In the Valley of the House of Death, We Shall Hide All Evil

Reporter's Note: As we approach April 22 and the four-year anniversary of Narco News’ first of nearly 70 reports on the House of Death, it seems only appropriate to tell the whole story once again, all in one place, if for no other reason than to put a proper tombstone on this seemingly forgotten graveyard of the war on drugs. So we begin — but it never ends….

A large swath of Ciudad Juárez is inhabited by people living on the edge of existence in shacks slapped together with sheets of plywood and cardboard. Those a bit luckier inhabit run-down, one-story cinder-block homes with barren yards that are lined along broken roadways.

The residential neighborhoods of this city sprawl over the dusty high-desert foothills of the Sierra Juárez mountain range. In the poor sections of town, dogs and drunks bark at passing cars as twilight descends on the unlit streets.

But the House of Death is sheltered from these harsher urban realities by a fenced yard, solid construction, and two stories of living space surrounded by other dwellings of similar stature. In this neighborhood, the dogs are well fed and don’t wander the streets in hungry packs, but rather bark through the screened doors of comfortable homes at passing strangers.

The House of Death, then, passes for a middle-class home in this Mexican border city of some 1.2 million people located across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas.

But this house has been touched by something dark, haunted by an evil that feeds on the very soul of this border community.

Despite its seemingly sedate-looking exterior, the House of Death serves as an execution chamber and its backyard as a tomb.

The victims are lured to this House of Death, restrained and then brutally tortured and murdered. Their corpses are covered with lime to speed decomposition and then buried in the backyard.

To receive an invitation to the House of Death is not a hard thing. You just have to make a mistake, to break one of the rules of the narco-trafficking business. In one case, a mother and her five-year-old daughter were murdered because the mother asked the wrong narco-trafficker for some extra money after her husband was arrested while smuggling drugs across the border. That narco-trafficker, in turn, was murdered because his impetuous actions angered his boss. In another case, two men reported to the Mexican federal police (the AFI) that they had found a warehouse with a large stash of drugs. The federal police, in turn, told the narco-trafficker who owned the drugs that the two men had ratted on him. The men were subsequently brought to the House of Death, beaten with a hammer and a pistol (because a gunshot would make too much noise) and finally stomped to death by the assassins (local Mexican cops) employed by the narco-trafficker.

The assassins at the House of Death work for one of the most powerful Mexican narco-trafficking organizations, which is a business the size of a major corporation whose CEO is an individual named Vicente Carrillo Fuentes — a dark-complected man with a thin black mustache; cold, vacant eyes; and ears that recede behind his thick jowls and high cheekbones. Vicente rose to the top post in the organization with the death of his brother, Amado — who was known as the “Lord of the Skies” because he used a fleet of private jets to transport drugs from Colombia into Mexico. Amado allegedly died in a Mexican hospital in the late 1990s after undergoing plastic surgery to change the features of his face.

Under Vicente are a host of managers, or lieutenants, who help run his organization, referred to as the VCF. In Juárez, the top lieutenant is a man named Heriberto Santillan-Taberes.

These lieutenants are always jockeying for higher standing and more power within the VCF. They achieve this standing by ensuring that the organization’s drugs are distributed, the money from drug sales collected, and its rules enforced. In the narco-trafficking world, those who violate the rules face the ultimate fate: execution.

Fernando Reyes, a Mexican attorney and drug smuggler, was one such individual who ran afoul of the VCF business model. He had 1,000 pounds of marijuana that he was trying to move from Juárez into the United States. He naively approached Santillan for help with his plan. Santillan saw both a threat from a potential business rival and an opportunity to advance his standing within the VCF.

As a result, Reyes was tricked into coming to the House of Death under the pretense of a business meeting. As he sat in a chair in the living room talking to a Santillan associate, two Juárez policemen, who had been hiding in another room, burst into the living room and (with the help of Santillan’s second-in-command) restrained him, placed a plastic bag over his head and secured it around his face using duct tape. As Reyes struggled for air (the bag being sucked into his mouth with each breath) one of the cops ripped an electrical cord from a lamp and wrapped it around the lawyer’s neck, choking him until the cord snapped. Reyes by now was near death, but still moving. So one of the policemen bashed Reyes with a shovel across the back of his head until his neck snapped.

The fact that the House of Death exists (and assuredly countless others like it along the border) should not be surprising given the ruthless nature of the narco-trafficking business. What is surprising is that we know about this particular House of Death in the first place.

After all, from the street, and to the world at large, the House of Death appears to be an ordinary house. We only know of its sinister purpose because we have chosen to enter this portal into the netherworld of the drug war.

