The House of Death is no longer the new kid on the block

The House of Death at 3633 Parsioneros in Ciudad Juarez, located just south of El Paso, Texas, became part of a macabre parade of homes earlier this year when two additional houses in the Mexican border city grabbed headlines due to their similar landscaping features.

Like the Parsioneros house, where 12 bodies were found buried in the backyard, these latest homes also boast backyards that doubled as graveyards.

In late February, Mexican authorities dug up nine bodies at a home on Cocoyoc Street in Juarez, located less than a mile west of the Parsioneros house. A few weeks later they found at least 36 bodies buried on the grounds of a home on Pedregal Street, located about 3 miles east of the original House of Death. (See map at this link.)

Mexican authorities have told the media that the corpses, which had been in the ground four to five years, are the byproduct of Juarez’s bloody narco-trafficking business.

Sources with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) tell Narco News that all three homes are linked. They contend the bodies found at the houses are tied to an investigation that their agency carried out against a major Juarez narco-trafficking cell headed by Heriberto Santillan Taberas — who was a top lieutenant in the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes drug organization that dominates Juarez.

Santillan is now sitting in federal prison in the wake of cutting a plea deal with U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton in San Antonio, Texas, in which Santillan agreed to plead guilty to narco-trafficking-related charges. As a consequence of that bargain, struck in April 2005 (after a multi-year investigation by ICE) all murder charges against Santillan were dropped.

A key reason Santillan was left off the hook on the multiple homicide counts included in his initial indictment, law enforcement sources contend, is because an ICE informant (a former Mexican federal cop named Guillermo Ramirez Peyro) assisted, and even participated, in the murders carried out at the House of Death on Parsioneros Street.

Had Santillan’s case gone to trial in federal court in San Antonio, law enforcement sources say, the complicity of ICE and the U.S. Attorney’s Office (both in San Antonio and El Paso) in allowing their informant to assist in those murders would have been exposed — which would have been politically disastrous for aspiring bureaucrats and possibly criminal in its implications.

As a result, Santillan was allowed to plead out and a cover-up ensued that was designed to insulate both Sutton’s office (which is part of the Department of Justice) and ICE supervisors in El Paso from potential blowback related to their roles in the original House of Death murders. Narco News has documented the trail of that cover-up over the course of the past four years through more than 70 reports, which can be found at this link.

But these newly discovered morbid houses on Cocoyoc and Pedregal streets open yet another dark chapter in this ongoing whitewash of U.S. government complicity in mass murder. They raise the total body count from a mere dozen to at least 57 — with the near certainty that additional houses (narco-tombs) might yet be unearthed before the final page of this horror story is turned.

The Evidence

There is mounting evidence, beyond what ICE sources have told Narco News, pointing to the fact that key officials at ICE and in Sutton’s US Attorney’s Office knew of these additional torture and murder operations at the houses on Cocoyoc and Pedregal streets.

Many of the bodies found at those locations have been in the ground since at least 2003, Mexican authorities have told the media, which is the same year that the murders were carried out at the house on Parsioneros Street. So it appears all these homicides happened during the same time period.

And the houses themselves are in close proximity to each other (along a four-mile line that intersects a major Juarez boulevard called Panamericana). The geographical nexus of the homes means individuals marked for death (or the bodies of those killed elsewhere) could be delivered to any of the homes with great efficiency.

And this logistical convenience also leaves open the possibility that additional narco-tombs exist along this same line, since these homemade graveyards do have limited capacity individually.

But that coincidence of location alone is not proof of a connection between the bodies found at the Parsioneros house — all victims of Santillan’s henchmen in murders committed between August 2003 and mid-January 2004 — and the murder victims found at the homes on Cocoyoc and Pedregal streets.

However, at the time the original House of Death was exposed to the light of public sunshine in early 2004, DEA agents in El Paso and Juarez seemed to believe the Parsioneros narco-tomb was not an isolated operation.

DEA took an interest in ICE’s Santillan investigation after the narco-trafficker targeted a DEA agent and his family in Juarez. Their deaths were narrowly averted.

After that incident, ICE was forced to reveal the location of the original House of Death to DEA.

A DEA report put together in early 2004 reveals that the agency and Mexican law enforcers, at the time, believed there was at least one other narco-tomb linked to the Santillan’s murder machine (which again involved the participation of an ICE informant.)

