Dallas Morning News is all hat, no cattle in House of Death story

The Dallas Morning News this week published a self-promoting editorial that would lead readers to believe they alone are responsible for exposing the horrors of the House of Death mass murder case and the ensuing cover-up by the U.S. government.

But that spin, it turns out, is like the paper's coverage of the story itself: half-baked.

Still, the fact that the story continues to remain in the public eye, regardless of which media are keeping a spotlight on the tragedy, is really what matters. Media coverage, if pursued consistently over time, can prompt those in power to address problems that they might otherwise be content to ignore.

Counting coup on who got the scoop first is really only a game that matters to media insiders, and their egos.

However, given the mainstream daily’s bravado in its recent editorial, it seems only appropriate to set the record straight — for those counting such points — on who reported what and when on the House of Death story. From the Dallas Morning News’ editorial:

Two Years and No Answers: U.S. must resolve El Paso informant case

Monday, March 13, 2006

It's been two years since Dallas Morning News reporter Alfredo Corchado first reported that officials in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in El Paso knew their paid informant was doing more than helping them crack a Mexican drug cartel.
While on ICE's payroll, Guillermo Eduardo Ramírez Peyro, a.k.a. Lalo, was also orchestrating cartel-ordered assassinations, which he referred to as carne asadas, or barbecues. One of those victims was a U.S. citizen.

… The El Paso office has been in turmoil with suspensions, relocations and resignations since The News broke the story in 2004. A spokeswoman said privacy laws prohibit the agency from releasing information but said it takes "all allegations of misconduct seriously and resolves them with expediency."

First, Narco News has never claimed that it “broke” the initial news on the House of Death. The Dallas Morning News did publish the first stories about the U.S. government informant’s role in the murders of up to a dozen people in Ciudad Juárez – a fact that Narco News acknowledges in its initial coverage of the story.

The Initial Dallas Morning News Stories

(The Dallas Morning News stories pulled together for this analysis were found through a search of its online archives. Because the daily newspaper requires registration to view it’s stories, and charges a fee to access archived stories, links to the story abstracts below are not provided.)

11 corpses found in yard of suspected Mexican drug lord

Posted on Wed, Jan. 28, 2004


The Dallas Morning News

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico - (KRT) - Authorities digging through the back yard of an alleged drug lord have unearthed at least 11 bodies, the latest casualties in what officials described as an ongoing turf war waged by rival traffickers.

Customs informant, drug killings linked

Sources say U.S. authorities knew of role in smugglers' deaths

Publish Date: March 14, 2004

U.S. customs officials knew last summer that an informant on their payroll supervised the torture and killing of suspected drug smugglers in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and intervened only when two U.S. drug enforcement agents were targeted for assassination, sources told The Dallas Morning News.

The informant continued working for the Juárez drug cartel and its chief, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, while providing details of the cartel's operations to Immigration and Customs....

Informant's role in drug slayings angers Mexico

Publish Date: April 3, 2004

Mexican authorities are angry about a report that a paid informant for a U.S. government agency supervised murders for a drug cartel in Mexico and that the agency did not share that knowledge, a senior Mexican law enforcement official said.

The actions of the informant and the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, were "reckless, irresponsible," said the official, who spoke this week on condition of anonymity.

On April 22, 2004, Narco News reported its first story on the House of Death. It was a magazine-length investigative story based on original reporting, including interviews with numerous law enforcement sources. Below are a few passages from that initial story, which further advanced the story by bringing to light numerous details and connections that had not been previously reported.

The House of Death

 U.S. Prosecutors Protect an Informant Who Killed Mexican Citizens, as Two DEA Agents Barely Escaped Alive

 Special to The Narco News Bulletin

 April 22, 2004

… The informant, say the law enforcement sources, participated in many of the murders – on at least one occasion wearing a wire for his U.S. police agency handlers. But they believe that the key player overseeing the House of Death was 35-year-old Miguel Loya-Gallegos, a night-shift comandante with the state police of Chihuahua, Mexico; the indicted, but disappeared, co-defendant in the Santillan case.

