DHS, DOJ brass turned a blind eye to House of Death murder, federal prosecutor confirms

It’s official: High-level officials within the departments of Justice (DOJ) and Homeland Security (DHS) did know about the activities of a U.S. government informant who supervised and participated in murder in Juárez, Mexico, and yet they allowed that informant to continue his bloody assignment in what is now known as the House of Death case.

A sworn legal affidavit recently obtained by Narco News that was prepared by the U.S. prosecutor (Juanita Fielden) who oversaw the House of Death case confirms that fact.

Fielden’s affidavit is included as an exhibit in a civil rights case filed against U.S. law enforcement officials by the families of the victims in the House of Death mass murder. That case is currently pending in U.S. District Court in El Paso, Texas.

Between August 2003 and mid-January of 2004, a dozen people were kidnapped, tortured and butchered at the House of Death located at Calle Parsioneros 3633 in Juárez. Those murders were carried out with the help of the U.S. government informant, who had penetrated a Juárez cell of the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes’ (VCF) narco-trafficking organization.

During the course of those murders, the informant, Guillermo Ramirez Peyro, a former Mexican cop, was under the supervision of federal agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Fielden was the Assistant U.S. Attorney in El Paso assigned to oversee the case.
When the informant’s role came to light publicly, after his activities nearly cost the lives of a DEA agent and his family, rather than investigate the callous actions of U.S. law enforcers who allowed the informant to commit murder under government cover, the fearless leadership at DOJ as well as DHS, which oversees ICE, chose to bury the facts along with the bodies. At least that is the story line conveyed by numerous law enforcement sources who have spoken with Narco News during the course of our coverage of this case.

In fact, prior Narco News reports have shown that Fielden’s boss, U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, a well-wired guy within the Bush administration, conspired with the head of the DEA, Karen Tandy, to keep the informant’s role in the murders out of the press and to assure that a high-ranking DEA agent, Sandalio Gonzalez, was thwarted in his efforts to expose the U.S. government’s complicity in the murders. Gonzalez became yet another victim of the House of Death — his career ruined in the aftermath of a calculated effort to silence the messenger.

Up until now, the documents uncovered by Narco News in the House of Death mass murder demonstrate that high-level U.S. government officials, such as Sutton, Tandy and even the U.S. Attorney General, were at least aware of the informant’s role in the murders after a dozen bodies were dug up in the back yard of the home in Juarez in early 2004.

However, Fielden’s affidavit is the first evidence to surface that proves DHS and DOJ officials were aware of the murderous activities at the House of Death at least after the first murder committed there in August 2003 — yet still chose to continue using the informant in order to make a drug case against the VCF cell leader Heriberto Santillan Tabares.

The First Murder

Before diving into the particulars of Fielden’s affidavit, some history on the first House of Death murder has to be revisited.

In prior Narco News reports, kind readers, you were made aware of an internal ICE memo, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, that detailed informant Ramirez Peyro’s role in that first murder at the House of Death. The Aug. 25, 2003, ICE memo, which Fielden’s affidavit makes clear was sent up the chain of command at ICE and DOJ, states clearly that the informant “supervised” and participated in the Aug. 5, 2003, murder of Mexican lawyer Fernando Reyes at the House of Death.

The following is from the ICE memo, parts of which were redacted by FOIA censors — though Narco News’ law enforcement sources have filled in some of the blanks:

Date: [Aug. 25, 2003]
File [REDACTED]
From: Special Agent [REDACTED]
Subject: [REDACTED]

The participants in the murder were [REDACTED] and [two Juárez Judicial Police officers]. [Ramirez Peyro, the informant] supervised the murder and had minimal participation in the act….

[Ramirez Peyro] 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].

Readers, ask yourself, why would Ramirez Peyro buy lime and duct tape unless he anticipated a murder was about to happen? And why were ICE officials handling this informant not made aware of this fact by the informant — assuming, as those officials now claim, they were not aware? Still, based on the opening lines of the memo, there can be no doubt that ICE officials were aware the informant did far more than simply witness a murder.

More from the ICE memo:

… 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 [Ramirez Peyro]. The look made [Ramirez Peyro] feel uncomfortable. Based on the look, [Ramirez Peyro] 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.

