Judge's House of Death ruling reveals the truth of the drug war

The U.S. government must surely be greasing up its spin machine in the wake of a federal judge’s recent ruling in a lawsuit filed by the families of the House of Death murder victims.

“We did nothing wrong, see,” will almost certainly be the message pumped out by the U.S. government to anyone in the media who seeks to avoid complexity or rocking the boat and is not averse to presenting talking points as news.

In fact, it would not be surprising for the government agents at the center of the House of Death controversy to now proclaim their innocence and decry their victimization and actively seek the spotlight — maybe even in the hope of cashing in on the House of Death bloodshed via book contracts and movie deals.

That is how the game is played in America.
But those of you who have been following the House of Death story on Narco News, by now, know this story is far to deep to be reduced to simple sound bytes. And for those of you who are new to this story, and care to read on, that reality will soon become apparent.

The families of the House of Death murder victims filed their lawsuit in December 2005 in federal court in El Paso, Texas. They accused the government and certain of its agents of constitutional violations and negligence stemming from actions, or lack of actions, which resulted in their loved ones being tortured, murdered and buried in the backyard of a house in Juarez, Mexico.

The federal judge in the case, Frank Montalvo, essentially adopted the government’s arguments in the House of Death case wholesale in issuing his ruling earlier this week.

He dismissed the families' claims against the United States government as well as the claims against individual government agents, including Assistant U.S. Attorney Juanita Fielden and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)  supervisors Giovanni Gaudioso, Patricia Kramer, Curtis Compton and ICE agent Raul Bencomo.

Judge Montalvo ruled, in essence, that the families could not establish legal claims under federal and state of Texas negligence statutes because either those laws didn’t apply to the murder victims since the crimes occurred in Mexico, or, in the alternative, because the government owed no duty to protect the victims from the acts of third parties — such as the Juarez-based narco-trafficking cell that operated the House of Death.

From the judge’s Aug. 20 ruling:

Pursuant to the FTCA [the Federal Tort Claims Act], there is no subject matter jurisdiction for claims “based on the exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty [in this case, preventing murder] on the part of a federal agency or employee of the Government….”

The judge also dismissed the claims against the individual ICE agents and U.S. prosecutor because he determined that the families had failed to establish a proper claim that their constitutional rights, or those of the murder victims, had been violated.

Montalvo points out in his ruling, that "public officials (such as ICE agents and U.S. prosecutors) are entitled to “qualified immunity” for their actions on the job unless they violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which reasonable individuals would be aware.”

“None of Plaintiffs’ [families’] allegations, even if true, sufficiently establish constitutional liability on the part of any of the individual Defendants [the ICE agents or U.S. prosecutor],” Montalvo states in his ruling.

It is key here to note that Montalvo comes to his conclusions in this case even in light of assuming all of the families' allegations are “true.” This is a quite amazing revelation about the nature of our law with respect to murder.

Hired Killer

The major allegation in this case, which is supported by the government’s own documents, is that an informant (Guillermo Ramirez Peyro) who was on the payroll of ICE (paid some $200,000 for his service) assisted, and in some cases participated, in the murders of about a dozen people at the House of Death in Juarez, Mexico, between August 2003 and mid-January 2004.

The families’ lawyer also alleges (and immigration court testimony by the informant himself supports this) that ICE agents were made aware of these murders, sometimes in advance of the killings, yet continued to send the informant back to the House of Death time and time again over the course of five months — after receiving approvals from high-level officials at ICE headquarters as well as from the Department of Justice.

From the informant’s under-oath testimony in U.S. Immigration Court — where he is currently fighting deportation:

Government attorney: Did you tell your — the ICE officers that you were aware that Mr. Santillan [the boss of the Juarez narco-trafficking cell] had ordered the deaths of people associated with the cartel [the victims at the House of Death]?

Ramirez Peyro: Yes.

Government attorney: Did you tell them before, right before it happened?

Ramirez Peyro: Yeah, several occasions. For example, in one occasion in Chicago, and Santillan talks to me, so I could send the boy there to open the house [the House of Death in Juarez] and me being in Chicago with the agents from ICE, and they knew because I authorize for them to hear my phone conversations. And besides that, I told them what’s going on, and in El Paso they [ICE agents] were listening my phone calls.

