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          LOS ANGELES – A San Pedro man has been extradited from Mexico to Los Angeles to face federal charges that he perpetrated a “virtual kidnapping” scam where at least 30 victims in Southern California and elsewhere were duped via telephone into paying thousands of dollars in ransom to free their family members, who in reality hadn’t been kidnapped at all.

          Julio Manuel Reyes Zuniga, a.k.a. “Muneco,” 48, arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday after being extradited by Mexico.

          Reyes Zuniga, a reputed member of the Rancho San Pedro street gang who had been imprisoned in Mexico since 1996 for two murder convictions, was taken into custody by the United States Marshals Service. Reyes Zuniga finished serving his prison sentence in Mexico last year and has been held since for extradition on this case. He is expected to be arraigned this afternoon in United States District Court in downtown Los Angeles.

          A federal grand jury in September 2019 returned a 31-count indictment against Reyes Zuniga. He is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit extortion, 27 counts of extortion, two counts of foreign communication of threats with intent to extort money, and one count of conspiracy to launder monetary instruments.

          “Virtual kidnappings” happen when an unsuspecting victim is told via telephone that his or her family member has been kidnapped. When the victim answers the phone, there is typically a panicked or gasping voice on the phone pleading for help. Then, through additional deception and threats, the criminal coerces the victim to pay a ransom. The criminal also threatens harm to the purported kidnap victim if the scam victim contacts law enforcement or alerts authorities. No one is physically kidnapped in these schemes, but they are often traumatic for everyone involved. On average, the family sends thousands of dollars to the scammers before contacting law enforcement.

          The indictment alleges that from September 2015 to June 2018, while he was serving a murder conviction in a prison outside Mexico City, Reyes Zuniga and others acting at his direction falsely represented to victims on the phone that they had kidnapped the victims’ child or loved one, and planned to harm them unless a ransom was paid for their release. In reality, no kidnappings had taken place.

          Reyes Zuniga and others working at his direction allegedly then demanded ransom payments in the form of wire transfers, cash drops at locations, or the purchase of electronics such as iPhones or iPads. Once the funds were wired or delivered, individuals in Mexico delivered the proceeds to the imprisoned Reyes Zuniga. Investigators believe these kinds of schemes are perpetrated via cellphones smuggled into Mexican prisons, court papers state.

          An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

          If convicted of all charges, Reyes Zuniga would face a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison for each count in the indictment.

          This matter was investigated by the FBI; IRS Criminal Investigation; the FBI Mexico City Legal Attaché; IRS-CI Mexico City Legal Attaché; the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs; the Los Angeles Police Department; the Beverly Hills Police Department; the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department; and the University of California, Los Angeles Police Department.

          This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Jeffrey M. Chemerinsky and Joshua O. Mausner of the Violent and Organized Crime Section.

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