The Narco News Bulletin
January 19, 2018 | Issue #39
narconews.com - Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America
A dozen people were tortured and murdered between August 2003 and mid-January 2004 in a house in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, Texas.
The murders were carried out as part of a criminal enterprise overseen by Heriberto Santillan-Tabares, who U.S. prosecutors claim was a top lieutenant in Vicente Carrillo Fuentes' (VCF's) Juárez drug organization.
The reason we know this is because federal agents with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office in El Paso had an informant inside of Santillan's criminal syndicate. The federal agents, along with a U.S. prosecutor in El Paso, were using the informant to snare Santillan.
The other reason we know this is that a high-ranking DEA agent, Sandalio Gonzalez, who served as the head of that agency's field office in El Paso when the murders took place, blew the whistle on an alleged criminal cover-up in the ICE operation. Gonzalez exposed the fact that the ICE agents and a U.S. prosecutor knew their informant was participating in the homicides, yet allowed the murder spree to continue to assure the informant was not exposed - so they could continue to use him to make their case against Santillan.
The House of Death in Ciudad Júarez, Mexico
Photo: D.R. 2005 Klaas Wollstein
Gonzalez first spoke out against the corruption in the House of Death investigation in early 2004, within weeks of a DEA agent and his family being confronted by Santillan's death squad, who had mistaken the agent for a competing smuggler.
In the wake of that confrontation, and after discovering that the ICE informant was a participant in the House of Death murders, Gonzalez sent an internal letter on Feb. 24, 2004, to the top ICE official in El Paso and to Johnny Sutton, the U.S. Attorney in San Antonio, Texas. In that letter, Gonzalez dropped the dime on the whole sordid tale.
But rather than investigate the charges, officials within the Department of Justice (DOJ) went after Gonzalez, seeing to it that he was reprimanded and his career tarnished with a negative job-performance review. Gonzalez also was ordered to remain silent on the whole matter.
According to Gonzalez, the retaliation he experienced after writing the whistleblower letter was initiated at the behest of Sutton, who wanted to bury the letter to avoid compromising a career-boosting death-sentence case against a major narco-trafficker. That means, according to Gonzalez, that a U.S. Attorney is now implicated in the cover-up of a U.S. government informant's participation in mass murder.
When contacted by Narco News, Sutton's office declined to comment on the allegations or the House of Death case.
However, Narco News recently obtained documents through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request (see links at end of story) that pull the dark shroud over the House of Death back even further. The documents were released by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), an administrative body that adjudicates cases brought by federal employees who claim they have been retaliated against for whistleblowing activity. Gonzalez currently has a case pending before the MSPB that focuses on the House of Death cover-up.
Documents released as a result of Narco News' FOIA request include internal Department of Justice e-mails concerning the House of Death case. In general, the FOIA documents are heavily redacted, based in part on alleged privacy-protection exemptions. However, Narco News has access to sources who were able to fill in some of the critical missing words.
As it turns out, among the items redacted in the e-mails are the names of the high-ranking DOJ officials who drafted or received the e-mails as part of performing their public duties - on the taxpayers' dime. That has led some law enforcers to speculate that the cover-up may now extend into the MSPB itself.
Narco News has filed a FOIA appeal seeking the release of all the documents in Gonzalez' MSPB case and has asked that all the names of public officials in those documents be "un-redacted."
Well-placed law enforcement sources familiar with the House of Death case tell Narco News that the individuals who either wrote the e-mails or received copies of the e-mails included the following: Karen Tandy, Administrator of the DEA; Catherine M. O'Neil, Associate Deputy Attorney General; and the number two person at DOJ, Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey - who earlier this summer took a job as general counsel for defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp.
Following are two emails, drafted in early March 2004, shortly after Gonzalez sent his whistleblower letter to U.S. Attorney Sutton exposing the alleged complicity of ICE agents in the murders of more than a dozen people in Juárez. Again, although some information in the first e-mail and other document excerpts below is redacted in the FOIA records, most of the missing information has been obtained from Narco News' very reliable sources (in the excerpts below, text that had been redacted is inside text brackets).
