Three years ago, three of them in their 30s and 40s quit the backbreaking work, saying they had a better opportunity abroad.
Now, having escaped the Mexican drug war that leaves dead bodies on the streets of their city of Culiacan almost daily, the brothers face the gallows in Malaysia, standing trial on Wednesday for allegedly working in a factory where police found $15 million in methamphetamine. If convicted, they face Malaysia's mandatory sentence of death by hanging for drug trafficking.
The case raises questions about a connection between their home state, Sinaloa, the cradle of Mexico's drug trade, and a country more than 15,000 kilometers (some 10,000 miles) away that is a regional production hub for meth. While authorities say there is no direct evidence to tie the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico's most powerful, to meth production in Asia, they wouldn't be surprised by such a link.
|In this April 4, 2011 photo, Brenda Sepulveda, wife of Jose Regino Gonzalez Villareal, stands in her father-in-law's home after picking up her children from school in Culiacan, Mexico|
"If you look at trends, then you see that these organizations are fanning out," said a U.S. law enforcement official in Mexico who couldn't be named for security reasons. "They are popping up everywhere."
Only a month after leaving Mexico, the brothers — Jose Regino, 33, Luis Alfonso, 43 and Simon Gonzalez, 36 — called home during a family birthday party. Their relatives thought they were calling with congratulations. Instead the brothers told them they were under arrest.
The family hung up stunned, and searched for Malaysia on their globe.
"If I had been asked to go I would not have gone," brother Ismael Gonzalez said as he dragged a wheelbarrow filled with dark clay at the brick yard, his bare feet caked in mud. "I say they had no idea what they were getting into."
Malaysia has increasingly become a regional production hub for methamphetamine production, according to the U.S. State Department 2011 International Narcotics Control report. Most labs so far have been financed or operated by Singaporean, Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai or Iranian traffickers.
Mexican drug cartels have long-standing ties with Asian suppliers to obtain methamphetamine precursor chemicals, but they have not been known to be involved in production in that part of the world. U.S. officials, however, suspect the Sinaloa gang is seeking market share in Asia.
While the brothers have no criminal records, and the family insists they are innocent, the U.S. law enforcement official said it would not be unusual for a Mexican cartel to recruit inexperienced foot soldiers for such an operation, and cooking methamphetamine is a simple procedure.
Malaysian police say the brothers were arrested in March 2008 at a secluded meth factory along with a Singaporean and a Malaysian. Police seized more than 60 pounds (nearly 30 kilograms) of methamphetamine worth $15 million.
The Mexican Foreign Relations Department says three other Mexicans were detained in Malaysia on drug charges around the same time and released last year. It declined to give details about their cases. The six are the first Mexicans to be arrested in Malaysia on drug trafficking charges, according to the department.
The brothers' Malaysian attorney, Kitson Foong, said they were arrested outside the factory and were not involved in what was going on inside. He declined to give details about what the brothers were doing in Malaysia but said "They are not guilty. They are not drug traffickers."
Malaysian prosecutor Umar Saifuddin Jaafar said the Mexicans were arrested inside the factory. He said the prosecution team was not aware that the brothers came from a hotbed of drug trafficking in Mexico but that they "had some knowledge of the procedure, the equipment" at the laboratory.
"These people knew what they were doing. They operated in a very secretive environment. It seems to be that these people are experts," Jaafar said.
Neighbors and relatives say there was no sign that the brothers aspired to the ostentatious world of Sinaloa's capos, whose families live in mansions, drive Jaguars and bury their dead in gaudy mausoleums with spiral staircases and balconies.
On good days, the brothers earned about 300 pesos ($25) making and selling bricks. Simon dislocated three discs in his back several years ago, and a doctor urged him to quit.
"He kept working," said their sister, Alejandrina. "It's the only thing to do in the neighborhood, and it's the only thing that my father taught him since he was little. Bricks, bricks, bricks."
She said two men her brothers sometimes played soccer and basketball with told them about a job opportunity abroad and they left together.
"They never told us where they were going. They only said they were going to try their luck at another job," she said.
When the phone call came in March 2008, the family pooled their money and borrowed from friends to send Alejandrina and a friend to Malaysia. She saw her brothers for the first time in a courtroom, chained with about a dozen other prisoners from different cases. They looked up, stunned to see their sister, and assured her they did not go there to get involved in drugs.
Foong said police have mishandled his client's case from the start. He charged they lost two-thirds of the drugs seized at the factory and that at one point they filed a report claiming the drugs had been stolen. He alleged that four police officers were arrested after being caught on camera stealing some of the drugs themselves.
Prosecutor Jaafar said four policemen were investigated in late 2008 on suspicion of stealing about 5 kilograms of meth from the evidence room of the state police headquarters. He insisted the theft does not affect the prosecution's case because chemists had already examined the drugs by then and prepared a report about their contents.
In February, the Kuala Lumpur High Court refused to throw out the case and ordered the brothers to stand trial.
Foong said the brothers have been bewildered by the Malay-language proceedings, and the Mexican Embassy in Kuala Lumpur says it will provide translators for the trial. The Foreign Relations Department says its consular officials have visited the brothers from the start.
If convicted, Foong said, the brothers still have two layers of appeals and the overall process could last another year.
In Jose Regino's old room, three photographs of his daughter Bianca still hang on the wall. Now 6, she has started school, but her mother, Brenda, says the child has nightmares and refuses to learn to read or write.
"She says she won't learn until her father comes back," the mother said. "I tell her, 'No, you must learn quickly so you can write to him.'"