HIS PALS AT WORK CALLED HIM “POLI,” because he was built like a cop and tolerated little nonsense. Jose Antonio Meza never complained about his terrible hours — the 4:30 p.m.-to-1 a.m. shift, with Sundays and Tuesdays off — at MCL Distributing Inc., a specialty-foods distributor on North Mission Road, near downtown.

After work, Poli would head home to El Sereno, where he blended in nicely with the rough-and-tumble surroundings. After work, he might repair one of his old cars in the front yard.

For a year, no one asked many questions, and Poli volunteered nothing about his past.

But Poli had another side. To Mexican law-enforcement authorities, the quiet Mexican was better known as Jose Ines Gallardo-Rodriguez, or “El Mami” — “Mama’s Boy” — one of northwestern Mexico’s 10 most-wanted fugitives. Last September, Mexican authorities issued an arrest warrant for Gallardo in connection with the execution-style murders of three women and two men, and the attempted murder of two others, in the state of Sinaloa.

They believe that Gallardo, a former Sinaloa state-police officer, and three other officers were contract bodyguards and paid enforcers for Erikson Antonio Zavala Zamora, a.k.a. “El Galan” — the Good-Looking One — the leader of a Sinaloan-based drug cartel. Zavala allegedly paid the four men $8,000 for the killings.

The victims, whom Zavala believed were working as informants for Mexican federal agents, were found with their legs and arms bound with wire on a road leading to a military shooting range outside of the state’s capital. They were shot repeatedly. More than 240 bullet casings from AK-47 assault rifles, 9 mm and .40-caliber pistols were found at the scene. The May 19, 2005, slayings were dubbed “The Massacre” by Mexican newspapers. The two survivors identified the four suspects, including Gallardo.

Shortly after the arrest warrant was issued, Mexican authorities picked up Zavala and three of his enforcers, Mariano Valdivieso Regalado, Jesus Manuel Chaparro and Melesia Ojeda Castro, but Gallardo escaped.

Hillview Place is right off busy Huntington Drive, five miles northeast of downtown L.A. On Tuesday, furniture and trash littered the street. There’s a blue love seat, a busted kiddie pool and a pink laundry basket, glass from booze bottles, discarded toys and a handful of boxes. The smell of garbage filled the air.

Nearby is Rose Hill Courts, a 100-unit Eastside housing project built in 1942. Rose Hill gang graffiti is sprayed on walls and businesses nearby. On a brick wall next to Our Lady of Guadalupe School is spray-painted “Toon.”

Poli moved into a modern, beige two-story home with his wife in December 2005. Their two children stayed behind in Mexico to live with his parents. For now, it was just Poli and his wife living with his sister and family.

To neighbors, Poli was a good guy. “He was a nice guy and a working man,” said a neighbor who didn’t want to be identified. “I never saw him as a troublemaker.”

“He wouldn’t get into anyone’s business,” added a 15-year-old boy who called himself Toon.

Poli spoke very little about his life in Los Angeles or Mexico, said Juan Lopez, supervisor of production at MCL. He once complained about a bad taco he bought from a street vendor and told Lopez that he used to work at a taco stand in his native Mexico. He was known to frequently change his cars. His last purchase was an old, rundown Datsun.

“He never said goodbye or good morning,” said Lopez. “He was just here to work.” Lopez said that Poli’s wife also worked part time at the warehouse. “He was built like a policeman,” added Lopez. “He had a tough demeanor. But he was always on time. He kept to himself. He did his job. He is the type of person we wanted.”

In late July, the U.S. Marshals Service received a call from Mexican authorities that Gallardo was most likely in Los Angeles. Armed with a handful of leads, agents staked out various locations. On August 21, U.S. marshals discovered through Department of Motor Vehicles records that Gallardo’s sister-in-law lives in El Sereno.

The next day, Gallardo was arrested just after 3 p.m. as he was driving up to his house by 11 members of the U.S. Marshals Pacific Southwest Regional Fugitive Task Force and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers who had been watching the house since noon. His brother-in-law, who was also in the country illegally, was also arrested and was returned to Mexico. In custody, Gallardo, who was sporting a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, told U.S. agents that he was smuggled across the border through Mexicali last September, then made his way to El Sereno, where he took shelter with his wife’s family. He started working at MCL a month later, he said.

“He let down his guard and got comfortable, which was good for us,” said U.S. Marshals Service inspector Sal Reyes. “If he got tipped off he could have fled or assumed another identity. He looked like any other migrant worker. He was definitely surprised and shocked to see us.”

So were his El Sereno neighbors. “You never know who you are living next to,” said Noemi Saucedo. “I don’t get into people’s business. It freaks me out.”

“I can’t believe it, but there is paperwork,” added another neighbor. “So what can we say? He looked so innocent.”

ICE drove Gallardo to the border crossing at San Ysidro on August 25, and turned him over to Mexican immigration officials.

LA Weekly