DEA's national security claim in House of Death murders exposed as bogus

The first sign of a cover-up beginning to unravel is always marked by the public exposure of evidence that is being concealed as part of that cover-up.

In the case of the House of Death mass murder, a piece of that evidence has found it’s way into the sunshine.
The complicity of U.S. government law enforcers and prosecutors in the torture and murder of a dozen people at the house at 3633 Parsioneros Street in Juarez has been the subject of continuing Narco News reports since April 2004.

Those reports document the fact that an informant on the payroll of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) (with the approval of the U.S. Attorneys Office) oversaw the House of Death execution chamber in Juarez, Mexico, for a ruthless narco-trafficker named Heriberto Santillan-Tabares — who was a major boss in the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (VCF) drug organization. The informant, Guillermo Ramirez Peyro, a former Mexican federal cop, along with another executioner, a Mexican state police commander named Miguel Loya, played an active role in the murders carried out at the House of Death between August 2003 and mid-January 2004.

A lone DEA commander in El Paso had the guts to blow the whistle on the U.S. government’s twisted role in the drug case by writing an internal memo, dated Feb. 24, 2004, to the ICE chief in El Paso, a copy of which also found its way to the desk of Johnny Sutton, the U.S. Attorney in San Antonio who oversaw the prosecutors in charge of the House of Death case.

For that act of truth-telling, DEA Special Agent in Charge Sandalio Gonzalez was rewarded with threats and retaliation (initiated at the behest of Sutton) that ultimately led him to retire from the DEA in early 2005.

Ever since Gonzalez penned his memo nearly three years ago, high-ranking officials within ICE (and the Department of Homeland Security of which it is a part) and the Department of Justice (for whom Sutton works) have gone to great lengths to bury the paper trail on the House of Death and to keep the story out of the media spotlight.

Those efforts have included attempting to suppress the final report of a joint DEA/ICE internal investigation of the House of Death fiasco, which was conducted in February 2004 — after a DEA agent and his family were nearly murdered by Santillan’s men due to the ICE informant’s activities. After that near miss, the DEA was forced to evacuate all of its personnel from Juarez to assure their safety.

Bill Weaver, senior advisor to the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition (NSWBC) currently has a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit pending in federal court in El Paso seeking, among other things, that DEA produce that report — known as the Joint Assessment Team, or JAT, review.

But the contents of the JAT report must be rather shocking, even embarrassing to the government. Gonzalez and a DHS source say they believe that is the reason the DEA is suddenly raising claims of national security to justify not releasing the nearly three-year-old JAT report through FOIA.

In a letter ( link here) dated Dec. 6, 2006, and delivered to Weaver by DEA, the agency makes the following claims concerning his FOIA request for the JAT report:

Subject of Request: Documents pertaining to the Joint Assessment Team Management Review Report

… Please be advised that I have learned that the information responsive to your request was forwarded on about August 18, 2006, for classification review pursuant to Executive Order 12958 [an order covering classification of national security information]. Thus … the material will require review in the course of the processing of the documents. It is impracticable to provide an estimated date for completion of the classification review at this time. To process your request and for the classification review, require[s] documents that are currently located in the Southern United States and South America, and the individuals directly involved in this matter have been transferred from their previous duty assignments.

We will update you on the progress of the processing of your request in 90 days.

Sincerely,

Katherine L. Myrick
Chief Operations Unit
FOI/Records Management Section

Gonzalez describes as “ludicrous” DEA’s claim that documents related to the House of Death case are now located in South America — given that the entire case played out in Juarez and El Paso, Texas.

“There is nothing in this case [the House of Death] remotely related to national security,” Gonzalez adds. “What the JAT report contains is some real embarrassing information to the government.”

A DHS source echoes Gonzalez’ assertions:

“I think they [DEA] are using national security as a way to keep the information from the public,” the source says. “The only threat to national security [in the JAT report] is the embarrassment it would cause the government due to its inability to control its own law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.”

A glimpse of the truth

The DEA’s effort to keep a lid on the JAT report under a specious argument pegged to national security has one problem: a small portion of that report has already been obtained by Narco News through its own Freedom of Information Act request made to a separate federal agency: the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board

Although the snippet of the report now in Narco News’ possession (and also soon to be before your eyes, kind readers) is far from the complete picture, its contents certainly do not betray any national security secrets.

However, a memo introducing the report and one of the 44 interviews conducted for the JAT that are now in the public’s possession, care of Narco News, are clearly going to make some U.S. government officials red-faced.

Following is a reproduction of that JAT memo and interview.

Portions of the JAT documents obtained through FOIA were redacted, but Narco News has filled in the missing text where possible, based on a review of other public documents and interviews with sources. That reconstructed information is contained in [brackets].

Additional commentary also is included in italics to provide context where needed. The actual FOIA documents can be found at this link.

