Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

House of Death Lingers

Wednesday, March 3, 2010 |

ICE burns informants across the country - House of Death lingers

San Diego County Political Buzz Examiner

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are quickly gaining attention within the war on drugs. This war is a deadly one fought day in and day out along the U.S. borders and well as cities that serve as distribution centers for the warring Mexican cartels.

Having confidential informants on the company payroll is a necessity to infiltrate the violent drug cartels and other organized crime syndicates. Some are double agents looking to elude authorities, others looking to work off a court conviction and others who may have got in over their heads and are looking for redemption.

Since ICE’s inception there have been eight agents investigated for improper informant handlings and more than 35 agents have been reported as being involved with questionable actions.

Documents and interviews have shown ICE handlers involvement with underreported debriefings, failure to document informant actions, drug use and improper sexual relations.

The El Paso ICE office sits in the heartland for drug cartels that carry the products across the Rio Grande River from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico where more than 14,000 murders have been committed since the renewed drug war in 2004.
No matter the reason, most ICE informants place their lives on the line for the U.S. government; some even succumb to violent attacks and die while providing inside information. Many say the alphabet soup government agencies need a new rule book when it comes to handling informants and promising them U.S. citizenship when their service is finished.

The most infamous House of Death informant

Describing the mishandling of the House of Death case and ICE’s treatment of confidential informants goes something like this – what happens in Mexico, stays in Mexico. Not only has the House of Death incident never been fully investigated, but also none of the DEA, ICE and DHS management officials responsible for supervising the case have been reprimanded.

No rule books were written to ensure U.S. law enforcement agencies could ever take part in covering-up a dozen murders that crossed international borders with Mexico. And there has been no closure for the once-prized ICE informant, Lalo.

A common fact that many news stories and ICE representatives in Washington D.C. conveniently leave out about this gruesome murder tale is the fact each time informant 913 - Guillermo Eduardo Ramirez Peyro or ‘Lalo’ was debriefed about his visits south of the border, several ICE agents and supervisors were present in the interrogation room.

Interestingly the names of supervisors present at the debriefings is not secret; Patty Kramer, Curtis Compton, Todd Johnson as well as many others. All these players knew the high stakes murder game being played south of the border, yet none made any effort to shut the little shop of horrors down.

Nope, ICE would have carried on with their reckless law enforcement ways if a lone DEA Special Agent in Charge, Sandalio Gonzalez hadn’t blown the whistle on the House of Death case.

He contends, “Members of Congress have been, and are being bamboozled by the Executive Branch on this issue. By failing to ask the tough questions relevant to this case makes Congress complicit with the federal law enforcement agencies involved in the House of Death cover up.”

Informant 913, Lalo says ICE was “short-minded.”

“I’ve been told by El Paso Police that there is a price on my head right now. I can’t believe ICE headquarters in Washington D.C. has no respect for my family,” Lalo explains.

The big prize in this case was the number three guy in the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (VCF) drug organization Heriberto Santillan-Tabares. ICE’s tunnel vision would place Lalo in numerous life-threatening situations. Finally the House of Death case came crashing down on January 14, 2004; when several DEA agents in Juarez, Mexico were placed in danger by irate cartel leaders looking for missing product.

“At this point, I could have disengaged from ICE and found an excuse with my health to cut loose from the cartel and went home to resume my normal life. But ICE got greedy and wanted me to lure Santillan to El Paso, get him to talk one last time and then arrest him,” Lalo explains.

The pressure from ICE was too much and after many promises were made to Lalo and his family, informant 913 embarked on one last ICE mission. “Getting Santillan to El Paso was nerve-racking, but I thought it would be worth it in the end. I was wrong, I was very, very wrong.”

When Lalo originally brought his intelligence information to ICE he says he wasn’t aiming to move to America. “I had a good life in Mexico. I was only foolish when I thought my intelligence would be used in a noble way.”

Many ICE employees will vouch for Lalo’s good work ethic. “I was a good performer, my cases were solid there were no holes and all of my cases ICE brought to court plead out because I didn’t arouse any suspicion.”

However, that would not be enough for ICE, they wanted informant 913 to waste away in prison or suffer death in Mexico as a means to ensure that ICE’s misdoings would never make it to a courtroom or even the court of public opinion. “They are trying to make me crazy by keeping me in solitary confinement or to kill me by sending me to a country where the cartels are the government.”

Despite two Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decisions in his favor, Lalo remains holed up in a Buffalo Detention Facility awaiting another day in court. “They profited by my work and they never gave me the opportunity to disappear in Mexico, they always wanted more. I did everything they wanted me to do. Now I can’t even have my father (who has been a legal resident in the U.S. for 25 years) petition for me to stay in the country, I’m doomed,” Lalo says with sadness in his voice.

The position that Lalo has been placed in by ICE management doesn’t help his ICE handler Raul Bencomo sleep at night. “I was in the room when all the supervisors promised Lalo protection for himself and his family, my bosses just wanted more and more from Lalo.”

