2 cartel members convicted in Carolinas kidnapping case

Two men affiliated with a Mexican drug cartel have been convicted of kidnapping a South Carolina man and holding him for ransom for nearly a week in a dispute over $200,000 in marijuana.

A jury took less than an hour Friday to find Juan Fuentes-Morales, 27, and Ruben Ceja-Rangel, 58, guilty on charges including kidnapping and hostage taking, as well as brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence, U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said.

Fuentes-Morales and Ceja-Rangel were indicted last year, along with a third man, Luis Castro-Villeda. Authorities say the trio posed as police officers and pulled a man over as he was going to work in St. Matthews, about 30 miles southeast of Columbia.

His truck, still running, was left on the side of the road with its door open. Blindfolded and bound, the man was held at gunpoint at a home near Garland, North Carolina, before he was moved to another home near Roseboro, North Carolina.

There, according to prosecutors, the man was blindfolded and chained to a workout bench, where he was made to lie on the floor for a week. After tracing ransom demand phone calls to the residents, FBI agents rescued the man mostly unharmed.

According to the government, evidence presented at trial showed that the kidnapped man's father owed a drug debt to members of a Mexican drug cartel, related to the father's inability to sell over 200 pounds of marijuana. Jurors heard multiple phone calls recorded by FBI hostage negotiators in which the drug traffickers threatened to gouge out the man's eyes and kill him if the father didn't pay ransom.

Castro-Villeda already has been sentenced to 30 years in prison. Fuentes-Morales and Ceja-Rangel, who will be sentenced later, face a statutory mandatory minimum of 32 years on the firearms charges alone and could face potential life sentences for kidnapping and hostage taking.

The kidnapped man was involved in delivering cocaine, marijuana and money throughout South Carolina and North Carolina. He has been charged with conspiracy to distribute drugs and faces a possible 20-year sentence if convicted, according to federal prosecutors.