Former DEA supervisor's letter opens new door on House of Death

Narco News has uncovered a well-kept secret through a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Following is the list of government agencies who don’t want you to know this secret, and which have to date, to one degree or another, contributed to keeping it covered up: The U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Antonio, the DEA, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and at least two agencies charged with investigating corruption in federal law enforcement -- the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General.

But before revealing the details of the secret, some background is in order. Last month, Narco News reported the following:

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.

... 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.

... 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.

... 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.

Cat out of the bag

Despite the stonewalling in the House of Death case by a host of federal law-enforcement agencies, one government agency has broken the silence as a result of Narco News’ FOIA.

In addition to his federal court litigation, Gonzalez also filed a case last month with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which is charged with, among other things, handling appeals by federal employees who claim they have been retaliated against due to whistleblowing activity. Gonzalez took this step after both the Office of Special Counsel and the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General declined to investigate his case.

From Gonzalez’ pending MSPB filing, which was obtained by Narco News through the FOIA request:

On 02/24/2004 I sent a letter to the Special Agent in Charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in El Paso, holding him responsible for the actions of ICE personnel and one of their informants (Contreras) regarding the murders of several individuals in (Ciudad Juárez), Mexico, whose bodies were discovered in the backyard of a residence, and the subsequent obstruction of a threat against the lives of a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent and his family. Because a federal prosecutor was in the mix, I also sent the letter to the Office of the United States Attorney for the Western District of Texas.  

As a result of my letter, the U.S. Attorney (Johnny Sutton), complained to the Justice Department and the DEA, and this resulted in negative comments in my next performance evaluation to the effect that I had exercised “extreme poor judgment” in sending the letter. My negative evaluation was a direct result of my blowing the whistle on the murders and the obstruction.

There is a wealth of information in the FOIA records released by the MSPB. But, for now, we will limit this look behind the veil of government secrecy to the letter penned by Gonzalez.

Although certain words in the letter were redacted, Narco News was able to fill in the blanks. The redacted material that was reconstructed is contained in parentheses.

The letter

February 24, 2004
Mr. John Gaudioso
Special Agent in Charge
Department of Homeland Security
Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Dear Mr. Gaudioso:

Since our meeting on January 25, 2004, and our telephone conversation on February 14, 2004, I’ve had an opportunity to digest what you’ve said as well as to conduct a careful review of the material in this case. I am now writing to express to you my frustration and outrage at the mishandling of the (Vicente Carrillo Fuentes drug organization) investigation that has resulted in unnecessary loss of human life in the Republic of Mexico, and endangered the lives of Special Agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and their immediate families assigned to the DEA Office in (Ciudad Juárez) Mexico.

There is no excuse for the events that culminated during the evening of January 14, 2004, and absent a complete and logical explanation of these events, which led to the emergency evacuation of our personnel and their families in (Ciudad Juárez), I have no choice but to hold you responsible for this unfortunate situation.

Rather than join with others in petty finger pointing, I will limit this letter to the following irrefutable facts:

  • This chain of events began when hired killers working for (Santillan) went to the residences of a DEA agent in (Ciudad Juárez), and later caused local police to make a traffic stop of the agent’s vehicle which at the time was occupied by the agent (and his family). We must not forget this.

