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Inmate in Mexican prison extorted Southern California families with made-up kidnappings, feds charge

U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna speaks at a news conference in 2020
U.S. Atty. Nick Hanna’s office has charged a former San Pedro resident being held in a Mexican prison with extorting Southern California families through made-up kidnappings.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

From his prison cell on the outskirts of Mexico City, an indictment says, Julio Manuel Reyes Zuniga dialed families in Southern California, told them a loved one had been abducted and demanded a ransom. The families paid cash, wired money and handed over expensive electronics, only to learn there had been no kidnapping at all.

The abductions may not have been real, but the scheme still amounted to extortion, money laundering and other crimes, a grand jury found in handing up an indictment of Reyes Zuniga, a onetime resident of San Pedro who had been incarcerated in Mexican prisons since 1996 for a pair of murder convictions.

Reyes Zuniga was extradited to Los Angeles and made an appearance Wednesday afternoon in federal court, where he pleaded not guilty, said his lawyer, Anthony Solis.

“Everything is in dispute,” Solis said.

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According to the indictment, Reyes Zuniga began contacting families in Los Angeles, Orange and Santa Barbara counties in September 2015, calling them from his cell in Santa Martha Acatitla prison outside Mexico City. It’s unclear in the indictment how Reyes Zuniga had access to a phone in prison, although the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles noted in a statement that such “virtual kidnapping” schemes are often perpetrated with smuggled cellphones.

Reyes Zuniga claimed to have abducted the families’ children or loved ones, then demanded a ransom — cash drops, wire transfers to conspirators in Mexico, or iPads and iPhones — to secure their release, the indictment charges.

If a victim elected to pay cash, a co-conspirator — unnamed in court papers — collected the money in Southern California, deposited it in her bank account and delivered it to either Reyes Zuniga or three unnamed family members, who are also referenced in the indictment as co-conspirators.

Reyes Zuniga is charged with 27 counts of extortion: one count per victim, each of whom paid thousands of dollars to resolve made-up kidnappings, authorities say. He also faces charges of conspiring to launder money and extort, as well as making threats with an intent to extort.

The U.S. attorney’s office identified Reyes Zuniga, 48, as a reputed member of Rancho San Pedro, a Latino street gang in the harbor area.

“They say all kinds of things in their press releases,” Solis, his attorney, said. “Some things are true; some things are not.”


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