The ‘House of Death’ case lends itself to a sad part of American history for the government, a low point, but now five years and a new president later the case continues to be swept under the mat.
Over the past nine months the White House has hammered away at the Bush Administration on everything from bungling the war on terrorism to the economy. How many times have we heard “We are a nation of laws?” Or “I don’t mind cleaning up the mess; just don’t tell me how to do it?” Or seen the word “transparency” used.
U.S. law enforcement certainly tweaked the laws concerning the Juarez House of Death case that ultimately cost 12 lives; 11 of which could have been prevented. So why are the recent and current White House Administrations failing to stand by the laws of America? Why look the other way? These are questions this story will attempt to answer without any help from government officials.
It’s no secret that Juarez is presently the most violent city in Mexico and murders take place on a daily basis. But does it mean the U.S. government should be complicit when said murders are known to take place? This is exactly what happened after the first murder at the House of Death in Juarez.
In an affidavit, Juanita Fielden, an Assistant U.S. Attorney says; “I learned of the first murder on August 5, 2003… I, in turn, contacted Ass. U.S. Attorney Margaret Leachman who advised Richard Durbin, chief of the criminal division for the Western District of Texas.”
A full five months pass before the truth comes out. During those five months, eleven more murders will be committed.
After the proverbial "stuff" hit the fan and DEA agents’ lives were put in grave danger and the out-of-control case sped faster off the cliff, one senior agent had enough. “We had five to six DEA staff members in danger as well as their families,” said Sandalio ‘Sandy’ Gonzalez the retired special agent in charge for the El Paso DEA office.
This final incident in January 2004 at the House of Death became the parameter in seeking the truth for one man at the DEA.
Meanwhile the El Paso Ice office began reporting the House of Death matter to Washington D.C. Eventually the case also passed through the office of Johnny Sutton, the US Attorney for Western Texas and a close ally of George W. Bush.
It was expected that Sutton would have shut down the case after the first murder, according to Bill Weaver, a law professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who has written extensively about the murder case. Sutton should have told ICE to “go with what you have, and let's try to bring Santillan to justice.”
It is worth pointing out that there was already a pending case on Heriberto Santillan-Tabares (a top lieutenant of the drug cartel in Juarez). In the end, he would be sent to prison for more than 25 years on the original drug charges, not for the murders he authorized and was charged with in the superseding indictment of February 18, 2004.
In the months before Washington decided to move on Santillan, the backyard of the Juarez house at 3633 Calle Parsonieros was filling up with tortured murdered corpses.
The term “carne asada” was used frequently to discuss murders that were about to take place. Each time Lalo had to get permission from his ICE handlers to cross the Mexico border to witness the murders and then report back to the U.S. government.
The House of Death case was spiraling out of control. In testimony at Gonzalez’ discrimination trial in federal court, current Acting Administrator Michelle Leonhart acknowledged under oath that she notified Attorney General Ashcroft about the House of Death, and then DEA Administrator Karen Tandy did so as well. Tandy also testified to the fact the House of Death case was being handled at the highest levels of the Department of Justice.
In addition to the highest levels of the Justice Department, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson were also briefed about the case. This was testified to under oath by DEA Chief of Operations Michael Furgason at the same civil trial.
By this time the cover-up is in full swing and DOJ, ICE and DEA are all willing participants.
In early February of 2004 Gonzalez was directed by DEA Headquarters to get to the bottom of the House of Death debacle. As a result, Gonzalez conducted relevant inquiries, which led to a letter he sent to his counterpart at ICE and to the U.S. Attorney’s Office on February 24, 2004. In the letter, Gonzalez said it was unacceptable that DEA agents and their families were placed in grave danger by the recklessness of ICE in the handling of the Santillan case.
“This resulted in the unnecessary loss of human life in the Republic of Mexico,” Gonzalez said in a letter to his counterpart the SAC for ICE as well as U.S. Attorney Sutton’s office.
Regarding the letter, during sworn testimony Leonhart claimed that Gonzalez should have cleared the letter with her office prior to sending it. She also said in the past, “I remember occasions when he would have issues with the U.S. Attorney’s office and would even show me a draft letter before he went and sent it or would talk to headquarters and get some guidance before he would send it.” This came as a surprise to Gonzalez and he made it clear during his rebuttal testimony that was not DEA procedure as he was a Senior DEA Executive in charge of a Field Division and had the authority to sign official correspondence on behalf of DEA in his division.
According to Gonzalez’ letter, “Following the August murder of Fernando LNU in 2003, ICE agents requested several country clearances for the informant to travel to Juarez. They continued sending the informant to Juarez while failing to report his activities to DEA as required by internal agreements.”
The letter also included a meeting that took place right after the first murder between FBI, DEA and ICE to discuss the Mexican Police corruption matter as well as the murder. However, ICE blew the meeting off, according to Gonzalez. “This should have ended at the August 11, 2003 meeting.”
“Once it was known that at least 12 murders had taken place at the house, ICE would not let Lalo give a statement to the Mexican authorities for several weeks,” Gonzalez said. “He finally gave his statement regarding the violence and brutality that took place in Juarez from August 2003 to January 2004.”
According to Gonzalez, “weeks later, when Lalo was finally made available to DEA for debriefing, ICE set up some ground rules notifying all parties that Lalo could not be asked about his activities prior to January 14, 2004.”