  • During the early part of 2002, my office initiated Operation Sky High, a U.S. multi-agency bilateral investigation with Mexican federal authorities, targeting the (Vicente Carrillo Fuentes drug organization). Coordination meetings in El Paso were convened among the participants, which included DEA, FBI, ICE, the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO), and Mexican federal officials representing the Office of the Attorney General (PGR). Everyone agreed to work together and do everything possible to disrupt and/or dismantle the (Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization) on both sides of the border. To this date, the only U.S. agency that has honored that gentleman’s agreement is the DEA.
  • From the very beginning, ICE personnel and the prosecutor from the USAO have exhibited an unfounded and indeed inexcusable lack of trust of DEA personnel, in particular agents stationed in Mexico. Allegedly, our agents in Mexico share too much information with their Mexican counterparts. This mistrust is insulting and runs contrary to the agreement made at the start of Operation Sky High.
  • DEA agents in both (El Paso) and (Ciudad Juárez) have honored every request made by your agents, as well as by the prosecutor, to not share information with Mexican authorities even though those requests, and the attitude in general of your agents and the prosecutor, go against the spirit of cooperation agreed upon by everyone present at the Operation Sky High meetings in (El Paso).
  • On/about August 5, 2003, while working for your agency, the ICE confidential source identified as (Jesus Contreras) participated in a murder in (Ciudad Juárez). Shortly thereafter the actions of the CS (confidential source or informant) were misrepresented to Mexican authorities that were told via official ICE correspondence that the CS had merely “witnessed” a murder and would soon be available to provide testimony to the PGR. The CS was in fact a participant in the torture/murder of (Durango lawyer and suspected drug trafficker Fernando Reyes Aguado), as reflected in his debriefing report dated August 25, 2003, which clearly states that the CS supervised the murder. [When considering this situation, it is not surprising to me that people in your agency and the USAO would be concerned about DEA agents sharing “too much information” with their Mexican counterparts.] While DEA personnel have done everything possible to assist Mexican officials without compromising ICE information, ICE personnel have thrown obstacles in our way and concealed vital information that could have saved lives.
  • Following the murder of (Fernando) in August 2003, your agents requested several country clearances for the CS to travel to (Mexico), and they continued sending the CS to (Juárez) while failing to report his activities to DEA as required by our own internal agreements. I have been told that over 200 reports of investigation were written regarding this case by ICE/El Paso and that none of these were distributed to your own personnel assigned in Mexico.
  • ICE agents failed to provide DEA agents in (Juárez) with the exact location where the body of (Fernando) was buried, stating that the information given by the CS was vague, thereby obstructing a murder investigation in Mexico, and eventually placing the lives of DEA agents and their families in (Juárez) in grave danger. During his debriefing by ICE agents, the CS admitted to killing (Fernando) as well as to knowing the exact location of the burial site because following the debriefing, he went back to the house in (Juárez) to give money to (one of Santillan’s henchmen). This information is in the ICE debriefing report dated August 25, 2003.
  • On August 11, 2003, DEA Group Supervisor (name blacked out) was asked by Associate SAC (name blacked out) to convene a meeting with FBI, DEA, and ICE personnel to discuss the CS/murder issue as well as the issue of Mexican police corruption. The meeting was scheduled to take place in the DEA office on August 15, 2003 at 2 PM; however, ICE personnel did not show up as scheduled, and Group Supervisor (name blacked out’s) ICE counterpart notified him that the meeting had been cancelled. That was the last time we heard about the issue until recently.
  • Following the August 2003 murder of (Fernando), ICE personnel and the prosecutor ignored well-founded recommendations made by DEA agents to arrest (Santillan) and “take down” the case, thereby allowing at least (13) other murders to take place in (Juárez), in what can only be described as a display of total disregard for human life, and disrespect for the rule of law in Mexico. Much of this, I’m told, to protect the drug case against (Santillan) and a (cigarette-smuggling) case in which the CS is a witness.
  • On/about December 19, 2003, your office submitted a request to lure (Santillan) into the U.S. without the requisite ASAC level of coordination with my office or with DEA in Mexico City. This was after DEA agents assisted and participated in the drug case against (Santillan), since it fell under the umbrella of Operation Sky High. During our telephone conversation you referred to the matter of the lure as a “minor issue.”
  • (Santillan) and the CS were allowed to continue their activities in Mexico following the August 2003 murder of (Fernando), and on January 14, 2004, DEA agents and their families stationed in (Juárez) were and remain evacuated from their residences because hired killers working for (Santillan) tried to identify two of our agents through your CS under the ruse of a traffic stop.
