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California man charged with running 'virtual kidnapping' scam from a Mexican prison

Julio Manuel Reyes Zuniga is accused of duping at least 30 Americans into paying thousands of dollars in ransom to loved ones who were never actually kidnapped.
A general view shows the Santa Martha Acatitla prison, where former social development minister Rosario Robles was taken into custody, in Mexico City
The Santa Martha Acatitla prison in Mexico City, Mexico on Aug. 13, 2019.Luis Cortes / Reuters file

Federal prosecutors have charged a California man imprisoned in Mexico with running a “virtual kidnapping” scam that duped at least 30 Americans into paying thousands of dollars in ransom to free family members who were never actually kidnapped, authorities said Thursday.

Julio Manuel Reyes Zuniga, 48, arrived to the U.S. on Wednesday after being extradited by Mexico, where he had been imprisoned since 1996 for two murder convictions.

Reyes Zuniga, a reputed member of the Rancho San Pedro street gang, is accused of orchestrating the scam from 2015 to 2018 while he was locked up at the Santa Martha Acatitla Prison in Mexico City.

Federal prosecutors say he and his associates likely pulled it off using cellphones smuggled into prison.

Reyes Zuniga and his associates called their victims and said they had kidnapped a loved one and planned to harm the person unless a ransom was paid, according to court documents.

Reyes Zuniga and others would demand the ransom payments in the form of wire transfers, cash dropped at locations, or purchase of electronics such as iPads or iPhones, according to the 31-count indictment.

Once the money was sent, individuals in Mexico delivered the proceeds to the imprisoned Reyes Zuniga in person, court papers say.

The victims lived mostly in Southern California - including Los Angeles, Orange and Santa Barbara Counties, the indictment says.

Reyes Zuniga, who goes by Muneco, 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.

Reyes Zuniga was expected to make his first appearance in federal court Thursday afternoon. It was not immediately clear if he had retained a lawyer or one was provided to him by the federal public defenders’ office.