Foreboding and Loathing in the Quest for the House of Death
I was headed to Ciudad Juarez, despite the U.S. State Department warnings urging U.S. citizens to avoid this Mexican border town because it is too dangerous.
In recent months, Juarez has been engulfed in bloodshed due, according to mainstream media reports, to a violent turf war being waged by narco-traffickers. The bloodshed in recent months has been so extreme (some 200-plus murders since the beginning of the year) that Mexican president Felipe Calderon recently deployed hundreds of federal police and military troopers to the city.
Juarez is immediately south of a slender strip of dark Rio Grande water. The placid West Texas city of El Paso, which is sprawled over some rocky foothills on the far edge of the U.S. Empire, for the most part has the high ground overlooking the Mexican border town. El Paso was to be my first stop, before venturing into the badlands of Juarez.
My paranoia over this trip was enhanced further by the fact that my major goal was to seek out and find the House of Death — the site of a series gruesome murders between August 2003 and mid-January 2004. The murders at the house were carried out by Mexican cops working for a narco-trafficker named Heriberto Santillan. Participating in the murder spree (a dozen bodies were found buried in the backyard of this house on Parsioneros Street in Juarez) was a U.S. government informant named Guillermo Ramirez Peyro, who had infiltrated Santillan’s organization.
Along for the trip is a Peruvian freelance TV producer named Fernando — who now lives and works in London. Fernando, too, was interested in locating the House of Death. Our guide for this journey is an El Paso resident named Mary, who knows the backstreets of Juarez well from the time she has spent there advocating for women’s rights. Mary’s fire for justice has been lit as a result of the infamous Juarez femicides — a name assigned to the unsolved cases of the hundreds of poor, young women who, over the past dozen years or so, have disappeared or been abducted, raped, tortured and murdered (their lifeless, mutilated bodies later dumped in desolate sites along the dusty, high-desert back roads of Juarez.)
Prior to embarking on this journey in search of the ghosts of Juarez, I decided to do a bit of reading, which led me to a recent story in the New York Times by reporter James C. McKinley Jr.
From McKinley’s story:
The recent violence ripping apart Ciudad Juárez stems from a gang war between former allies. On one side is the Carrillo Fuentes family and its point man here, José Luis Ledezma, known as J. L. On the other are several traffickers based in Sinaloa State, chief among them Joaquín Guzmán, known as El Chapo, and Ismael Zambada, known as El Mayo, said a federal prosecutor, who, like some others interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Their uneasy alliance has been strained since one of the Carrillo Fuentes brothers, Rodolfo, was assassinated in September 2004, officials say. Mr. Guzmán is widely believed to have been behind the killing.
One theory holds that the tension reached a breaking point in December when Mr. Zambada refused to pay the Juárez Cartel a tax for smuggling drugs through its area.
But a Mexican intelligence officer, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that since the assassination of Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, the Juárez Cartel has forged an alliance with the Gulf Cartel, led by the jailed kingpin Osiel Cárdenas Guillén and his lieutenants in Tamaulipas State, across the border from South Texas.
Wow! I thought. This NY Times’ reporter really has gone deep in reporting this story and seems to have a bead on the narco-trafficking underworld of Juarez. These characters, like El Chapo and El Mayo, seemed to jump off the page, like characters out of graphic novel.
My paranoia meter spiked even further. Was I really wise to venture into this land on the other side of the border at this time?
But then I did a little more research and ran across a story that Narco News publisher Al Giordano penned in 2005 that had this to say about McKinley’s reporting on the Zapatista communities of Chiapas:
(Not surprisingly, New York Times correspondent James W. McKinley — the latest nominee for King of the Planet of the Stupid People — neglected to visit any of these schools, or interview any of their students or the parents of them in his recent smear job based on a few days in just one Zapatista zone where McKinley continues to struggle with a Spanish language that he does not fully understand, not to mention the native Tzeltal tongue of the valley where he did his malicious byline toe-touch.)
Giordano’s warning is bolstered further by the fact that one of the narco-traffickers McKinley seems to claim is among the leaders in the current Juarez turf war is “jailed kingpin Osiel Cárdenas Guillén.”