Drafted March 4, 2004
From: Catherine M. O'Neil, Associate Deputy Attorney General and Director of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF)
To: Jeff Taylor, Counsel to the Attorney General for Criminal and National Security Matters; David Ayers, Chief of Staff to the Attorney General; and James B. Comey, Deputy Attorney General
CC: Karen Tandy, Administrator of DEA
Subject: Possible press involving the DEA (Juárez)-ICE informant issue
We just heard from Johnny Sutton that the DEA SAC in El Paso [Special Agent in Charge Gonzalez] wrote a rather lengthy and inflammatory letter to the ICE SAC regarding the "mishandling of the [Santillan] investigation that has resulted in unnecessary loss of human life in the Republic of Mexico and endangered the lives of (DEA agents)." [REDACTED] and I are getting a copy of the letter, as well as an ICE response. I am also speaking with [Sutton] at 8 pm (CST) tonight on this matter. (He was driving and could not talk at length.)
Please be aware that, according to [Sutton], [REDACTED] has reached out to get a copy of certain reports of interview of the CI [confidiential informant] in the investigation. The [REDACTED] Times apparently had enough information to ask for the report which states that the CI [known as "Lalo"] "supervised the murders" of certain individuals. (Sutton) was not sure who was talking, but we are certainly concerned that there may be press and there may be inquiries here in DC as well.
I have been unable to reach [Mike Furgason, chief of operations at DEA] to find out whether DEA HQ knew anything about the SAC's [Gonzalez'] letter. I'd be surprised if HQ saw it, since, in our meeting on [Tuesday, Furgason] did not mention any letter and, in fact, said they were finalizing the reports of interview from the team that was looking into the matter. I will keep following up.
[REDACTED]: once I talk with [Sutton] and get a better handle on what's going on in (El Paso), I'd be happy to try to get you up to speed on whatever you may need, in case you need to have a statement prepared to respond to any inquiries. My sense is, we don't want to be saying much, since we don't have all the facts yet. However, these are serious allegations between the agencies, including a Justice agency, so we may need to be ready to say something.
Associate Deputy Attorney General
And Director OCDETF
950 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20530
The next day, March 5, 2004, DEA Administrator Tandy sent off an e-mail to O'Neil, Comey, Ayers and Taylor.
Others within DOJ who received a copy of Tandy's e-mail included: Michele Leonhart, Deputy Administrator of DEA; Stuart Levey, former Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General who is now Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial and Intelligence; Chuck Rosenberg, former Chief of Staff for the Deputy Attorney General, who is now U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas in Houston; and Mark Corallo, Director of Public Affairs for the Justice Department.
Strangely, the version of the e-mail provided to Narco News through the FOIA request was heavily redacted, including, as in the first e-mail sent by O'Neil, all of the names of both the senders and the receivers.
However, Narco News recently obtained an unredacted copy of Tandy's e-mail. It was filed earlier this month by a U.S. prosecutor as an exhibit in an employment discrimination case Gonzalez has pending in U.S. District Court in Miami against the Department of Justice.
Why government censors decided to redact the FOIA version of the e-mail, but failed to do the same for the court-exhibit version is not clear. You can be the judge of this bit of bureaucratic bumbling.
The unredacted text of the email follows; the El Paso SAC is Gonzalez:
Subject: Re: Possible press involving the DEA Juárez /ICE informant issue
DEA HQ officials were not aware of our el paso SAC's inexcusable letter until last evening - although a copy of the letter first landed in the foreign operations section sometime the day before. The SAC did not tell anyone at HQ that he was contemplating such a letter, and did not discuss it or share it with HQ until we received the copy as noted above, well after it was sent.
I apologized to Johnny Sutton last night and he and I agreed on a no comment to the press.