The whole bloody affair came to an abrupt end when the killers — Mexican cops on Santillan’s payroll — nearly assassinated a DEA agent and his family. At that point, ICE officials and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Antonio chose to finally arrest Santillan and pull their informant, himself a former Mexican cop, out of the field.

So, even granting that all of this is true, Judge Montalvo still determined that the families’ case has to be dismissed because the ICE agents and the U.S. prosecutor overseeing the case committed no foul under existing law.

In other words, even though the government employed the killer, and knew he was committing murder, neither the government nor its agents bear any liability for the deaths of the victims. The fault, according to the judge’s interpretation of the law, falls completely on another party: those nasty drug war villains, the narco-traffickers.

From the judge’s ruling:

The record reflects the often-cited carne asadas [at the House of Death] were gruesome murder “parties” conducted by vicious men and women.

Considering the record as a whole, this Court concludes that, with or without Ramirez’s involvement, this is how these types of groups operate.

… Even assuming the Defendants [the ICE agents and prosecutor] had foreknowledge of the murders occurring in Mexico, the Court concludes the only arguable duty, if any, on their part would have been to notify Mexican law enforcement.

However, the Court concludes the evidence fails to show how any of the Defendants played a part in creating the circumstances leading to the murders or did anything to render the Plaintiffs [the victims] more vulnerable to such circumstances.

ICE officials did, in fact, inform the Mexican government of the first House of Death murder, but claimed their informant had only “witnessed” a murder in Juarez — when he, in fact, supervised and participated in that murder. So it is clear from that written communication from ICE to Mexican federal officials that the truth in this case was being concealed from the Mexican government.

ICE officials in El Paso also informed DEA’s Juarez office about the first “murder incident” at the House of Death, but ICE did not provide DEA with sufficient information to identify the location of the house. In addition, ICE officials in El Paso refused to allow the informant to assist DEA with locating the house because they claimed it would jeopardize the safety of their informant.

Had the DEA been furnished with the location of the House of Death and if the Mexican government had been made aware that the informant participated in the first murder, could it not be argued that actions might have been taken by DEA or the Mexican government to prevent future murders at the House of Death, or does that not matter?

Apparently not, according to Judge Montalvo’s interpretation of the law. It appears there’s nothing wrong, at last in a legal sense, with the government employing an informant who participates in murder, particularly if the murders are going to happen anyway.

After all, people are killed every day in the drug war, so why should it matter?

Legal Shortcomings

To be fair to the judge, the case presented to him by the families’ attorney, Raul Loya of Dallas, arguably could have been wrapped in a better package.

It might be that Loya was simply outgunned by the array of lawyers lined up against him — by the government’s stable of esquires and the attorneys for the individual defendants. It seems clear that the evidence he mustered to the families’ cause, based on the judge’s own admonishment, was, to some degree, lacking in legal fine tuning.

From Judge Montalvo’s ruling:

The Court here takes the unusual step of issuing the following admonishment to Plaintiffs’ counsel Mr. Raul Loya (“Attorney Loya”). Throughout their filings, Plaintiffs make numerous factual allegations which are not supported by the documentary evidence claimed. In deciding the instant motions, the Court checked every single allegation against the documentary evidence and found numerous discrepancies. The Court cautions Plaintiffs’ counsel that it will not tolerate misleading statements and sanctions will result for any further such conduct.

However, in light of some new evidence that surfaced only days prior to the judge making his ruling (and which he did not consider as part of his ruling), it is clear that there is now some reason to believe that the government might have been less than forthcoming in its own pleadings in the case.

That is a factor which also must be considered in passing judgment on Montalvo’s ruling — and it will be discussed further in a bit.

To date, the government and its agents, for their part, contend that they did not know, nor could they have foreseen, that the informant would be involved in future murders at the House of Death after the first murder.

Apparently, they were ignorant of what the judge presumed in his ruling is a given, that “this is how these types of groups [narco-traffickers, whom the ICE informant worked for at the House of Death] operate.”

At a minimum, ICE agents most certainly were aware that the informant was charged with overseeing the burial of the bodies at the House of Death, since they actually allowed him to return to Juarez after the first murder to pay the gravedigger. In fact, that gravedigger later told the DEA that the informant was present for at least five of the murders at the House of Death.

