By Bill Conroy
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
Mexican state police Commander Miguel Loya Gallegos disappeared in January.
Several of his associates disappeared, too, vexing law enforcement agents who say their mysterious disappearance – and consequent unavailability as potential witnesses to multiple murders – could prove very convenient to U.S. prosecutors and a confidential informant under their protection.
U.S. law enforcement agents, coming forward on the condition of anonymity, believe that the comandante – the U.S. Attorney indicted him in Texas as part of an alleged drug-smuggling organization – was witness to up to nine murders committed by a confidential informant while that informant was on the payroll of the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Those same law enforcement sources don’t know if Loya is dead or alive, but they fear he is probably dead: If he were alive, they say, the comandante’s testimony linking the informant to the murders could derail two high profile, priority, cases currently being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
But the commander was last seen in the Mexican city of Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, and his assistants, are nowhere to be found.
The disappearance of these potential witnesses raises just some of the troubling unanswered questions involving the bizarre case against 49-year-old Heriberto Santillan-Tabares, who, U.S. prosecutors allege, is a top lieutenant in Vicente Carrillo Fuentes’ Juarez drug organization.
Santillan is currently in prison in El Paso, Texas. He is charged with cocaine and marijuana smuggling along with five counts of murder allegedly carried out as part of a continuing criminal enterprise – a crime that can get him a death sentence in the U.S. justice system.
The confidential informant, who allegedly had attained high standing within the Juarez organization, played a critical role in snaring Santillan.
The same informant, according to law enforcement sources, also played a crucial role in a separate case that resulted in a 92-count federal indictment against 19 people allegedly involved in a scheme to smuggle $37 million worth of black-market cigarettes into the United States. The supposed ringleader of that racket, according to a federal indictment unsealed in late January of this year, was 34-year-old Jorge Abraham of Sunland Park, N.M. – a quadriplegic who also is facing federal charges for marijuana smuggling.
“This informant was key to making both of these cases,” one law enforcement official contends. “That’s why he is so well taken care of to this day.”
The House of Death
At stake in this tale of treachery and murder are not only the Santillan and Abraham legal cases, but also the moral convictions of multiple law enforcement sources. They have come forward to tell this story to Narco News, they say, as a matter of conscience.
Between August 2003 and mid-January of 2004, a dozen people were murdered and buried in the yard of a house in Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican border city of 1.2 million people.
Santillan and his cronies controlled the house. This group included the informant, known only as “Lalo,” who was on the payroll of the U.S. Immigration and Customs agency (which is part of the new Homeland Security department that was created in 2002 through a merger of various law enforcement agencies).
The informant, over the past six years, under guidance of U.S. officials, had wormed his way into a high standing with Santillan’s operation. During all this time, say the law enforcement sources, he was on the U.S. government payroll. He would be contacted whenever Santillan determined there was a need to “open up the house.”
The informant, “Lalo,” say the law enforcement whistleblowers, even brought the tape and the lime used to help dispose of the bodies. The law enforcement sources believe that he was at the death house during up to nine of the 12 murders known to have taken place there. Most of those killed were allegedly Mexican drug dealers, except for one individual, who was a U.S. citizen – “some kid from Socorro, Texas, just south of El Paso,” says one law enforcement source.
The Santillan organization, say law enforcers, used the house as a chamber of horrors to extract information from people through torture. The victims included competing smugglers who made the mistake of trying to run drugs through Juarez, or Santillan underlings suspected of stealing the boss’ dope. These individuals would be brought to the house and tortured until they gave up the locations of the stash houses where they kept the drugs, mainly marijuana. The victims would then be killed and buried in the back yard of the death house.
The informant, say the law enforcement sources, participated in many of the murders – on at least one occasion wearing a wire for his U.S. police agency handlers. But they believe that the key player overseeing the House of Death was 35-year-old Miguel Loya-Gallegos, a night-shift comandante with the state police of Chihuahua, Mexico; the indicted, but disappeared, co-defendant in the Santillan case.
The law enforcement sources contend that Loya and what they called “his death squad” of a dozen or more state police agents were on Santillan’s payroll. His men ran the murder machine, using their cover as law-enforcement officials, their badges, to pull people into the death house.
The informant was the middleman for Santillan. He opened the death house when needed and was, they say, the go-between for providing payments to Loya. During all this, the informant also was passing information onto his ICE handlers.
The informant had been on the payroll of ICE (and its predecessor agency, U.S. Customs) since the late 1990s. The informant also worked for DEA for a short time, but was “deactivated” by the agency in July 2003 – after he was caught trying to run 200 kilos of grass across the border. That bust never showed up on his record, though, as drug trafficking charges were conveniently not pursued by U.S. prosecutors, allowing the informant to continue working for ICE.
