Sandalio “Sandy” Gonzalez spent 27 of his 32 years in law enforcement with the Drug Enforcement Administration, working in Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Washington, D.C., and eventually taking charge of the agency’s operations for all of South America. In 2001, while Gonzalez was working as a high-ranking agent in Miami, there was a raid by a team of DEA and Miami–Dade County narcotics agents on a suspected major drug distributor. Several kilograms of cocaine were mysteriously missing by the time the evidence made its way back to DEA offices. Gonzalez called for an internal investigation, and was shortly thereafter transferred to El Paso, a move he describes as a demotion in retaliation for speaking out.
After a few years in El Paso, Gonzalez became the central whistle-blower in the horrifying “House of Death” case, in which agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were accused of looking the other way while one of their drug informants helped torture and murder at least a dozen people in the violent border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
At the center of the House of Death case is Guillermo Ramirez Peyro, also known as “Lalo,” a federal drug informant who over the years has been paid more than $220,000 by the U.S. government, according to ICE’s own records. Trial transcripts and depositions given by ICE agents reveal that Lalo, who had worked his way into the upper echelons of Mexico’s Juarez drug cartel, was a particularly valuable asset to the U.S. government, becoming a key contact in an investigation targeting the cartel’s third in command, Heriberto Santillan-Tabares (“Santillan”).
In August 2003, according to depositions by ICE agents, Santillan and Lalo committed their first murder at an abandoned house near the Texas-Mexico border that would come to be known at the House of Death, torturing and killing a man named Fernando Reyes, a Mexican attorney and childhood friend of Santillan. The motive was unclear, though Gonzalez suspects that Reyes was dealing drugs and the killers were after his money and supply. After the slaying, Lalo briefed his handlers at ICE about what he had done.
ICE agents would later testify, in sworn affidavits for the civil trial brought by families of the House of Death victims, that officials from both ICE and the Justice Department knew about the killing in Mexico City, El Paso, and Washington, D.C., as did the office of Johnny Sutton, the San Antonio–based U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas. But instead of shutting the Santillan investigation down, the federal government allowed it to keep going. During the ensuing months, government reports would later show, 11 more people were murdered at the House of Death, including one legal U.S. resident. According to Gonzalez, these were a mix of rip-offs, snitch killings, witness killings, and turf war deaths. Juarez cartel leaders referred to the murders as carne asadas, or (loosely) “barbecues.”
In January 2004, while being tortured at the House of Death, one man gave his captors the address of an agent assigned to the DEA office in Juarez. Federal agents would later learn the leak may have been entirely coincidental—a large stash of cocaine was found at the house next door to the agent’s residence. Nevertheless, while the gruesome murders of Mexican citizens didn’t move the U.S. government to alter its dealings with Lalo, a potential threat to a federal agent apparently did. Gonzalez, who was back in Washington at the time, heard about the possible threat, and flew to El Paso to oversee the situation. Over the next several weeks, he says, he grew outraged as he learned more and more about ICE’s handling of Lalo and Santillan. Rather than give up the operation, Gonzalez discovered, federal agents had allowed a paid informant to participate in a series of brutal murders, all but the first of which could have been prevented.
By Gonzalez’s account, when he sensed that internal investigations of the case were heading toward a whitewashing, he fired off a letter to ICE, demanding that officials there take responsibility. Gonzalez’s letter received attention from the Justice Department, landing at the desk of DEA Administrator Karen Tandy. But instead of praising his efforts to expose a deadly mishandling of a paid government informant, Tandy reprimanded him. According to Gonzalez, U.S. Attorney Sutton and Tandy both called Gonzalez “hysterical,” warned him not to talk to the media, and eventually forced him into an early retirement in 2005.
Since then, Gonzalez has been mostly frustrated in his attempts to get the executive branch, Congress, and the news media to investigate what happened in Juarez and the U.S. government’s culpability in murder. Outside of the independent website Narco News, which extensively covers drug war casualties south of the U.S.-Mexico border, few media outlets have examined the House of Death in depth.
reason spoke with Sandy Gonzalez by phone late last year.
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 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.
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 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. What was the reaction to it?
Gonzalez: This all started as a threat against some agents and their families. So even if ICE didn’t want to get into the murders, they had to at least investigate the threats to the agents. The DEA flew in a supervisor from Mexico City. He was operating out of my office in El Paso. When I finally found out what was going on with the House of Death, I wrote the letter to my counterpart at ICE. The letter basically said to him: Unless you can come up with a really good explanation, you’re responsible for this whole mess. These were murders, and we had the possibility of federal agents looking the other way, knowing the murders were taking place. Allowing an informant to take part in violent crimes is a very serious matter, so I also sent a copy to the U.S. Attorney’s Office [in San Antonio].
Their reaction was completely negative. I mean, the U.S. attorney never even contacted me to discuss the matter. Instead, he complained about me directly to the Justice Department. I got a call from the chief of operations, the No. 3 person in the DEA, who instructed me not to talk to the media and not to write any more letters. He told me that everyone was very upset. No one wanted to discuss the issues I had raised. They just wanted me to shut up.