Mike Furgason, Chief of Operations, notified the El Paso SAC last night that he is not to speak to the press other than a no comment, that he is to desist writing anything regarding the Juárez matter and related case and defer to the joint management and threat assessment teams out of HQ - and he is to relay these directions to the rest of his El Paso Division.
The SAC, who reports to Michele, will be brought in next week for performance discussions to further address this officially.
It is important to note that to this day no one in the e-mail chain above, including Sutton, has announced any investigation into Gonzalez' charges that ICE agents and an Assistant U.S. Attorney in El Paso are complicit in the House of Death murders. Instead, DOJ's energies appear to have been wholly focused on concealing Gonzalez' allegations from the public and in retaliating against the whistleblower.
Also keep in mind that even though the e-mails and resulting scurry to deep-six Gonzalez' whistleblower letter occurred under the reign of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, current Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recently promoted Sutton to a policy-making post within DOJ.
From a prior Narco News story:
Despite the allegations about a cover-up in the House of Death case, Attorney General Gonzales recently appointed Sutton to the post of vice chairman of his Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys, which plays a key role in determining DOJ policies and programs.
The house's backyard, where twelve bodies were found burried.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Klaas Wollstein
For that, we turn to an account provided by the informant known as "Lalo." Immediately after the murder of Mexican attorney Fernando Reyes at the House of Death, Lalo returned to El Paso to be debriefed by ICE agents. An ICE report based on that debriefing was generated on Aug. 25, 2003.
Following, from that report - obtained through the FOIA - is Lalo's version of the first murder he "supervised":
Date: [Aug. 25, 2003]
From: Special Agent [REDACTED]
The participants in the murder were [REDACTED] and [two Juárez Judicial Police officers]. [Lalo, the informant] supervised the murder and had minimal participation in the act.....
[Lalo] told [Santillan] that he would take his own vehicle because he was going to buy some lime and duct tape, and that he would meet the two Police officers at the residence [the House of Death in Juárez].
...At approximately 11:15 a.m. [on Aug. 5, 2003, Lalo] arrived at the house....
...[Lalo, now inside the house] walked towards the front door, at which time he observed [REDACTED] vehicle parked in front of the residence.
[Lalo] observed [REDACTED] walking toward the residence.
[Lalo] stated that at that time he felt a big wave of tranquility and calmness. [Lalo] stated he now knew that he was not going to be killed, and that it was [Mexican attorney Fernando Reyes] they were going to kill.
... As [Reyes] is sitting on the chair [in the living room], [REDACTED] pulls out his weapon and places it up against the right side of [Reyes'] face.
[Reyes] sees the weapon and begins to scream, "Why, please don't kill me, don't kill me."
The first Police officer came out from behind [REDACTED] and ran to [REDACTED]. The Police officer, already with the tape in his hand began to unwind it and forced a portion of the tape into [Reyes'] mouth. The Police officer began to wrap the tape around [Reyes'] head, and [Reyes] responded by trying to fight his way out.
The second Police officer appeared and began to assist [REDACTED] and the other Police officer. The first Police officer continued to wrap the tape around [Reyes'] head in an attempt to smother him with it. [Reyes] continued to fight, at which time the two Police officers and [REDACTED] push [Reyes] to the ground and began to tape his hands.
[Reyes] begins to kick his legs at which time [REDACTED] looked at [Lalo]. The look made [Lalo] feel uncomfortable. Based on the look, [Lalo] felt forced to assist in the restraining of [Reyes] by the legs.
The Police officers began to tape his feet together.
One of the Police officers then grabbed an extension cord and wrapped it around [Reyes'] neck.
The Police officer then began to violently pull on the cord in an attempt to choke out [Reyes].
During this time, the cord broke and part of the cord remained around [Reyes'] neck at which time one of the Police officer asked, "Now what?"
[REDACTED] then pointed to a plastic bag.
