The House of Death

An interview with DEA whistleblower Sandy Gonzalez

Sandalio “Sandy” Gonzalez recently retired after a 32-year career in law enforcement, 27 as an agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), at one point serving as its head of operations in South America.

Three years ago, Gonzalez’s career came to an abrupt end after he blew the whistle in a horrifying case now known as the “House of Death,” in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents stand accused of looking the other way while one of their drug informants participated in torturing and murdering at least a dozen people in the border town of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

The House of Death case was first reported by Alfredo Corchado at the Dallas Morning News, then followed up with a series of extensive reports by journalist Bill Conroy at Narco News, a website that covers the Latin American drug trade. Conroy, a reporter for a business journal in San Antonio, Texas who covers the drug war in his spare time, has had his own problems with federal retaliation. Federal agents have visited both his home and his office since he began reporting on the case.

At the center of the House of Death case is Guillermo Ramirez Peyro, also known as “Lalo,” a federal drug informant the U.S. government has over the years paid more than $220,000. Lalo was a valuable asset. He had worked his way into the upper echelons of Mexico’s Juarez drug cartel. As of 2003, Lalo was one of the federal government’s key contacts in an investigation targeting Heriberto Santillan-Tabares (“Santillan”), the cartel’s third in line behind leader Vicente Carrillo Fuentes. Fuentes and Lalo worked closely together on a number of drug smuggling operations, and Lalo’s esteem in the cartel grew with Santillan’s ascendance.

In August 2003, Santillan and Lalo commited their first murder at the abandoned house near the Texas-Mexico border—the House of Death—torturing and killing a man named Fernando Reyes, a Mexican attorney and childhood friend of Santillan. After the murder, Lalo briefed his handlers at ICE about what he had done. ICE agents would later testify that word of Lalo and Santillan’s first murder went out to ICE and Justice Department officials in Mexico City, El Paso, and Washington, D.C., including the office of U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton. But the federal government allowed the investigation to continue. Over the ensuing months eleven more people would be murdered at the House of Death, including a legal U.S. resident, at torture sessions Juarez cartel elites would grotesquely refer to as carne asadas, or “barbecues.”

In January 2004, while under torture at the House of Death, one man gave his captors the address of a DEA agent assigned to the agency’s office in Juarez. The gruesome murders of Mexican citizens may not have moved the U.S. government to cut short its investigation, but threats against a federal agent apparently did. Gonzalez, who was in Washington at the time, received news of the threat, and flew to El Paso to oversee the crisis. Over the next several weeks, Gonzalez grew increasingly outraged as he learned about ICE’s handling of Lalo and the Santillan investigation.

Rather than give up a drug operation (and apparently an unrelated cigarette smuggling operation), Gonzalez learned that federal agents had allowed a paid government informant to participate in a dozen brutal murders—all but the first of which could have been prevented.

When Gonzalez sensed that internal investigations of the case were headed toward a cover-up, he fired off a letter to his counterpart at ICE demanding he take responsibility. Gonzalez’s letter reached the highest levels of the Justice Department, including the desk of DEA Administrator Karen Tandy.

But instead of praising Gonzalez’s efforts to expose this egregious mishandling of a paid government informant, Tandy and other government officials reprimanded him for creating a record of ICE’s transgressions. Tandy and U.S. Attorney Sutton called Gonzalez “hysterical,” warning him not to talk to the media. They eventually forced him into an early retirement in 2005.

Since then, Gonzalez has been frustrated in his attempts to get the executive branch, Congress, or the media to investigate what happened in Juarez.

In August, reason Senior Editor Radley Balko spoke with Gonzalez by phone.


reason: When did you first hear about the House of Death murders?

Gonzalez: In January 2004. I was in the D.C. area on business when one of my assistants called me and said that Customs or ICE had contacted our office, and said that we had to evacuate all of our personnel from the Juarez office because they were in danger. I didn’t wait to get into specifics at the time. I just issued instructions to my staff to assist our Mexico City office and ICE in whatever they were doing.

So, that was the first inkling. When I went back to El Paso, I started looking into it. I started getting reports of what was going on, and eventually dug until I learned about the murders. I then spoke to my counterpart at ICE, and when I got the picture of what was going on, I just couldn’t believe it. It was outrageous.

reason: You then wrote a letter detailing what you knew and demanding an investigation. Who got a copy of that letter? And what was the reaction to it?

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  • ||

    The War on Drugs Sanity continues. Place your bets on the number of US officials who are charged with crimes over this.

    I've already got zero.

  • libertarian democrat||

    Get him! He's actually doing the job we hired him for!