The greed and cover-up lasted for an additional four-and-a-half years for Bencomo. After years of trying to get Lalo and other informants to turn on Bencomo and place the blame for the House of Death at his feet, ICE in Washington D.C, decided to fire him for a bogus non-reporting of another informant charge. “The fix was in, I would be the sole agent to lose my job,” he said.

Not only would Bencomo lose the job he loved, his integrity and reputation would be lost with the flick of a pen. He would later find out that FBI and ICE tried to get other informants to sign declaration statements and fudge polygraph tests to further their humiliation against a once-well respected agent.

“I gave them 20 years of my life, received award certificates from DEA in Juarez and claimed money and vacation prizes from ICE, but in the end they used me.”

Bencomo says the fight is not over for him; he will appeal ICE’s decision and work on clearing his integrity and law enforcement reputation. “My coworkers at the El Paso office will testify on my behalf, I just want to clear my name and set the record straight.”

Bencomo also states the disorder in this case stems from the embarrassment ICE headquarters in D.C. would surely face if this all went public.

Lalo’s attorney Jodi Goodwin concurs. “Washington D.C. doesn’t want Lalo to ever see a courtroom in which he can name names and place the blame for the House of Death case squarely where it belongs- on ICE management.”

She explains the biggest blunder ICE made was to let D.C. headquarters call the shots. “This case falls 100 percent on Lalo’s side. He will be murdered if they force him to return to a country where the drug cartels want him dead. If they would have held up their part of the deal and let him disappear, we wouldn’t be here today.”

Instead Goodwin admits that ICE will continue to push Lalo to his psychological limits and keep him in solitary confinement as a way to break him down. Lalo agrees, “They (ICE) are trying to kill me slowly in prison. It’s just not right, I did nothing wrong.”

Recent ICE case spotlighted in Seattle area

Ernesto Gamboa travelled illegally to America seeking a better life and a minor brush with the law would set his sights with local area law enforcement. Gamboa embarked on a 14-year career as a confidential informant as a way to repay his debt to society and earn his eventual legal papers.

Gamboa was a good informant.

According to paperwork he provided, FBI, Sheriff’s Department, DEA and even Seattle police wrote letters of recommendations for Gamboa. Tom Zweiger, who headed some of the drug task forces and is now a retired detective sergeant with the Seattle State Patrol where Gamboa worked, said, "He has taken more drugs off the streets than a lot of drug officers will in their entire careers."

However, once Gamboa accepted his last case with ICE, his problems began to unravel. “This particular case caused me to work for a new handler, Julie Stephens. Things didn’t go well from the beginning. I work alone the best and it was clear she wanted another informant on this big case,” Gamboa explains.

Sources close to the case say Gamboa’s last job as an informant may be in trouble due to mishandling.

Each day Gamboa went to work his life was on the line. “Working in the intelligence and drug business presents safety issues. ICE knew the risks I was taking, I used my own phone, my own car and really put myself out there. They were supposed to protect me, but in the end they didn’t – they set me up,” Gamboa states.

As with most jobs there are pluses and minuses. Gamboa describes the little victories when drugs and bad guys were taken from the streets and the aspect of working as a team as moments that kept him going.

He also discussed the downside of being frustrated when in the end the country he worked so hard for had issued his arrest warrant while he was still working on his final case. He also describes the sadness that he felt when his marriage ended because the work required chaotic long hours.

A reluctant Gamboa also has advice for anyone seeking to earn legal papers the way he tried. “You really need to open your eyes, make sure you keep accurate records and always be reminded that they (ICE) could burn you just like they did me. It’s a very dangerous business and they lied to me.”

Hopes of becoming an American citizen and continuing his work in law enforcement are all but gone for Gamboa. He did get arrested, ICE lured him to a meeting where he thought he was picking up a paycheck, and he never got paid. After law enforcement agents stepped-up their effort to support Gamboa, Senator Cantwell (D-WA) and his attorney Jorge Baron did their job and were successful in pressuring ICE to release him from prison.

The victory remains bittersweet for Gamboa, as now he is in “legal limbo” and cannot work legally in the country he worked so hard for. “Without the legal papers I’m as good as deported. I can no longer work and the money has run out,” Gamboa explains in a phone call. “It’s just not right, if I go back to El Salvador I could lose my life for what I did, but if I remain here and work illegally I could go back to jail. It’s just not right.”

A phone conversation with Senator Cantwell’s office shed little light on Gamboa’s legal problems. “At least he is not in prison. We pressed the U.S. government to drop the deportation charges. But the underlying problems with the ‘S Visa’ need to be sorted out,” says John Diamond a spokesman for Senator Cantwell.

“The remedy is a private bill and we are considering this, the Senator met with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano a week or so ago,” he explained.

