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?