And now, here's what your government doesn't want you to see....

MEMORANDUM

TO: [John Clark] ICE Director of Investigations

[Michael Ferguson] DEA Chief of Operations

FROM: [Redacted] SAC ICE Buffalo, New York

[Rodney Benson] ASAC, DEA Boston Field Division

SUBJECT: Joint Assessment Team Report

Pursuant to a directive from DEA Chief of Operations [Mike Ferguson] and ICE Director of Investigations [John Clark], a Joint Assessment Team (JAT) composed of ICE and DEA personnel were sent to El Paso, Texas, and Mexico City, Mexico, in order to review ICE and DEA activities/events pertaining to investigations targeting [the VCF Juarez cartel and Heriberto Santillan-Tabares], et al. This review also included events pertaining to the evacuation of DEA Special Agents and Support Personnel assigned to the DEA [Ciudad Juarez] Residence Office, which occurred on January 14, 2004.

This review commenced on February 10, 2004, and ended on February 19, 2004. In connection with this review, the JAT conducted forty-four interviews of DEA, ICE, United States Attorneys Office and Department of State personnel in El Paso, Texas, and Mexico. In addition, the JAT conducted investigative and confidential source file reviews and reviewed several hundred recorded conversations in connection with the ICE and DEA [redacted] investigations.

This assessment report consists of the JAT timeline of pertinent events, JAT interview summaries and noteworthy reports. All facts detailed within the JAT timeline were agreed upon by ICE and DEA JAT personnel.

Summary of Interview with DEA El Paso Field Division SAC Sandalio Gonzalez

Date: February 11, 2004
Place: DEA [El Paso Field] Division

Joint Assessment Team (JAT) Interviewers:

[Redacted] ICE SAC Buffalo
[Rodney Benson] DEA ASAC Boston

Synopsis of Interview

On February 11, 2004, JAT members conducted an interview of Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Sandalio Gonzalez. The JAT explained to SAC Gonzalez that the interview was in connection with a joint review being conducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The purpose of the joint review was to ascertain the facts related to the events surrounding the evacuation of the DEA Resident Office in [Ciudad Juarez] Mexico and events and activities related to ICE and DEA investigations targeting [the VCF Juarez cartel and Heriberto Santillan-Tabares]. It was stressed by JAT personnel that this was solely a fact-finding inquiry to which the final report would be provided to the DEA Chief of Operations and ICE Director of Investigations.

SAC Gonzalez has been the Special Agent in Charge of the [DEA El Paso Field] Division for the past three years. Until recently, SAC Gonzalez stated that DEA has always had an excellent working relationship with ICE [El Paso]. The relationship was established under the leadership of previous ICE SAC [El Paso]. SAC Gonzalez also stated that DEA [El Paso] has a good working relationship with DEA RAC [Resident Agent in Charge name redacted] of the [Juarez] office. SAC Gonzalez also stated RAC [name redacted] frequently attended supervisors meetings held in the DEA [El Paso] Office. At these meetings, SAC Gonzalez advised they discussed significant cases, operational and administrative matters.

Pertaining to Operation Skyhigh: SAC Gonzalez was aware that it was an ongoing multi-agency operation including DEA, FBI, ICE, USAO (U.S. Attorneys Office) and Mexican Authorities targeting elements of the [Vicente Carrillo Fuentes] VCF [drug] organization in Mexico. According to SAC Gonzalez, this multi-agency operation was initiated by DEA [El Paso]. Over the years, there has been some concern from U.S. Law Enforcement Agencies regarding the sharing of information with Mexican Authorities. SAC Gonzalez stated that he stressed that DEA would not share another agency’s information with Mexican Agencies without permission from the agency providing the information. SAC Gonzalez stated that the FBI and ICE did not want certain information passed to the Mexican Authorities. SAC Gonzalez stated that the [Heriberto Santillan-Tabares] investigation was a joint investigation between DEA and ICE and that the FBI had very little involvement with this investigation. SAC Gonzalez recalled the March 2003 controlled delivery of twenty-nine kilograms of cocaine that was received by the ICE [El Paso] CS [confidential source, or informant, Guillermo Ramirez Peyro] from [Santillan]. In addition, SAC Gonzalez commented that DEA [El Paso] provided an undercover agent for the controlled delivery and DEA [El Paso] intelligence analysts participated in the debriefing of the CS shortly after the controlled delivery. According to SAC Gonzalez, Group Supervisor [redacted’s] group had primary oversight of the DEA [case] targeting VCF.

The March 2003 sting operation was the basis for the initial indictment of Santillan returned in December 2003. Had Santillan been indicted right away that spring, the House of Death murder victims might still be alive today.

