Want to Be Sent Home in Pieces?

At 3:39 a.m. on January 7, 2007, Columbia Street was almost deserted. Little Italy had been plagued with car burglaries — “It got where you couldn’t drive too many of the streets down there without seeing broken glass in the morning,” said San Diego police officer Joel Schmid, so Schmid parked his patrol car and approached on foot when he noticed a pearl white Escalade stopped in the driveway of a condominium.

One door was slightly ajar, triggering the interior lights. Schmid could see shadows moving inside.

Schmid requested assistance from other officers and stepped quietly to the driver’s-side door, where he confronted a Hispanic man in his 30s and two women, one of whom was sitting on the man’s lap.

The man benignly handed Schmid a Mexican passport with what Schmid called a “real blurry photo.” The name on the passport and on the U.S. visa tucked inside was “Rubén Flores.” A search of the Escalade produced a loaded Colt Mustang, seven cell phones, a blue Viagra pill, the business card of a Chula Vista gun store, a permit for the American Shooting Center, and a folded sheet of white paper that resembled a faded receipt.

“On one side of the paper,” Schmid testified, “was a kiss in lipstick, as if somebody with lipstick had kissed the paper itself and folded it up, and inside of that receipt, underneath the kiss, I found a crystalline controlled substance I believed to be methamphetamine.”

The paper sealed with a kiss contained, in fact, .07 grams of crystal meth, but that and the gun weren’t enough to keep the man in the white Escalade for long. Five months later, he was busy in Chula Vista and Paradise Hills, executing plans that involved three assault rifles, six handguns, two Tasers, two duffel bags of Mexican and American police uniforms, five cars, a length of heavy chain, four padlocks, a blindfold, muriatic acid in quantities sufficient to dissolve grown men, and the belief that a rich Mexican family with businesses on both sides of the border would not call the FBI if a family member disappeared.

He was mistaken.

∗ ∗ ∗

One Friday in May of 2007, a security camera mounted on a house in the gated neighborhood of Belmonte recorded a man in a polo shirt and jeans approaching the front door from a white Volkswagen Beetle. The man was thin and unremarkable except for the sharp point his receding hair made on his forehead and the equally sharp features of his face. He looked more Anglo than Hispanic.

He peered through the glass of the front door and walked away several times, waiting or looking for someone. After 12 minutes, he left a note on the front step.

The $1.5 million house he visited on Mansiones Lane belonged to 32-year-old Eduardo González Tostado, called Eddy by his cousin Sergio and sometimes “Mandilón,” which comes from the Spanish word for apron — el mandil — and means “whipped.”

Eddy found the note when he returned with his wife Ivette and their six-year-old daughter from their regular weekend trip to Mexico, where he owned a house, a bar in Ensenada called El Blue Martini Lounge, and a restaurant in Tijuana called Mariscos del Pacífico. On the American side, Eddy owned a company that rented out trucks that carried goods from maquiladoras into the United States and two car dealerships in Chula Vista called Premiere I and Motorland Auto Sales.

Eddy’s father-in-law was a neurologist in Tijuana, and Eddy, who had once been the starting quarterback on the only American-style football team in Ensenada, had earned a law degree from a Tijuana college called Centro de Estudios Superiores. He was famous in his hometown of Ensenada for being the first Mexican ever to win a 216-mile cross-country race through the Mexican desert called the Baja 250. Off-road cars like the one Eddy owned cost upward of $100,000, and year after year, the races were won by foreigners.

Eddy picked up the note on his front step. “Urgent to call Robert” it said in Spanish, and it listed a phone number. Eddy went to look at the surveillance video, and he paused the tape to show the man with the pointed hairline leaving his front door. He took some pictures of the screen. Then he drove to a nearby shopping mall and used a public phone — not his cell or house phone — to call the driver of the white Volkswagen.

According to Eddy, the conversation went like this.

“Is this Robert?” Eddy asked.

“Yes. Who is this?”

“You left me a note on my house,” Eddy said.

The person calling himself Robert then told Eddy that he’d been sitting in a bar when he overheard some people planning to kidnap Eduardo González Tostado. These men in the bar had talked about where Eddy’s businesses were and where his house was and what number you had to punch into the keypad at the gate to get to Eddy’s house. For $30,000 (which was what, Robert said, those guys owed him), he would tell Eddy who these men were. For free, he told Eddy that the person who’d passed along the gate code was “El Arquitecto.”

The architect was a friend of Eddy’s named Eduardo Monroy, someone Eddy knew from vacations in Puerto Vallarta. Eddy had helped Monroy find an apartment and then had given Monroy work remodeling the patio at the Mansiones house, for which Eddy had given Monroy the gate code.

With this knowledge of a former friend plotting against him, Eddy drove back home, punched in the gate code that was now circulating among people who meant him harm, and went back to his wife and child. When his cousin Sergio arrived from Ensenada, Eddy showed him the note. Sergio would remember the note differently. “Mandil, call me,” Sergio recalled it saying, not “Urgent to call Robert.” In Sergio’s memory, the note referred to Eddy by his nickname.

In any case, Sergio looked at the security video, studied the pale-skinned man with the pointed hairline, and told Eddy he’d once given that man a ride in La Jolla. The man in the video was the Tijuana boyfriend of someone Sergio knew, and his real name was Juan, not Robert.

Comments

time to bring back the death penalty for kidnapping

Gee, Reader. You put this heavy-duty story on your cover, and there's one comment so far? This story should have evoked dozens of comments. Does anybody care?

Honestly Visduh, if I don't like a cover story I usually just keep quiet unless there is good topic for debate or other such tasty entertainment in the comments section. Laura McNeal's stories (not just this one) distract me because she dates and puts a timestamp on everything, it jerks her story around to the point where I have to force myself to read it if I want to finish it. That's just me, maybe everyone else is okay with that method, but I think it wrecks the flow and forces the pace.