In some cases, the informant even purchased lime in advance of the murders to aid in decomposing the bodies he was to bury. You would think that might have made someone at ICE at least a bit suspicious about their informant’s activities at the House of Death.

The informant describes a second murder at the House of Death, at which he was present, in a February 2004 statement he provided to Mexican authorities:

At that point, [Mexican police commander Miguel] Loya told them to lift their shirts over their faces so that they wouldn’t’ see the boss [Santillan]. At that point, Loya put tape around their heads, but they could still breathe and one of them began to moan loudly, so Loya shot him in the head with a pistol with a silencer, but he didn’t die immediately. Upon hearing this the other one began to struggle and was shot in the head as well. After they were dead, Alex and I put them under the staircase of the Parsioneros house [the House of Death] and later they were buried.

If you or I engaged in that activity, might we not expect to be deemed accomplices to murder in the court of world opinion?

In light of these facts, it is not unfair to entertain the possibility that the judge was predisposed — due to political allegiances or relationships (perhaps just his human nature) — to grasp at any legal theory, no matter how thin, to dispose of the litigation and the embarrassment it represented to the administration that put him on the bench.

But I can only raise these matters as questions, possibilities, and lay out the bare facts as they exist, or can be discerned, from the convoluted course of this particular odyssey in U.S. jurisprudence — as should be the role of a free press. Ultimately, though, it is up to you, kind reader, to draw your own conclusions.

In all of it, though, you should consider that what might be most lacking in our justice system is a fundamental, horse-sense notion of fairness and truth. Instead, it seems, justice in this nation leans in favor of the party that can marshal to its side the most money and power to twist the truth into a partisan advantage under a putrid smokescreen of elitist intellectual sophistry.

In simple terms, as you reflect on the House of Death, ask yourself: If the murder victims had been upper-class white Canadians with families in Detroit, instead of poor Mexicans with families in El Paso, might the lawyers for the victims have been more effective and might the judge in the case have been more inclined to interpret the law in their favor?

That assumes a double standard in the U.S. justice system, but then that is not a new proposition.

A double standard on the truth, however, is a hypocrisy (a forked tongue) — which seems to be a major theme slithering through policies that define the war on drugs. And make no mistake about it, the House of Death provides us with a front-row view of the serpentine underbelly of that “war.”

Bush’s Bench

Judge Montalov is arguably a judicial product of the Bush administration. He was appointed to the bench in 2003 by President Bush and is one of only four U.S. District Court judges in El Paso — which is part of the federal Western District of Texas. Prior to his appointment to the federal bench, Montalvo served as state of Texas district court judge in San Antonio, Texas.

One of his former colleagues in the Alamo City offers high praise for Montalvo in a story that appeared in the El Paso Times:

”His integrity is impeachable," said State District Court Judge David Peeples of San Antonio. "I think he's a straight-shooter, as straight as they come.”

Montalvo is not alone in having connections to San Antonio. Johnny Sutton, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas, also is based in San Antonio. Sutton’s office played a key role in the House of Death since it was responsible for prosecuting the case that was being put together by ICE with the help of their informant.  

In fact, one of Sutton’s Assistant U.S. Attorneys, Juanita Fielden, was named as a defendant in the lawsuit filed by the families of the House of Death victims.

The former agent in command of DEA’s El Paso office, Sandalio Gonzalez, has accused Sutton of working to cover up the full extent of the government’s role in the House of Death murders. Gonzalez recently was awarded a $385,000 by the Department of Justice as part of a legal settlement that was related, in part, to Sutton’s alleged role in that cover-up effort.

To this day, a joint DEA/ICE investigation into the House of Death, called the JAT report, has been suppressed by both agencies, despite efforts to seek its release through Freedom of Information Act requests.  

Sutton, a close friend of President Bush, was appointed U.S. Attorney in San Antonio in 2001, and so would have served in that post at the same time as Montalvo was a Texas state judge in the city. Both, then, owe their positions to President Bush, whose administration could face great embarrassment, and potential legal liability, if it were determined that the U.S. government was complicit in the House of Death murders.