The Machine

Narco-trafficking organizations have one major product: dope. They require logistical expertise to move their product, financial expertise to launder the money generated from their product, security forces (gunmen) to protect their existing territories and salesmen (dealers) to expand them, and human resources people (assassins) to take care of personnel problems – either from competitors or from within their own ranks.

The fuel that propels these organizations is money, and everything it can buy — affluence, political influence, power and more drugs. It is the money earned from the drug trade, and the quest to make more money, that drives everything in the narco-trafficking world.

It is the allure of this money that allows Santillan and the VCF to recruit killer cops from the ranks of the Chihuahua Judicial State Police in Juárez. One of those killers is a nightshift commander, Miguel Loya, who, along with a dozen or more Judicial State Police minions under his command, help guard the drug shipments, arrange the abductions of VCF rivals, and carry out the slayings of the House of Death victims.

But the state police are not alone in their allegiance to the VCF organization. Mexican municipal and federal police along with corrupt judges and politicians are on the payroll as well.

The rule of law in the border city, as a result, much like in the plot line of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western, has broken down and the criminals are running the show

But unlike a spaghetti Western, there are no heroes riding in to save the day in this script. They are all too busy feeding the cancer that has taken hold of the system.

In response to the narco-trafficking scourge afflicting Mexico and, in particular, border cities like Juárez, the United States (the major consumer of illicit narcotics) is engaged in what it calls “the war on drugs.”

This war is orchestrated out of the White House, which oversees the U.S. law enforcement agencies that are supposedly working to disrupt and shut down the illegal drug trade by targeting criminal organizations, such as Santillan’s operations in Juárez.

Two of the major U.S. law enforcement agencies doing battle in this war on drugs are Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

In Juárez, DEA has its own office and agents, who work closely with Mexican law enforcers. DEA’s agents (both in Juárez and across the border in its office in El Paso, Texas) are very street smart when it comes to making drug cases, but are sometimes undermined by the corrupt elements within Mexican law enforcement (who are inclined to share law enforcement intelligence with the narco-traffickers.) In addition, DEA, in general, is restrained by the White House’s international relations objectives. For example, the White House wants to maintain strong ties with Mexican political leaders in the interest of assuring the free flow of legal goods across the border. So DEA is hampered in targeting high-level Mexican officials who have been corrupted by the narco-trafficking business since this would not only embarrass the Mexican government, but also implicate high-level Mexican politicians in the drug trade itself — and threaten the very stability of the Mexican government.

ICE has problems of its own. It operates as a unit of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is a huge bureaucracy created nearly six years ago in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. ICE was cobbled together by combining former immigration and customs agents who previously worked in separate government departments that have since been dismantled. As a result, ICE is suffering from an identity crisis, and, therefore, is seeking to define its role in the post 9/11 world. Making big drug cases against Mexican narco-traffickers who might some day assist terrorists (or so the DHS propaganda claims) is one way for ICE to gain prestige and favor with the White House.

In contrast to DEA, ICE does not have street agents in Juárez and its agents working in El Paso do not trust Mexican law enforcement and prefer to conduct investigations close to the vest, without keeping the Mexican government in the loop. ICE also has a dysfunctional top command in Washington, in part because it is so new but also due to the politics of its creation, so its field supervisors, especially along the border, far away from the oversight of ICE headquarters, have a tendency to make up their own rules. The ICE office in El Paso, across the Rio Grande River from Juárez, in particular, has a tradition of operating as though it is a forgotten colony on the far edge of the empire.

So both DEA and ICE are investigative agencies that, as part of their missions, are charged with making criminal cases against narco-traffickers. In this sense, their missions overlap and a turf rivalry exists among the agents in these agencies, because those agents are judged, and their career advancement depends, on making cases that lead to criminal convictions. This rivalry ferments petty feuds among DEA and ICE personnel that promote mistrust, miscommunication and a lack of cooperation.

The third major player in the U.S. war on drugs along this stretch of the border is the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas, which is overseen by a lead prosecutor, Johnny Sutton, who reports ultimately to the head of the Justice Department — the Attorney General of the United States. Sutton has the final say in South Texas on all matters related to the prosecution of criminal cases and all information related to those cases ultimately flows through him to his superiors at Justice in Washington, D.C.

The job of the U.S. Attorney is to take to court, or prosecute, criminal cases made against narco-traffickers as a result of a DEA or ICE investigation. Under Sutton’s supervision are a number of assistant U.S. attorneys. In El Paso, one of those assistant prosecutors is Juanita Fielden. Fielden has a strong working relationship with ICE supervisors in that city, and, according to law enforcement sources, regularly visits ICE’s office in El Paso and has a close personal relationship with ICE supervisor Curtis Compton in particular.  

Sutton, who is considered a “golden boy” in the Justice Department, has close ties to President George W. Bush. Sutton is a Texan, a former UT Longhorns star baseball player, and has worked for Bush since his days as governor of Texas.