My research of the public record led me to this little fact: Cardenas was extradited to the U.S. in January of last year. He's no longer in a Mexican prison, where he really could continue to run his narco-trafficking empire.
And the tax theory advanced by McKinley also didn’t make much sense under the surface — like these ruthless rival narco kingpins actually ride elevators together and sit down at conference tables in business suits to negotiate trade tariffs. It seems to me you don't let a rival drug lord run anything through your territory, tax or no tax, if you want to maintain total control of the market.
Plus, the NYT story only mentions the corruption of the local Juarez police, when the Mexican feds and military now deployed in Juarez are known to be steeped in narco-corruption, and likely lining up on some side in this Juarez turf war.
Another distraction to me in taking to heart McKinley’s reporting is the fact that the U.S. government informant who helped carry out the House of Death murders, and who clearly was an insider in the Juarez narco-trafficking world, had told me previously that Calderon’s predecessor, Mexican President Vicente Fox, had shown favor to the major narco-trafficking organization in Juarez — fronted by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes and a cast of other business partners.
Here’s how the informant Ramirez Peyro (himself a former Mexican cop) put it under oath during a hearing in a U.S. immigration court — where he is now seeking to prevent the U.S. government from deporting him to Mexico and a certain death:
… The [Juarez] cartel had arrangements with people that were close to President Fox [of Mexico]. He explained to me that President Fox took, took the position to arrange, consult with the cartel from Juarez to — which it, which it means that he was going to attack the, the enemy cartels being from Tijuana and from the Gulf, and then the cartel from Juarez would be operating with his court, you know, without the government being … on top of them.
Could it be that the New York Times story on Juarez was simply another “toe-touch” piece by McKinley? Could his seemingly thorough knowledge of Juarez’ narco-trafficking netherworld be little more than a script filled with “cartoon” characters — as Giordano suggested to me might be the case?
But this is the New York Times, the “nation’s newspaper.” Surely that could not be the case, right? If so, it would be a disheartening display of journalistic malfeasance.
So, it was with a mixed sense of foreboding and loathing that I set off for Juarez in search of the House of Death.
I did spend some time in El Paso during my quest for the House of Death. Fernando and I had lunch with a professor of public policy named Bill Weaver at a sub sandwich shop near the University of Texas at El Paso.
Weaver, whom I have known for several years, has lived in the El Paso/Juarez area for quite some time and has more than a little experience in researching the drug war. His areas of academic specialty are government abuse, secrecy and intelligence.
Weaver is far from the stereotypical academic type lacking in real-world experience — having served as an intelligence analysts for years with the U.S. military prior to his university gig and more recently as an expert witness on the international conventions against torture as applied to drug trafficking-related court cases.
Weaver relayed to me that his contacts (including "cartel" sources — some of whom do their business in Juarez but live in El Paso) tell him that the current Mexican federal police/military onslaught in Juarez plays right into the hands of the business interests of the dominate Juarez narco-trafficking organization, which in recent years, he says, has been facing increased competition from "independent operators."
He says whether Mexican President Calderon intends this or not (like our own president, questions of complicity or stupidity persist), the Juarez organization is taking advantage of the situation and its corrupt reach within the Mexican feds and military to take out the competition.
Weaver says the cops that have been killed in Juarez in recent months had, for the most part, lined up with the independent operators. Basically, he adds, most of the murders in Juarez’ ongoing bloody turf war have been part of this effort by the existing dominate narco-trafficking organization to consolidate power by eliminating the competition with the help of corrupt elements of Mexican federal law enforcement and the military, Weaver explains.
Weaver says the Juarez organization (which is akin to a large limited partnership composed of a variety of “businessmen” operating a complex company with multiple departments — logistics, transportation, human resources, finance, security, intelligence, sales) is now one of the largest, if not the largest, narco-trafficking businesses in the world.
Like the informant Ramirez-Peyro, Weaver says his sources say the Juarez organization has been favored by the Mexican government (at least under the Fox administration — and possibly even now under Calderon.)
