 Los Palillos member Eduardo Monroy did some remodeling work at Tostado's home. Tostado gave him the gate access code.

Tostado was also a friend of David Valencia, another Los Palillos member. They had met several years earlier at the 24-Hour Fitness in Bonita. Monroy occasionally went with Valencia and Tostado to off-road races. In around 2003 Tostado had a falling out with Valencia and they no longer communicated with one another.

Despite having been warned by Juan Laureano Arvizu, a member of Los Palillos that someone wanted him kidnapped, Tostado reconnected with Los Palillos member David Valencia. Tostado then purchased two cars for Valencia at an auction in June 2007. Valencia told Tostado he wanted to introduce him to a friend of his and Nancy Mendoza Moreno arrived. She introduced herself to Toastada and feigned an attraction to him. 

Nancy Mendoza Moreno

She then went inside the coffee shop they were standing near and Valencia showed Tostado photos on his cell phone depicting a young woman wearing lingerie, presumably alleging the photos were of Nancy Moreno. Moreno came back outside with a cup of coffee, gave Tostado a kiss on the cheek, told Valencia she would see him later, and walked away.

Shortly thereafter, Valencia received a call on his cell phone and then handed the phone to Tostado. Moreno was calling. Moreno asked Tostado whether he would like to go out to dinner with Valencia and her, and then asked Tostado to call her. 

The next day at around 4:00 to 5:00 pm, Tostado telephoned Moreno and invited her to meet him at a restaurant. Moreno declined to drive over immediately but she asked Tostado to call her in an hour, saying she had just finished working out and had to go home to change her clothes. Tostado called her an hour later and asked her where they should go. Moreno asked Tostado to pick her up at a coffee shop and then take her to a bar in Tijuana. Tostado drove to the coffee shop in his black Range Rover.

Moreno came over and got into Tostado's car. Tostado asked her why she wanted to go all the way to Tijuana to have a drink. Nancy Moreno, who was actually just 19 years old at the time, lied and said her age was 20 years old. She said that in the US, she was below the drinking age limit of 21, but in Mexico she was above the legal drinking age limit so she had to go to Mexico if she wanted to have a drink. 

1539 Point Dume Street in Chula Vista, the house that Nancy Moreno lured Toastado to.

Before they left the parking lot, Moreno told Tostado she needed to go home to get her passport or visa and change her clothes. She also told him her house was nearby, she lived with her aunt, and he should follow her there. Moreno got into her car and they drove to a house a couple of blocks away. She told him her aunt had left for Tijuana and, if he wanted, they could have a drink in the house. 

Tostado was called to run an errand for one of his businesses, so he excused himself and quickly did the fifteen minute errand. On the way back, he stopped at a liquor store and purchased alcohol, condoms, and a flower. As Tostado was getting out of his own car, a Chevy Equinox and an SUV drove past him. A man wearing a baseball cap was driving the Equinox. The man pulled into the cul-de-sac, drove slowly around, passed Tostado again, and drove away. Tostado telephoned Moreno and asked her whether she was expecting anyone. She said she was not and told him to come inside the house. 

Tostado walked up to the front door, carrying the bags of items he purchased from the liquor store, and Moreno was standing with the door open. She took one of the bags and invited Tostado inside. When Tostado entered the house and walked toward the living room, three men carrying long assault rifles ran towards him from down the hallway. They were wearing ski masks, black police vests, and caps with the words "FBI" and "POLICE" on them.

Fake police and FBI uniforms presented as evidence in the trial of a Los Palillos member. 

Two more men jumped Tostado from behind. One grabbed him by the hands and the other grabbed him by the feet. One of the men carrying an assault rifle struck Tostado in the head with the butt of the rifle, and he was shocked numerous times in the back with a Taser. Tostado fell to the ground and five of the men kicked Tostado in the head and stomach. Tostado passed out.

When Tostado regained consciousness, he was face down on the ground with a towel over his eyes and his feet and hands were tied behind his back. His watch, wedding ring, wallet, and shoes were gone. One of the men did a head count in Spanish and counted eight other people in the room.

Two men dragged Tostado by his hands to the back of the house and replaced the towel over his eyes with a blindfold. One of them, who seemed to be the leader of the group, did all of the talking. The leader told Tostado a lot of the men in the house were armed, and "if you try to do anything stupid, we're going to kill you."