… The informant’s handlers at ICE in El Paso became aware of the death house at least by August of 2003, when the informant told his handlers that he had participated in a murder there, a murder that was caught on tape because the informant was wearing a wire that day. At that point, DEA officials, who were clued into the ICE operation, wanted to make Mexican officials aware of the murder and to pull in the ropes on Santillan and the ICE sting.

However, officials with ICE and the U.S. Attorney’s Office refused to shut the investigation down. The reason, according to multiple sources, was that exposing the informant’s participation in the murder would have crashed not only the Santillan [narco-trafficking] sting, but also the Abraham cigarette-smuggling case – because the same informant was a key player in making both cases.

… To make matters worse, if that’s possible, these same sources contend that a cover-up is now underway within the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security (the parent agency of ICE) to prevent the facts of what has happened from surfacing. Multiple law enforcement sources indicate they fear that documents are being shredded as part of the cover-up effort.

The Dallas Morning News then reported weeks later that an apparent cover-up was underway.

Drug slaying cover-up alleged
Sources: Memo altered on informant's role in Mexican suspect's death

Publish Date: May 14, 2004

U.S. federal agents altered an internal memorandum in an effort to cover up a renegade informant's participation in the killing of a suspected Mexican drug trafficker, according to four current and former U.S. officials.

And agents of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement listened in live from El Paso as the killing unfolded across the border in Ciudad Juárez, the officials told The Dallas Morning News. They said the informant was equipped with a live wire….

Then, from June 4, 2004, through Dec. 30, 2004, Narco News wrote a series of six stories that followed the House of Death news coverage of the Dallas Morning News, the Washington Times, the San Antonio Express News and the El Paso Times. Those Narco News stories provided analysis and additional facts that put into perspective and helped to better frame, and at times advance, the news the mainstream papers were reporting about the ongoing House of Death investigation. In those stories, we credited the mainstream dailies for the news they did report first.

So far so good. The media is operating, as it should, by advancing the story as multiple outlets work independently to get at the real truth.

However, on Feb. 18, 2005, Narco News took the clear lead in breaking the news on the House of Death with the following story:

House of Death exploded by former DEA supervisor's revelation

Posted on Fri Feb 18th, 2005 at 12:28:42 AM EST

A startling claim has surfaced in a document filed in federal court by a former DEA supervisor. The claim raises serious questions about a U.S. Attorney’s handling of evidence in the case of accused murderer and drug-trafficker Heriberto Santillan-Tabares.

Former DEA agent Sandalio Gonzalez drops the bombshell on the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Antonio in one short paragraph tucked into the pleadings of an employment discrimination case he has pending against the Department of Justice.

Gonzalez, who, until his retirement last month, oversaw the DEA’s El Paso field office, makes the following assertion in a motion filed earlier this week in federal district court in Miami:

"On August 20, 2004, Defendant (the Department of Justice) continued to retaliate against Plaintiff (Gonzalez) for exercising his protected rights by issuing him a Performance Appraisal Record that was a downgrade from his previous outstanding appraisal due to Defendant’s unfounded allegations that Plaintiff exercised “extremely poor judgment” when Plaintiff issued a letter to the Special Agent in Charge of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), El Paso, Texas Field Office, and the Office of the United States Attorney (USAO), Western District of Texas, expressing his “frustration and outrage” at the mishandling of an informant in a drug investigation that resulted in several preventable murders in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico and endangered the lives of DEA Special Agents and their families assigned to duty in Mexico."

That Narco News story was followed less than a month later by another exclusive story about the whistleblower letter sent by Gonzalez to the ICE chief in El Paso and to U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton. Included in that follow-up story was the unredacted text of the actual letter, which was obtained by Narco News through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Former DEA supervisor's letter opens new door on House of Death

Posted on Wed Mar 23rd, 2005 at 02:34:12 AM EST

Narco News has uncovered a well-kept secret through a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Following is the list of government agencies who don’t want you to know this secret, and which have to date, to one degree or another, contributed to keeping it covered up: The U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Antonio, the DEA, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and at least two agencies charged with investigating corruption in federal law enforcement -- the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General.

