US: Alleged Drug Trafficker Charged in Execution, Desert Burial of Witnesses

Published: 07 March 2024

USA Criminals BurriedAfter a year-long search, the witnesses were found buried deep in the cold desert of Yakima, Washington. Both victims died of multiple gunshot wounds to the head. (Photo: U.S.A. Department of Justice, License)

By Henry Pope

A suspected drug trafficker was charged Tuesday with the execution and desert burial of two people, including a pregnant woman, whom U.S. prosecutors say were killed to prevent their cooperation in a federal drug trafficking investigation.

Benjamin Madrigal-Birrueta allegedly murdered Cesar Armando Murillo, 44, and Maira Sofia Hernandez, 33, and buried them deep in the cold desert of Yakima, Washington.

Prosecutors say that, before his arrest, Madrigal-Birrueta headed an international drug trafficking organization that smuggled narcotics into the U.S. through the San Diego port. The investigation into the criminal enterprise has turned up multiple drug seizures and dozens of firearms, including machine guns.

In August 2022, Homeland Security officers interviewed Murillo and Hernandez for help in the case. Days later, they had vanished, and were soon believed to be dead; special agents say they were murdered by Madrigal-Birrueta to silence them.

Following their disappearance, the two were clandestinely buried deep in the desert, far away from civilization. It took an exhaustive year-long search to uncover their remains.

Authorities said that they needed to employ geophysicists, ground penetrating radar, aircraft, cadaver dogs, and other search tools, to find Murillo and Hernandez’s bodies.

Photographs taken at the scene show men working far into the night to unearth the victims’ bodies. The unmarked grave was so deep that police needed an excavator in order to reach them.

Autopsy reports confirmed that both victims died from multiple gunshot wounds to the head. Hernandez was six months pregnant at the time of her death; a superseding indictment against Madrigal-Birrueta also charges him with the murder of her unborn child.

“These executions were an assault on our justice system, designed to silence witnesses and instill fear,” said U.S. Attorney Tara McGrath. She added that the “obligation to protect witnesses is paramount” and that authorities will fully prosecute those who utilize violence to undermine the justice system.

Prosecutors also indicted Ricardo Orizaba with being an accessory after the fact to the murders. Together, they face 17 charges that include drug trafficking, first-degree murder, and witness tampering.

If convicted on all counts, Madrigal-Birrueta could be sentenced to the mandatory minimum of several lifetimes in prison; he also faces the prospect of multiple death penalties.

Murillo is survived by his two children and Hernandez is survived by her three children, all of whom are minors.