One of the police officers grabbed the plastic bag and placed it over [Reyes'] head.
[REDACTED] then began to wrap the duct tape around the bag, therefore, suffocating "Fernando" [Reyes].
They all stood around and watched [Reyes'] body as his movement became less and less.
One of the police officers then went and grabbed a shovel and began to strike [Reyes] in the back of the neck area.
[Lalo] stated that he believed the violent striking of the neck caused it to break.
...[Santillan] praised [Lalo] for his participation in the murder and that his participation could lead to his meeting with [Vicente Carrillo Fuentes].
They proceeded to a residence in the area .... The residence is considered to be a "safe-house." The residence is for high-ranking [VCF] organizational members only.
[Santillan] introduced [Lalo] to certain people in the residence and told them that (Lalo) has permission to come to the residence, and for the people to be hospitable towards him.
[Lalo] stated that the house is where all the high-ranking organization members stay when in [Juárez] Mexico. They have everything they could need, stemming from groceries to women.
In pleadings filed with the MSPB, Gonzalez, who retired from the DEA earlier this year, states that yet another ICE debriefing memorandum prepared on Aug. 6, 2003, "indicates the informant may have known ahead of time that [Reyes] would be killed on Aug. 5, 2003, because in a memorandum to the informant's file authored by the ICE SAC [special agent in charge], it was reported that before going to the house where the victim would be killed, the informant 'went to purchase duct tape and lime (a powder used to conceal odor).'"
Inside the now-abandoned House of Death, where the tortures and murders presumably took place.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Klaas Wollstein
After Lalo was debriefed about his participation in the murder of Reyes, ICE officials notified the DEA Assistant Regional Director in Mexico City that the informant had "witnessed" a murder, failing to note that Lalo had actually supervised the murder. DEA's Mexican operations were not under Gonzalez' chain of command, so he was not privy to the information at that time.
ICE officials also told Mexican officials, via the Customs Attaché in Mexico, about the murder, but also misled them about the true facts by failing to reflect in that communication that Lalo actually "participated" in the murder. The Mexican authorities also were led to believe that the informant did not know where Reyes was buried, even though Lalo had gone to inspect the gravesite in the backyard of the House of Death.
Following, obtained through the FOIA and translated into English, is the text of the letter sent to Mexican officials (emphasis added):
Aug. 15, 2003
Lic. Jorge Rosa Garcia
Acting Chief of the Office of Special Investigations on Organized Crime
Plaza de la Republica #3, Third Floor
Mexico, D.F. CP 06200
Dear Lic. Rosas:
By way of this letter we would like to inform you that a source of information of the Department of Homeland Security of the United States traveled to the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, on [REDACTED] to meet with members of the [VCF] smuggling organization to discuss the transportation of a load of marijuana. On [Aug. 5, 2003] ... the source of information [Lalo] was a witness to the murder of the owner of the drugs [Reyes].
In accordance with our conversation with you on [REDACTED] we agreed that the source would continue his work in [Juárez] Mexico, for the purpose of obtaining more information about the [VCF] drug organization, as well as to try to obtain information on the whereabouts of the body of the subject [Reyes] that was supposedly murdered. At the time that the Department of Homeland Security of the U.S. decides to discontinue this investigative work for security reasons or any other motive, we'll make the source of information available to you so you can take his statements, along with intelligence regarding phone numbers, names of the persons involved, etc. that may assist to continue this investigation by Mexican authorities.
With nothing else at the moment, I take this opportunity to send you cordial greetings, and I remain at your service for any clarification in this regard.
Customs Attaché of the Department of Homeland Security of the U.S.
So, in effect, ICE officials and the U.S. prosecutor in El Paso sat on their hands after the first murder, hoping to continue running their informant to make that career-boosting case against Santillan. As a result, over the next six months, another 11 murders were committed at the House of Death in Juárez, with the informant present for at least five of them, according to FOIA records.