“The Juarez organization is going to emerge from this [current bloodbath] stronger,” Weaver said. It could well become a monopoly, a true “cartel,” as a result of Calderon's decision to bring federal law enforcers and the military into Juarez.
As I munched on my sub, I couldn’t help but think that what Weaver was telling me left out all the cartoon characters (the El Chapos and El Mayos) that marked McKinley’s New York Times story. To me, Weaver seemed to be describing the emergence of a kind of Coca-Cola of the narco-trafficking world.
I sipped my Pepsi to wash down the sub sandwich and noticed that the people at the table across from us seemed a bit uneasy, like maybe we were talking too loud — or about a subject that is taboo in a fast-food joint. After all, such matters are best left to the two-dimensional drug-war coverage of the New York Times, where cartoon characters remain trapped safely on the page — to be enjoyed at a distance over expensive lattes.
We crossed the border from El Paso into Juarez in the early afternoon on Saturday, April 19. Fernando, who had flown in from London to film a story centered on Juarez, was in the backseat of Mary’s four-passenger pick-up truck. I was planted in the front passenger seat. Mary was at the wheel because she knew her way around the city.
We got the green light to proceed at the border crossing — a stroke of luck since that avoided being pulled over by Mexican Customs and having to explain why Fernando was packing a $10,000 professional camera.
We had earlier plotted our route to the House of Death on a map. The directions seemed simple enough — head south on Panamericana (a major boulevard in Juarez) to Ramon Rivera Lara and hang a left; then go right on Acequia Mayor, which runs right into the Parsioneros (a dead-end street where the House of Death is located at the address 3633).
We soon found ourselves negotiating the traffic on Panamericana. The sun was hot in the clear sky and the exhaust from the hundreds of buzzing vehicles was particularly aromatic, which might explain why I was less than alert when a Mexican Army HUMVEE suddenly pulled in front of us with its flat bed packed with eight or nine soldiers sporting assault rifles. We came to a stop at a traffic light behind the HUMVEE.
I noticed that one of the soldiers was holding his weapon across his knee, with the muzzle pointing in the general direction of this reporter’s face. He cracked a smile. I knew it was going to be all right, then – if only the traffic light changed soon (and the gun’s safety was switched on).
The House of Death is located several blocks off of Panamericana, near a large, seemingly new hotel. We pulled to a stop in front of a house on the short U-shaped Parsioneros Street. All of the houses on the street are connected to each other, like row houses, and they look very similar. But I knew what this house looked like; it had been in my dreams more than once in the four years I have been covering the House of Death murders.
Fernando and I got out, him with his camera and me with a chill up my spine. This was it, the house that had consumed so much of my life’s energy, the house where 12 corpses were found buried in the backyard; the house where human beings were tortured and murdered by Mexican cops on the payroll of a narco-trafficker, all with the help of a U.S. government informant, all to make a drug case that never went to trial; the house that spawned a major cover-up by the U.S. and Mexican governments.
It seemed too small to be that big.
The house was locked down, the windows covered from the inside with cardboard, the ghosts peaking out through the bars over its front door.
This house is small in this dimension, but it will suck you into the depths of existence. As you move into its shadow, the opaque yellowing walls will strike out at you like thousands of fingers, licks of stucco, that will rip your skin off if you brush against its history too closely.
But it is a place you cannot leave once you are allowed a glimpse inside the lime bags dumped in the corners, spreading their white dust out like cocaine over a stained floor. You will not see this portal into your deepest instincts until the light dims in your mind and the closets open up to reveal the carcasses wrapped in tarps.
The velvet easy chair, where a newspaper could be read in soft evening light, is an empty shell, rumpled, bent, stained with the sharp past of deceit broken like glass and wrapped in plastic around your head. The smell of ambition lingers still in this house where dreams are buried in shallow, rocky dirt beneath a sun-worn, splintered fence in its backyard.
This house has no place in time. It is stuck in the wavering street light of truth bent by the torque of a shovel across the back of the head, unplugged from its socket and pulled around the neck until it snaps. There is life on the surface here, behind the steel bars of the outer door into the world within the worlds, a life of a child playing on the green carpet, of the TV tuned to endless digital chatter, of the smell of barbeque. But it is an illusion as fleeting as smoke. For here, in this place, through these windows, light does not pass, only the bright spark of souls ripped away to another destiny. And what is left behind is death.