The informant’s handlers at ICE in El Paso became aware of the death house at least by August of 2003, when the informant told his handlers that he had participated in a murder there, a murder that was caught on tape because the informant was wearing a wire that day. At that point, DEA officials, who were clued into the ICE operation, wanted to make Mexican officials aware of the murder and to pull in the ropes on Santillan and the ICE sting.
However, officials with ICE and the U.S. Attorney’s Office refused to shut the investigation down. The reason, according to multiple sources, was that exposing the informant’s participation in the murder would have crashed not only the Santillan sting, but also the Abraham cigarette-smuggling case – because the same informant was a key player in making both cases.
The refusal to close down the Santillan investigation and inform the Mexican government of the murder did not sit well with a number of U.S. law-enforcement officials familiar with the case.
“What’s more important, murder or a cigarette case?” one source asks. “Where do they draw the line?”
From the time of that first murder in August 2003 until mid-January 2004, as many as 11 more people were tortured and killed in the house, with the informant participating in and reporting to his ICE handlers many of those additional murders.
“After all this happened, the U.S. Attorney’s office issued a superceding indictment against Santillan (in mid-February 2004) charging him with five murders,” one source points out. “Four of those murders didn’t have to happen.”
Santillan is now facing the ultimate penalty in the United States, because a murder carried out as part of a continuing criminal enterprise, such as drug smuggling, carries the federal death penalty.
Two DEA Agents Placed at Risk
On Jan. 14 of this year, the door was blown wide open on the death-house operation in Juarez. That day, three people were tortured and murdered, but not before one of them gave up an address to a stash house in Juarez. Santillan’s operatives went to the house and banged on the door. No one answered.
In fact, the occupants, a mother and her children, were inside, in fear of the strangers at the door. The mother managed to contact her husband, who returned to the house. The entire family then got in the car and left the house.
The bad guys were watching, though. The car was pulled over a short time later by a marked municipal police car. Some of Loya’s state police goons were also present at the traffic stop. The occupants of the car were likely in store for a trip to the death house.
However, Loya’s underlings were not sure who the driver was, so they contacted their boss. Santillan in turn contacted the informant, who allegedly had bragged in the past that he was well connected on the other side of the border. Santillan wanted the informant to check out the driver, to see who he was.
In the meantime, the driver stayed in his car and put out a call from his cell phone. Soon, another car arrived. Around the same time, the informant’s ICE handlers ran their check and figured out the identity of the driver.
The driver pulled out a consular ID, as did the individual who had come to his assistance.
They were both DEA agents.
The lid was blown off of Santillan’s death house operation, as was the fact that some officials with ICE and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in their zeal to make a case, had allowed up to 12 murders to occur under their watch and now had nearly cost the lives of two DEA agents.
The irony of the situation is how easily things could have played out differently that day, and the murder spree would have continued unabated. The address that the torture victim gave up to Santillan’s men was almost correct: two tons of grass were later found in the house next door to the DEA agent’s home in Juarez.
But the damage was done. As a result of the traffic stop, DEA evacuated all of its agents and their families from Juarez as a safety precaution. The Mexican government also dispatched some 80 federal agents to Juarez to investigate the situation. More than a dozen of Loya’s state police gang and some low-level thugs, gravediggers, were taken into custody.
Vanishing act? Or Assassination?
How many murders allegedly occurred under the reign of terror by Loya and his henchman is not known. One law enforcement source contends that the comandante’s brush with the DEA didn’t seem to deter him one bit. He says that the day after the DEA agents were stopped in Juarez, Loya was responsible for “whacking another person and leaving another one near death.”
“God knows how many more murders he and his men committed that we do not know about,” the law enforcement source adds.
Unfortunately, we may never know. Within days of the traffic stop involving the federal agents, DEA officials tried to arrange a meeting between the informant and Loya, to create an opportunity for Mexican federal agents to swoop in and arrest Loya. According to law enforcement sources, someone at ICE or the U.S. Attorney’s office in El Paso jammed them up and wouldn’t let the informant arrange the meeting.
As a consequence, Loya and three of his associates, “vanished into thin air,” one law enforcement source says.
The plan to snare Loya was undermined, law enforcement sources contend, because Loya would have fingered the informant as a co-conspirator in the murders at the death house. That, in turn, would have blown apart the legal cases against Santillan and the alleged cigarette smuggler Abraham.
