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Mexican cartel hitman was running Red River Valley drug ring, prosecutors claim

FARGO - A suspected hitman and top leader in a Mexican drug cartel was overseeing a drug-dealing operation in the Red River Valley whose leaders were responsible for a 2005 murder in East Grand Forks, federal prosecutors allege.Juan Sillas-Rocha,...

Mexico's top drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by police officers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as he is extradited to New York in this handout image made available Jan. 19, 2017. A one-time rival of El Chapo's cartel, Juan Sillas-Rocha, is accused in U.S. District Court in Fargo of running a drug ring in the Red River Valley. PGR - Mexico's Attorney General's Office/Handout via REUTERS
Mexico's top drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by police officers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as he is extradited to New York in this handout image made available Jan. 19, 2017. A one-time rival of El Chapo's cartel, Juan Sillas-Rocha, is accused in U.S. District Court in Fargo of running a drug ring in the Red River Valley. PGR - Mexico's Attorney General's Office/Handout via REUTERS

FARGO - A suspected hitman and top leader in a Mexican drug cartel was overseeing a drug-dealing operation in the Red River Valley whose leaders were responsible for a 2005 murder in East Grand Forks, federal prosecutors allege.

Juan Sillas-Rocha, also known El Ruedas, is accused of drug trafficking, running a criminal organization and conspiring to murder a family in the San Diego area, according to indictments unsealed in U.S. District Court in Fargo on Tuesday, Feb. 7.

Court documents say Sillas-Rocha was a "high-ranking member" of the Tijuana-based Arellano-Felix cartel overseeing crews involved in murder, kidnapping, human trafficking, bribery, money laundering and other crimes. Drug dealers allegedly working for him were convicted in 2008 of murdering Lee Avila in his East Grand Forks mobile home, part of a sweeping federal bust of a cartel-connected drug ring that authorities dubbed "Operation Speed Racer."

The indictment against Sillas-Rocha was filed in 2008, under seal for nearly a decade. It's unclear why it was made public now.

Chris Myers, U.S. Attorney for the District of North Dakota, declined to comment on the case to avoid saying anything that might be "construed as prejudicial."

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Sillas-Rocha was arrested by Mexican authorities in 2011 and remains in prison there. Myers wouldn't say if his office has requested extradition.

Sprawling gang

In Mexico, Sillas-Rocha is notorious for his 2008-2010 feud with a former Arellano-Felix member that engulfed Tijuana, resulting in a staggering death toll, according to Borderland Beat, a blog covering the Mexican drug war. By 2011, the cartel had abandoned him after he violated a truce with the rival Sinaloa cartel run by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who has since been arrested and extradited to the U.S.

The allegations against Sillas-Rocha go back to 2002, according to the indictment. That's when he allegedly became involved with a drug ring led by Jorge Manuel Arandas, later convicted of ordering Avila's killing. A gunman shot Avila nine times in front of his two children after he failed to make good on a drug debt.

The ring, with roots in Mexico, operated all along the West Coast and reached into Nebraska, North Dakota, Minnesota and Florida. Federal agents dismantled the ring during Operation Speed Racer, leading to the conviction more than 60 ring members.

Arandas was sentenced to 40 years in prison in exchange for cooperating with authorities. The shooter, Gabriel Martinez, was sentenced to life in prison.

The indictment unsealed Tuesday names 30 other members of Sillas-Rocha's gang.
Ordering a hit

The most lurid of the charges in the indictment against Sillas-Rocha is conspiracy to commit murder, though the allegations are not connected to the East Grand Forks killing.

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In 2011, the indictment says, Sillas-Rocha ordered the killing of at least two people in San Diego. He made the mistake of calling a police informant to arrange the hit, authorities claim.

Sillas-Rocha told the informant he had offered to pay the Logan Heights street gang $25,000 to kill the victims but the gang could not find them. He then arranged for the informant to meet three of his men, including his brother Jorge Ernesto Sillas-Rocha, to receive information about the targets, doubling his price if the murders were committed expeditiously. The indictment says he ordered the informant to kill the entire family.

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the would-be victims were a mother and son who owed the Arellano-Felix cartel $800,000. Sillas-Rocha's men were later arrested and convicted by San Diego County prosecutors in 2013. The longest sentence, 21 years, went to Sillas-Rocha's brother. The other two received 15 years and five years.
North Dakota prosecutors were reportedly seeking the extradition of the elder Sillas-Rocha even then, according to reports about the trial.

Related Topics: CRIME
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