Murder Incorporated

Between August 2003 and mid-January 2004 up to a dozen people were tortured and slain at the House of Death in Juárez by Mexican state police who were on Santillan’s payroll — the very same police who are supposed to arrest narco-traffickers. But these cops don’t use their police vehicles to fight crime; rather, their squad cars are put to use hauling loads of dope and dead bodies for Santillan and his employer, the VCF.  

The House of Death murders were carried out as part of the VCF’s “business plan” to assure it continues to dominate the cocaine and marijuana smuggling operations in the Juárez /West Texas corridor — a distribution hub that is the heartbeat of a major drug-transportation network whose capillaries are spread through the heart of America. Santillan and the VCF maintain this control by intimidation and force — including kidnapping and murdering rival traffickers.

The House of Death, then, is a place where the contracts and rules of the narco-trafficking business are enforced by Santillan and the VCF.

But in the case of this particular murder factory in Juárez, the House of Death at 3633 Parsioneros Street, there is a rat on the loose whose treachery would ultimately expose the whole bloody business.

Guillermo Ramirez Peyro grew up in Mexico City, the son of professional parents who worked as civil engineers. After taking a stab at college, he went to work as a federal highway patrol officer in the state of Guerrero in southern Mexico for about a year before he was fired because he had problems getting along with his boss.

After leaving his job as a federal cop in the late 1990s, Ramirez moved into the drug business full-time. Ramirez says that was a natural career move, since he had already made numerous connections in that world while working as a cop. He managed the distribution of drug shipments for a narco-trafficker named Jesus Beltran out of Guadalajara, Mexico, (coordinating the movement of drugs from Colombia into Mexico) for a while and eventually made his way to Juárez, where he hooked up with Santillan’s organization.

He rose in favor in the Juárez organization, and became a trusted associate of Santillan. In his role as Santillan’s second-in-command, Ramirez also developed a close relationship with members of the state police in Juárez, particularly with the night-shift commander in the city, Miguel Loya — who is a ruthless killer. Loya personally carried out some of the executions at the House of Death. In one case, two drug mules lost a load of Loya’s marijuana to a seizure by the Juárez municipal police. The two men were brought to the House of Death, told to lift their shirts over their faces, and then Loya shot them in the head using a pistol with a silencer.

In 2000, however, Ramirez also took on another role, one hidden from Santillan and the VCF, a role that would have gotten Ramirez killed if his narco-world employers had been aware of it.

It is not clear how Ramirez came upon this moonlighting job. He says he volunteered for the job out of a sense of doing the right thing. However, some say he was forced into the employment in 2000 as a means of avoiding incarceration after being caught by U.S. law enforcers on the U.S. border with a load of dope.

Whatever the case, Ramirez, already a trusted and high-level operator within Santillan’s Juárez drug organization, was recruited by ICE as an informant – a snitch. It was a perfect arrangement for ICE, since Ramirez was in a position to feed them information about the criminal activities of the VCF Juárez operations from inside the criminal group. In exchange, Ramirez got some pocket change from the U.S. government – about $225,000 between 2000 and 2004. And he claims he is still owed hundreds of thousands of dollars more by the U.S. government.

As an informant, Ramirez also says he, at times, provided information to other U.S. agencies, including the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and the DEA.

In fact, just prior to the first House of Death murder in August 2003, Ramirez was working against Santillan’s interests as an informant for both ICE and DEA. Initially, DEA, not knowing Ramirez was an ICE informant, had targeted him for investigation as a key criminal player in the VCF organization. But in a meeting held in July 2002 between ICE and DEA commanders from El Paso and Juárez, DEA officials were informed that Ramirez was on ICE’s payroll as an informant who was playing a key role in helping to build a criminal case against Santillan. In the wake of those discussions, DEA decided to work the investigation against Santillan jointly with ICE, and to also make use of Ramirez as a DEA informant.

But less than a year later, the game started to break down, leading to a major rift between DEA and ICE in the Santillan investigation. In June 2003, Ramirez was caught running a load of marijuana across the U.S. border behind the backs of ICE and DEA. At that point, DEA deactivated Ramirez as an informant and washed their hands of him. DEA felt Ramirez could not be trusted and that he, in fact, was likely deceiving U.S. law enforcement agencies at the same time he was spying on Santillan and the VCF. Ramirez was playing a dangerous game as a double agent with his only loyalty being to himself, and neither the criminals (the VCF) nor the supposed good guys, the DEA and ICE, really knew what he was up to at that point.

However, despite Ramirez’ shady activities (and after he was caught smuggling dope in June 2003), ICE and Assistant U.S. Attorney Fielden, with approvals from their supervisors in Washington, D.C., made the decision to keep using Ramirez as an informant, because they were intent on making a career-boosting case against Santillan. This is the first evidence that ICE and the U.S. Attorney’s Office were willing the bend the rules in order to achieve their objectives. It also created a major rift between ICE and DEA in the Santillan investigation.

