U.S. prosecutors cut deal to bury the House of Death

U.S. Department of Justice officials have taken the predictable path in the House of Death mass-murder case. They have allowed the snake to swallow its tail.

U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton in San Antonio, Texas, announced earlier this week that his office cut a plea bargain with Heriberto Santillan-Tabares, who U.S. prosecutors claim is a top lieutenant in Vicente Carrillo Fuentes’ Juárez drug organization.

Santillan had been charged with cocaine and marijuana smuggling along with five counts of murder. His case was slated to go to trial this May in federal district court in San Antonio.

The plea deal caps more than a year-long effort by federal prosecutors and ICE officials to keep a lid on the U.S. government’s complicity in multiple murders in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez.
The Santillan case was investigated by federal agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and falls under the jurisdiction of Sutton, who is plugged into the 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.  

Under the plea deal, Santillan was  sentenced to 25 years in prison for “conducting a continuing criminal enterprise,” according to Sutton’s office. However, all of the murder charges against him were dropped.

A sanguine reading of the plea deal exposes a callous racism was at play in this case. In other words, because the homicide victims were Mexican citizens, the murder charges were expendable, particularly if avoiding prosecution helps to protect the careers of U.S. law enforcers.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Antonio, though, in a press release it issued outlining the plea bargain, offers a more diplomatic rational for dropping the murder counts against Santillan:

U.S. Attorney Sutton explained that the twenty-five year sentence imposed on Santillan-Tabares effectively takes him off the street and removes him from the drug organization and the drug trade for the rest of his life.  

Santillan-Tabares’ sentence is not subject to parole. In dropping the additional charges in exchange for Santillan-Tabares’ guilty plea, Sutton said that Mexico has a superior interest in prosecuting those responsible.  

All of the murders were committed in Ciudad Juárez, by Mexican citizens, including law enforcement officials, and all of the victims were citizens of Mexico. While much of the evidence relating to the murders is from Mexico, Sutton said his office would share with Mexican authorities any evidence developed in the United States.

Santillan’s attorney, Sid Abraham, in comments he made to the media, put the blame for the botched case against Santillan squarely on the shoulders of the U.S. government.

From an article in Newsday:

"Their star witness is a renegade, untrustworthy and a scam," said Santillan's lawyer, Sib Abraham. "I think the government didn't want him to take the stand."

That “star witness” was an informant on the payroll of ICE, who infiltrated the Santillan organization and, under the watch of ICE agents, participated in many of the murders in Ciudad Juárez.

Despite all the posturing by the U.S. Attorney and Santillan’s lawyer, it is clear that both sides in this case had a vested interested in cutting a deal. By avoiding a trial, U.S. law enforcers complicit in the murders or in their subsequent cover-up avoid potentially career-ending public exposure.

Santillan, for his part, must know he has sinned against the Juárez drug organization. He would be a dead man walking the minute he crossed the bridge into Mexico. His transgressions: 1) getting caught and 2) allowing an informant to get deep inside the narco-trafficking operation. As a result, Santillan actually stands better odds of surviving if he is sent to a prison in the United States.

This whole case is a blatant miscarriage of justice because it essentially allows people to get away with murder. We have to keep in mind what happened here.

A DEA supervisor in El Paso, Sandalio Gonzalez, drew the first blood from the monster when he fired off a letter in February 2005 to ICE officials in El Paso, Texas. Gonzalez’ letter blew the whistle on the alleged cover-up of the ICE agents’ complicity in multiple murders in El Paso’s sister city of Ciudad Juárez.

An informant by the name of Jesus Contreras, also known as “Lalo,” played a critical role in snaring Santillan. Between August 2003 and mid-January 2004, a dozen people were tortured, murdered and then buried in the yard of a house in Ciudad Juárez. Contreras, according to law-enforcement 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 Contreras’ complicity in the murders, yet did nothing to stop the killing for fear of jeopardizing the Santillan case and a separate cigarette-smuggling case that they were trying to make with the informant’s help.    

In addition to turning a blind eye to the murderous activity of their informant, ICE officials in El Paso also obstructed the efforts of Mexican law enforcers seeking to apprehend Mexican state police officers who also were complicit in the homicides.

In that light, U.S. Attorney Sutton’s decision not to pursue the murder charges against Santillan because “Mexican authorities have a superior interest in prosecuting those responsible” reeks of hypocrisy.

From Gonzalez’ February 2005 letter to John Gaudioso, head of ICE's El Paso division:

. . . Following the evacuation of our personnel in [Juárez], ICE agents, with your concurrence, refused to immediately present the CS [the confidential source, Contreras] to Mexican federal authorities so that his testimony could be used as the probable cause necessary to arrest the corrupt police officials in [Juárez]. … Now these dangerous killers are at large. To make matters worse, you would not allow the CS to call [Mexican state police Commander Miguel Loya Gallegos, an alleged Santillan operative] so that Mexican federal authorities could arrest him for his participation in the murders.  . . .

 . . . This situation is so bizarre that even as I'm writing to you it is difficult for me to believe it. I have never before come across such callous behavior by fellow law enforcement officers. The bottom line is that as a result of these actions, [Commander Miguel Loya Gallegos] and other murder suspects are now fugitives. There was no logical reason to prevent the CS from calling [Loya] so Mexican authorities could arrest him. … [Santillan's] subsequent indictment for murders that occurred after August 5, 2003, that could have been prevented, is disturbing. . . .

Gonzalez claims that within months of sending the letter, the DEA brass, under pressure from Sutton, retaliated against him.  Essentially, Gonzalez was told that if he did not voluntarily retire from the agency by June 2004, he would receive a negative job performance rating.

Gonzalez took his case to two major government watchdog agencies charged with investigating government corruption. Both agencies chose to hide behind legal loopholes to look away from the alleged cover-up.    

Gonzalez claims there was no end in sight to the retaliation he was facing from the DEA. As a result, he decided to turn in his gun and badge for good, and on Jan. 8, 2005, he retired from the DEA.    

We must not forget that the focus of all of this backroom maneuvering is protecting the money interests of ruthless narco-traffickers as well as the career interests of well-heeled federal prosecutors and upwardly bound ICE supervisors and agents. Not represented at the table of justice in this case are the victims, whose lives were spent like poker chips to advance these interests.

To date, the known murder toll in the House of Death horror story stands at 15:  

•  A dozen people tortured, murdered and buried in the backyard of a house in Ciudad Juárez— including at least one U.S. resident, 29-year-old Luis Padilla, who left behind a wife and three small  kids.  

• Two more people murdered by a House of Death operative (a corrupt state police commandant); they were killed in broad daylight the day after a DEA agent and his family were pulled over in a bogus traffic stop in Ciudad Juárez and threatened by corrupt Mexican cops on the payroll of the Juárez drug organization.  

• A 27-year-old father of a two-week old baby who was shot dead in El Paso after thugs mistook him for the informant, Jesus Contreras, who is at the center of the House of Death murders.    

In the final analysis, our government wants this case to be forgotten – covered up like a pauper’s coffin in the ground. But for those who care to look, this case is like a crack in the door that offers us a glimpse of the true nature of the war on drugs in our “America.”

The poet William S. Burroughs had it right:

America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.

If we allow the government to slam the door shut on this House of Death, on this insight into the pernicious, racist war on drugs, we can rest assured that the next House of Death “is there waiting” – maybe for me or you.

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