Following is a summary (composed by Narco News) of the information contained in that DEA report (found at this link) detailing the search for more bodies:

February 3, 2004: The search for bodies at the House of Death is completed. A total of 12 bodies have been found, including the three individuals who were tortured and murdered on
January 14, 2004. Mexican law enforcers obtain warrants to search the additional locations. These include two homes thought to be used by Santillan associate Miguel Loya, a Mexican state police commander, and two suspected safe houses for the Santillan narco-trafficking operation. At the sites, law enforcers find firearms, ammunition and a number of documents.
February 4, 2004: Mexican law enforcers also obtain a search warrant for a ranch near Juarez, where they believe additional bodies are buried. They begin excavating the site. The DEA again asks ICE officials for permission to question the informant Ramirez. ICE finally gives the go-ahead for such a debriefing, but informs DEA agents that they cannot ask Ramirez any questions about the House of Death murders or other criminal activity that has taken place in Mexico.
February 9, 2004: The canine units from the Austin, Texas, Police Department arrive at the ranch near Juarez and, along with the DEA and Mexican law enforcers, begin the search for more bodies.
February 10, 2004: The search of the ranch near Juarez is completed. No bodies are found.

Mother and Child Reunion

So it does appear DEA and Mexican law enforcement officials did have reason to suspect the 12 bodies found at the House of Death on Parsioneros Street did not represent the full extent of Santillan’s bloody business. And there is yet another detail recently come to light that could well connect the Parsioneros house to the Pedregal narco-tomb, where at least 36 bodies were found.

Diana Washington Valdez is an El Paso journalist and author of “The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women” — considered by many a definitive work on the infamous Juarez femicides.

An April entry on her blog site contains one of the few clues to date to the identities of the bodies found buried at the Pedregal site:

Last month, Mexican federal authorities unearthed 36 bodies at a cartel safe house in Juarez, including the bodies of three females, two of them a baby and her mother. [Emphasis added.]

After the original House of Death was exposed in early 2004, ICE’s informant, Ramirez, provided a statement to Mexican investigators concerning his knowledge and/or involvement in various murders in Juarez linked to Santillan’s operations. This debriefing of the informant was carried out on Feb. 12, 2004, by an assistant legal attaché for the Attorney General’s Office of Mexico.

One of the murders described by Ramirez involved a mother and her small child — as young as three years of age (a “baby” in the general sense of the word.)

From Ramirez’ statement:

Another execution that I remember was on September 11, 2003, when I was in Chicago, Illinois. Santillan called to tell me that they needed the house, referring to the Parsioneros house [in Juarez], to “grill some meat,” [kill someone] so I called Alex to take care of this. Upon returning from Chicago both Alejandro Garcia Cardenas and Santillan mentioned to me that they had killed a person because a mule, in other words a person who took drugs across the border, had been arrested on the bridge as he tried to take a load of drugs and that this person who was arrested sent his wife to ask him for money to pay for a lawyer and instead of giving her the money the dead person [killed later by Santillan and his goons] killed the wife and the girl who was three (3) to five (5) years old. I believe that Luis Portillo or maybe Vicente Carrillo Fuentes gave the order and Santillan executed the order in order to earn merit in that organization, as he has always been willing to do these kind of jobs. [Emphasis added.]

Could it be that the woman and small child, both murdered because the mother made the mistake of asking the wrong person for money, are among the victims who were found buried at the house on Pedregal Street?

We simply cannot say at this point, since the Mexican government has been very guarded, to date, in providing specific details that could be used to verify or refute that possibility.

But it seems clear Ramirez was aware of those murders, and more, when they occurred and that he likely told his ICE handlers about them. Ramirez has testified in immigration proceedings (he is now in prison facing deportation back to Mexico and a certain death) that he told ICE agents about the murders at the Parsioneros house, often in advance. And it also is not in dispute that ICE had a wiretap on Ramirez and Santillan’s phones, which means ICE agents were able to listen into their conversations, including those in which Santillan ordered Ramirez to open up the Parsioneros house for a “carne asada” — the codeword for torturing and murdering another victim.

Beyond this, Ramirez provides an even clearer statement of what he knew about other death-house operations in Juarez and what he told his ICE handlers about those murder chambers.