[Ramirez Peyro] stated that he believed the violent striking of the neck caused it to break.

…[Santillan] praised [Ramirez Peyro] for his participation in the murder and that his participation could lead to his meeting with [Vicente Carrillo Fuentes].

Fielden’s affidavit

Fielden's affidavit starts out by providing details about how DOJ and ICE officials responded to the news that the informant Ramirez Peyro had been caught smuggling drugs about a month prior to the Aug. 5, 2003, murder at the House of Death.

At this time (in June 2003), DEA also was using Ramirez Peyro as an informant. In the wake of the drug bust, though, DEA decided to end its relationship with Ramirez Peyro.

However, it seems ICE officials, and Fielden, felt a greater sense of loyalty to Ramirez Peyro, despite his act of betrayal. That loyalty stemmed, it seems, from the desire to protect career-enhancing cases that involved the use of the informant.

On the evening of June 28, 2003, I was contacted by ICE group supervisor (GS) Todd Johnson who advised me that a confidential informant (SA913-EP [Ramirez Peyro], hereinafter referred to as the CI) had been stopped at a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Las Cruces, New Mexico in possession of approximately 100 pounds of marijuana which was concealed in his vehicle. This was unauthorized criminal activity on the part of the CI. The CI was arrested by Las Cruces, New Mexico, DEA Special Agent Mike Garcia and the case was referred to the State prosecutor.

The next week a meeting was held at the United States Attorney’s Office regarding the ramification of the CI’s arrest. Attending this meeting were members of ICE management (ASAC Fred Schroeder, GS Todd Johnson and GS Curtis Compton) and AUSAs [Assistant U.S. Attorneys] Margaret Leachman, Jose Luis Gonzales and me. After a lengthy discussion, the consensus was that if the CI was closely monitored he could continue to be effective and provide significant information on both the El Paso investigations [which includes the Santillan investigation in Juarez], as well as a Chicago investigation.

The ICE agents indicated that, pursuant to ICE policy, they would attempt to get the approval of the Special Agent in Charge (at the time it was an Acting SAC) to continue to use the CI. If the agents obtained approval to continue to utilize the CI, I would call the State prosecutor in New Mexico and ask that they suspend prosecution based upon the CI’s continued cooperation. GS Todd Johnson called me later and said that he had obtained the Acting SAC’s approval to continue to use the CI. I then called the State prosecutor who agreed to defer prosecution as long as the CI cooperated. The State charge was eventually dropped in December 2003, at my request.

So, Fielden admits that the informant not only broke the law but deceived his ICE handlers more than a month prior to the first murder at the House of Death, yet the decision was still made, through the ICE and DOJ chain of command, to continue using Ramirez Peyro in order to make a drug case against the VCF organization. Had the informant been deactivated by ICE in June and prosecuted for his crime, a dozen people might still be alive today.

And even though DOJ and ICE officials had knowledge of the informant’s active role in at least the first murder in August 2003, Fielden still chose to drop the drug-smuggling charges against Ramirez Peyro some four months later, in December 2003. It is not clear if Fielden ever informed the state prosecutor in New Mexico that Ramirez Peyro had been involved in a murder prior to requesting that the charges be dismissed.

Another puzzling revelation is the notion that ICE officials continued to use the informant in the House of Death investigation in Mexico after his drug bust. How could ICE possibly “closely” monitor the informant’s activities while he was operating inside a VCF cell in Mexico? In any event, as evidenced by the fact that the first murder at the House of Death occurred about a month after the drug bust, it is clear that ICE, in fact, did not have control of the situation.

More from Fielden’s affidavit:

On July 25, 2003, United States District Judge Phillip Martinez for the Western District of Texas signed an order authorizing an anticipatory interception of a cellular telephone (915-892-8888) which was to be given to Santillan-Tabares by the CI. The court was notified of the CI’s arrest [on the drug charges] at that time.

On or about August 5, 2003, I was contacted at home by ICE GS Curtis Compton and advised of a murder that had taken place in Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico in which Santillan-Tabares was involved. The incident had been recorded by the CI.