  • (Santillan) and others, with the assistance and participation of the CS, committed a series of murders in (Juárez) that have shocked the conscience of decent, law-abiding citizens on both sides of the border.
  • Following the evacuation of our personnel in (Juárez), ICE agents, with your concurrence, refused to immediately present the CS to Mexican federal authorities so that his testimony could be used as the probable cause necessary to arrest the corrupt police officials in (Juárez). Your failure to present the CS to Mexican federal officials resulted in a one-week delay before probable cause could be established to search for the dead bodies. These officials told our Attaches in Mexico that they would not have had to wait to discover the bodies prior to arresting the corrupt officers. 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. You and the prosecutor until last week refused our repeated requests for direct access to the CS so that we could at least attempt to resolve the threat. In fact the prosecutor stated that she had ordered ICE personnel to refuse DEA access to tapes of the CS, while expressing concern regarding our (DEA) sharing of information with Mexican federal authorities. You allowed a prosecutor to make an operational decision that interfered with the investigation of a threat against the lives of fellow U.S. federal agents and their families.
  • It was not until the Chief of Operations met with his counterpart in your agency that you agreed to allow our agents direct access to the CS; however, you then placed restrictions on that access that are inconsistent with both the spirit of cooperation that should exist between our two agencies, and with good law enforcement practices and procedures. Your reasoning for doing this was that, in your view, DEA agents were targeting the CS and you could not allow that to happen. [In light of that, we cannot help but wonder why you would go to such extreme lengths to protect this “homicidal maniac” informant. In fact, the procedures employed in the handling of this informant, the fact your agents continued working with him after he tried to run a 100 pound load of marijuana behind our back last June, and his incredible story after he tape-recorded the murder of (Fernando), leads me to conclude that the informant may have been controlling the agents.] ICE agents allowed the CS to continue on an unabated crime spree while under their so-called control.
  • The restrictions you placed on our interview of the CS had the effect of obstructing the investigation of the threat against our agents, a threat that should have never taken place, and that came about as a result of cold killers who went to an agent’s residence, and later caused local police to make a traffic stop of the agent and his family for purposes of identification and possibly their abduction and murder.
  • 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. What is more important here, the safety of agent personnel and their families, or drug and cigarette smuggling cases? (Santillan’s) subsequent indictment for murders that occurred after August 5, 2003, that could have been prevented, is disturbing.
  • You mentioned during our telephone conversation that one of our (Juárez) agents “lost his cool and made a fool of himself” while trying to obtain information regarding the threat. I strongly disagree with your assessment in that regard, and propose to you that while there may be fools involved in this debacle, not one of them is employed by the DEA. I suggest that just for a moment you put yourself in that agent’s shoes. What would you have done if you and your family had been threatened by (drug-trafficking) killers and I refused you access to a DEA informant who might be of help in the case?
  • Your CS knew on January 13, 2004, that (Santillan) was planning a (“carne asada,” a codeword for a torture/murder session) for the Parsioneros house (in Juárez) the following day, and nothing was done about it until (Santillan) called your CS on the night of the 14th to check the names of our agents. By that time, three more human beings had been tortured and killed.
  • You told me that it was not until January 25, 2004, that you learned of the CS’ involvement in murders other than the one on August 5, 2003.
  • You also told me that your agents will no longer work with DEA personnel assigned to the (Juárez) Resident Office. This is unacceptable and goes against the spirit of cooperation inherent in the reasons for creating the Department of Homeland Security.
  • It appears to me, after reading the statement given by the CS to the Mexican authorities, that the CS’ handlers may have known about the (“carne asada”) scheduled for January 14th, and perhaps others prior to that. This of course begs the question, if the killers had not called the CS to check on our agents on January 14, how many more dead bodies would we have now?

    Now, six months after the murder of (Fernando), the PGR has testimony from several members of (Santillan’s) killing circle. The PGR knows that U.S. authorities could and should have taken steps to stop these assassins. Both of our agencies have spent countless hours building trust and sharing sensitive information without compromise with trusted counterparts in Mexico. However, the developments in this case have, to say the least, strained that relationship and set us back years.

    Our Regional Director in Mexico and I have been discussing this at length on a daily basis. We both find this situation appalling and he concurs with my comments.

    Sandalio Gonzalez
    Special Agent in Charge

    Stay tuned……

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