Connecting the dots in the House of Death

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a press release earlier this month announcing a plea agreement had been reached with an accused cigarette smuggler, Jorge Abraham. What the press release does not mention is that the Abraham case is linked to another major smuggling case involving Heriberto Santillan-Tabares, who, U.S. prosecutors allege, is a top lieutenant in Vicente Carrillo Fuentes’ Juárez drug organization.

Santillan is charged with cocaine and marijuana smuggling along with five counts of murder allegedly carried out as part of a continuing criminal enterprise – a crime that can get him a death sentence in the U.S. justice system. A confidential informant, who allegedly had attained high standing within the Juarez organization, played a critical role in snaring Santillan.

The informant’s name is Jesus Contreras, who is also known by the nickname “Lalo.”

Narco News published a major exposé in late April of this year (called The House of Death) that revealed Contreras, as part of his role in infiltrating the Santillan organization, was implicated in a series of murders in Ciudad Juárez -- located just across the border from El Paso, Texas.

Between August 2003 and mid-January 2004, about a dozen people were tortured, murdered and then buried in the yard of a house in the Mexican border town. Contreras, according to sources, participated in many of those murders. The informant’s handlers, agents and supervisors with the El Paso office of ICE, were allegedly fully aware of the Contreras’ complicity in the murders, yet did nothing to stop the killing for fear of jeopardizing the Santillan and Abraham criminal cases that they were trying to make with the informant’s help.

That’s the connection.

In addition to his mole role in the Santillan investigation, Contreras was employed as an informant in the Abraham case, law enforcement sources say. He was brought on board by federal agents under orders from ICE supervisors to try to get Abraham “dirty” on drugs charges, according to sources within ICE, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

As a result, Contreras faced the prospect of being called as a witness in the Abraham case, if it went to trial. According to DHS sources, that put the U.S. Attorney’s Office in El Paso and ICE in an awkward spot, because Contreras could expose a lot of dirty laundry that would not only jeopardize the Santillan case, but also shine a spotlight on the alleged complicity of ICE agents and supervisors in the murders Contreras allegedly helped carry out for the Santillan organization.

As a result, Abraham’s attorneys had a great deal of “leverage,” according to DHS sources.

So here’s how the Abraham case played out.

Last January, ICE announced the following about the Dec. 10, 2003, indictment of Abraham:

The probe (of the Abraham organization) has resulted in a 92-count federal indictment against defendants accused of participating in a scheme to smuggle more than 107 million cigarettes with a potential street value of $37.5 million into the nation.

... The organization targeted today is believed to have cost the federal government, as well as three state governments, at least $8 million in lost tax revenue, while allegedly reaping enormous illicit profits.

... If found guilty of the cigarette smuggling and related charges against him, Abraham faces a potential maximum 538 years imprisonment, as well as $30.5 million in fines, seizures and restitution.

In a press release issued on Dec. 16, ICE stated the following concerning the plea bargain struck with Abraham:

Jorge Abraham, a U.S. citizen and head of an international cigarette smuggling organization, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to count one of a 92-count indictment that charged him with “Conspiracy to Smuggle Cigarettes into the United States,” “Traffic in Contraband Cigarettes,” and “Traffic in Counterfeit Cigarettes.”

The pleading was announced by United States Attorney Johnny Sutton and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Acting Special Agent-in-Charge Ronald Wood.

... Abraham, 34, pled guilty to a felony, namely Conspiracy to Smuggle Cigarettes into the United States, Traffic in Contraband Cigarettes, and Traffic in Counterfeit Cigarettes, violations of Title 18 U.S.C. Sections 371, 545, 2342(a) and 2320(a). Abraham faces a maximum sentence of five years.

... The total loss of revenue to the federal government and various state governments (New, California and Texas) was about $9.2 million.

... “This organization made large profits from circumventing the system and not paying the required taxes, cheating the American taxpayers from millions of dollars,” said Wood, who leads ICE’s El Paso Office of Investigations. “The agency appreciates the efforts of U.S. Attorney Sutton, his office, and the men and women of the various law enforcement agencies who worked with us to successfully bring this complex case to conclusion.”

... As part of his guilty plea, Abraham agreed to pay restitution to the state and federal entities to which taxes and duties should have been paid. The court will sentence him and determine restitution and fines at a later date.

That’s some kind of leverage, to go from a 92-count indictment and facing more than 500 years in jail to a plea deal that nets one count and a possible jail sentence of five years or less.

Here’s what Narco News reported last April about the links between Abraham, Santillan and Contreras:

The same informant (Contreras), according to law enforcement sources, also played a crucial role in a separate case that resulted in a 92-count federal indictment against 19 people allegedly involved in a scheme to smuggle $37 million worth of black-market cigarettes into the United States. The supposed ringleader of that racket, according to a federal indictment unsealed in late January of this year, was 34-year-old Jorge Abraham of Sunland Park, N.M….

“This informant was key to making both of these cases,” one law enforcement official contends. “That’s why he is so well taken care of to this day.”