But those facts alone do not prove that Montalvo might be inclined toward prejudice in his handling of the families’ House of Death litigation. After all, judges are presumed to be impartial when it comes to matters before their courts.

But at least one person has taken issue with Montalvo’s courtroom judgment in a separate case that is related to the House of Death.

Not in my Courtroom

Attorney Mark Conrad, a former high-level supervisor with U.S. Customs (which has since become part of ICE), was twice denied permission by Montalvo to represent a client, ICE employee Renae Baros, in his court.

In both cases, Montalvo refused to grant Conrad “pro hac vice”standing in the court without any explanation. (Pro hac vice standing is a temporary status granted to an attorney who seeks to represent a client in a jurisdiction in which he is not currently practicing law. Conrad is a member in good standing with the federal Southern District of Texas, but not licensed in the federal Western District of Texas.)

Conrad appealed Montalvo’s decision to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which then ordered Montalvo to re-examine his decision. Montalvo did just that, reversing his refusal to grant Conrad standing. Montalvo then removed himself from the Baros case and another judge was appointed.

From Montalvo’s Jan. 22, 2007, decision in the matter:

… After carefully reviewing the Fifth Circuit’s opinion, the Court finds that it should reconsider its earlier decision regarding Conrad’s motion to appear pro hac vice.

… Accordingly, the Court finds it should allow Conrad to practice before the Court in this case [the Baros case].

… In addition, to dispel any concerns or appearances that might arise from [my] future rulings in this case, the Court recuses itself from this matter.

Accordingly, the Clerk of this Court shall immediately transfer this [case] to the docket of United States District Judge Harry Lee Hudspeth.

Now this may all appear to be little more than legal minutia to those who are not attorneys. But in this case, Conrad’s request to represent Baros promised to be a bit of a thorn in the side of the government with respect to the House of Death. So it might not be considered unreasonable, if we accept that a cover-up is in play, to question whether the Bush administration sought to call in some chips to assure Conrad was kept at bay.

Baros’ litigation accuses ICE of discriminating and retaliating against her after she reported that an ICE supervisor had sexual harassed her. In her lawsuit, Baros alleges that ICE supervisor Patricia Kramer was one of the major perpetrators of the discrimination and retaliation. And remember, Kramer also is named as a defendant in the litigation brought by the families of the victims of the House of Death.

Prior to recusing himself from the Baros case, Montalvo was sitting in judgment for both cases, and should have been very well aware of the Kramer connection from the pleadings entered in both cases.

And Conrad, as part of his legal work on the Baros case, has since brought to light damaging new allegations related to Kramer and ICE supervisor Compton (also a defendant in the families' litigation) that have a direct bearing on the House of Death.

Specifically, recent pleadings in the Baros lawsuit, filed in El Paso, claim that Kramer “falsified government documents to improperly pay government informants.” The pleadings also assert that she demonstrated a callous indifference to the House of Death murder victims by referring to them as “just Mexicans.”  

Government attorneys in the Baros case, in response to the allegation that Kramer falsified documents, submitted documents to the judge in the case for his private inspection.

On Aug. 20, the judge stated the following in a ruling that precludes the Kramer evidence from being used in the Baros case:

… The Defendant [the government] has now produced for the Court’s inspection a report of an [ICE] internal agency investigation which occurred in late 2004 [while the House of Death criminal case was still being litigated]; a memorandum signed by Acting Special Agent in Charge Jesus Torres; and a settlement agreement to which Kramer was party.

The 2004 investigation and the Torres memorandum dealt with allegations that Kramer, whose title was Associate Special Agent in Charge in the El Paso [ICE] office, had failed to comply with certain agency rules and policies in connection with one particular criminal investigation [not described].

The Torres memorandum proposed her removal from the service.

Neither the report of investigation nor the Torres memorandum accused Kramer of “the falsification of government documents.”

… One of the terms of the settlement agreement was that the proposed removal was rescinded [and Kramer subsequently retired from ICE].”

With respect to Compton, pleadings in the Baros litigation allege that he failed to “timely report” information related to the House of Death case and also, in a separate matter, that he engaged in violence in the workplace, misused a government vehicle and made “false statements” to government investigators.