Gonzalez maintains this game playing by the U.S. amounts to nothing more than obstructing an investigation. In his letter, he wrote “This situation is so bizarre; I have never come across such callous behavior by fellow law enforcement officers.”
Catherine O'Neil, director of the DOJ's Organized Crime Task Force, described Gonzalez’ letter as “inflammatory.” She passed on Sutton's fears to the then Attorney General, John Ashcroft and then to DEA Administrator Karen Tandy.
Tandy explains she was horrified by Gonzalez' letter. “I apologized to Johnny Sutton last night and he and I agreed on a ‘no comment’ to the press.”
Gonzalez would be removed from the House of Death case and ordered not to talk about it to the press.
As a result of conflicting reports about the situation by both DEA and ICE, a Joint Assessment Team was convened to review the situation. More than 40 people were interviewed on both sides of the border. According to Gonzalez, he was blocked from gaining a copy of the report, though during his civil trial then Deputy Administrator Leonhart stated he had been informed he’d get a copy of it.
“There have been several Freedom of Information Act requests for this document,” said Andy Ramirez of the Law Enforcement Officers Advocates Council who has been following this case. “I think the JAT report would answer a lot of questions concerning the mishandling of the House of Death case. If everything is kosher why not release the report?”
Gonzalez concurs, “They (ICE and DEA) needed to get their stories straight. It was clear that DEA and ICE had a strained relationship and there was a lot of finger pointing, but in the end DEA was out of the loop. We had the wisdom to deactivate Lalo when he tried to cross the U.S. border with 100 pounds of marijuana, however; ICE kept him around.”
The letter Gonzalez wrote would be validated by the findings in the JAT report and to this day Gonzalez has never been challenged on the facts he presented in his letter.
“The proof is in the pudding,” Gonzalez said. “The jury didn’t buy anything that the government was saying during my civil trial, and I won.”
Adding to this is the simple fact that on page 516 of the official trial record, then Deputy Administrator Leonhart testified in regards to responsibility over the House of Death, “ICE was responsible, yes…ICE caused the incident.”
Coincidentally, four of the five agency employees who testified against Gonzalez were presidential appointees, and three seemed okay with what took place within the House of Death case. They were not hesitant to throw Gonzalez under the bus for questioning it in writing.
This would be the beginning of the end for Lalo. He simply faded into the Texas backdrop until August of 2004 when someone tried to shoot him in El Paso He escaped injury, when he had a fellow snitch go on his behalf instead.
Lalo was then taken into protective custody and in May 2005, ICE, the agency that had cherished him, began legal proceedings to deport him to Mexico. This amounted to a death sentence for an ex-Mexican police officer turned drug dealer turned U.S. snitch.
Why send a former U.S. snitch who earned more than $250,000 from Uncle Sam to certain death. Obama made sure the Uighurs from China were released from Gitmo to Bermuda because they would have been murdered if they returned to China.
In a recent statement from DOJ, “I am told that this is a matter currently in litigation and we would, therefore, not be able to comment,” said Charles Miller of the Department of Justice. Yet, when pressed about the case against Santillan has been closed, DOJ declined to answer.
A similar answer came from the DEA; “The DEA will not comment on this deportation matter because immigration matters in general are outside our jurisdiction, and this case specifically was not a DEA case. In addition, DEA does not speak for DOJ on policy matters.”
Basically, DEA continues its stance on not commenting regarding the deportation of Lalo to Mexico, which amounts to a death sentence. It is also worth pointing out that if Lalo dies, so does the embarrassment of the House of Death incident for the U.S.
And finally ICE had no comment regarding their former informant, Lalo.
All the while the record shows that Acting Administrator Leonhart stated under oath that ICE was responsible for the House of Death case.
Andy Ramirez who has worked and investigated legal cases against law enforcement officers as well as border security compromises sums it up best.
“The undeniable fact is that Attorney General Ashcroft, USA Johnny Sutton, and the Justice Department refused to prosecute Santillan for his role in the murders (in the plea deal for drugs), and any of the other key figures in this and other cases. This cadre clearly protected the bad guys at all costs by keeping them out of the courtroom where possible and sealing their crimes or cutting plea deals for lower crimes,” said Ramirez
“Of course the irony here is one can take the words from Sutton’s press briefings, releases and media tour, between 2006 and 2008, where he talks about agents he prosecuted for significantly lower crimes with distorted circumstantial evidence. For the most part, a pattern of hypocrisy and a clear lack of candor exists,” states Ramirez.
He continues, “In essence the U.S. Government’s Executive Branch (DOJ, DEA, DHS, & ICE) have conspired to cover this case up with their refusals to comment, as well as what are called ‘non-denial denials’ of the FOIA requests for the JAT report, and it all started when Sandy wrote his letter to ICE and Sutton.”
But as Ramirez testified before the House Homeland Security Committee in 2007, “Mexico does not know what corruption is, they come to El Paso to learn.”
“Nothing about this case, outside of their attempt to deport Lalo to certain death has been transparent. To me there is a clear-cut case for obstruction of justice by ordering Lalo not to wear the wire, conspiracy to obstruct when someone orders Sandy to not write any more memos and to not talk to the media, though Sutton clearly initiates that by calling DC and not talking with Sandy about it,” Ramirez explains.
“But what is most amazing is that unlike other patterns in cases I’ve observed, Mexico has not screamed foul. I’d say their silence has been quite deafening,” concluded Ramirez.