Ramirez, as part of his job for the VCF “corporation,” would make the preparations for the House of Death murders — which were referred to by Santillan as “carne asadas” — or barbeques. These preparations included handling the keys to the house, assembling the assassins, and purchasing lime to aid with decomposition of the bodies. He also paid the gravediggers who buried the bodies (including Mexican attorney Fernando Reyes’ corpse) in the backyard of the House of Death at 3633 Parsioneros in Juárez.

In fact, Ramirez actually recorded the murder of Fernando Reyes. The informant was at the House of Death on August 5, 2003, when Reyes was restrained by the two Mexican police officers. He was in the living room that day and provided the plastic bag that was placed over Reyes’ head; Ramirez also purchased the duct tape that was used to secure that bag around Reyes’ head; and Ramirez, by his own admission, participated in the murder itself by restraining Reyes’ legs as he was moved from the chair to the floor, where he was choked with the electrical cord and later bashed on the back of the head with the shovel that would be used to bury his body.

And, several law enforcement sources allege the torture and murder of Reyes also was listened to live, as it was happening, via cell phone by ICE agents (who had a wiretap on the informant’s phone). Ramirez and his ICE handlers deny that claim, however. In addition, ICE agents the same day of Reyes’ murder debriefed the informant Ramirez at the ICE office in El Paso and generated an official memo detailing the homicide.

So clearly, as of the first House of Death murder, ICE agents, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Fielden, were aware that Ramirez had participated in a homicide while working as their informant. However, they decided to continue using the informant to deepen the case against Santillan. They choose to do this despite the fact that in March 2003, several months prior to the first murder, the informant had set up sting involving a delivery of dope by Santillan’s men to a location in northern Texas. So ICE already had enough evidence to arrest Santillan for narco-trafficking, but they wanted more; they wanted to snare Santillan in more serious criminal activity and also likely wanted to keep using Ramirez to see how far they could penetrate into the VCF — maybe even getting the ultimate prize of taking down the CEO of the VCF, Carrillo Fuentes himself. For everyone involved on the U.S. side, that would have been the ultimate play for their bureaucratic careers.

In court records that have since surfaced concerning the House of Death, Fielden claims that high-level Justice and Homeland Security officials (which would include U.S. Attorney Sutton) authorized the continued use of the informant after they became aware of the Reyes murder. However, Fielden and the ICE agents involved (including the head of ICE’s El Paso office, Giovanni Gaudioso; the second-in-charge Patricia Kramer; and Group Supervisor Curtis Compton) contend that they could not have anticipated that Ramirez would participate in additional murders after the initial murder of Reyes. This flies in the face of what Ramirez has testified to in court. He claims he did make ICE and the U.S. Attorney’s Office aware of each murder, often in advance of them taking place. And ICE agents most certainly were aware that the informant was charged with overseeing the burial of the bodies, since they actually allowed Ramirez to return to Juárez after the Reyes murder to pay the gravedigger. In fact, that gravedigger confirmed that Ramirez was present for at least five of the murders at the House of Death.

In order for ICE to justify the continued use of the informant, either high-level approvals would have been needed from Justice and Homeland Security (including Fielden’s boss, U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton), or the ICE agents and U.S. prosecutor in El Paso would have had to run this case as a rogue operation, which would have entailed destroying and fabricating reports and evidence to assure their bosses did not discover the full extent of their activities. It is likely a little bit of both happened.

So it went, and the informant was allowed to return to Juárez time and again over the course of the five months after Reyes’ murder (August 2003 through early January 2004) to help set up or participate in additional murders at the House of Death, working closely with Loya and Santillan. Over that period, a total of at least 11 more people would meet their maker at the House of Death – and their corpses were all buried like garbage in the backyard of the house.

The one U.S. law enforcement agency along the border that was kept out of the loop with respect to Ramirez’ activities, though, was DEA. This was a big case for ICE, and they weren’t about to cut a rival agency in on the action.

As far as the cross-border cooperation between law enforcers, ICE officials decided, after the first murder, to inform their Mexican counterparts of only the fact that Ramirez had “witnessed” a murder in Juárez. So it is clear from that written communication to Mexican federal officials that the truth in this case was being concealed from the Mexican government. ICE officials in El Paso did inform DEA’s Juárez office about the Reyes “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 Ramirez to assist DEA with locating the house because they claimed it would jeopardize the safety of their informant.