I, in turn, contacted my supervisor, Assistant United States Attorney Margaret Leachman. She later told me that she had advised Richard Durbin, Chief of the Criminal Division for the Western District of Texas, of the incident. The next morning I spoke with my OCDETF [Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force Office] advisor, Greg Surovic and told him of the incident. It was some time later that I learned that the individual murdered was identified as Ferando Reyes.

Interestingly, Fielden’s boss in San Antonio, U.S. Attorney Sutton, is never mentioned in her affidavit. However, Sandalio Gonzalez, who served as the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA field office in El Paso at the time of the House of Death murders, told Narco News that Sutton clearly would have been in the chain of communication on all these matters.

“Of course Sutton was in the loop,” Gonzalez says. “If the OCDETF attorney [Surovic] was in the loop, so was Sutton.”

It also is worth pointing out here some information supplied to Narco News by DHS sources concerning the informant’s communication activities at the time of the first murder at the House of Death. The DHS sources claim that the murder was not only “recorded,” as Fielden points out, but also monitored in real time as it was happening.

The informant was carrying a transmitting device, imbedded in his cell phone, that allowed audio to be beamed back to ICE’s wire unit in El Paso, the sources contend. So, the first murder at the House of Death was not only recorded by that wire unit, but also monitored as it was happening.

Assuming the DHS sources are on the money, then the judge who authorized that wiretap should have been made aware of this monitoring of the first murder as a condition of his continuing authorization of the wiretap, or ICE officials were in violation of the federal law governing wiretaps.

One DHS source also claims that the wire unit in ICE’s El Paso office, at the time of the first murder, was staffed by contract employees — at least one of whom might have been deep-sixed in the wake of the first House of Death murder.

“It is my belief that one of those contract monitors listened to the whole thing [the murder], and a couple of those contractors [in the wire unit] were, in fact, gone within in a couple of weeks [of the murder],” the DHS source claims.

ICE officials have denied that the murder was monitored in real time by anyone at ICE and claim the informant simply tape-recorded the murder without their knowledge. However, that claim seems highly suspect, given the realities of the narco-trafficking world. Why would the informant take such a risk at all, if ICE agents had not asked him to record the events?

Narco News has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act seeking the release of the “tape” of the first House of Death murder. If that tape is ever made public, it should offer some clues as to precisely how ICE officials “monitored” the first murder and whether they have been totally forthcoming in their reports to date about their knowledge of the details of that murder.

More from Fielden’s affidavit:

On or about August 25, 2003, I was provided an ICE memo prepared by SA Luis Garcia which detailed an August 6, 2003 interview of the CI wherein he discussed the events surrounding the murder of Fernando Reyes on August 5, 2003. The CI stated he feared for his life during this event.

It was my understanding that from August 6, 2003 until August 21, 2003, Santillan-Tabares was in the interior of Mexico. I am aware that the El Paso ICE agents notified ICE management in Washington, D.C. and Mexico City, Mexico of the murder which occurred on August 5, 2005 and that ICE management in El Paso and in Washington, D.C. approved the continued use of the CI and the continued investigation of Santillan-Taberes.

On September 4, 2003 United States District Judge Phillip Martinez, Western District of Texas signed an order authorizing the continued interception of a cellular telephone (915-892-8888). The affidavit for the continued wire interception discussed the murder of Fernando Reyes on August 5, 2003. This affidavit was prepared by ICE Special Agent David Ortiz, reviewed and approved by his chain-of-command, reviewed by me and the Office of Enforcement Operations Attorney Nancy Brinkac and her supervisor and approved by Deputy Assistant Attorney General, John G. Malcolm.

Again, Fielden’s affidavit omits an important fact. She claims officials in Mexico City were made aware of the first murder. What she fails to point out is that the Mexican government was only told that the informant was a “witness” to a murder in Juarez. There was no mention of the fact that he “supervised” and had “limited participation” in that murder, as the Aug. 25, 2003, ICE memo clearly states.