In addition, an ICE internal affairs supervisor, testified under oath that the agency subsequently “re-colored,” or whitewashed, Compton’s disciplinary record, which resulted in him receiving only a one-day suspension.

Given the allegation in the Baros lawsuit that ICE supervisor Compton has a past track record of making false statements to law enforcement agents, Compton’s credibility with respect to his claims of ignorance in the House of Death murders might now be deemed suspect.

Likewise, as a result of the Baros lawsuit, now in question is the veracity of Kramer, who, according to a federal judge, committed a violation of ICE rules related to a criminal investigation that was serious enough for an ICE commander to recommend her removal from the agency.

And given the whitewashing allegations raised in the Compton case, it is hard for us to really know if the full story on Kramer’s proposed dismissal was presented to the judge in the Baros case.  

In any event, it is clear that Conrad’s prowess as an attorney has helped to reveal some disturbing allegations about two of the ICE agents who were central to the House of Death.

The Inside Game

Judge Montalvo (and the Bush administration attorneys) likely would have known from the Baros pleadings that Conrad would be in a position to probe into the records of key ICE players in the House of Death case and potentially expose information harmful to the government’s efforts to bury the House of Death. That has to be considered when assessing Judge Montalvo’s treatment of Conrad and his two denials, without explanation, of Conrad’s application for pro hac vice standing in the Baros case.

Again, this does not prove any quid pro quo arrangement between Montalvo and Bush administration officials, but as a public servant employed by the citizens, Montalvo also should not be given a free pass from scrutiny with respect to his judicial actions — particularly if they create an appearance of a conflict of interest.

And clearly, the government’s lawyers were concerned about Conrad’s ability to cause them heartburn over the House of Death, since in the Baros pleadings themselves, the government’s attorneys advanced the following argument in seeking a protective order to prevent Conrad from questioning Kramer and ICE supervisor Compton about their disciplinary records:

From the government’s motion for a protective order in the Baros case:

… Kramer and Compton are named defendants in a civil lawsuit [filed by the families of the victims of the House of Death] the basis of which arose during their tenure in El Paso. …

To the extent that any disciplinary history may exist, there is a likely possibility that this information may unfairly be used in an effort to undermine Ms. Kramer’s and Mr. Compton’s legal rights in the lawsuit….

[The government’s attorneys fail to note, though, that the government itself was a defendant in the families’ litigation.]

Adding to the note of concern on this front is the fact that Judge Montalvo issued his ruling dismissing the families' claims in the House of Death litigation on Aug. 20, only six days after Conrad filed pleadings in court on the Baros case exposing the troubling allegations about Kramer and Compton. This coincidence in the timing of the judge’s ruling assured that the new evidence could not be further explored in the families’ lawsuit.

Parlor Tricks

Even if it could be shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that the government, or its agents, knowingly broke the law in the House of Death mass murder, and are still working to cover-up that fact, I suspect there would be some arcane legal theory that could be stretched over the truth to project the illusion of justice.

That underlying truth, though, is hard to sidestep, despite all the government’s legal rationalizations to date.

The truth is that an informant, employed by the U.S. government and under the supervision of federal agents and U.S. prosecutors, assisted and participated in mass murder in Juarez, Mexico.

Over the past three years of covering the House of Death mass murder, I have experience many emotions, both high and low, and entertained numerous thoughts and theories about what this tragedy says about our country and it’s relentless, hopeless drug war.

I have finally come to this conclusion: It doesn’t matter what our bought-and-paid-for courts, Congress, White House and mainstream media say or do anymore. They are all playing a parlor game that has nothing to do with the interest of the common citizen and everything to do with the interest of the privileged few – first and foremost themselves.

What matters, I’ve determined, is what we the people think, say and do. We are the first, and last, hope for our democracy. If most of us determine something should change, that maybe truth and equal justice should matter, then the parlor game that excludes us from our own country will come to an end — and even the so-called war on drugs is not immune from that result.

Absent that kind of power to the people, I, and you, kind reader, have to come to grips with what one former federal agent said of Judge Montalvo’s recent ruling in the families’ House of Death lawsuit:

It is an absurd ruling, but one that is indicative of the special corrupt relationship many politicians have with Mexico. Both nations simply didn't give a shit — because they are just Mexicans! What a travesty.

Stay tuned….

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