Three enforcers hired by Mexico's biggest drug cartel flew from Los Angeles to Minnesota last month, kidnapped two local teenagers, and then tortured them for hours at a house in St. Paul in an effort to recover stolen drugs, according to court documents reviewed by the Star Tribune.

Acting under orders from the Sinaloa cartel, the three kidnappers were trying to determine who had stolen 30 pounds of methamphetamine and $200,000 from a stash house on Palace Avenue in St. Paul. Before the episode was over, they had issued death threats against the Minnesota pair and their families, demanding that they find the missing drugs or come up with $300,000 to compensate the cartel.

Two of the three enforcers are now in custody and federal indictments are expected as soon as this week. The case is the latest illustration of the stunning escalation of drug trafficking in Minnesota, which has seen a surge in narcotics dealing, heroin overdoses and drug busts, including a series of raids last month that produced 65 arrests.

Federal authorities who cracked the case say they are not surprised by the no-tolerance approach of the Sinaloa cartel, which has built a multimillion-dollar Midwest drug trade with brutal efficiency. What made this mission startling, they say, is that rather than using its own muscle, the cartel hired members of one of the most feared transnational gangs in the United States and Latin America — the MS-13 organization.

The incident is unprecedented in Minnesota, according to federal investigators, and signals the extreme measures cartels will use to make sure their local operations are not compromised.

An FBI spokesman declined to comment on the MS-13's connections to the case, but said, "The outcome of this incident could have been much worse" if agents hadn't moved in instantly.

One of the three men, Jonatan Alvarez Delgado, 22, confessed shortly after being arrested, according to court documents, and is in custody in the Ramsey County jail. A second, Jesus Ramirez, 31, was captured in California after fleeing Minnesota and leading FBI agents on a chase through downtown Los Angeles. The third — a man identified simply as "Chapo" — is still being sought by federal agents.

In the basement

Within hours of landing in Minneapolis on April 14, the three enforcers arrived at the small white house at 914 Palace Av. in St. Paul, according to a criminal complaint. Once there, they shook down Antonio Navarro, a 19-year-old from Glendale, Ariz., who had been hired by the cartel to guard the house. They told Navarro they knew how to find his family, documents show, and demanded to know who else had been in the house. Navarro singled out a 19-year-old who, he said, had once smoked marijuana with him there.

By midafternoon, Navarro had lured the 19-year-old to an alley behind the 3200 block of 19th Avenue in south Minneapolis — just blocks from South High School. Ramirez ordered the young man into a car at gunpoint, according to court documents, while the other men forced his companion — a 16-year-old boy — into another car.

They all headed back to the house on Palace Avenue.

Once inside, the abducted pair were taken into the basement, where Ramirez offered them a choice: Return the drugs or come up with $300,000 to repay the cartel.

"The kidnappers told [the 19-year-old] that if he didn't return the drugs or come up with the money, he and his entire family would be killed," according to court documents.

Next, the three called the man's family and made the same threats — phone calls that by then were being monitored by the FBI's Safe Streets Task Force after family members had notified authorities about the missing pair. Over the next several hours, both victims were tied to chairs and beaten. Ramirez held a gun to the heads of both victims. If they couldn't come up with the money, he said, they needed to provide the names of others who might have stolen the drugs.

Then the torture began. Navarro, Delgado and Ramirez held the 16-year-old down while the man known as Chapo began to cut off his little finger. The boy passed out.

El Salvador links

The MS-13 gang, formerly known as the Mara Salvatrucha, was founded by former El Salvadoran military officers who fled to Los Angeles following their country's civil war in the 1980s. Today it claims more than 70,000 members across the United States, many distinguished by heavy tattoos covering their faces and bodies and a sign language known only to themselves.

By 2004, the MS-13 had become so powerful that the FBI started a special task force to track it. In 2012, the Obama administration formally designated the gang an international criminal group and ordered the Treasury Department to target its finances, which are fueled in part by cartel assignments such as the St. Paul kidnappings.

By the wee hours of April 15, the kidnappers were hitting a roadblock. Torture, beatings and death threats had failed to produce any leads on the missing drugs and money. Eventually, the victims overheard the kidnappers speculating that someone inside the cartel might be guilty of the theft, according to court documents, and their suspicions turned to others with knowledge of the stash house.

By morning, the two terrified men were told they would be released. "The kidnappers told the victims not to say anything," according to a transcript. "They were willing to go to jail … and their being in jail wouldn't save the victims or their families."

The two were driven back to south Minneapolis and released early that afternoon and soon contacted agents with the FBI task force. Within hours, agents and local police were debriefing them.

Late that night, the St. Paul Police SWAT unit stormed the house on Palace Avenue, making several arrests and scouring the rooms for evidence. Delgado was arrested, but Ramirez and Chapo managed to escape. Ramirez took a flight back to Los Angeles, and by the following morning, the FBI was on his trail, while Chapo managed to disappear.

What became of the missing drugs and money remains unclear, but when the FBI and police searched the house, they found a pair of scissors used to torture the boy, a gold-colored Desert Eagle 9mm handgun and a pound of meth in a chest freezer — all potential evidence if the case goes to trial.

More important, authorities say, the episode exposed family and business connections that open new channels for ongoing investigations into the Midwest heroin and meth trade.

The stash house itself, they say, offered important insights into cartel economics. Drug merchants in Mexico and the United States have been able to slash the cost of meth in order to expand their customer base — a pound today is worth $8,500 to $12,000, down from more than $20,000 18 months ago. Small-time dealers who once sold ounces are now selling pounds because the price has dropped so quickly.

With that kind of volume moving through the Twin Cities, authorities say, they understand why the stash house was pivotal, and why the cartel was so intent on sending a message that rip-offs would not be tolerated.

Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745