House of Death exploded by former DEA supervisor's revelation

A startling claim has surfaced in a document filed in federal court by a former DEA supervisor. The claim raises serious questions about a U.S. Attorney’s handling of evidence in the case of accused murderer and drug-trafficker Heriberto Santillan-Tabares.

Former DEA agent Sandalio Gonzalez drops the bombshell on the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Antonio in one short paragraph tucked into the pleadings of an employment discrimination case he has pending against the Department of Justice.

Gonzalez, who, until his retirement last month, oversaw the DEA’s El Paso field office, makes the following assertion in a motion filed earlier this week in federal district court in Miami:

On August 20, 2004, Defendant (the Department of Justice) continued to retaliate against Plaintiff (Gonzalez) for exercising his protected rights by issuing him a Performance Appraisal Record that was a downgrade from his previous outstanding appraisal due to Defendant’s unfounded allegations that Plaintiff exercised “extremely poor judgment” when Plaintiff issued a letter to the Special Agent in Charge of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), El Paso, Texas Field Office, and the Office of the United States Attorney (USAO), Western District of Texas, expressing his “frustration and outrage” at the mishandling of an informant in a drug investigation that resulted in several preventable murders in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and endangered the lives of DEA Special Agents and their families assigned to duty in Mexico.
In plain English, Gonzalez claims he was retaliated against by DEA brass because he ruffled the feathers of a big-shot U.S. Attorney in San Antonio, according to sources.

The reason Gonzalez was slapped for writing the letter, according to the sources, is that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Antonio was concerned that it “created discoverable material” in the Santillan murder case.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office cannot prosecute someone for murders that could have been prevented by the government,” explains one law enforcement source.

In other words, Gonzalez’ letter, which was penned sometime in February 2004, represents evidence that the government screwed up, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office didn’t want that letter being thrown in their faces during a trial. As a result, Gonzalez was told to shut up, his work record tarnished in retaliation and the letter buried -- until now.

Although the actual letter sent by Gonzalez to the U.S. Attorney’s Office has not yet surfaced, it’s a sure bet it soon will, now that court documents reveal that such a letter does exist -- a fact that prosecutors in the case can no longer hide.

The murders

U.S. prosecutors allege Santillan is a top lieutenant in Vicente Carrillo Fuentes’ Juárez drug organization. He 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. His case is currently pending in federal district court in San Antonio and is slated for trial in May, after two prior postponements.

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 last 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 case and a separate cigarette-smuggling case that they were trying to make with the informant’s help.

Several other important facts merit mention concerning what’s at stake for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Santillan case:

• The Santillan case falls 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.

•  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 the cigarette-smuggling cases.

•  If all goes well for prosecutors, and a conviction is obtained, the Santillan case is potentially a huge career-boosters for the law-enforcement officials involved, particularly prosecutors.

Those are the kind of connections and power brokers you don’t want to mess with by writing a letter, as Gonzalez did, “expressing his ‘frustration and outrage’ at the mishandling of an informant in a drug investigation that resulted in several preventable murders.”

But Gonzalez had no choice but to write that letter, as an honest law enforcer. Two of his agents nearly lost their lives because of the failure of ICE supervisors and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to pull the plug on the informant’s sting operation.

The informant’s handlers at ICE in El Paso became aware of the death house at least by August of 2003, when the informant told his handlers that he had participated in a murder there. At that point, DEA officials, who were clued into the ICE operation, wanted to make Mexican officials aware of the murder and to pull in the ropes on Santillan and the ICE sting.

However, officials with ICE and the U.S. Attorney’s Office refused to shut the investigation down. The reason, according to multiple sources, was that exposing the informant’s participation in the murder would have crashed not only the Santillan sting, but also a separate cigarette-smuggling case -- because the same informant was a key player in making both cases.

Also playing into the decision to ignore the homicides, according to law enforcers, was the fact that 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.

Exposed

But in Jan. 14, 2004, only weeks before Gonzalez wrote his letter, the door was blown wide open on the death-house operation in Juarez. That day, three people were tortured and murdered, but not before one of them gave up an address to a stash house in Juarez. Santillan’s operatives went to the house and banged on the door.

But it was the wrong door. It was not the home of drug dealer, but rather of a DEA agent and his family. That knock on the door set off a sequence of events that led to the agent his family being confronted by Mexican police on the payroll of Santillan.

At the time, the corrupt cops didn’t know they were dealing with a DEA agent, and if another DEA agent had not shown up at the scene, the family might well have been in store for a trip to the death house.

Fortune was on the side of the agent and his family that day. They survived. But the lid was blown off of Santillan’s death house operation, as was 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 two DEA agents.

As a result of the agents' close encounter with Santillan's enforcers, DEA evacuated all of its agents and their families from Juarez as a safety precaution. The Mexican government also dispatched some 80 federal agents to Juarez to investigate the situation.

The Gonzalez case

Sandalio Gonzalez has a track record of standing up for what he believes in, even at the expense of his career. The discrimination complaint he now has pending in federal court in Miami stems from another drug-related case where Gonzalez refused to turn a blind eye to injustice.