The leader then told Tostado he was being kidnapped and they wanted money. The man walked Tostado, who was handcuffed, to a small closet or pantry and put him inside. The leader again told Tostado not to do anything stupid; that they were going to chain him, it was "nothing personal," and they just wanted money. 

While the leader was talking, Tostado overheard Nancy Moreno ask someone whether she could leave. She did not sound frightened. Moreno asked which car she should take, and the leader told her to take the Range Rover. Tostado did not hear Moreno's voice again.

The leader told Tostado they had wanted to kidnap him for a few months, they had been surveilling his house, and they went to see him at a race in January. The leader also said he was angry with the AFO because they killed his brother. They contacted Tostado's family, arranging for payments to be sent for Tostado's release.

The Mistake 

Los Palillos were unaware at the time that Tostado was already a cooperating witness for the United States and that he was blowing the whistle on the Arellano cartel's operations so Tostado's family was able to notify the FBI that he was being held captive. 

FBI Special Agent Lauren Wood met with Toastado’s cousin Sergio and Tostado's wife. They both agreed to record any calls they received from the kidnappers. Agent Wood also obtained their consent to trap and trace their phone numbers. 

That night, a man called Sergio from a phone number Sergio did not recognize. The man said he was the boss and told Sergio he would let Tostado go for $2 million. When Sergio told him Tostado did not have that much money, the man replied he would take $1 million. Sergio told him it would be difficult to raise that amount. The man asked Sergio to give him an additional $100,000 and Tostado's Rolex watches as a side deal, and assured him Tostado was fine. 

Some of the bills used as payment photographed by the FBI.

A multi-agency operation was set up to track and arrest the kidnappers. By June 15 Sergio had raised raised about $193,000 in ransom money. That day, one of the kidnappers called and told Sergio he would contact him on June 16 to arrange a ransom drop. The money and watches were turned over to Agent Lauren Wood. Some of the bills were photographed and documented, and everything was placed in a briefcase that contained a tracking device. Sergio would wear a body recorder so he could be followed when the kidnappers gave him instructions.

On June 16, Sergio met with Agent Lauren Wood at a fast food restaurant and received the briefcase containing the photographed bills and tracking device. While still at the restaurant with Agent Lauren Wood, Sergio was called by the kidnappers. Agent Wood taped the body recorder to Sergio's chest and told him to follow the kidnappers' instructions and then return to the fast food restaurant.

The man on the phone gave Sergio specific driving instructions that led him to a large parking lot by a Mile of Cars, park near the fence, leave the money in the car, and walk away. The man on the phone directed Sergio to a bathroom and told him not to look back. A few minutes later the man called Sergio and told him he could leave. When Sergio returned to his car, the money was gone. Sergio returned to the fast food restaurant and gave the body recorder to Agent Wood. 

Using the tracking signal in the briefcase of money, agents tracked the briefcase to a Mitsubishi Lancer with Baja license plates. The car went to a residence on Los Flores Drive and from there to the Comfort Inn. A man entered the Comfort Inn, then came out 10 minutes later, and drove away. The car returned to Los Flores Drive, where a second man got into the car. The two men drove to a juice bar in Chula Vista, stayed there for about half an hour, and then went to the Las Americas mall in San Ysidro. 

Surveillance photographs taken of the two men at the juice bar. 

During this time a police perimeter was set up around the Los Flores Drive residence. SWAT agents later stopped the Mitsubishi Lancer the same two men along with the briefcase that contained the tracking device and the men were identified as Jorge Rojas-Lopez and Juan Estrada-Gonzalez. 

Agents then announced their presence at the house and called for the suspects to come out with their hands up. One kidnapper ran out the back but was apprehended by police as he attempted to flee. Another kidnapper, Jose Olivera-Beritan removed Tostado's blindfold and handcuffs, and then he (Beritan) put one of the handcuffs on his own hand and put the blindfold around his head. Tostado informed the agents Beritan was one of the kidnappers. Beritan was placed under arrest. 

Police perimeter around the Los Flores Drive house where Tostado was found and kidnappers were arrested. 