Fernando was done filming. The people walking on the nearby street were beginning to take notice of our presence.
It was time to leave.
We packed back into Mary’s truck, joking about our paranoia but all hoping that no one had copied down our license plate.
I would later discover after plotting out another map that two other narcofosas (mass graves) discovered in recent months by Mexican law enforcers in Juarez are both located along a line that intersects Panamericana— with the Parsioneros house at its center.
One of those houses, on Cocoyoc Street (where nine bodies were discovered) is less than a mile to the west of Parsioneros, right off of Panamericana. The second house, located on Pedregal Street, is about three miles to the east of Parsioneros. (See map at this link.)
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement sources told me that the bodies found at the Cocoyoc and Pedregal houses — most of them skeletons, in the ground four to five years — are linked to the House of Death case, though they could not provide any details beyond that. The informant Ramirez Peyro, via a previous interview conducted by e-mail, also told Narco News the following when asked if he was aware of any other mass graves in Juarez:
NARCO NEWS: Were there other similar operations in that neighborhood [Parsioneros], or in the Juárez area in general, that you were involved with or had knowledge of? If so, could you provide some details on those operations?
RAMIREZ PEYRO: From 2001 which was when they gave me the authorization to infiltrate the VCFO [Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization], I reported various incidents similar to this, and I stated unconditionally the highest of risk that I was running given that this organization and its members do not hesitate to kill and they laugh at their murders.
We entered the Camino Real Highway on the West Side of Juarez at a cement plant. It’s a four-lane highway divided by a guard rail and it cuts a path through the center of a mountain of rock, literally, some of which tends to fall onto the road from time to time.
We stopped about half way along this barren highway and pulled into a scenic overlook featuring strange cement arches, blocks of pavement that don’t quite line up, two port-a-potties and a large parking lot beneath the elevated overlook. This “tourist” draw overlooks the city of Juarez, offering a panoramic view that was ideal for Fernando’s film project.
Fernando set up his camera near a railing overlooking the smog line of Juarez. As he was filming, he spied two Juarez cops on motorcycles speeding by on the Camino Real below.
“This is perfect,” Fernando exclaimed, referring to the view.
After Fernando had spent 15 or 20 minutes filming under the hot sun, we decided to head back to Mary’s truck in the parking lot below the overlook.
As we were driving out, we notice a Juarez municipal police car, with lights flashing, blocking one side of the only exit out of the parking lot.
All of us became instantly focused.
This was a moment, I realized, where making the wrong choice could change your life — maybe even end it. It was clear to me the cop expected us to stop. We were expected to fear that if we drove past him through the entrance lane to the parking lot, we would be breaking a traffic law that would justify him pulling our vehicle over, Texas plates and all, and making our life difficult.
But my thoughts were more immediate, more about being trapped in that parking lot with a Juarez cop and whoever else might show up to assist him. At a minimum, I expected the cop would want to know what Fernando was filming and to explain what he (a Peruvian living in London) was doing in Juarez. That led down an ugly path for us — even a possible trip to the nick (British slang for a jail) that I did not relish experiencing as part of this odyssey.
“Go around him, “ I said.
Mary did just that, pulling onto the Camino Real Highway and hitting the gas.
“Where’s the next exit?” I asked.
“There is only one exit,” Mary replied, “at the end of the freeway.”
Seconds later, Fernando pointed out that the cop had pulled out of the overlook’s parking lot.
“He’s following us,” Mary said, with a note of dark concern.
“His lights are off now,” Fernando added — a fact that offered none of us much relief.
Oh, well, I thought … from the frying pan into the fire. I feared we would soon be cut off up the road by some more of Juarez’ finest, trapped on this moonscape highway surrounded by 100-foot high rock bluffs on either side with only our wits to defend against a dire wolf.
The crosses painted on the utility polls along the highway flashed by us, one after another, as we sped down the highway. Those black crosses encased in pink backgrounds, Mary explained, were memorials to the hundreds of women who were victims of the femicides. You see, the Camino Real’s only exit at the point we were at brings you just shy of the Lomas del Poleo community — a desperately impoverished neighborhood that was home to a number of the disappeared women.