“We wish to hereby inform you that an informant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security traveled to the State of Chihuahua, Mexico on August 3, 2003 to meet with members of the contraband organization of Vicente Carillo Fuentes to discuss the transport of a cargo of marijuana,” states an Aug. 15, 2003, letter directed to the Mexican Office of the Attorney General and signed by DHS Customs Attaché Luis Alvarez. “On August 5 of this year, the informant was a witness to the assassination of the owner of the drugs.”

This spinning of the facts prompts former DEA agent Gonzalez to wonder what ICE officials relayed to the federal judge in the affidavit seeking authorization for the continuing wiretap for the phone number.

“What did they tell the judge?” Gonzalez asks. “Did they inform the judge [about the informant’s role in the first murder] in the same way they told the Mexican government?”

Fielden’s affidavit continues:

In late September 2003, the investigation revealed that Santillan-Tabares had again traveled to the interior of Mexico where he remained for several weeks, returning to Juarez, Mexico sometime in mid-November 2003. During this time, I began preparing a grand jury indictment of Santillan-Tabares and five other defendants for the March 2003 cocaine transaction [which occurred in the United States four months prior to the first House of Death murder].

On December 10, 2003 a Federal grand jury returned the indictment. Pursuant to Department of Justice policy, in order to lure an individual from Mexico into the United States to arrest him, authorization must be obtained from the Department of Justice (DOJ) – Office of International Affairs (OIA), after the agency has obtained approval from the ranking U.S. official in Mexico. I finally obtained DOJ OIA authorization on January 15, 2004.

On January 14, 2004, I was called at home by ICE GS Compton who requested that I come to the ICE office because of an incident that had occurred in Juarez, Mexico that day.

Readers, that incident involved a DEA agent and his family in Juarez being confronted by Santillan’s men during a traffic stop. If it were not for the quick thinking of the DEA agent, he and his family, including two children, would have almost certainly been taken to the House of Death.

More from Fielden's affidavit:

I notified AUSA Leachman and then went to the ICE office where I met with ICE agents, their ASAC Patty Kramer, the Juarez DEA agents and an El Paso DEA Crisis Management Team [assembled to deal with the DEA agent’s encounter with Santillan’s men]. I then sat in on a meeting with these individuals and the CI. This is the first time I had met or spoken to the CI [Ramirez Peyro]. After this meeting I learned general details of some of the murders and burials [at the House of Death].

On January 15, 2004, after obtaining DOJ OIA approval, Heriberto Santillan-Tabares was arrested in the United States on the December 2003 indictment.

Another omission of fact on the part of Fielden is noteworthy here as well. The original indictment issued in December 2003 did not include any charges of murder against those indicted, even though Fielden was aware of at least the first murder at that point. A superseding indictment was issued in February 2004, after the DEA agent and his family were nearly killed, that did include five counts of murder.

Why didn’t the original indictment include at least one murder charge? Could it be that Fielden and her boss, Sutton, were, in fact, aware of additional murders at the House of Death at the time of the December 2003 indictment? Might Fielden, and her DOJ bosses, hoped to have concealed that information by not making it part of the original indictment, but were then later forced to confront the ugly truth through the superseding indictment after the House of Death murders were exposed in the wake of the near-execution of the DEA agent and his family? In any event, the murder charges were later dropped after Sutton cut a plea deal with Santillan’s attorney.

Hogan’s Heroes defense

Anyone who grew up watching the TV show Hogan’s Heroes has to remember the line thrown out by the German soldier Sgt. Shultz whenever he was confronted with an uncomfortable fact: “I know nothing!”

Well, it seems Fielden watched that show as well. She also proves to be very adept at passing the buck. If you take her at her word, everyone above and below her in the chain of command was responsible for authorizing the actions that led to the House of Death mass murder, but she alone seemingly has no responsibility for the blood that was spilled.

From her affidavit:

On January 28 and 29, 2004 I interviewed the CI. This was the first time I became aware of any further involvement in any murders by the CI other than the August 5, 2003 murder.

With respect to the rules or policies concerning the use of confidential informants, I reviewed the Attorney General’s 2002 Confidential Informant Guidelines, specifically, Section IV (B) – Notification of Unauthorized Illegal Activity. However, the final decision to continue to operate this particular informant, after his arrest in June 2003 [for dope smuggling], was made by ICE Acting SAC, pursuant to their department guidelines. As noted previously, the ICE El Paso SAC, as well as ICE management in Washington, D.C., also authorized agents to proceed with the investigation after the August 5, 2003 [House of Death] murder.