Nancy's Arrest and Appeal

Later, Tostado explained the involvement of a woman named Nancy in his abduction, but he was unable to provide authorities with her last name. Agents went to the Comfort Inn and obtained computer printouts for guests registered there between June 14, 2007 and June 18, 2007. She presented a Mexican identification card with no date of birth. A man paid cash for the room.

Nancy managed to leave the United States; however, in 2010 she was apprehended in Tijuana and later extradited to California. The Tijuana-born young woman was sentenced in 2012 after the U.S. government determined that between 2004 and 2007 she participated in the kidnapping of 13 people, mostly drug traffickers and their families living in California.

On June 23 2021, Mendoza filed a petition before the California state appeals court to have a judge re-determine whether her arrest and detention was illegal. She argued that during her trial she did not receive adequate legal counsel and she sought a new trial. Her appeal however was denied in August 2021. 

Nancy will remain in prison for life, in contrast to the men who led the criminal organization she allegedly kidnapped: Los Arellano Felix. They continue to reduce their sentences and make deals with the authorities. 

For example, this week, Eduardo Arellano Felix, leader of the Tijuana Cartel and financial operator of the organization that trafficked drugs since the 1980s, was released from prison after serving only 10 years of the 15 years he was sentenced to.


  1. Great article kept on the edge.
    After she was involved in 13 kidnappings and then see wants her freedom forget it, wonder how many got killed.

    1. Allegedly 9 people were killed in San Diego by Los Palillos between 2004- 2007. Isn't this story crazy? Under discussed in cartel history I think.


    2. Wow so some did get killed, and here she cries she wants to be let out lol. Time to pay the Piper. Do the crime pay the time.

    3. Of course “some got killed..”

      Also, imagine 1 of these guys getting dropped off 50 bricks, then getting robbed right after. So im sure lots more people got killed over those robberies, than the kidnappings..

      Also, this ruse of using women to rob dudes has been going down forever. Hard to believe people are still falling for that shit. And for someone who looks like that ^^^^?? No thanks- if im ever going to cheat on wife, which i wouldnt, it def wouldnt be for some hood booger skallywag like the 1 above.. cmon man- and asking dude to take her to tj wasnt a red flag either??

  2. Kazquillo does a great telling of the story of Los Palillos... check it out on YouTube...

    -Holden D. Cash

  3. Replies
    1. I had never read about Los Palillos prior to this, so I was legitimately enthralled by the story and all the details available from the court records.

      There are so many other aspects I didn't even have time to get into like all the other people Los Palillos kidnapped or killed. I only covered the ones Nancy was prosecuted for. But if you guys want to read more that LEQ magazine source linked at the bottom does a good overview in English. Story starts on page 24.

    2. Hearst they supposedly kidnapped Balas son too from what I was told. They paid a few K to secure his release.

    3. I just looked it up and I see what you're talking about with Balitas.

      Apparently Palillos said to Tostado "If you're like Balitas and give us maybe $1 million right now, we'll let you go the same day." I wonder how much was actually paid for Balitas versus how much was exaggeration? I mean, I was surprised at how much Vasquez had to pay and he was only a brother-in-law.

    4. I heard about 300k but at the end supposedly they dumped 3, 50round drums on one of the kidnappers later on in life. That's what I heard but who really knows

  4. Zeta Tijuana published an article and they said Victor Manuel Rojas was killed for refusing to kill one of his own men. Because his guy got in a fight with Briseño. El Cholo or something like that.

    1. Yeah they supposedly beat the day lights out of cholo at a bar because cholo had disrespected them and they didn't know who he was, crazy story.

    2. That's very interesting. I kept thinking that if Victor had actually been killed by the CAF for secretly dealing independently, then Jorge wouldn't have been motivated for so many years to get revenge on them.

      Victor's killing had to be something Jorge saw as unwarranted or unjustified so this whole bar fight with Briseño, refusing to put down a guy in his crew. Its all very intriguing. Going to read more.

  5. Juicy story. Would make a great movie

  6. I wonder if anyone realizes that the girl was a teenager dating a guy in his mid-late thirties. A criminal who obviously sweet talked her in to doing shit they wanted done. You know grooming.
    Unless u think a teenager who had been dating a grown man cartel murderer had all these ideas on her own.

    1. I think that is an important point to make.

      There are some complex questions about a young woman being groomed by an older man in a position of power versus people infantilizimg/removing a young woman's agency.


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