  • ||

    "I think the American people would be justified in believing that their own government may be as corrupt as any of the countries our government criticizes for corruption."

    Thanks, Radley. Yet another completely fucked-up example of government abuse of power and complete disregard for the law that you found necessary to... Sorry, I have to get back to watching the Dow!

  • ||

    So if multiple levels of the federal government will allow a dozen murders to take place I wonder what they'll do if we ever get close to ending the drug war?

  • ||

    So U.S. Attorney Sutton knew about this and refused to even investigate it?

    Would this be the same U.S. Attorney Sutton who prosecuted two Border Patrol agents for shooting a Mexican drug runner in the ass and then being less than forthcoming about it?

    Gee, what a surprise.

  • ||

    "The War on Drugs Sanity continues. Place your bets on the number of US officials who are charged with crimes over this.

    I've already got zero."


    The war on some drugs is a cog in the "Culture War". I always tell people that the war on some drugs is not about people's safety or well being, it is about control and it is carte blanche for the myriad government abuses of human rights and dignity.

  • ||

    sorry about the misplaced tag in the quote. my bad

  • Ramsey||

    Radley FTW with 2 great articles.


    How are you not institutionalized with soul crushing depression? I just read the articles and they bring me down.

  • ||

    "I think the American people would be justified in believing that their own government may be as corrupt as any of the countries our government criticizes for corruption."

    Government corruption mixed in with an amount of money which one can barely grasp is a recipe for exactly what we're getting, dead bodies and a dead Constitution.

  • ||

    In January 2004, while under torture at the House of Death, one man gave his captors the address of a DEA agent assigned to the agency's office in Juarez

    See, the neocons are right! Torture does work!

    This story is fucking horrible. And no one cares.

  • dhex||

    of course not. they're mexicans, not people!

  • nonPaulogist||

    1000+ drug-related deaths and counting in Ciudad Juarez this year. I was picking up my 9 year old stepson at his school today and the Mexican army rolled by in a HummVee with a fifty caliber loaded, mounted and manned machine gun-IN A FUCKING SCHOOL ZONE!!

    Just another day in occupied Juarez.

  • ||

    of course not. they're mexicans, not people!

    Right, good point. I forgot that basic rule of US/Mexico detente.

  • Colleen McCool||

    Radley and Sandy thanks for all you do for reform! You are true patriots!

    Considering the facts: Obama and Palin admit to having used marijuana when younger, the McCain's wealth comes from alcohol drug dealing, Mrs. McCain's past prescription drug problems and America has become the most incarcerated nation in history; why isn't drug law reform for nonviolent users a top
    issue in this election year? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlxUuBBJRjI

    The Disappeared
    Seven Mexican reporters have vanished since 2005, a tally nearly unprecedented worldwide in 27 years of documentation by Committee to Protect Journalists. Many were investigating links between public officials and drug trafficers.
    http://cpj.org/Briefings/2008/Mexico2008/mexico_08.html

    "The ranks of the missing include aggressive young reporters and seasoned veterans, the owner of a tiny biweekly and a crew for a major television broadcaster. Only Russia-where seven journalists disappeared in the mid-1990s while covering an insurgent war in the republic of Chechnya-has experienced a comparable period of disappearances."

  • pab marq||

    Sorry about your "American" experience. Have you seen what America has become?! Minorities out! While whites pilage and run down the country! See what this poor latin family can expect from Federal/Missouri - POVERTY! Someone has to stop this and we will by selling our story and our US citizenship!
    www geocities com / pabmarq2000 / lawsuitstateofmissouri

    Last time speaking with lawyer that hates us is too bad, you $160,000 while the rich get cartblanche treatment, time to go back let GOD deal with these heithens.

  • ||

    pab marq, can you explain further? I'm particularly interested in white pillaging.

  • ||

    so, let me see if i understand this. ICE dropped an informant for bringing an "unauthorized stash ot marijuana" across the border? Does that mean I can call ahead to reserve passage for an authorized stash? What an odd system.

  • ||

    BigBigsLacker,

    did you check out his website? it seems the IRS and the state of Missouri have taken most/all of his money in back taxes and what have you, but he didn't actually owe them, clerical errors? Not too sure, his fragmented writing is hard to follow, and I really wish he didn't post the url to his site like that.

  • Tinian||

    If Sandalio "Sandy" Gonzalez is telling the truth, why didn't he post on Wikileaks?

  • ||

    That's so sad that someone in his position admits the futility, waste, and corruption involved with the WOD, is witness to *murders* in its name, and yet still can't bring himself to reconsider laws that would end it.

