The Ghost of Christmas Past returns to the House of Death

The House of Death refuses to be still, even as Christmas approaches.

Yet more revelations have escaped the icy clutches of the grave to illuminate this dark story and its trail of death.

Those revelations center on the fate of one of the last victims at the House of Death, where up to a dozen people were tortured and killed between August 2003 and mid-January 2004 under the supervision of an informant who was on the payroll of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The informant, Guillermo Ramirez Peyro, is a former Mexican cop who worked for a Juarez subsidiary of the powerful Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (VCF) drug organization. He had achieved some standing in the VCF organization, which made him of particular value to ICE as an informant.

Among Ramirez Peyro’s duties as a player in the VCF Juarez operation was coordinating — and, in some cases, participating in — the murders at the House of Death, located at 3633 Parsioneros. The carnage carried out at the house was visited upon individuals who were wrapped up in the narco-trafficking world and had somehow run afoul of the VCF and one of its top bosses in Juarez, Heriberto Santillan-Tabares

Luis Padilla doesn’t seem to fit the description of the typical victim, however. He was a mechanic and family man who lived in El Paso, Texas, just across the river from Jaurez.
But for some reason still not clear, he became a target of the VCF and its House of Death.

Now, as a result of a document filed recently in federal court in El Paso, we have been provided with at least a glimpse of the circumstances surrounding Luis Padilla’s fate -- from the point of view of his widow, Janet Padilla. The document – a sworn affidavit by Janet Padilla – is evidence in a pending lawsuit filed by the families of the victims of the House of Death murders. Their lawsuit names as defendants the ICE officials and U.S. prosecutor who allegedly allowed the informant Ramirez Peyro to participate in murder in order to advance a drug case and their careers.

The testimony

In her affidavit, drafted on Oct. 6, Janet Padilla provides a chilling account of her husband’s disappearance on Jan. 14, 2004. His body was later dug up in the backyard of the House of Death. According to a timeline prepared by the DEA, between Jan. 23, 2004 and Feb. 3, 2004, a total of 12 bodies were unearthed at the house on Parsioneros Street in Juarez.

Among the details from the timeline (paraphrased):

Jan. 26, 2004: Seven additional bodies are found at the House of Death, one of which is wrapped in a newspaper dated Jan. 14, 2004. Mexican law enforcers also find a hole that contains a pile of clothing.

February 3, 2004: The search for bodies at the House of Death is completed. A total of 12 bodies have been found, including the three individuals who were tortured and murdered on January 14, 2004.

From Janet Padilla’s affidavit:

My name is Janet Padilla. I am over the age of 21 years and in all ways competent to make this affidavit. All of the facts stated herein are within my personal knowledge and are true and correct.

I have been a legal resident of the United States since 1986 and I am eligible to become a citizen. I was married to Luis Padilla in 1996 and remained very close to him during our marriage. We have three children. I spoke to my husband at least four or five times a day on his cell phone.

On or about Jan. 14, 2004, my husband left the house in the morning but never made it to work at International Freight Line Service where he worked as a mechanic. He did not answer his telephone. I began to search for him. Shortly thereafter, all his family members began to search. That same day we found my husband’s car with the keys in the ignition and the door open. It appeared that the inside of the car had been thoroughly searched. And, the gate to the property was left open. It appeared that whoever left the property, left in a hurry. I became extremely frightened for my husband’s safety.

After that morning, I never saw my husband again. I reported the disappearance to the local authorities. Two weeks after his disappearance, the Mexican authorities in Juarez, Mexico, Antisequestro (Anti-sequestration) department called me to identify a body. I found my husband. Although his body had partially decomposed, there were obvious signs of abuse. His hands and feet had been bound with duct tape. His head and mouth were also partially bound with duct tape. His pants were soaked in blood, especially in the groin area. It appeared to me that Luis, my husband, had been tortured to death.

Janet Padilla also told a similar story to journalist David Rose in recent story that appeared in the London Observer.

From Rose’s story:

Janet Padilla's first inkling that something might be wrong came when she phoned her husband at lunchtime. His mobile phone was switched off. On 14 January, 2004, Luis had, as usual, left for work at 6am, and when he did not answer the first call Janet made, after taking the children to school, she assumed he was busy. Two weeks later she would learn the truth.

“It was love at first sight for Luis and me, and that's how it stayed, after two years dating at school and eight years of marriage,” says Janet. “We always spoke a couple of times during the day and he always kept his phone on. So I called my dad, who owns the truck yard where he worked and he told me, ‘he hasn't been here.’ I called my in-laws and they hadn't seen him either, and they were already worried because his car was outside their house with the windows open and the keys in the ignition. He would never normally leave it like that.”

Luis Padilla, 29, father of three, had been kidnapped, driven across the Mexican border from El Paso, Texas, to a house in Ciudad Juarez, the lawless city ruled by drug lords that lies across the Rio Grande. As his wife tried frantically to locate him, he was being stripped, tortured and buried in a mass grave in the garden - what the people of Juarez call a narco-fossa, a narco-smugglers' tomb.

