Wanted Woman

She Was the Cartel’s Top Assassin. And Then Her Boyfriend Turned Her In.

La China led an army of murderers, then went rogue, terrorizing Cabo San Lucas with a fleet of 300 killers. She might have kept at it—if her lover hadn’t snitched.

The security forces burst into the house south of La Paz hoping they had finally caught up with Mexico’s murder queen, the cartel assassin-in-chief known as La China who is said to be responsible for more than 150 killings.

But La China had once again been tipped off and had sped away in a taxi five minutes before. All the authorities found that night in March were wigs, some clothes, an arsenal, and ammunition. That, and laundry hanging on a clothesline, still dripping.

“She was washing her clothes when tipped,” one of the raiders was later quoted saying.

The hunt resumed for 31-year-old La China, whose real name is Melissa Margarita Calderon Ojeda. She continued a 10-year career in which she had killed her way from an ordinary hit woman to the leader of a squad of 50 murderers to the boss of Las Fuerzas Especiales de los Damaso, the “special forces” army of assassins founded by Damaso Lopez Nunez, aka El Licenciado. He is the former corrections official who is said to have helped El Chapo in his first big prison escape and is now in the highest echelon of the Sinaloa cartel.

La China had recently been ordered to relinquish her command to El Grande, a cartel thug who had just been released from prison. The insult was compounded by the knowledge that her replacement was said to have strangled the great love of her life, Erick Dávalos Von Borstel, for talking too much. Von Borstel had brought her into the business when she was just 20. His surname was tattooed on the outside of her left forearm.

Rather than work for El Grande, La China now struck out on her own. She had a new boyfriend, Hector Pedro Camarena Gómez, aka El Chino, and she made him her second in command. She fielded a host of drug dealers on red Italian motorbikes, along with some 300 sicarios to back up her claim not just on La Paz, but on the resort town of Cabo San Lucas. Dead bodies began appearing in the tourist mecca, making her capture all the more imperative in the eyes of the authorities who were not in her pay.

On the night of April 5, the authorities were called to the scene of yet another murder in La Paz. The victim this time was Audencio Yobany Lopez Beltran, aka El Hector, or simply El H. His girlfriend, a nursing student, told police that she and El Hector had been driving past a bar when they saw a woman who was “falling down drunk” take a tumble that hiked up her skirt “almost to her back.” They stopped to assist her but had not yet gotten out of the car when a second woman approached.

“Slim, tall, fair complexion, short black hair, wearing pink shirt and blue jeans,” the nursing student would be quoted telling police.

The second woman raised her hand, which held a black gun the nursing student recognized as a 9mm because her brother is a Mexican federal agent. The gunwoman shot El Hector twice and the car shot forward, crashing into a pole. The nursing student opened El Hector’s shirt to check his wounds and was starting to administer first aid when two more shots rang out, these fatal.

“A gift from La China!” a voice cried out.

The woman who had appeared drunk was Gabriela Lopez Huizar, aka “La Gaby,” allegedly assigned by La China to track down and lure particular victims. La China also appeared to receive considerable help from corrupt police officers.

That seems clear in surveillance video from La Purísima Hotel in La Paz that was obtained in April by the magazine Zeta, which has bravely reported much of the La China story. The footage shows a truck pulling up to the hotel along with police vehicles from two agencies.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

The police vehicles departed after a time and La China stepped from the truck dressed all in black. She entered the hotel and asked to see the register. A cop went by outside and can be seen waving.

La China then returned to the truck and came back into the hotel with a team of her sicarios, two toting assault rifles. They dragged the men in rooms 114 and 116 street out to the truck, one of them clad only in his undershorts. The truck sped away.

Authorities were also hunting for the other party in the ongoing war. And on May 28 a police patrol happened to pull over a car carrying El Grande in the company of several sicarios.

“We are from Los Damaso, get the fuck out of the way, we are going to pass you, you fucking bitches, if you don’t want to die, get the fuck out of the way,” either El Grande or one of his men was heard to shout.

The police did not back down, and a shootout erupted. El Grande was wounded and deserted his men by ducking into a restaurant. He grabbed an apron from one of the waiters and unsuccessfully tried to pass himself off as one of the staff.

A cellphone was found on the corpse of an El Grande sicario who had stood and fought. It proved to contain a video of a lieutenant known as Lucifer torturing a low-level distributor with the hope of getting information about La China and her crew. The video ends with the man decapitated, dismembered, and disemboweled.

Lucifer now took over from El Grande and further lived up to his nickname as the war continued. La China’s side suffered a setback when honest cops captured El Chino, her second in command. His cellphone also had a video of a man—apparently one of the two from the hotel—being tortured and dismembered.

El Chino is said to have immediately sought to secure a lighter sentence by cooperating with the authorities. He led them to a burial ground for some of La China’s victims. El Chino said La China had told her logistics chief, El Tyson, that she needed a new truck. El Tyson had arranged for a couple who were friends of his family to sell theirs.

But La China allegedly decided to save some money by taking the truck and simply killing the couple. El Tyson objected. La China is said to have cut off his forearms before killing him, as well. El Tyson was buried beside the couple, along with a woman whom La China allegedly tortured and killed. La China had apparently viewed that as the next best thing after she was unable to track down the woman’s lover. A fifth body was that of a woman who had been romantically involved with La China’s chief killer, Scar, and maybe knew too much.

On Saturday, La China was at the Cabo San Lucas airport, about to board a plane for Sinaloa, when the authorities swept in. The only tip this time had been from El Chino to the authorities, the boyfriend turned snitch having given the authorities a list of the cops and soldiers and officials on La China’s payroll.

“A wide network of corruption and protection,” an official later said of La China’s organization.

Without that network, La China received no warning and was arrested without a shot being fired. Her identity was confirmed by fingerprints, past mugshots, and her tattoos; not just the butterfly on her abdomen and the “L” formed by fish and flowers along with a Chinese character on her back, but another butterfly on her right shoulder and the letter “A” on her right forearm.

Those, and the “Vonborstel” on her left forearm, the name of the murdered boyfriend who had helped her become a sicaria among sicarios.

The authorities said La China had been arrested thanks to “shared intelligence,” but there were numerous and widespread reports that she had been betrayed by her most recent boyfriend. She is lodged as prisoner 893 in a maximum security prison known as Almoloyita, where she is expected to remain.

Unless La China proves that El Chapo is not the only one who can escape from a Mexican prison.

You can almost hear her say, “How hard could it be? Even boys can do it.”