Pertaining to the arrest of ICE [El Paso] CS on June 28, 2003: SAC Gonzalez indicated that he was notified about the arrest of the CS for transporting narcotics sometime after the CS was deactivated by the DEA [Ciudad Juarez] Residence Office in late June or early July 2003. SAC Gonzalez wasn’t involved with the deactivation of the CS by DEA. According to SAC Gonzalez, the CS was never established [as an informant] by DEA [El Paso].

After the informant Ramirez Peyro was busted for running a load of dope behind the backs of DEA and ICE, the chain of command at ICE and the U.S. Attorney’s Office authorized his continued use as an informant in the Santillan investigation, despite the fact that DEA deactivated him. At that point, the relationship between ICE and DEA became severely strained.

Pertaining to the August 5, 2003, murder that occurred in Juarez, Mexico, involving the CS: SAC Gonzalez wasn’t aware of this situation until January 14, 2004. SAC Gonzalez stated that he was informed telephonically of this information by ICE [El Paso] Associate SAC [name redacted].

Again, even after this first murder at the House of Death, in which ICE was made aware by the informant himself that he had actually participated in the execution, ICE and the U.S. Attorney’s Office authorized the informant’s continued use, which resulted in at least 11 more murders over the next five months. DEA Juarez, after that first murder, attempted to get the U.S. Attorneys Office to wrap up the case and indict Santillan, but the U.S. prosecutor and ICE officials involved with the case refused.

Pertaining to the OCDETF (Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force Office) meeting of August 25, 2003: SAC Gonzalez attended this meeting with ASAC [name redacted]. SAC Gonzalez stated that this was a contentious meeting because the FBI was going off on their own and not advising the other agencies of enforcement actions in Spain. In particular, ICE Associate SAC [name redacted] had a heated discussion with the FBI Supervisor regarding their plan to arrest a mutual VCF-related target in Spain without notifying the other agencies involved with the investigation. When asked if he heard any conversation pertaining to the future indictment of [Santillan] or the proposed lure to get him into the country, SAC Gonzalez couldn’t recall those matters being discussed; however, he did note that there were people having other conversations in the room. SAC Gonzalez’ most vivid memory of the meeting was the discussion between ICE and FBI.

Santillan was ultimately lured across the U.S. border and arrested on Jan. 15, 2004, the day after his men pulled over a DEA agent and his family in a traffic stop with the intention of delivering them to the House of Death. ICE undertook the lure operation without coordinating with the DEA.

SAC Gonzalez stated that he was not advised of additional murders pertaining to the [Santillan] investigation (September 11, November 21, November 30, December 11, 2003; and January 8, January 14, 2004) until mid-January 2004.

The informant Ramirez Peyro claims he made his ICE handlers aware of each murder at the House of Death, sometimes in advance of the executions, and also points out that ICE was monitoring his activities through a wire tap on his phone.

Pertaining to the indictment and lure of [Santillan]: SAC Gonzalez stated he wasn’t aware of the indictment and that he wouldn’t be advised unless it was a major case. SAC Gonzalez stated that he wasn’t aware of the lure proposal until after January 14, 2004. SAC Gonzalez advised a lure proposal is an enforcement activity that would have been brought to his attention by ASAC [name redacted]. SAC Gonzalez noted that he was not advised of the ICE [El Paso] lure operation by anyone from ICE [El Paso’s] management team.

Pertaining to the evacuation of the DEA [Ciudad Juarez] Resident Office on January 14, 2004: SAC Gonzalez stated that he was out of town until January 20, 2004. He was advised telephonically of the situation and updated on a regular basis by Acting [DEA] SAC [name redacted]. SAC Gonzalez didn’t get involved with the threat or investigation until he returned to [El Paso] on January 20, 2004.

Pertaining to the meeting [involving DEA and ICE personnel] on January 25, 2004: SAC Gonzalez stated that he attended this meeting with [other DEA personnel who included] ASAC [Assistant Special Agent in Charge name redacted], ARD [Assistant Regional Director from Mexico name redacted], RAC [from the Juarez office name redacted] and SA [Special Agent name redacted].

SAC Gonzalez stated the majority of the discussion pertained to arresting [Chihuahua State Police Commander Miguel Loya]. According to SAC Gonzalez, DEA advised that 80 AFI [Mexican federal police] agents were on their way to [Juarez] to assist in the investigation. According to SAC Gonzalez, DEA understood the relationship between the CS [Ramirez Peyro] and Loya was good enough that the CS could have made calls to [Loya] and arranged to meet [Loya] at a public place in order to arrest [Loya]. SAC Gonzalez stated that ICE management expressed concern for the CS’ safety and stated that the plan was not feasible. SAC Gonzalez noted that he had a discussion with [DEA’s] RAC [name redacted] and ARD [name redacted] in which they advised they had reviewed previous phone conversations between the CS and [Loya] (tapes) and believed there was a working relationship between the CS and [Loya]. SAC Gonzalez stated that [Loya] had made calls to the CS and it was his belief that the CS could return [Loya’s] call. SAC Gonzalez stated that ICE management disagreed with DEA and advised they didn’t believe the CS and [Loya] were in a relationship that the CS could call [Loya]. SAC Gonzalez again stated that ICE management advised that they feared for the safety of the CS and his family.

