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Suspected Mexican drug cartel enforcers indicted in St. Paul torture-kidnap case

ST. PAUL -- Neighbors didn’t see people coming and going to the small St. Paul house on a quiet street, let alone hear screams from inside. The first inkling of trouble was a police SWAT team descending on the neighborhood.

But inside the house, authorities say, a level of Mexican drug cartel violence previously unknown in Minnesota was carried out against two teenagers.

After methamphetamine and $200,000 were stolen from the house, four men kidnapped the teens from Minneapolis, brought them to the home and tortured them, including nearly severing a finger from one teen’s hand, according to federal charges unsealed Tuesday.

Andrew Luger, the U.S. attorney for Minnesota, said the case is significant for two reasons.

“One, because of the violence that it is alleged the defendants caused to the victims; and two, because it signals that the cartels are willing to send in out-of-state muscle to enforce their drug deals,” Luger said Tuesday.

A federal grand jury on Monday indicted four men for their roles in what Luger’s office described as a large-scale methamphetamine-trafficking organization and a violent kidnapping in St. Paul.

Antonio Navarro, 19, and Juan Ricardo Elenes Villalvazo, 32, maintained a “stash house” in the 900 block of Palace Avenue for storing large amounts of meth, the indictment said.

Navarro came to Minnesota from Glendale, Ariz., in March for a job, according to a criminal complaint previously filed in Ramsey County District Court. A Mexican drug cartel paid him $1,000 a week, plus food, to watch the stash house. Drugs were delivered to the house by car and, along with cash, hidden inside, the complaint said.

People who live on the Palace Avenue block between Milton and Victoria streets were surprised about what law enforcement say was happening at the rental home.

“I didn’t know people lived there, it was so quiet,” said Kara Magistad. “I think it’s scary being that I have children and being that we didn’t even know it was going on.”

Drug traffickers strive to keep a low profile, Luger said.

“Unfortunately, methamphetamine stash houses have been located in various parts of the state and they typically are not apparent to neighbors,” he said.

St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune, who represents the neighborhood, said he was glad law enforcement was able to shutter the operation.

“People are concerned, but I think most people realize this is kind of an isolated case,” he said. “It is a quiet neighborhood and it’s not overrun with crime, which is why this stands out a lot.”

The U.S. attorney’s office isn’t aware of other Minnesota cases similar to this one, Luger said, adding, “And we do not want to have a repeat.”

On April 14, two Los Angeles residents — Jesus Ramirez, 31, and Jonatan Delgado Alvarez, 22 — flew to Minnesota from California after about 30 pounds of meth reportedly was missing from the stash house, presumably stolen, according to the indictment. The cartel allegedly sent the men, Luger said.

That night, the two men and Navarro and Villalvazo kidnapped a 16-year-old boy and a 19-year-old man at gunpoint in South Minneapolis, authorities said. They took the teens to the St. Paul stash house, where they bound and beat them, the indictment said. They allegedly threatened their lives, along with the lives of their relatives, while demanding information about the missing drugs.

Villalvazo used scissors to cut the 16-year-old’s pinky finger, nearly severing it, while Ramirez held the victim down, the indictment said. When they determined the next day that the young men didn’t have information about the missing drugs, they released them.

The 19-year-old victim’s family had started receiving calls from the kidnappers soon after he was taken, demanding the return of the drugs they claimed he took or a payment of $300,000, the federal criminal complaint said. The calls continued for several hours, with threats that the young man and his relatives would be killed if demands weren’t met.

The 19-year-old had been to the Palace Avenue house previously to smoke marijuana with Navarro, the Ramsey County criminal complaint said. But he was adamant with investigators that neither he nor the younger victim was responsible for the missing drugs, the federal complaint said.

When law enforcement searched the home, they found cord for binding the victims, along with bloody cloths and bloodstains on the basement floor, where the 19-year-old said he’d been held and assaulted, the federal complaint said. Meth, a handgun and a suspected drug ledger also were found.

The four men were charged with one count of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. The indictment also alleges that Ramirez carried a firearm and used it to kidnap and threaten the victims. The maximum penalty is life in prison for the drug conspiracy charge.

Law enforcement arrested Navarro and Alvarez on April 15. Ramirez flew back to L.A. early April 16 and was arrested after he allegedly led police there on a high-speed car chase. There is a national arrest warrant for Villalvazo, who is also known as Chapo, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

Ramirez, Alvarez and Navarro were charged last month in Ramsey County District Court with kidnapping, assault and robbery. That case will be put on hold, depending on the outcome of the federal case, a county attorney’s spokesman said.

Attorneys for the men weren’t listed in federal court records. Anthony Deutz, who represents Alvarez in the Ramsey County District Court matter, said Monday that his client “got caught up in this situation. He was actually fearful himself during this incident and he’s proclaiming his innocence.”

The Sinaloa drug cartel is said to be the organization behind the Palace Avenue stash house.

Based in the Mexican state of the same name, the Sinaloa cartel is considered one of the widest-reaching and most powerful drug organizations in the world. The cartel and its rivals have been linked to brutal, systematic violence such as kidnappings and mass killings as they vie for dominance in Mexico and beyond.  

U.S. law enforcement officials said in an Associated Press report last year that the cartel operations within the United States have become bolder and more expansive in recent years.

Interstate 35, which runs from near the U.S.-Mexico border to Minnesota, is seen as a major pipeline for cartel activity in the Midwest, with the Twin Cities as a hub.

Marino Eccher contributed to this report.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.