The Dallas Morning News then reported its first story on Gonzalez' whistleblower letter on March 29, 2005 -- without mentioning that Narco News posted the entire letter on its Web site six days earlier.

From the Dallas Morning News' story:

Ex-agent: Life, law flouted in Mexico
Obstruction of justice, disregard for operatives' safety alleged in memo

Publish Date: March 29, 2005

In a newly released letter, a senior U.S. law enforcement official blasts a branch of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for its handling of a paid informant involved in a series of drug-related killings on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The letter, written by Sandalio González, former special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's El Paso office and a 32-year law enforcement veteran, accuses agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and ….

After that breathless revelation, the Dallas Morning News reported only one other story on the House of Death through the end of 2005, based on a search of the paper’s online archives.

That lone story was about a plea deal struck between U.S. Attorney Sutton’s office and the narco-trafficker Santillan. That story was published on April 20, 2005, with the following headline:

Suspected drug trafficker in Juárez cartel gets plea deal
Man gets 25 years for smuggling; murder charges are dropped

However, between late March 2005 and March 2006, Narco News continued to pursue the story and the cover-up, publishing some 15 stories and ferreting out hundreds of pages of documents through Freedom of Information Act requests. That coverage revealed that the cover-up of the U.S. government’s complicity in the House of Death mass murder could be traced to the upper reaches of the Justice Department -- a documented trail that the Dallas Morning News, to date, has failed to follow-up on in any of its coverage.

You can access those stories at the following links:

House of Death investigative series to date

Tracking the bloody footprints in the House of Death

Still, with all of the exclusive coverage, investigative journalism and analysis that Narco News has brought to this far-reaching story over the course of two years, the Dallas Morning News has refused to acknowledge those facts, and continues to pound its chest about “breaking the story” even while it dropped the ball and failed to continue pursuing the story.

In its recent editorial, the newspaper scolds Congress for failing to follow-up on the Dallas Morning News’ supposed exclusive coverage, essentially accusing our fearless leaders in Washington of being missing in action for two years. The editorial even references former DEA El Paso chief Gonzalez, referring to him as a “whistleblower.” Yet the mainstream daily failed to mention that it was Narco News that first “broke” the news about Gonzalez’ whistleblowing and then continued to follow the leads and the paper trail resulting from his initial protests.

Again, from the Dallas Morning News’ recent editorial:

Expediency? It's been two years. Back in 2004, we urged Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn to push the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate this. His office said it hadn't heard back. The whistleblower, Sandalio González, of the El Paso field division of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said he's met with the committee investigators twice, and still no results.

Our country can't preach the rule of law while tolerating these murky dealings and allowing our own agents to possibly become accomplices to murder. To our congressional leaders: Why are you dragging your feet?

Given that the Dallas Morning News itself has failed to report on major developments in the House of Death, and at one point had nearly a year lapse in covering the story, it sure seems like chastising Congress is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. In addition, by suggesting that it is only federal agents who are complicit in the murders, the mainstream daily fails to speak the real truth to power, to let its readers know that a U.S. attorney and high-level leaders in our nation’s capital in this case are facilitating the cover-up.

For my money, the Dallas Morning News’ handling of the House of Death story is best likened to the playground tactic of being a  “goal hanger.” A goal-hanger is that look-at-me player who hangs out by the goal waiting to kick the ball in the net, to impress the fans, while all the other players do the hard work of driving the ball up the field.

The bottom line, though, is not about who scores the first goal, but rather, who wins the game, who exposes the truth of the story. And by that measure, in my view, the Dallas Morning News clearly dropped the ball.

But in this game, it’s not the media players who are the judges of which team plays with the most heart. It is you, the reader; so ultimately, the call is yours.

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