Two Big Cases, One Little Informant

In addition to the informant, the cases of Santillan and Abraham are linked by the following circumstances, according to law enforcement sources:

  • Both cases were actively investigated by federal ICE agents in El Paso.
  • Both cases fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas – headed by U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, who is considered to be “wired” into the current Bush administration. Sutton, a former policy coordinator for the Bush-Cheney Transition Team, served as the Criminal Justice Policy Director from 1995-2000 for then-Governor George W. Bush.
  • The same attorney, Joseph Sib Abraham Jr. of El Paso, represents both Santillan and Abraham. The same informant, an alleged Juarez organization operative, was used to sting both Santillan and Abraham. …
  • According to law enforcement sources, the same Assistant U.S. Attorney, Juanita Fielden, in El Paso who is the lead prosecutor on the Santillan case also worked closely with the ICE supervisors and agents who handled the informant at the center of both the Santillan and Abraham cases.
  • If all goes well for prosecutors, and convictions are obtained, both the Santillan and Abraham cases are potentially huge career-boosters for the law-enforcement officials involved, particularly prosecutors. Santillan is allegedly a top dog in a notorious drug smuggling organization based in Ciudad Juarez in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico – which is just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Abraham is allegedly the big fish in a nationwide smuggling ring that was taken down by what the Department of Homeland Security describes in a press release as “the largest investigation to date involving the smuggling of cigarettes into the United States.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and ICE also are facing a great deal of heat from another case now on the front burner, a civil lawsuit filed by the family of one of Contreras’ victims, Luis Padilla -- an innocent bystander who got a one-way ticket to the House of Death.

From the Padilla lawsuit:

On or about January 8th, 2004 … Contreras and his cohorts targeted a courier for the “carne asada” or barbeque. The reference is meant to signify the usual abduction, torture, and killing. Santillan ordered Contreras to prepare a carne asada for the targeted courier or “mule.”

But as usual, others were abducted along with the target. Making a day trip to Juarez, Luis Padilla, an El Paso resident, was also taken. A victim of the Contreras hit squad, Padilla was never again seen by his family. In an attempt to leave no trace, Padilla and the target were killed by Contreras and the cartel. His mutilated body was eventually identified at the Parsioneros house in Juarez.

Padilla, 29, left behind a wife and three small kids. His family recently filed a civil lawsuit in federal court in El Paso alleging that five ICE officials along with an Assistant U.S. Attorney in El Paso are complicit in the death of Padilla.

"Apathy, marred by incompetence characterized the operations run by ICE and the United States Attorney’s office in El Paso. Yet the facts would reveal that both agencies were consciously aware of the ongoing killings,” the lawsuit contends.

More from the lawsuit:

... In the course of six months, Contreras participated in the killings of over twelve (12) people, possibly more. In each incident, the informant was instrumental in luring the victims to the house on Parsioneros Street in Juarez, Mexico where the killings occurred. He used duct tape, rope, and a plastic bag for extensive torture of the cartel victims. After each horrible ordeal, Contreras would purchase sacks of lime for burial and decomposition of the bodies. Contreras stacked and buried the bodies on top of each other in the back yard of the house.

The Padilla litigation seeks unspecified damages against the following defendants: ICE officials Giovanni Gaudioso, Patricia Kramer, Curtis Compton and Raul Bencomo -- who all worked in El Paso at the time of the House of Death murders. The other defendants are Assistant U.S. Attorney Juanita Fielden, and Michael Garcia, the Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary who oversees ICE.

The ironic twist in the Abraham case, according to law enforcement sources, is that some ICE agents were ready to move on his indictment in early 2003, but were forced to hold off for fear that a speedy trial for Abraham might expose Contreras as an informant, thereby compromising his work on the Santillan case. As it turned out, if Contreras had been exposed in early 2003 due to the Abraham case, it might have helped prevent the dozen or so murders that took place at the House of Death between August 2003 and January 2004.

In any event, honest law enforcers seeking to expose the truth behind House of Death predicted the trajectory of the Abraham case months ago.

From Narco News’ April expose:

The “why” in this story is all about drugs and money: D.C.-style. In order for agents and supervisors in the field to get the big money and power to run career-making cases, they have to impress the brass in Washington, D.C. And the brass are impressed by big, headline generating, drug cases – particularly those connected to heavy narco-syndicates like the infamous Juarez organization.

So, according to law-enforcement sources, some officials with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and ICE in El Paso went to great lengths to make those connections in both the Santillan and Abraham cases. In that process, the informant became indispensable, as he was the ticket to getting inside both the Santillan and Abraham organizations.

In the Santillan case, it was primarily Mexican drug dealers who were being murdered.

The sources contend that made it easier for some within law-enforcement to rationalize the deaths in pursuit of the prize at the end of the game. Honest law enforcers worry that an “institutionalized racism” in U.S. enforcement agencies, a problem that law enforcers have tried to blow the whistle on for years, along the border has now led to officially sanctioned murders.

The payoff for those willing to turn a blind eye to murder was more money for their cases and more juice for their law enforcement careers.

“This is all about power,” one law enforcer explains.

Another law enforcement agent adds:

“One thing is for sure, the Santillan case goes to shit as does the cigarette case once the true story comes out. The kicker is that the U.S. Attorney’s Office is in the middle of all this, and so who’s going to investigate them? That’s never going to happen unless there is enough public pressure brought to bear on this case.”

We can only wait to see what kind of “leverage” the Contreras wild card brings to bear on the upcoming Santillan case, slated for trial in late January in San Antonio. One law enforcement official says the truth still has a big hill to climb, however.

“U.S. attorney’s have withheld evidence before,” the law enforcer says. “Who’s the judge going to put in jail in that case?”

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