Politics also plays a role in keeping the comandante out of the picture. If Loya were to confirm to Mexican interrogators the informant’s active role in the death-house murders, those revelations would fuel an explosive international incident.
One law enforcement official makes it clear that the war on drugs is an ugly business on both sides of the border. However, the one thing that distinguishes the bad guys from the good guys in the so-called war is that murder is a line the real good guys never cross.
“No matter what, you have a moral and legal obligation to prevent murder, even if it is one of the bad guys,” stresses the law enforcement source. “We are taught from the beginning that murder is the crime of crimes, and we are supposed to do everything in our power to stop it, no matter who the target is.”
Two Big Cases, One Little Informant
In addition to the informant, the cases of Santillan and Abraham are linked by the following circumstances, according to law enforcement sources:
- Both cases were actively investigated by federal ICE agents in El Paso.
- Both cases fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas – headed by U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, who is considered to be “wired” into the current Bush administration. Sutton, a former policy coordinator for the Bush-Cheney Transition Team, served as the Criminal Justice Policy Director from 1995-2000 for then-Governor George W. Bush.
- The same attorney, Joseph Sib Abraham Jr. of El Paso, represents both Santillan and Abraham. The same informant, an alleged Juarez organization operative, was used to sting both Santillan and Abraham.
- The Chihuahua state police comandante, Miguel Loya-Gallegos, is named in a federal indictment as one of a group of individuals who belongs to Santillan’s organization, which from Feb. 28, 2003, to Jan. 15, 2004, was allegedly responsible for the distribution of about four tons of marijuana and more than 29 kilograms of cocaine. The indictment also alleges that Santillan’s organization employed “enforcers … and assassins who killed rival drug traffickers, persons suspected of being police informants and members of the organization who Santillan-Tabares believed had failed to carry out their duties for the organization.”
- According to law enforcement sources, the same Assistant U.S. Attorney, Juanita Fielden, in El Paso who is the lead prosecutor on the Santillan case also worked closely with the ICE supervisors and agents who handled the informant at the center of both the Santillan and Abraham cases.
- If all goes well for prosecutors, and convictions are obtained, both the Santillan and Abraham cases are potentially huge career-boosters for the law-enforcement officials involved, particularly prosecutors. Santillan is allegedly a top dog in a notorious drug smuggling organization based in Ciudad Juarez in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico – which is just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Abraham is allegedly the big fish in a nationwide smuggling ring that was taken down by what the Department of Homeland Security describes in a press release as “the largest investigation to date involving the smuggling of cigarettes into the United States.”
A License to Murder
These connections are vital to understanding some serious accusations that have been leveled against the informant, his ICE handlers and the U.S. Attorney’s Office by multiple sources within law enforcement. These whistleblowers, who asked that their identities remain secret because they fear retaliation, allege that officials with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and ICE, in their overzealous quest to make the big cases against Santillan and Abraham, allowed their informant to literally get away with murder.
And, they say, after U.S. officials became aware that it happened once, they still kept the informant in the field where he played a role in the murders of at least eleven more victims.
To make matters worse, if that’s possible, these same sources contend that a cover-up is now underway within the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security (the parent agency of ICE) to prevent the facts of what has happened from surfacing. Multiple law enforcement sources indicate they fear that documents are being shredded as part of the cover-up effort.
Daryl Fields, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Antonio, which oversees the El Paso U.S. Attorney’s office, declined to comment on the allegations because both the Santillan and Abraham cases are still pending in court.
The extent of the alleged cover-up is not clear, according to the law enforcement sources. But they contend it goes at least as high as the field supervisory level at ICE and the prosecutorial level within the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Carl Rusnok, spokesman for ICE, says, “it is our longstanding policy not to comment on pending criminal cases.”
He adds, “In general, ICE takes any and all allegations of misconduct seriously and resolves them with expediency.”
In this case, though, expediency may be a tall order. The law enforcement sources that have come forward say the details of the alleged corruption, once laid bare, have the potential to unravel the career aspirations of a number of high-level government officials, including U.S. Attorney Sutton himself. Such a scandal could also give another black eye to the Bush administration – on the hot-button issues of crime, corruption, and US-Mexican relations – in the heat of an election year.
Also at stake are both the Santillan and Abraham cases. One source stresses that both cases would “fall” if the full extent of the informant’s complicity in the murders comes to light.
That genie may already be out of the bottle.
The Dallas Morning News recently obtained an internal ICE memo offering details of the involvement of the informant and two Mexican state police officers in the initial murder at the death house in Juarez. An April 2 article in the daily newspaper written by investigative reporter Alfredo Corchado, reported the following:
Among the details in the memo:
The officers split $2,000 for killing a suspected drug trafficker known as “Fernando.”
