America's 'femme fatale' trial: did she lure rich men for ransom?

 

She is alluring, but the story being told about her now in a San Diego courtroom is not. When the trial of Nancy Mendoza Moreno, 24, is over it will be for the jury to decide. Is she the woman who honey-trapped wealthy businessmen so they could be kidnapped for ransom or was it someone else?

The defence's case is that the authorities simply have the wrong woman. Ms Mendoza was arrested in Tijuana, Mexico, in 2010, extradited to the US and charged with kidnapping and conspiracy.

She has pleaded not guilty. But prosecutors insist she is the femme fatale who ensnared victims for a drugs gang known as Los Palillos, or "toothpicks", that stalked San Diego until it was broken up in 2007.

"She was used as a lure successfully, repeatedly," Deputy District Attorney James Fontaine said at the start of a trial that is expected to last about another week. One alleged victim who has been among a parade of prosecution witnesses on the stand is Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado, 31, a local businessman who has car-racing trophies, his own dealerships in the city and a restaurant.

The details of what happened to Mr Gonzalez are not in dispute. It's a predictable he-should-have-known-better story, until the moment it isn't. Pretty girl chats him up in a Starbucks; girl gives him phone number and invites him to a home; man succumbs, turns up with flowers, alcohol and condoms. Then the surprise: men in ski-masks pounce, shackle him and stuff him into a tiny room under the stairs where he remains for eight days until his family delivers a case containing $193,000 (£124,600) in ransom cash.

Mr Gonzalez was lucky, on balance. He had feared being kidnapped for some time and had told his wife to contact the FBI should the worst happen. Agents slipped a tiny transponder into the ransom case and tracked it to the home where Mr Gonzalez was being held. It was the beginning of the end for the toothpick gang. Four of its leaders are now behind bars in the US, others are believed to be in Mexico.

While Mr Gonzalez has taken star billing in the prosecution case, other men dropped their guard with the defendant in the hope of dropping garments. Victims were singled out not just for ransom but as part of a war between the toothpick gang and the Arellano Félix drugs cartel in Tijuana from which it had broken away. Ms Mendoza was paid up to $15,000 per victim, the government says.

Also among her victims, according to prosecutors, was Jorge Garcia Vasquez, a brother-in-law of a leading cartel financier Jesus "Chuy" Labra. They met in a local gym and the Mendoza spell was quickly cast.

"The defendant ... befriended Mr Garcia Vasquez, then began to reel in her prey," prosecutors wrote in documents submitted to the court seen by The Los Angeles Times.

Prosecutors allege that Mr Vasquez was snatched some weeks after Ms Mendoza landed a man who was her first victim – the 25-year-old son of Jose Manuel Nunez, an infamous trafficker better known in the drugs underworld as "Balas" or bullets. The son, Eric (Little Bullets), and Mr Vasquez were eventually freed, but the gang was later accused of murdering nine other victims and dissolving their bodies in barrels of lye.

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