Loya, one of Santillan’s right-hand men and the chief executioner at the House of Death, ultimately eluded capture and remains at large.

During the meeting, photos of the house, gravesites, crime scene and victims were shared. SAC Gonzalez stated that when DEA departed the meeting there was a disagreement between ICE and DEA pertaining to the proposed plan to arrest [Loya] and the direction of this particular investigation. SAC Gonzalez noted that everyone departed the meeting on a good note and the discussions were not heated.

In late January 2004, SAC Gonzalez stated that he had some concerns regarding the CS and the investigation. SAC Gonzalez stated that he contacted Chief AUSA [Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret Leachman in El Paso] and asked if she knew of the first murder on August 5, 2003, and expressed his concerns of the additional deaths in Mexico. During this conversation, SAC Gonzalez felt that AUSA [Leachman] “wasn’t in the loop on the entire investigation.” SAC Gonzalez also stated that AUSA [Leachman] advised that she believed that the ICE [El Paso] CS did not travel back to Mexico after the August 5, 2003, murder. SAC Gonzalez advised AUSA [Leachman] that she should review the situation and then the two of them should discuss the facts. According to SAC Gonzalez, his follow-up conversation did not occur as of the date of this interview.

Leachman is Assistant U.S. Attorney Juanita Fielden’s supervisor in the El Paso U.S. Attorneys office. Fielden was the lead prosecutor on the House of Death case. Both Leachman and Fielden are under the supervision of U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton in San Antonio. Sources have indicated that Fielden allegedly bypassed Leachman and reported directly to Sutton’s office in San Antonio on the Santillan investigation. If that’s the case, it would explain why Leachman “wasn’t in the loop.”

SAC Gonzalez advised that he had concerns with the [El Paso] USAO [U.S. Attorneys Office] “lack of trust” and that it had a negative effect on the investigation. Up until this investigation, he didn’t think there was an issue with “trust.” According to SAC Gonzalez, he was advised that AUSA [Fielden] did not trust DEA ARD [name redacted].

SAC Gonzalez also advised that he discussed with the ICE SAC [El Paso] the availability of the CS to be debriefed by DEA. [ICE] SAC [Special Agent in Charge Giovanni Gaudioso] denied his request.

Gonzalez directed his Feb. 24, 2004, memo expressing his outrage with ICE’s handling of the Santillan investigation and the needless deaths to Gaudioso — who is now the No. 2 person in the Houston ICE office.

Breaking the law

The Gonzalez interview is only one of 44 interviews conducted for the JAT report. You have to wonder what other revelations are contained in the balance of the interviews with officials from the DEA, ICE, the U.S. Attorneys Office and the State Department. At a minimum, based on what has surfaced so far, it is clear that the only thing threatening to national security in this JAT report is that it reveals that the government officials responsible for the House of Death travesty are not being held to the same standards of justice they are charged with enforcing.

The NSWBC’s Weaver, who is a university professor with a law degree, also smelled a foul deed afoot after receiving the DEA’s Dec. 6, 2006, letter informing him that his FOIA request for the JAT is being jammed up because some documents are in South America and due to national security concerns.

Weaver made his concerns known to DEA in a letter ( link here) directed to the agency in reaction to its Dec. 6 correspondence:

… There is nothing in the Joint Assessment Team report or supporting materials that remotely involved “South America” or the “Southern United States.” All of the events investigated by the team occurred in the El Paso/Juarez region. Some interviews were made in Mexico City.

… The Joint Assessment Team report and associated materials are all located at [DEA] headquarters. I know they are there; you know they are there.

… Your apparent failure to classify [under national security laws] the requested material in accordance with EO [Executive Order] 12958 after four months (or more) of consideration creates great suspicion that you are using claims of national security to circumvent disclosure of the JAT report.  

[The JAT written report was submitted to DEA brass on March 26, 2004 — nearly three years ago.]

… Let me remind you that EO 12958 1.8(a) prohibits classification of material in order to:

… conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error; … prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency; … or prevent or delay the release of information that does not require protection in the interest of national security.

… In sum, your office has been unresponsive, obstructionist, dilatory, and a scofflaw concerning this request. It may be that the information requested will provide embarrassing revelations about the DEA or other government agencies and their personnel, but as Louis Brandeis said, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” …

So now it is up to you, dear reader, to determine if the balance of the JAT report should be released to the public, in the interest of justice, a free press and democracy. Maybe your voice can prompt some Congressional action on this front. More importantly, maybe your voice will help to revive the soul of this nation.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

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