The rise and fall of Mexico's most powerful female gangster
A feared female cartel boss known for kidnapping her victims and dumping their dismembered bodies on their families' doorsteps has been shopped to police by her own hitman lover who became horrified by the monster she had become. Melissa ‘La China’ Calderon, described by her assassin boyfriend and second-in-command Pedro ‘El Chino’ Gomez as 'maniacal' and a 'control-freak', is accused of 180 murders.
Mexico's most powerful female narco was captured on Saturday after El Chino traded information with authorities, including the locations of his girlfriend's secret burial sites, in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Melissa Margarita Calderon Ojeda, 30, known by her gang nickname ‘La China’ (The Asian), became involved in organised crime in 2005 when she began working for the Damaso Cartel.
The organisation has ties to the Sinaloa Cartel which operates in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur - one of the country's primary regions for drug smuggling - and is headed-up by fugitive Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman.
She rose quickly in the ranks because of her ruthlessness and fierce temper, until she was made commander of its armed wing in 2008.
Taking charge of the organisation’s territory war, she imposed her authority over state capital La Paz and the popular tourist resort Cabo San Lucas, visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year.
She allegedly began orchestrating murders and taking control of vast swathes of the city. Murders in Baja California Sur tripled over the seven years she was at the helm of the cartel’s armed wing.
La China became infamous for kidnapping her murder victims from their family homes and returning their dismembered bodies to their doorsteps as a warning to the local community.
Despite the male-dominated narco culture, she inspired loyalty in her troops and is said to have handed out free bags of cocaine to those she thought had performed well.
Her collection of pistols and assault rifles, which she would pose for photographs with, simply added weight to her feared persona.
In June, she was asked to step down from her post following the return of Abel Quintero, a seasoned assassin recently released from prison.
Furious at her demotion, she defected from Damaso Cartel and announced the formation of her own criminal organisation.
Given her already substantial territories in La Paz, she declared war on her former associates for control of the city, as well as the popular tourist resort of Cabo San Lucas close-by.
With herself as the head, El Chino took the role of second in command, Sergio ‘El Scar’ Beltran became chief assassin, Rogelio ‘El Tyson’ Franco was put in charge of logistics, and Pedro ‘El Peter’ Cisneros became head of narcotics sales and the disposal of bodies.
In addition to her cartel's upper echelons, La China had more than three hundred street-level drug dealers and soldiers who rode red motorbikes to identify themselves.
In the subsequent outbreak of violence, death rates in the state capital soared from 46 murders in 2014 to the same number in just two months.
La China’s newly formed and brutal cartel was the police’s highest priority, and she was forced to regularly change safe houses and vehicles so she was not caught.
In early August, worried that her vehicles were known to the authorities and fearful of being tracked, La China ordered logistics man El Tyson to buy a pickup truck.
El Tyson organised for two of his parents’ friends to meet with La China, but when they arrived to sell their vehicle the narco boss had them murdered rather than pay.
Corpse disposal man El Peter was called into action and took the bodies to a secluded area north of the city.
Yet when El Tyson arrived on the scene and saw his innocent friends had been brutally murdered, he became angry and threatened to go to the police.
In a fit of rage at his perceived treachery, La China allegedly cut off El Tyson's forearms before killing him.
She had him buried alongside her other victims in the same unmarked grave.
Shortly after, chief assassin El Scar is said to have murdered his favourite prostitute after she refused to have any further dealings with him because of his violent sexual tastes.
The final straw came when La China targeted El Tocho, a narco from her former cartel who was fighting her for territory in La Paz.
Following an unsuccessful kidnap attempt on El Tocho, her gangsters managed to detain his girlfriend Lourdes, who La China allegedly brutally tortured for information and then murdered the following day.
Lourdes, along with El Scar’s murdered prostitute, was buried in a grave close to the three previous victims.
La China’s boyfriend El Chino, horrified by the monster his girlfriend had become, left her newly formed cartel and was quickly captured by police.
He was taken to Mexico City and when interrogated, quickly gave up the story of how La China's behaviour spiralled out of control - a story corroborated by El Peter when he was detained a week later.
El Peter had allegedly been involved in a high-speed police chase through the streets of La Paz, but was captured when he tried to flee on foot.
The 50-year-old was captured and taken in for questioning, where he confirmed El Chino’s story.
El Peter told police the location of the secret graves, and all five bodies were recovered, showing signs of having been murdered four to six weeks previously.
La China was arrested without a shot being fired late on Saturday as she attempted to flee the state from Cabo San Lucas airport.
She was taken to jail in La Paz, a city she had controlled just three months before.
She is currently undergoing questioning in Mexico City and will face trial for more than 150 murders next year.