    I feel bad for the guy, and yet in the face of that willful ignorance and/or stubbornness...

  • ||

    And by "witness" I mean, didn't literally witness. Just that he found out it was happening.

    bad beer. No biscuit!

  • DJP||

    That was my reaction too dead_elvis.

    Despite all that, he can't see that legalizing is a better solution.

  • ||

    While the situation is horrific, why would the US Attorney prosecute crimes committed by a foreign national in a foreign country? Am I missing something?

    Certainly our agencies should have provided all the information to Mexican authorities.

  • Radley Balko||

    Loren --

    It is illegal for a federal agent to knowingly allow violent crimes to be committed by one of his informants.

    There's ample evidence that ICE agents knew about these murders, and did nothing to prevent them.

  • ||

    Radley,

    I get that, but the article had some note of the US attorney dropping 5 murder charges. I don't understand how the US attorney would have jurisdiction to bring charges in the first place. And perhaps that is why they were dropped.

    A small nit, I suppose, in the broader picture.

  • ||

    One only has to remember President Reagan telling Gorby to "tear down this wall." What we see next is Bushy calling for a wall to be built around the US. This, in and of itself, doesn't raise a red flag with anyone???

    Now, instead of using the National Guard to secure the southern border, as they're no longer "National," we have a combat brigade being "deployed" to US soil, against the Posse Comatatus Act.

    When will Americans wake up to whats going on with their own country. And the above hasn't even addressed the DEAth squads!

    This crap has got to STOP! Prohibition is the root cause of the crime, murders, et al, and no one seems to understand that. Brains, not bullets, are the call of the day.

    And, Radley, you're one of the elite few in the reporter pool who actually know how to "report." Thanks for not relying on "press releases" as ALL the others do. We appreciate it!!

  • ||

    Call the murderers at the DEA:

    Atlanta Division (404) 893-7000
    Boston Division (617) 557-2100
    Caribbean Division (787) 277-4700
    Chicago Division (312) 353-7875
    Dallas Division (214) 366-6900
    Denver Division (303) 705-7300
    Detroit Division (313) 234-4000
    El Paso Division (915) 832-6000
    Houston Division (713) 693-3000
    Los Angeles Division (213) 621-6700
    Miami Division (305) 994-4870
    New Jersey Division (973) 776-1100
    New Orleans Division (504) 840-1100
    New York Division (212) 337-3900
    Philadelphia Division (215) 861-3474
    Phoenix Division (602) 664-5600
    San Diego Division (858) 616-4100
    San Francisco Division (415) 436-7900
    Seattle Division (206) 553-5443
    St. Louis Division (314) 538-4600
    Washington, DC Division (202) 305-8500

    For general questions to DEA Headquarters:

    (202) 307-1000

    For Drug Registrant Information:

    Office of Diversion Control Online - http://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/

    Drug Enforcement Administration
    Office of Diversion Control
    8701 Morrissette Drive, Springfield, VA 22152

    Additional Office of Diversion Control addresses

    (800) 882-9539

    For Demand Reduction & Publications:

    (202) 307-7936

    For media questions to DEA Headquarters:

    Public Affairs (202) 307-7977
    For Congressional questions to DEA Headquarters:

    Congressional Affairs (202) 307-7423
    For Contracts & Acquisitions

    For Administrative Hearing Correspondence:

    Drug Enforcement Administration
    Attn: Hearing Clerk/LJ
    8701 Morrissette Drive
    Springfield, VA 22152

    For courier and in-person deliveries only:
    Drug Enforcement Administration
    Attn: Hearing Clerk/LJ
    600 Army Navy Drive
    Arlington, VA 22202

  • ||

    Balko,
    Please get him on record saying the is not considering suicide and he is reproted as having committed suicide then it means they killed him.

    He is definitely a candidate for a Deborah Jeane Palfrey or Gary Webb type event.

  • Gabe||

    here is my letter to : garrison.k.courtney@usdoj.gov

    a rather helpful lady at the DEA said Garrison would probably know about it.

    Sandy Gonzalez(a former agent) is accussing the DEA of covering up it's role in the death of a dozen people. Even worse, he is accusing the DEA of threatening him for being honest and seeking to do the right thing.
    Does the DEA have a response?

    http://www.reason.com/news/show/128893.html

    Can I get a interview with Karen Tandy? I'd love to give her the opportunity to defend herself.

    Who else would have played a role in reprimanding Gonzalez?

  • ||

    Man, I thiought people would be all over this. Don't people see the evil Balko has uncovered!? How is this not getting any more attention?

  • Mr. Reynolds||

    It's systematic at the USDOJ http://www.daprocess.com

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