ICE agents and supervisors in El Paso who were employing Ramirez as their informant, and everyone else in the chain of command (Fielden, Sutton and high-level officials at Homeland Security and the Department of Justice) had to make a choice after becoming aware of their informant’s participation in the first House of Death murder. They could either shut down the Santillan investigation and cut their losses, or they could look the other way, rationalize the initial murder, and the ones that followed, as regrettable, but unavoidable casualties in “the war on drugs.”

By choosing the latter course, they might snare the generals of the narco-trafficking world in Mexico and gain national recognition, and consequent career favor. But if they failed, the murders could well become a chopping block for their heads in the arena of public opinion and even the courts. The bottom line is that they all knew (ICE, the U.S. Attorney, the bureaucrats in Washington, even the White House) that allowing Ramirez to commit murder was a violation of their agency’s own rules in terms of the use of government-sponsored informants, and they also had to be aware that they could be accused of being criminally complicit in the House of Death murders as well.

Wrong House

On Jan. 14 of 2004, any hope that ICE might have had of keeping the death-house operation in Juárez an inside secret evaporated.

That day, Santillan’s henchmen abducted three people and brought them to the House of Death for a carne asada.

One of those individuals, Luis Padilla, was a mechanic and family man who was abducted from El Paso. He was a U.S. legal resident who had spent most of his life in the United States, where he had gone to high school just outside of El Paso.

The three men were stripped and tortured on Jan. 14. Santillan had ordered the abductions because one of the three men was running drugs through the Juárez corridor without the VCF stamp of approval. As that individual was being subjected to excruciating pain, he gave up the address of an alleged drug stash house linked to a supposedly corrupt U.S. Customs inspector named John Brown.

The address of the stash house that the rival trafficker gave to the Mexican cops torturing him that day was not quite right, though. In fact, the house he identified was the home of a DEA agent working in Juárez — a fact that was not known to Santillan and the Mexican cops at the time.

Speculation abounds that this individual could only have known the DEA agent’s home address if he, in fact, was a DEA informant. But DEA officials deny that is the case. Another plausible explanation is that DEA was working to make a case against this individual, without his knowledge, and that John Brown was a fake name advanced by a DEA undercover agent posing as a narco-trafficker who had a connection with a corrupt U.S. law enforcer.

In the process of checking out the ‘narco-trafficker,” the individual might well have done his own reconnaissance and determined the location of the DEA agent’s home in Juárez — not realizing he was a DEA agent. It is even possible that Santillan’s men messed up and copied down the wrong address or that the individual being tortured that day, while in extreme agony, mixed up some digits in the address.

In any event, the individual did provide Santillan’s assassin crew with an address before he and the other two men (one of which was Luis Padilla) were finally murdered.

Santillan now thought he had the location of a drug stash house being operated with the help of a corrupt Customs inspector. So he sent some of his goons to the house on Jan. 14, at around 6 p.m.

One of the men banged on the door. No one answered.

In fact, the occupants, a mother and her two small children, were inside the house, in fear of the stranger at the door. The woman had been instructed by her husband to never open the door for strangers. In the DEA agent’s line of work in Juárez, that was just prudent advice.

So the woman and her two children hid in the back corner of the house. She contacted her husband by phone to tell him what was going on. The strangers at the door soon disappeared. Moments later, the husband arrived at the house. The entire family then got in a car and left the neighborhood.

The bad guys were still watching, though, likely from an unmarked police car parked on the street. The DEA agent’s car was pulled over a short time later in Juárez by a marked municipal police car. As the agent was pulling to the side of the road, another vehicle, an unmarked white import car, pulled in front of him. Then a third vehicle (a white pick-up truck) pulled up behind the squad car. At least one of the individuals participating in the traffic stop was a state policeman under Miguel Loya’s command.

Because Santillan suspected the driver of the car was part of a rival narco-trafficking operation in league with a corrupt Customs inspector, the occupants, including the agent’s wife and children, were likely in store for a trip to the House of Death.

The municipal cop approached the vehicle and asked the driver for identification after claiming the tint on his car was too dark. The driver produced diplomatic credentials bearing the name Homer Glenn McBrayer.

The cop returned to his vehicle and began talking with two men now standing behind McBrayer’s vehicle. McBrayer and his family stayed in their car and he put out a call from his cell phone.

Loya’s underlings were not completely sure who the driver was, so they contacted their boss, who was not at the scene of the traffic stop. Santillan in turn contacted by phone the informant, Ramirez, who had bragged in the past that he was well connected with crooked law enforcers on the other side of the border. Santillan wanted the informant to check out the driver, to determine his real identity, probably to make sure he wasn’t actually the dirty Customs inspector. (Killing a U.S. law enforcer, even if he is crooked, requires great attention to detail to avoid enhanced scrutiny being brought to bear on the VCF by the U.S. government.)