 Not our fault

The ICE officials and U.S. prosecutor who are being sued by the victims’ families contend that they did nothing wrong and that they could not have anticipated that their informant would have supervised, participated or otherwise been complicit in multiple murders. Therefore, they argue that they cannot be held liable for any alleged violation of the victim’s constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment, which prohibits the government from depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

But yet another pleading in the House of Death lawsuit in El Paso, filed recently by the attorney representing the victims’ families, helps to put Luis Padilla’s murder – as well as the murder of U.S. citizen Abraham Guzman — in some perspective in terms of ICE’s alleged complicity.

In that court document, attorney Raul Loya alleges the following:

… The constitution protects “persons” and does not exclude legal residents.

… Clearly Luis Padilla [a legal U.S. resident] was abducted and assaulted in the United States. Padilla was a target of Ramirez and the Juarez cartel. Arguably, Padilla may have been dealt the final coup de grace [deathblow] in Juarez, Mexico. Nevertheless, the government is liable for the kidnapping and assault occurring on U.S. soil.

… Abraham Guzman was murdered in the United States as a result of the actions of informant Ramirez. At the time of the murder, Ramirez was an active agent under the supervision of ICE. According to Ramirez’s own admissions, he was present and observed the murder of Guzman. Even after twelve (12) bodies were uncovered and Ramirez had been publicly implicated in murder, there is no evidence he had been deactivated or blacklisted by ICE. According to ICE policy, the informant should have been deactivated. Instead Ramirez continued unabated and eventually orchestrated the murder of Guzman.

In the spring of 2004, U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton in San Antonio cut a plea deal with Santillan, the leader of the VCF-linked Juarez drug cell that ordered the House of Death murders. As part of the bargain, Sutton agreed to drop all the murder charges and avoided a public trial that might have exposed the complicity of ICE agents and the U.S. Attorney’s Office – and possibly high-level officials within the Bush administration – in those murders and the subsequent cover-up. Sutton issued a public statement after the plea deal indicating that because the House of Death murders occurred in Mexico, the Mexican government was in a better position to pursue justice for the victims (even though, as we now know, at least one of those victims, Luis Padilla, was a U.S. legal resident abducted on U.S. soil).

Several months after that plea deal was struck, Ramirez Peyro, who supposedly was being hidden out by ICE in San Antonio, Texas, at that time, returned to El Paso (in late August 2004) allegedly to pick up drug money in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant. Ramirez Peyro claims he was participating in drug sting set up by ICE. However, ICE agents claim the informant was acting without their knowledge. In any event, Ramirez Peyro sent an acquaintance to pick up the money at a Whataburger near downtown El Paso. That acquaintance, 27-year-old U.S. citizen Abraham Guzman, the father of two-week-old boy, was shot dead at the hamburger joint by a narco-assassin who mistook him for Ramirez Peyro.

U.S. government officials are currently seeking to deport Ramirez Peyro (who is a Mexican citizen) since he is of no further value to them as an informant. Ramirez Peyro is fighting to stay in the United States, claiming he would certainly be tortured and murdered by the narco-traffickers he betrayed if he is forced to return to his home country.

Seemingly adding weight to Ramirez Peyro’s claim is a dead body that turned up in Juarez last month. The dead man had one of his severed fingers stuffed in his mouth ( the sign of a snitch) and the business cards of two federal agents taped to his forehead.

Ramriez Peyro’s deportation litigation is currently pending before the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case on Jan. 12 in St. Louis.

So the fate of the informant seems to have come full circle in the House of Death — from that of murderer to that of victim. And now, in seeking to avoid the wolves of Mexico, he has been forced to risk the fangs of another group of predators — the U.S. law enforcers who, like him, are complicit in the bloodshed.

More from attorney Raul Loya’s legal pleadings on behalf of the victims’ families:

… In this case Ramirez had a history of violence and unlawful activity. According to ICE’s own guidelines, he should have been deactivated immediately. Ramriez’ history of killing was anticipated, current and historical.

… In the present case, ICE officials knew the informant’s history of violence and murder. On numerous occasions, Ramirez was called in for a “carne asada” or barbeque – the code for murder. The ICE officials monitoring the informant’s calls knew well in advance that abductions were to take place. The ICE officials had superior knowledge before a murder would take place.

… Death at the hands of the informant was clearly foreseeable. The informant had recorded his participation in one murder. The officials monitored the telephones announcing the next “carne asada.” Afterwards, the informant debriefed with ICE regarding the bodies that were “piling up.” ICE chose to ignore this.

… Again, Ramirez states that ICE and the agents knew of the planned murders: “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 were listening my phone calls.”

In this dirty skirmish in the unending scourge of the drug war, survival is the end game for the predators — and justice is a victim of the pretense.

"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us." — A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

And to all a Merry Christmas....

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