The killing was ordered by Heriberto Santillan-Tabares, a childhood friend of the victim and a top lieutenant in the powerful Juarez cartel organization of Vicente Carrilo Fuentes.
The officers, who were on duty, strangled Fernando, then struck him in the back of the head with a shovel, which was later used to bury him in the back yard of the house where he was killed.
The informant was so trusted that he was allowed access to a cartel safe house where he witnessed “everything they could need, stemming from groceries to women.”
If the U.S. Attorney’s office in El Paso was aware of the informant’s participation in multiple murders, as sources allege is the case, then it appears the informant’s ICE handlers are not the only ones in hot water. According to guidelines issued in May 2002 by U.S. Attorney John Ashcroft, a Department of Justice agency, such as the U.S. Attorney’s Office, “is never permitted to authorize a CI (confidential informant) to participate in an act of violence.”
Even before the murders came to light, the informant allegedly influenced the U.S. Attorney’s Office in El Paso to delay the indictment of Abraham in the cigarette smuggling case. The investigation in that case was launched in 2000 and was wrapped up by the winter of 2003. However, according to law enforcement sources, the decision was made to delay the indictment because it was feared the identity of the informant would surface in a trial, thereby jeopardizing the informant’s sting of the Santillan organization.
When contacted by Narco News, Joseph Abraham Jr., the attorney for both Santillan and Abraham, declined to comment on his clients’ cases.
“All I can say is this is a very serious matter,” he added, referring to the activities of the informant.
“This Is All About Power”
In addition to the Dallas Morning News, the Associated Press and Washington Post, among other media outlets, have reported pieces of this story.
Loyal to the script, to the formula of drug-war reporting along the border, the U.S. media reports have focused on corruption by Mexican law enforcement officials, largely looking the other way at the pivotal role of U.S. agencies in allowing the House of Death and its serial murders to continue with the active participation of their own informant.
The sources that have come forward to Narco News, though, take us behind the door of the seedy underworld of drug prohibition-era narco-trafficking to reveal the sordid details of the “war on drugs” as it is practiced along the US-Mexico border. They show two big cases made by overzealous U.S. prosecutors and agencies that drove the entire chain of regrettable, and probably preventable, events.
The “why” in this story is all about drugs and money: D.C.-style. In order for agents and supervisors in the field to get the big money and power to run career-making cases, they have to impress the brass in Washington, D.C. And the brass are impressed by big, headline generating, drug cases – particularly those connected to heavy narco-syndicates like the infamous Juarez organization.
So, according to law-enforcement sources, some officials with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and ICE in El Paso went to great lengths to make those connections in both the Santillan and Abraham cases. In that process, the informant became indispensable, as he was the ticket to getting inside both the Santillan and Abraham organizations.
In the Santillan case, it was primarily Mexican drug dealers who were being murdered. The sources contend that made it easier for some within law-enforcement to rationalize the deaths in pursuit of the prize at the end of the game. Honest law enforcers worry that an “institutionalized racism” in U.S. enforcement agencies, a problem that law enforcers have tried to blow the whistle on for years, along the border has now led to officially sanctioned murders.
The payoff for those willing to turn a blind eye to murder was more money for their cases and more juice for their law enforcement careers.
“This is all about power,” one law enforcer explains.
Another law enforcement agent adds:
“One thing is for sure, the Santillan case goes to shit as does the cigarette case once the true story comes out. The kicker is that the U.S. Attorney’s Office is in the middle of all this, and so who’s going to investigate them? That’s never going to happen unless there is enough public pressure brought to bear on this case.”
- Sandy Gonzalez Special Agent in charge of the DEA in El Paso who was forced to resign after complaining about the official handling of the House of Death case.
- Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Believed to lead the Juarez drug cartel. The US has a $5m bounty on his head.
- Heriberto Santillan-Tabares Known as 'the Engineer', he is a key henchman of the Juarez gang and the man who arranged the killings at the House of Death.
- Guillermo Ramirez Peyro Known as Lalo, he is a US government informant who worked as a henchman inside the Juarez drug cartel. Now in a maximum-security US jail.
- Fernando Reyes A Mexican lawyer, murdered at the House of Death. His killing was tape-recorded by Lalo.
- Johnny Sutton US Attorney for Western Texas and ex-adviser to Bush. Approved indictments against Santillan.
- Raul Bencomo The Ice Special Agent who was Lalo's main handler.
- Miguel Loya Gallegos Mexican state police commander. Was working for the Juarez cartel and conducted executions at the house. Is a wanted man, whereabouts unknown.