After receiving the call from Santillan asking him to determine if the driver was, in fact, a Customs inspector, the informant Ramirez contacted his ICE handlers, who in turn ran a check on the name Homer Glenn (the last name was somehow not relayed). ICE determined that he was not a Customs inspector.

Another car arrived at the scene of the traffic stop.

The driver of that car, who had come to assist McBrayer, identified himself to the Mexican cops as a U.S. diplomat named Rene Ramirez (a false name), but refused to produce credentials.

Santillan, who was still in contact with the Mexican cops by phone, again called the informant Ramirez and asked him to run an identity check on Rene Ramirez, indicating at that time that he believe he might be part of the “tres letras” — meaning FBI or DEA.

The informant Ramirez and ICE officials, upon learning the two individuals stopped by Santillan’s men had indicated they were with the U.S. embassy (and of Santillan’s suspicion that one of them was with the “tres letras”) determined that they were likely DEA agents. Ramirez notified Santillan of that possibility.

The traffic stop was terminated at about 7 p.m. McBrayer and Rene Ramirez, who in fact was a DEA agent named Rene Dieguez, left the scene.

ICE agents in El Paso who had been monitoring the situation immediately contacted DEA in Juárez to let them know that an ICE informant had been in contact with Santillan during the traffic stop and that the DEA agents’ identities were now known to Santillan. ICE officials expressed “grave concern” that the DEA agents were in great danger because Santillan had told the informant that his men planned to break into McBrayer’s home later that evening.

The lid was blown off of Santillan’s death house operation, as far as ICE being able to keep its dirty laundry in-house. DEA now had to be brought into the loop about the fact that some officials with ICE and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in their zeal to make a case, had allowed up to 12 murders to occur under their watch and now had nearly cost the lives of a DEA and his family.

The irony of the situation is how easily things could have played out differently that day, and the murder spree would have continued unabated. The address that the torture victim gave up to Santillan’s men was almost correct: 4,000 pounds of marijuana were later found in a house a few streets over from McBrayer’s home in Juárez.

But the damage was done. As a result of the traffic stop, DEA evacuated all of its agents and their families from Juárez as a safety precaution. The next day, Jan. 15, the ICE attaché in Mexico, along with a DEA official, informed the Mexican Attorney General that the informant Ramirez had actually participated in the murder of attorney Reyes at the House of Death. (This corrects the lie told to the Mexican government months earlier — when ICE claimed Ramirez had only “witnessed” a murder at the House of Death.)

That same day, Jan. 15, 2004, two Mexican cops pull over a white pick-up truck that had just exited a gated subdivision in Juárez. One of the cops asks the driver, Rodolfo Renteria Cervantes, for his identification. When he shows the police officer his ID, the cop shoots him in the face with a 9-mm handgun. He dies at the scene. A passenger in the truck also is shot — in the mouth and neck — but he survives, though refuses to cooperate with law enforcement. A DEA source within the Chihuahua State Police indicated that the murder was carried out personally by Miguel Loya and was related to “the loss of  a 4,000-pound load of unspecified drugs.”

Two days later, on Jan. 17, 2004, the Mexican government dispatched a federal prosecutor and some 80 federal agents to Juárez to investigate the situation. About 10 days later, more than a dozen of Loya’s state police gang and some low-level thugs, gravediggers, were taken into custody. Loya, though, is still on the loose.

The Fallout

ICE’s hope to build a case against the top leaders of the VCF has been shattered because DEA is now concerned that the narco-trafficker Santillan poses a threat to its agents in Juárez. Assistant U.S. Attorney Fielden and ICE officials in El Paso put plans into motion to arrest Santillan.

Santillan still does not realize Ramirez is an informant, so ICE enlists Ramirez to lure the VCF boss across the border so that he can be taken into custody. Ramirez contacts Santillan by phone and they agree to meet in El Paso to talk about business. While Ramirez and Santillan are driving, along a pre-designated street, the El Paso Police Department initiates a traffic stop and Santillan is arrested on narco-trafficking and murder charges — on Jan. 15, 2004, the day after the traffic stop involving the DEA agent and his family.

Two days later, ICE and the informant finally confirm the location of the House of Death for the Mexican federal police. However, it would take another five days before Mexican officials could obtain a warrant to search the House of Death. The delay was caused by ICE’s refusal to allow Mexican officials access to Ramirez to get his statement to establish the probable cause for the search warrant. DEA officials, too, were frustrated with ICE’s refusal to allow the informant to assist in apprehending other House of Death suspects, including Commander Miguel Loya. ICE claimed that it would be too dangerous for Ramirez to assist DEA on such an assignment — even though the informant was willing to help.

On Jan. 21, 2004, ICE finally allowed Mexican officials to obtain a formal statement from an ICE supervisor and two agents to serve as probable cause for a search warrant of the House of Death in lieu of a statement from Ramirez, but still refused to allow Mexican law enforcers access to the informant Ramirez.