His case was outlined in the book Borderline Security, which was published by Narco News:

Gonzalez is a 30-year-plus veteran of law enforcement. He served with the Drug Enforcement Agency for a quarter of a century (before retiring in January of this year.)

With his appointment in September 1998 to associate special agent in charge in Miami, Fla., he became the highest-ranking Cuban-American in DEA and the second in command of the Miami Field Division.

Over the course of his career with DEA, Gonzalez has taken on a number of domestic and foreign assignments, including a stint in Washington, D.C., as chief of South American Operations, just prior to coming to Miami.

But Gonzalez’ move to Miami would prove to be career altering. It was there that he ran headfirst into a suspected cover-up that thrust him into a major legal battle with the DEA.

Following a November 1998 search of a suburban Miami house, a joint DEA/Miami-Dade Police team came up short on a stash of cocaine. Prior surveillance of the house indicated there should have been about 32 kilograms of cocaine on the premises, but the total amount accounted for after the search fell 10 kilos short of that mark.

Enrique Bover and his wife, Gisel, who each had prior drug convictions, were the targets of the raid. After their arrest, the Bovers agreed to become confidential informants in a play for leniency in their case. Their cooperation did lead to several arrests.

The Bovers assert that they informed DEA agents about the missing cocaine immediately after their arrest and that the information was ignored. Months later, the Bovers found themselves being accused of taking the 10 kilos of coke.

Gonzalez, though, suspected a set-up. He says the same Miami-Dade Police team involved in the Bover raid was responsible for “compromising three prior drug cases.”

Gonzalez was clued into the potential corruption after receiving a memo from one of his agents outlining “apparent official misconduct … and violations of federal law,” according to a discrimination lawsuit Gonzalez filed in federal court in Miami.

“It was alleged that police officers may have taken the cocaine,” Gonzalez asserts in the lawsuit.

However, the fix was in, according to Gonzalez, who claims in his lawsuit that the “good ol’ boys” within DEA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office closed ranks to protect the “non-Hispanic/non-minority” DEA agents involved in the Bover raid.

The goal of the alleged cover-up, Gonzalez claims in his litigation, was to prevent “any type of scrutiny regarding the Bover allegations” of police misconduct. Specifically, the lawsuit asserts that DEA brass wanted to ward off scrutiny of the DEA agents’ “association with the Miami-Dade Police Department squad” that was involved in the Bover raid.

“The Bovers were deactivated as ... informants in January 1999, following the arrest of Enrique Bover,” Gonzalez’s lawsuit states. “This arrest was based on what was clearly questionable information and evidence produced by a Miami-Dade detective who worked closely with (the suspect DEA agents and) who Gonzalez subsequently learned was under investigation by his own police department’s Internal Affairs Office, as well as by the Miami-Dade County State Attorney’s Office. The January 1999 case against Enrique Bover was consequently dismissed for lack of evidence.”

However, Gonzalez’s problems were only beginning.

“I took a stand on the missing 10 kilos of cocaine, and insisted that that they (DEA) do an investigation,” Gonzalez says. “And that was it.”

In the wake of pushing for that investigation into the missing coke, Gonzalez found himself the target of a series of actions by his superiors that he claims were designed to intimidate, embarrass and ultimately silence him. Gonzalez subsequently filed Equal Employment Opportunity claims against his superiors for their actions and ultimately took his case into federal district court in Miami.

In addition to suffering retaliation and discrimination designed to “harass and humiliate (him) and slander his character and damage his reputation,” Gonzalez asserts in his lawsuit that in January 2001 he was transferred involuntarily to the less prestigious post of special agent in charge of the El Paso, Texas Field Division.

“The prohibited actions cited ... were undertaken by the Department of Justice-Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida personnel, all sanctioned and encouraged by management officials of the DEA, who also participated in the prohibited actions, and furthered an entrenched DEA policy or philosophy of racial profiling and retaliatory actions against minorities, specifically Hispanics,” Gonzalez alleges in his lawsuit.

Gonzalez’s legal case was dismissed on a technicality by a federal judge in the spring of 2003. However, a federal appeals court later reversed the decision and Gonzalez’s case was sent back to the federal district court, where it is currently pending.

In addition to the revelation about the House of Death letter he penned, the new pleadings Gonzalez filed in his case earlier this week also detail additional retaliation he suffered since winning his appeal.

That alleged retaliation includes more than a dozen instances in which Gonzalez was passed over for a promotion or a transfer -- and other less-qualified DEA officials were promoted or transferred in his place, according to the court filing.

The Department of Justice, the defendant in Gonzalez’s lawsuit, contends the charges made in the case are without merit. Gonzalez, though, says his career did not merit being turned upside-down for blowing the whistle on suspected law enforcement corruption.

“The missing cocaine is definitely the catalyst of my problems,” he says. “The cover-up (since then) has been amazing. They (his superiors) look at you blank-face and then look the other way.”

This time, it’s more than coke they have to turn away from. This time, someone is trying to get away with murder.

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