Ramirez, via an interview conducted by e-mail in the fall of 2006, told Narco News the following when asked if he was aware of any other House of Death operations in Juarez:

NARCO NEWS: Were there other similar operations in that neighborhood [Parsioneros], or in the Juarez area in general, that you were involved with or had knowledge of? If so, could you provide some details on those operations?
RAMIREZ PEYRO: From 2001 which was when they gave me the authorization to infiltrate the VCFO [Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization], I reported various incidents similar to this [the original House of Death], and I stated unconditionally the highest of risk that I was running given that this organization and its members do not hesitate to kill and they laugh at their murders.

Body Count

Santillan could have been arrested as early as March 2003, before the first murder at the Parsioneros house, and officials with ICE and the U.S. Attorney’s Office certainly could have wrapped up the case against Santillan after their informant made them aware of that first murder in August 2003.

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. That March 2003 sting operation was the basis for the initial indictment of Santillan returned in December 2003. Had Santillan been indicted right away that spring, the House of Death murder victims might still be alive today.

In addition, Ramirez was debriefed by ICE agents after the initial House of Death murder on Aug. 5, 2003, (involving the torture and slaying of Mexican attorney Fernando Reyes). Ramirez recorded that murder on tape and provide that tape to ICE agents the day of the murder. He also told ICE agents during the debriefing that he had participated in a homicide while working as their informant.

But ICE officials, as well as Sutton’s U.S. Attorney’s Office, obviously had no interest in shutting down the Santillan case at that time, even though they had all the evidence needed to issue an indictment.

And we have to wonder if what held them back, in part, was a trail of bloodshed already ignored prior to the first House of Death murder in the summer of 2003 — a trail left by the other murders then being carried out at the two houses recently “discovered,” where some 45 additional bodies have since been found, some covered in the dirt of their clandestine graves since 2003.

Maybe the informant had already told ICE of Santillan’s other gruesome murder operations in Juarez (and Ramirez has said as much), so ICE and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, including Sutton and his bosses at the Department of Justice, might have made the calculated decision that they were already in too deep to pull out at that point. As a result, the killing was allowed to continue, so that a headline-generating drug case could continue.

That would explain allegations advanced previously by law enforcement sources indicating that ICE supervisors in El Paso altered and even shredded documents related to the House of Death case.

Assuming those sources are correct, we are left to wonder what might have been in those documents, whether Ramirez’s reports of additional death-house operations were included initially, only to later be disappeared to avoid an inconvenient justice.

“It now makes a lot more sense as to why we heard about those ICE agents being in such a rush to shred documents,” says Sandalio Gonzalez, who served as the special agent in charge of the DEA’s El Paso office at the time of the House of Death. “They probably had documents on all of this stuff [the murders linked to the Cocoyoc and Pedregal houses]. … We have to now wonder how many of these bodies the U.S. government is responsible for.”

Gonzalez is one of the few U.S. law enforcers to date who has spoken out publicly about the U.S. government’s role in the murders. But he has paid a price for his veracity.

In an internal memo he penned in February 2004, Gonzalez blasted his counterpart at ICE for his handling of the Santillan case. That memo eventually reached Sutton’s desk.

Once Sutton saw that memo, which lays out ICE’s complicity via their informant in the House of Death murders, Gonzalez became a target of a high-level cover-up orchestrated by Sutton and the head of DEA at the time, Karen Tandy. The campaign to intimidate and silence Gonzalez eventually forced him to retire from DEA. From Gonzalez Feb. 24, 2004 memo:

Following the August 2003 murder of [Fernando Reyes], 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 [11] other murders to take place … 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 [the informant] is a witness.

We do not know for a fact that ICE and the Department of Justice were made aware of the murders at the houses on Cocoyoc and Pedregal as they were being carried out (though the informant Ramirez seems to indicate they were), but then we aren’t supposed to know such things when a cover-up is invoked. The whole point of obstructing justice is to obfuscate, to assure the facts stay buried.

But in this case, with the House of Death, the bodies are refusing to stay buried.

We are now up to at least 57 corpses potentially linked to this cover-up. You have to wonder at what point, at what body count, it starts to matter to anyone who has the power and position to ask: “Why did this have to happen?”

Critics of Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. (presidential candidate Barach Obama’s former minister) have made headlines expressing their indignation over his sermon damning America, but those same critics, many of them powerful political leaders, seem to have no stomach for calling out the people who played a role in damning the victims of the House of Death.

Such is the “authenticity” of the politics and justice in this nation.

Stay tuned….

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