A search warrant for the House of Death was issued the following day. However, Mexican officials were not allowed to question Ramirez until some 20 days later, on Feb. 12, 2004 — long after the House of Death victims had been dug up and their images broadcast over the media.

Ramirez claims that Mexican law enforcers involved in the House of Death search purposely leaked information about the location of the residence to the media, so that the remaining VCF operators in Juárez, including Miguel Loya, would be warned that an investigation was underway.

While all this was going on, over the balance of January and early February, ICE and DEA headquarters in Washington also were taking an active interest in the circumstances leading to the traffic stop involving McBrayer and his family.

The head of DEA, Karen Tandy, met with the Juárez DEA agents and their families in El Paso to discuss the situation. She also spoke with U.S. Attorney Sutton and Assistant U.S. Attorney Fielden and briefed the Attorney General (at the time, John Ashcroft) about ICE’s handling of the informant Ramirez.

A joint DEA/ICE assessment team, or JAT, was assembled to conduct an investigation and to prepare an internal report. DEA, on its own, also began to piece together the chronology of events surrounding the traffic stop.

After Santillan’s arrest and once news of the House of Death hit the media, ICE hid the informant Ramirez at a secret location in San Antonio, Texas — supposedly to protect him from the VCF organization he had betrayed and to assure his safety as a witness against Santillan in court. Santillan was facing trial in San Antonio — the home base of U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton.

In the wake ICE’s stonewalling of the investigation into the traffic stop of the DEA agents, the head of DEA’s El Paso office, Sandalio Gonzalez, wrote a letter in February 2004 to the head of ICE’s El Paso office, Gaudioso. A copy of that letter also was sent to U.S. Attorney Sutton.

In that letter, Gonzalez decried ICE’s handling of the Santillan investigation and the needless murders that were allowed to take place at the House of Death all in the name of making a drug case. He also expressed his outrage at the fact that ICE El Paso and Assistant U.S. Attorney Fielden had stonewalled DEA’s efforts to gain access to Ramirez after the evacuation of DEA agents from Juárez. In addition, he blew the whistle on their efforts to thwart DEA’s attempt to capture Miguel Loya – who, as a result, managed to escape with several of his henchmen and remains at large.

In reaction to Gonzalez’ letter, U.S. Attorney Sutton and DEA Administrator Tandy conspired to silence and retaliate against Gonzalez, rather than investigate his charges. Gonzalez was ordered not to speak of his letter to anyone and received a negative job-performance review criticizing him for poor judgment in writing the letter. He also was denied further promotions and has since retired from DEA, in large part due to the retaliation he suffered at the hands of DEA. Sutton used his pull within the Justice Department to slap down Gonzalez because he feared that the letter would surface in the public record as part of Santillan’s trial and expose the U.S. government’s role in the House of Death murders.

Some six months after Gonzalez fired off his letter to Sutton, the informant, who, along with his family, was living in San Antonio under the guard of ICE agents, mysteriously was allowed to return to El Paso (in late August 2004) to pick up $25,000 in drug money from some of his narco contacts. Ramirez claims he was participating in drug sting set up by ICE designed to snare a crooked U.S. Customs inspector. The payment was to be delivered to Ramirez via a middleman so that Ramirez, in turn, could pay off the Customs Inspector — who earlier in the day allowed a load of drugs to pass across the border. However, ICE agents claim the informant was acting without their knowledge.

Other law enforcement sources contend Ramirez was demanding more money from his ICE handlers, threatening to expose their role in the House of Death to the court and public if they did not comply. Those same sources say one of the ICE supervisors (sometime in the spring of 2004) paid Ramirez $25,000 or more by breaking ICE’s rules and issuing the payment through another informant’s account — an informant who happened to be dead. As a result, the law enforcement sources say Ramirez’ trip to El Paso might well have been engineered by his ICE handlers as a means of getting Ramirez additional money — or even to set him up to be killed.

Ramirez claims that ICE agents told him to send someone else to the money drop site in El Paso — a Whataburger fast-food restaurant near downtown. But that doesn’t make much sense, because why would the person bringing the money trust anyone but Ramirez with the payment? That possibility could jeopardize the entire operation. Also, Ramirez claims ICE agents were not monitoring the money drop, which makes no sense either if it was a legitimate sting operation designed to produce an arrest or to at least gather evidence.  

In any event, Ramirez, by this point, was extremely paranoid and likely was suspicious that the El Paso money drop could be a set-up. He was already aware that the VCF in Juárez was kidnapping associates who had been close to him, since the House of Death murders and the case against Santillan were the subjects of media coverage.