Lomas del Poleo also is the site of another Juarez tragedy, an ongoing siege of a small neighborhood cobbled together with modest materials atop a mesa overlooking the other meager homes of Lomas.
Unfortunately for the residents of that mesa community, the land on which they built their homes, some as long ago as the 1970s, has now become prime real estate for development as part of a grand plan to capitalize on the existing Santa Theresa, N.M., border crossing and a proposed border crossing that would connect Sunland Park, N.M., and Anapra, Mexico — which are located not all that far from the mesa dweller's humble abodes. In fact, the whole point of the Camino Real highway is to serve as a fast, modern roadway for moving goods and people between Juarez and the future Sunland Park crossing as well as the Santa Theresa international port (soon to be the site of master-planned border sister cities). And the downtrodden Lomas community, in general, seems to be an impediment to the smooth enactment of these development plans being pursued by wealthy interests on both sides of the border.
So it seems no accident that Lomas outsiders have erected high concrete posts strung with sharp barbed-wire around the impoverished mesa community. Private security thugs and slightly underfed dogs guard the only entrance to the community, a gate through which only the residents are allowed to pass — no food deliveries allowed.
This service has been provided to the resident of the mesa not for their protection, but rather to make life very difficult for them in hopes of running them off the land to expedite future development plans. The strategy has been successful to an extent, as many of the mesa dwellers have moved on with little more than the clothes on their backs. In one case, Mary recounted, a widow with nine kids was visiting her dying child in the hospital only to return to the mesa community to find her house bulldozed. The community, she adds, has now been reduced to a hardcore group of about a 120 families — maybe fewer by now. (A March 2008 report by The North American Human Rights Delegation estimated that the number of homes still standing at the site is 92.)
I suspect this was the true source of the Juarez cops’ concern, that Fernando might bring the lens of his TV camera to this concentration camp on the mesa.
We continued down the highway, passing a dirt road to our right that led into a small enclave of shacks and partially walled stucco structures. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed two motorcycle cops poised on their bikes at the end of that road. The cop in the squad car was still tailing us, though he was now a ways back, a flicker of an image in the rearview mirror.
Mary soon came to the end of the highway. She veered off onto the exit – a traffic circle that led in one direction back up the other side of the highway and in the other direction into a neighborhood known as Carbonifera. We chose the latter route and were greeted once again by more crosses, a dead dog on the side of the road, and row after row of squalid homes, junk cars and people tending to their business – oblivious to our recent highway journey.
We didn’t stop.
To my relief, the cops, by now, had disappeared from sight, perhaps content that we were not headed for the concentration camp on the mesa.
As we drove through Carbonifera, which is on the far West Side of Juarez, snuggled up against the border, I could see the modern, neatly spaced homes and shiny officer towers of El Paso across the tiny sliver of the Rio Grande River and the bustling lanes of U.S. Interstate 10 beyond that river. Those barriers kept me in Juarez for now, but I knew I was going home later that day because I had a U.S. passport – and more than a bit of Irish luck it seems. For the people of Lomas and Carbonifera, though, there was no escape.
They could not swim against the riptide of the border. That would be a hopeless endeavor, because it is far too strong. The best they could hope to do is to swim along that riptide while treading in the deep waters of this border city, hoping at some point to find a weak spot in the current that they could cut through to the warmer, shallower waters on the U.S. side. Until then, Juarez was their world, with all its ugly warts and tragedy; it was their home; it was their family.
I did not belong here, nor could I begin to really overrstand it. I was on borrowed time in their land.
But, unlike what McKinley wrote in his newspaper, Juarez was not a place of cartoons. Any quest here for that two-dimensional picture drawn out in the New York Times story would end in vain.
Juarez exists in many dimensions along this border between what is and what will be. In this case, I (like the Times writer who penned the drug war story) was the one playing the part of the gringo cartoon character – the Scooby Doo with no clue who was now hightailing it out of town, back to the enchanted land across the border where all the other cartoons live.