The stench of the whole drug-war nightmare hit the open air on Jan. 14, 2004, after Santillan's thugs, including a Mexican state judicial police commander named Miguel Loya Gallegos, mistakenly pulled over the car of a DEA agent and his family, thinking the agent was a dope smuggler who had crossed Santillan's turf.
From Gonzalez' MSPB pleadings:
The informant and the subjects under investigation by ICE were allowed to continue their illicit activities in Mexico following the August 2003 murder [of Reyes], and on January 14, 2004, DEA agents and their families stationed in [Juárez] were evacuated from their residences because hired killers that could and should have been taken into custody after the first murder in August 2003, tried to identify, through the informant [Lalo], two DEA agents under the ruse of a traffic stop.
The informant had reportedly told his co-conspirators [Santillan and Loya] that he knew corrupt U.S. officials that could provide this information. This attempt at identifying the DEA agents occurred as a result of information received by traffickers during the torture and killing of three individuals that took place in Juárez earlier that same day [Jan. 14, 2004].
Following, obtained via the FOIA request, are several excerpts from a Timeline of Events report prepared by the DEA following that errant traffic stop.
CS [the informant Lalo, an ex-Mexican Highway Patrol Officer] is considered a well-placed associated of significant targets within the VCFO [the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization]. CS' principal relationship is with [Santillan], a high level cocaine and marijuana trafficker who operates within the Mexican states of [Chihuahua, Durango and Torreon] and directly impacts trafficking activity within the states of Texas, Illinois and elsewhere. [Santillan] also participates in enforcement of VCFO territorial control of the [Juárez]/West Texas corridor by coordinating drug rip-offs, kidnappings and executions of traffickers unauthorized to transit loads within the corridor. These enforcement activities are coordinated with or directed by [Loya], a nigh shift commander for the Chihuahua State Judicial Police in [Juárez].
Investigation to date reflects that the referenced telephone calls and traffic stop [of the DEA agent] were, in fact, overt acts within a conspiracy between [Santillan and Loya] and others to identify and execute those responsible for the unauthorized transit or loss of approximately 4,000 pounds of marijuana. It is suspected that the conspiracy involved the kidnapping, torture and murder of three individuals on Jan. 14 [at the House of Death], which resulted in the subsequent identification and murder of a fourth subject occurring on January 16, 2004. ... It is further suspected that the traffic stop of S/A [the DEA agent] was a misdirected attempt by co-conspirators to identify and located [another drug smuggler] and/or a related stash location.
...Further details reflected that VCFO associated [REDACTED] was attempting to identify a stash house in the vicinity of SA [the DEA agent's] GLQ [government-leased quarters] and had initiated surveillance in the area [leading to the traffic stop].
After it was clear to the DEA and the Mexican government that ICE agents and a U.S. prosecutor had allowed a dozen murders to occur, with their informant participating in many of them, an effort was launched to snare Santillan and Loya. With the informant's help, Santillan was lured across the border and arrested. Eventually, though, as part of an apparent attempt to keep a lid on the scandal, the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Antonio cut a deal with Santillan that involved dropping the murder charges against him - and the threat of a death sentence.
The stonewalling, deal-making and cover-up strategy allegedly employed by ICE officials and the U.S. Attorney's Office is all the more disturbing given that DEA officials wanted to arrest Santillan immediately after the first murder at the House of Death. However, ICE officials and the U.S. prosecutor overseeing the case in El Paso refused to cooperate because it would have jeopardized their drug-war prosecution against Santillan.
"... Following the August 2003 murder [of Reyes], ICE personnel and the prosecutor assigned to the case ignored, with no good reason, well-founded recommendations made by DEA agents to arrest the principal suspect [Santillan] and 'take down' the case, thereby allowing at least 13 other murders to take place in Juárez, in what can only be described as a display of total disregard for human life, and disrespect for the rule of law in Mexico," Gonzalez asserts in his MSPB pleadings. "This was reportedly done to protect, what in comparison to murder, were relatively minor cases/prosecutions regarding drugs and a cigarette smuggling case in which the informant was a witness."
