Three men said to be members of a Mexican drug organization have been accused of kidnapping for ransom a South Carolina man who allegedly owed them $200,000 in marijuana, according to court documents.
Ruben Ceja-Rangel, 57, Luis Castro Villeda, 22, and Juan Manuel Fuentes-Morales, 26, were charged with conspiracy to kidnap the 23-year-old man, who was rescued from a home in Roseboro, N.C., on Tuesday, federal investigators said.
The victim, whose identity was withheld for his family's safety, and his father had been working for a Mexican drug trafficking organization, ferrying cocaine, marijuana and cash throughout North and South Carolina, the complaint says.
The victim was kidnapped after he lost nearly $200,000 worth of marijuana in a drug deal and was unable to pay it back, the complaint says. According to the filing, the victim "fronted" a large quantity of marijuana to another individual, expecting payment at a later date. He was not able to recoup the money, the complaint says.
The victim was kidnapped July 9 and held hostage for nearly a week, while representatives from the organization made more than a dozen calls to the victim's wife and father, demanding repayment for the missing drugs as well as an additional ransom of between $100,000 and $400,000, according to the complaint.
Ceja-Rangel, Castro-Villeda and Fuentes-Morales all appeared in federal court in North Carolina around 10 a.m. Wednesday, according to a spokeswoman for the FBI.
The victim and his father have not been charged in the matter, but in the complaint, federal officials say they are not sure whether the victim had been robbed or had tried to rip off the Mexican ring.
"It is unclear at this point whether or not [the victim] was actually ripped off as described, or whether [the victim's father] and (the victim) actually stole the marijuana themselves; however, the investigation into that matter is ongoing," the complaint reads.
David Thomas, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Columbia field office, told the Los Angeles Times that both men are being treated as victims for now. He also warned that much of the information investigators obtained about the father and son’s connection to the drug organization came from statements made by the hostage takers during recorded phone calls, so the true extent of their involvement remains unclear.
“We weren’t focused on the drug aspect of this, we were focused on getting our victim back,” Thomas said.
The 23-year-old was not seriously injured while he was held hostage, according to Thomas.
Using wiretaps to track the suspects' cellphone movements, FBI agents found the victim chained and blindfolded in a home in North Carolina on Tuesday, the complaint said. Ceja-Rangel and Castro-Villeda were with him, and Fuentes-Morales had been arrested earlier that day, the complaint says.
The victim told federal agents that Ceja-Rangel abducted him at gunpoint July 9 and held him hostage in the following days, according to authorities. At one point, the victim found a knife and managed to escape from his bonds, but was intercepted by Fuentes-Morales, the complaint says.
Dozens of law enforcement agencies were involved in the investigation, and additional arrests are expected, according to an FBI news release.
“The cooperation among federal, local and state law enforcement agencies and across state lines was nothing short of incredible throughout this investigation,” Thomas said in a statement. “The attention and resources contributed to this investigation should send a strong message that the FBI and its partners will not tolerate the kidnapping of American citizens.”
It was not immediately clear whether the suspects were linked to a specific cartel, according to Thomas, who said all three men are U.S. citizens who reside in North Carolina.
Mexican drug rings have become more prevalent in the area in recent years. While drugs used to flow along the eastern seaboard from South America and through Florida, Thomas said narcotics now travel from Mexico through Atlanta and into the Carolinas before they are taken north along Interstate 95.
Thomas said the nature of the kidnapping, including the initial broad daylight abduction, shows the suspects were probably experienced.
“All that is kind of unusual, so it shows that they are willing to accept a high degree of risk, which generally means it may not be the first time they’ve done something like this,” he said.
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2:10 p.m.: The post was updated to add comments from FBI special agent David Thomas.