So Ramirez sent an acquaintance to pick up the money. 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 an unknown VCF assassin linked to a drug mule named Jesus Laredo. The assassin pumped four bullets into Guzman’s chest and face after mistaking him for Ramirez. Laredo was found dead a few days later in an alley in Juárez, according to Ramirez, because the assassination attempt failed. From that point on, the informant, who is a Mexican citizen, disappeared from public view, and was put in prison at an undisclosed location for his own protection. His wife and children, who were allowed into the United States on humanitarian grounds, were relocated to New Mexico with their living expenses being covered by the U.S. government,

In the April 2005, Sutton cut a plea deal with Santillan. As part of the bargain, Sutton agreed to drop all the murder charges against him and avoided a public trial that would have shined a light on the complicity of ICE agents and the U.S. Attorney’s Office — and possibly high-level officials within the Bush administration — in the House of Death mass murder. Santillan received a 25-year sentence for pleading guilty to charges of “conducting a criminal enterprise” and is now in federal prison.

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 at least one of those victims, Luis Padilla, was a U.S. legal resident who was abducted in the United States and killed in Juárez). Padilla’s body was found in the backyard of the House of Death stripped to the waist, partially decomposed, and covered with blood, particularly thick in the groin area.

To this day, despite all the facts now publicly known about the House of Death, the Mexican government has not made an official statement on ICE’s role in the murders — nor has it called for an investigation by U.S. authorities. At least one source has indicated that in March 2004, after the House of Death was exposed publicly, a deal was reached between Mexican President Fox and U.S. President Bush at a meeting on Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. In that alleged deal, Bush provided Fox with some presidential favors related to the contentious border issues, such as immigration, in exchange for Fox’s continued silence about the House of Death. But that information has not been independently confirmed at this point. It is just as likely, though, that the Mexican government has remained silent about the whole matter out of fear of having its own corrupt involvement in the narco-trafficking business exposed.

So it appears the House of Death is now a closed book as far as the White House is concerned. A criminal investigation would require the assistance of the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office, which are both under the thumb of the White House-controlled Department of Justice, which is allegedly part of the cover-up in the House of Death.

The only known investigation conducted to date was the internal (non-criminal) JAT review by DEA and ICE. Both of those agencies have continued to stonewall legal efforts to make that report public – with DEA even going as far as to threaten to declare portions of it classified under national security law.

The U.S. Congress, which was controlled by President Bush’s Republican party over the course of 2004-2006 (when ICE’s role in the House of Death murders was well-known), could have used its subpoena powers to investigate the handling of the case, but it failed to do so. The new Democrat-controlled Congress, which took power in January 2007, has been equally flaccid in its response to the corruption.

To date, no one at ICE or the U.S. Attorney’s Office has lost his or her job due to the House of Death. In fact, Gaudioso, the head of ICE’s El Paso office at the time of the Santillan investigation, was move to the East Coast for a while until things blew over and then in late 2006 he was appointed the second-in-command in Houston, a much larger city than El Paso and a more prestigious post — and he got a pay bump in the process. In addition, Curtis Compton, one of the ICE supervisors who played a key role in handling the informant Ramirez, is still on the job and even served for a time as the Acting Assistant Special Agent in Charge in ICE’s El Paso field office. U.S. Attorney Sutton, too, moved up the pecking order in the Department of Justice bureaucracy. His long-time associate and fellow Bush crony, Alberto Gonzales, in March 2006, while still the top man in the Justice Department, appointed Sutton as the chairman of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys, which plays a major role in determining policy for the Department of Justice. Under the new Attorney General, Michael Mulkasey, Sutton continues to serve as a U.S. Attorney and as an ex officio member of the Attorney General’s committee.

Ramirez’s fortunes have been quite different, however. The Department of Justice initiated deportation proceedings against him after Santillan’s conviction and is now seeking to send him back to Mexico, where Ramirez claims he will certainly be killed by the narco-traffickers he betrayed. His case is still pending in the courts while he remains locked away in a U.S. prison.

And it seems the VCF organization has not forgotten Ramirez and ICE or the House of Death. In November 2006 in Juárez, the mutilated body of a man was found in a park. He had been tortured before being shot to death and his severed finger was stuffed in his mouth — a sign from narco-traffickers that he was a snitch. Two business cards belonging to U.S. federal agents were taped to his head. One of those cards belonged to Raul Bencomo, the ICE agent who initially cultivated Ramirez as an informant.

The House of Death still stands, then, but it is not alone along this dusty border where the Third World meets the First World, where blood all too often greases the wheels of commerce. Within the last few months, Mexican law enforcers discovered two more houses in Juárez that are the sites of mass graves, “narcofosas,” containing a total of some 45 corpses and assorted body parts, almost all men — tortured, shot, decaying, a grisly sacrifice to human indifference.  

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About Bill Conroy