After the dirty little secret of the murders at the House of Death had surfaced within law enforcement circles, according to the FOIA records, ICE officials and the Assistant U.S. Attorney in El Paso, Juanita Fielden, allegedly continued to advance the cover-up by obstructing the DEA's efforts to capture Mexican state police commander Loya, the ringleader of the House of Death hit squad. As a result, Loya and several of his goons vanished and remain at large -- though they likely suffered the same bloody fate as their House of Death victims.
More from Gonzalez' MSPB pleadings:
To make matters worse, ICE officials would not allow the informant to call one of the suspects [Loya] and arrange a meeting so that Mexican federal authorities could arrest him for his participation in the murders. Furthermore, the U.S. prosecutor refused the repeated requests by DEA for direct access to the informant so that at least attempts could be made to resolve the alleged threat against the DEA personnel and their families stationed in [Juárez]. In fact the U.S. prosecutor stated that she had ordered ICE personnel to refuse DEA access to tape recorded conversations of the informant, while expressing concern that DEA personnel would share information with Mexican federal authorities.
But before Loya vanished, he took care of one other loose end on behalf of the VCF organization, FOIA records show. On Jan. 16, 2004, two days after the last of the dozen murders were committed at the House of Death in Juárez, Loya carried out yet another act of brazen brutality.
From the DEA Timeline document:
[Two individuals] in a white pickup truck were shot after being stopped by two subjects reportedly acting as police officers. The targets were stopped upon departing the gated residential subdivision identified as [REDACTED]. The subjects were asked for identification by one of two alleged officers who approached them. Immediately upon identifying the driver, one of the suspects fatally shot the driver in the face and head with [a 9 millimeter handgun].
The CJRO [Juárez DEA field office's] Chihuahua State Police SOI [source of information] indicated that the subject was identified by their reporting as [REDACTED]. Further, the SOI reported that [Loya] directed the killing of [REDACTED] due to the loss of a 4,000-pound load of unspecified drugs. The other occupant of the vehicle, identified as [REDACTED] was shot in the mouth and neck. He remains in critical condition in a local hospital and has not been able or willing to give a statement.
Now that this whole misguided affair has been documented, by the government's own records, we are left to wonder what will happen next to assure that the pretense of the war on drugs does not unravel in the eyes of the public.
Regardless of how the cover-up now plays out, the revelations contained in these new FOIA records are sure to raise even more questions, because the cobwebs of this horror story have been spun intricately through the U.S. Justice System.
But of all the questions that still remain unanswered, the biggest one, for me, is where is the outrage from our political leaders? Have we really become a nation that tolerates, maybe even condones, murder in the pursuit of career, power and money? That is an ugly thought, but then there is really nothing pretty about homicides.
As for former DEA agent Gonzalez, he is only asking for the truth to be told.
Maybe that's a starting point; maybe it's time someone starts listening to him.
"This is not about me," Gonzalez says. "What happened to me is minor compared to the enormity of what took place here, and the fact that nobody is focused on it.
"We need an independent investigation of this by someone outside the Executive Branch. And then we can let the chips fall where they may."
Aug. 6, 2003, ICE memorandum regarding informant
Aug. 25, 2003, ICE informant debriefing report
Aug. 15, 2003, Customs Attaché's letter to the Mexican government
DEA Timeline of Events Surrounding Evacuation of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Resident Office
March 4-5, 2004, Redacted Department of Justice e-mails
March 5, 2004, Unredacted Version of Second Department of Justice e-mail (DEA Administrator Tandy)
July 7, 2005, Motion to Compel Discovery in U.S. Merit Systems Protection board case
July 7, 2005, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board case pleadings
Other FOIA documents related to the House of Death can be found at this link.