The fact remains Gamboa is in a difficult situation and he has recently gone public which exposed his informant status, this according to Diamond puts Gamboa in grave danger.

A case of Congressional power

In New York an Argentinean brother and sister Emilio and Analia Maya were approached by a police officer and given ICE phone numbers to become informants. Since they over stayed their visas, the Argentineans agreed working for the government agency could provide a path to citizenship. Sadly it did not and after the work dried up so did their legal status.

In extraordinary fashion Emilio Maya's request for a stay of deportation was granted after Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), submitted a rare private bill in the House requesting that Maya, 34, and his 30-year-old sister, Analia, be granted legal status. "After being treated unfairly for so long and being threatened with immediate deportation, the Maya family today received some long-awaited positive news," Hinchey said in an Associated Press story.

Once the Mayas became part of the ICE informant team they were expected to keep long hours and work in dangerous situations. The brother-sister team did this for more than four years. The duo would wear wires, infiltrate a prostitution ring, and work in a factory that hired illegal immigrants and turned in information regarding human smuggling operations.

Like most informants seeking legal residence in the U.S., they were promised the coveted “S Visa.” Instead of the reward of legal status ICE informed the Mayas they would face deportation because they were no longer useful to ICE.

Pointing out that it is company policy to not discuss ongoing cases ICE spokesman Brian Hale refused to discuss any case involving informants. He did explain that in general, "there has to be a significant benefit to the government," in order for informants to receive legal papers, something that comes as news to the many foreign nationals who work for ICE.

One way Senators and Congressmen seek a reprieve from ICE’s callous treatment of informants is to create “private bills” to provide relief from immigration laws for compelling informant cases. However the complex rules governing the introduction of such bills makes them extremely difficult to pass.

El Paso ICE office mishandles many informants

ICE informant Gonzalez Galeana was killed on May 15 of 2009; he was shot as he walked up to his home in an upscale neighborhood of El Paso.

Not only was he murdered outside his home, police reported that Galeana was not only a lieutenant with the Juarez cartel, but also an informant for ICE. Investigators say he was targeted because he was leaking cartel information to the U.S. government.

There have been five individuals arrested for the murder and they detailed the motive that led to his demise was his background in the Juarez cartel. Gonzalez was shot multiple times outside his home and among the suspects was an 18-year-old U.S. Army soldier stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas who was hired by one of the leaders of the Juarez cartel.

Another suspect arrested was Ruben Rodriguez Dorado who is also a lieutenant in the Juarez cartel. The details surrounding Dorado further demonstrate ICE lacks the complex wherewithal to juggle multiple confidential informants. Apparently Dorado received orders from his cartel leadership to kill Gonzalez.

The kicker is Rodriguez was able to freely enter America and track down Gonzalez. He even paid Gonzalez’s cell phone bill and was able to look up his home address. It has been reported that Dorado undertook surveillance measures of Gonzalez’ home, planned the killing and hired the underage assassin to murder his target.

Once Dorado’s cover was blown and his life in danger, it certainly would have helped those involved that another ICE informant, Rodriguez, could be involved in the possible murder plot. It’s worth pointing out that Rodriguez was a legal permanent resident of the United States, and his relationship with ICE would allow him to cross the border without much notice.

There have been many reports that examine the reach, scope and complexity of the Mexican drug cartels’ intelligence efforts. The cartels have done a good job recruiting ex-Mexican military personnel to join their ranks. A leading component with recruitment is money, Mexican government jobs are notoriously low-paying positions. The billion-dollar drug industry gives them the ability to garner highly trained soldiers.

It is clear that several of the cartels have demonstrated the ability to operate more like a foreign intelligence service than a traditional criminal organization. This means that it is highly possible that Rodriguez was what is referred to in intelligence terms as a double agent — someone who pretends to spy on an organization but is, in fact, loyal to that organization.

When it comes to informants, the government’s ability to learn about the inner workings of criminal enterprises often relies on people who have first-hand knowledge – or criminals themselves. The first and most obvious issue is that most people, who have access to the inner workings of a criminal organization, and therefore the most valuable intelligence, are themselves criminals. Honorable citizens usually do not have access to the plans of organized crime or understand their hierarchy. Therefore most authorities need to recruit or flip criminals in order to infiltrate the cartels or mafia-type organizations.

In Juarez, cartels like the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) or Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (VCF) drug organization in Mexico have recruited scores of intelligence assets and agents at all levels of the Mexican government. It has been reported that BLO even recruited Mexico’s former drug czar to assist the cartels with needed knowledge to move their drugs into the United States.

With the massive amounts of drug money coming into Mexico, cartels can buy foreign expertise and equipment that provide the ability to set counterintelligence and bribe pertinent government officials on both sides of the border.

If there is a lesson to be learned by the U.S., it’s that the drug cartels can reach across the border to take care of business with a lot of stealth. This should prompt ICE and other U.S. law enforcement agencies to work together to slow down the drug trade.

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