As for the content, I was also put off by the way the author minimized El Mandilón's ties to the Arellano Cartel, as though there is some chance he wasn't connected. I bet there isn't anyone in Tijuana that believes otherwise, and I have the feeling that the FBI knows better as well. Most of these kidnappings are not based solely on the wealth of the victims, but on a wealthy victim that has a reason to not want the police involved. Luckily for El Mandilón, his wife took a chance and called the authorities, and the kidnappers were pretty stupid and careless.

And no matter what or how they testified, I do not buy into the fact that Eddy told his wife to contact the FBI should anything happen to him. In fact, it would not surprise me that he told her the opposite and she was too scared to comply after he was kidnapped.

Anyway, that's why I didn't comment initially.

I care, but am not knowledgeable on the topic of kidnappings in Mexico. So I await further commentary from those qualified to weigh in. Visduh, did you have a comment then, or are you in my position?

Seriously, You have to Use " Little Italy" on your cover story? All this crime did not occur in "Little Italy" Why would you even put this on the cover. Your offices are in Little Italy. Whats the deal?

One more note: I do admire the author's attempt to portray what might be noted as the anatomy of a kidnapping. But this is a really tough thing to pull off when the victim is neck deep in illegal activity himself. Part of the problem is with how Mexican businessmen generally find success. Generally, or perhaps, in a way that is considered almost tolerable here. Not necessarily that ties to a drug cartel is some sort of a ladder to success, but that business in general is not transparent here - there are plenty of questionable investments and alliances going on behind the curtain, so to speak.

However, people do sometimes discover such "abnormalities", much in the same way that the kidnappers discovered who El Mandilón was and that he had plenty to hide from the authorities. It's problematic to write about, in the U.S. because there's a big metal fence in the way of getting at the facts; and especially in Mexico because journalists literally risk their lives in order to attempt to get the necessary proof to substantiate such a story.

And to McNeal, if she reads the comments, you get an A for effort because this was a difficult subject to tackle and it's obvious you did a lot of research. The execution gets a D, and some of that isn't your fault unless you knew who Eddy was before the kidnapping (I don't expect that you did), but my constructive criticism remains - there's no need to date and timestamp your piece until you've pulled me into it. Go back and check your last three stories here, you'll see a trend.

I agree with "littleitalygirl". The Little Italy references at the beginning were not needed, and even misleading. That said, I found the story impossible to put down.

I know that there is a finite amount of space in the Reader for such an article (which may be why another poster felt the cartel ties were "minimized"), but I found myself wanting to know more.

A great read, Laura McNeal! I'd buy the book!

Refried, you confirmed something I'd believed for years. Success in the business world in Mexico has more to do with connections than delivering a product or service that people want. I'd always figured it had to do with one's ties to the PRI, but when PAN got the upper hand there was little evidence that things had changed.

The Mexican business success story has engaged in alliances that are barely tolerable. It is hard for me to imagine a system that is corrupt ever really taking off and spawning real prosperity. BTW, I have never assumed that Mexico was inherently poor, as many others in San Diego have believed. It is the culture of connections and the attendant corruption that keep it poor. And sadly, if San Diego cannot move out of its corrupt political morass, it too will slip into greater poverty and stagnation. We already are seeing that happening on the local political front.

No, SD, I don't know anything about kidnappings in Mexico either. My comment aimed more at the editorial staff that runs lurid cover story headlines for stories that few seem to read, and nearly nobody comments. But with the Tijuana tourist trade diminished almost to the vanishing point due to fear of kidnapping and other kinds of abuse, I'd just think that a few more folks--beyond us members of the hard core--would have a few words to add.

Very astute, Visduh. My wife is a hard core PANista, and I remind her often that all of those PAN members once belonged to PRI - new boss just like the old boss. The thing I like about Mexico, and it's sort of difficult for a lot of people to wrap their heads around, is that the corruption is obvious, even though business here is everything but transparent. In the U.S., there is a lot of shock and awe whenever corruption rears its ugly head, but here everyone seems to know what's happening even when they can't quite put their finger on any details.

One can, however, make good money here honestly, but the culture is so laid back it's tough to get up the motivation I suppose. For example, up the hill where I used to live there was a guy (with his family) that used to run a taco cart in the mornings, the best beef birria I've ever had. The cart was always packed and he usually sold out in about four hours. His family and him seemed normal in every way, shabby clothes and everything. Turns out the guy made great money (deservedly so), owned four cars (new) and a huge house, and now he's retired. Good for him! (Bad for us, because no one makes birria like that guy did).

Riveting story! Kudos to Laura. I like the way she has the reader "read between the lines" regarding Eddy, aka El Mandolin and his probable Cartel ties. Arizona now leads the nation with these kidnappings. I just wonder when decapitated corpses start showing up all over SAn Diego like they do in TJ... soon I bet.

pretty nice how you glorify a known member of the afo (arrelano felix organization) in fact it is known eddy is putting the finger on the members of the afo to collect reward monies. biting the same hand that fed him. eddy is a killer, remember the helicopter crash in the baja 1000? and when the afo exumed the body in ensenada? it was eddy whom was racing under an alias, and it was eddy who ordered the body be taken from the hospital. Since when does the reader glorify killers and known drug dealers? too bad his kidnappers didn't finish the job, one less scum bag around dealing cocaine, crystal, and god only knows what else. once the cartel finds out he is the one turning them in, he will get his.

I missed this story the first time around, but in light of Matt Potter's San Diego-Rhode Island drug-running report in July, I now have read every word. My personal take-home message from all this is: never wear a (malfunctioning) wire for the WTF Bureau of Investigation.

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