2 L.A. area men collected ransom payments for people kidnapped near U.S.-Mexico border : DOJ

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A U.S. Border Patrol agent shows an incomplete section of a border wall on a hillside along the U.S.-Mexico border between San Diego and Tijuana on May 10, 2021 in the Otay Mesa area. (PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

A U.S. Border Patrol agent shows an incomplete section of a border wall on a hillside along the U.S.-Mexico border between San Diego and Tijuana on May 10, 2021 in the Otay Mesa area. (PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

Two Los Angeles County men were found guilty of collecting ransom payments for the release of people kidnapped near the United States-Mexico border, officials said Monday.

The kidnapping operation targeted people who either were waiting or trying to cross the U.S. border from Mexico. Kidnappers would offer to help with smuggling the victims across the border, then hold them for ransom instead, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Central District of California.

The kidnappers would reach out to the victims’ families, demanding money for their release. The ransom payments picked up ranged from $12,000 to $30,000 in cash.

Edgar Adrian Hernandez Lemus, 23, and Junior Almendarez Martinez, 23, both of South L.A., would then pick up the cash from the families, who were instructed to go to specific sections at Walmart and other stores in Southern California from March 29 to June 1, the Department of Justice said.

The family members would stay on the phone with kidnappers, who would direct them towards Lemus at the ransom pickup locations.

“After the payments were made, however, the kidnappers demanded additional money rather than releasing the victims,” Department of Justice officials said.

In April, Lemus allegedly picked up a $19,000 ransom payment at a Walmart store in South Gate from a man whose wife was kidnapped in Mexicali.

The kidnappers then allegedly refused to release the victim and demanded additional payment. She was eventually released later that month.

In another incident, Almendarez was seen with Lemus and another co-defendent after picking up a ransom payment at a Target store in South Gate.

After the ransom pickups, Lemus and Almendarez would use Uber to transport the money, before sending it Mexico using MoneyGram, officials said.

The FBI investigated the case, with help from the South Gate Police Department and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.

Lemus and Almendarez were both found guilty of receiving money from a ransom demand for the release of a kidnapped person. Lemus was also found guilty of one count of conspiracy.

Lemus faces a statutory maximum sentence of 11 years in federal prison, while Almendarez faces a maximum of eight years.

The pair is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 10, 2022.

A co-defendant, 21-year-old Francisco Javier Hernandez Martinez, pleaded guilty in September to one count of conspiracy and he faces up to five years in federal prison.

Editor’s note: The original news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Hernandez was from Vernon, but a public information officer from the city confirmed that his address was actually in L.A. This post has been updated.

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