At no time prior to January 14, 2004 did I have access to the informant. At no time during this or any other investigation, did I directly or indirectly supervise the informant. In fact, I stated previously, [the] first time I met the informant was on January 14, 2004.

ICE managers supervised the investigation. I, as the OCDETF prosecutor, was consulted on various aspects of the investigation, supported the investigation by obtaining authorization for the wire interceptions, discussed options for prosecution, obtained the indictment and the DOJ portion of the lure approval.

At all times, I acted in my professional capacity and in accordance with Department of Justice guidelines. I consulted with my superiors and sought their advice whenever I was made aware of any problems with the investigation.

Here again, DHS sources provide some interesting insight into the personality of Fielden. They claim Fielden is very much a micro-manager, that she regularly gets actively involved in investigations and also makes frequent trips to the ICE field office in El Paso. The DHS sources also claim Fielden has a very close relationship with Group Supervisor Curtis Compton -- who was one of the ICE agents charged with overseeing the House of Death investigation and the activities of the informant Ramirez Peyro.

The relationship between Compton and Fielden is so tight that, according to these DHS sources, it even extends to working together on office house-cleaning projects. One of those clean-up projects was observed in early 2004, shortly after news of the House of Death first broke in the media, a DHS source claims.

That source recounts the details of the incident:

It was about 11:00 p.m. at night, and this car came screeching to a stop in the parking lot outside the Mesa Street building [ICE’s El Paso office]. The car was parked in the middle of the parking lot, and Curtis Compton, Juanita Fielden and [ICE Associate Special Agent in Charge] Patty Kramer jumped out. They had a dolly and started carting in boxes to the first floor of the building [which is where the document shredders are located]. And then a little later you could hear the shredder running. They were there for about an hour to an hour and a half.

Another DHS source recounts yet another document cleansing exercise carried out by ASAC Kramer in April 2004.

“At about 2 p.m. [that day], Kramer was observed shredding about three boxes of documents in our giant commercial-grade shredder at the Mesa building,” the source contends.

Those two incidents could be a sign of dedicated public servants working hard to control the growing mound of red tape in the government bureaucracy, or they might be an indication that Fielden knows far more about the House of Death murders than she conveys in her affidavit.

You, the readers, will have to weigh all these facts and assertions. But keep in mind that the ultimate truth of the House of Death is still likely, at this point, to remain shrouded in a cover-up. Neither Fielden, nor any other U.S. government officials, will ever be subjected to cross examination under oath unless the pending civil case filed by the family members of the House of Death victims proceeds to trial.

On legal grounds, under the rules of civil court proceedings, Fielden’s affidavit, and similar pleadings filed by other ICE officials, may well be all the judge needs to conclude that the case should be dismissed, since all of those ICE officials contend that they had no foreknowledge or responsibility for the House of Death murders. They were just doing their jobs, if you believe their pleadings in the case.

And even if the litigation were to proceed toward trial, it is almost certain that the U.S. government would settle the case with the family members long before any ICE or DOJ officials were forced to take the stand under oath.

The only way the truth will ever come out in this case is if an Executive Branch agency, such as the FBI, decides to pursue a criminal investigation. But then the FBI is part of DOJ, and given how high this cover-up appears to go — right up to the U.S. Attorney General — how likely do you think it is that such an investigation will ever be authorized?

The U.S. Congress could, of course, initiate its own hearings and investigations, but to date they have shown no interest in doing so. And given that the Congress is controlled by Republicans (whose party would suffer most in the political fall-out from unraveling the truth of the House of Death mass murder) it can be expected that the congressional lack of initiative on this matter is likely to continue.

But we must be honest with ourselves. If this scandal had occurred on the watch of a Democrat-controlled Congress and White House, would the outcome be any different?

That is the truth of our “democracy” as it stands in this day in age. The only remaining hope, at least for the victims in the House of Death, for justice, is that the people of this land find the will to look behind the curtain of this cover-up and pull down the pants of the wizards yanking the levers.

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