Drug Policy

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?

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.

Their reaction was completely negative. 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 number three 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. I think at that point they realized that this whole mess was now a matter of record. So they went after the guy who put it on the record.

reason: You've said you wrote the letter because you saw signs that the investigation was looking more like a cover-up than an actual investigation.

Gonzalez: DEA was doing their investigation and ICE was doing theirs. When the officials met in Washington, it became clear to me that what was being reported by ICE and what was being reported by DEA were very different. I said "bullshit." I mean, this is murder we're talking about here—multiple murders—and something's got to be done.

reason: At that point, the DEA had already dropped Lalo as an informant, right?

Gonzalez Yeah. They dropped him the previous July after he was caught at the border with an unauthorized stash of marijuana.

reason: But ICE kept using him—not only after he'd been caught smuggling while working as an informant, but after they learned that he had participated in a murder while on their payroll.

Gonzalez: Correct.

reason: Why do you think they kept using him? Did they want to get more information on the cartel, or were they using him in other cases that they didn't want to compromise?

Gonzalez: I think it was a combination of those two things. They were also using him in some huge cigarette smuggling case. And of course he was well into this cell of the Juarez cartel. As long he was there, he could provide information.

reason: So of the 12 murders at the House of Death, in how many cases did ICE agents have prior knowledge that one was about to take place?

Gonzalez: That's the big question. That's why they don't want an investigation.

reason: There's evidence that there were at least two where they had advance knowledge, correct?

Gonzalez: Lalo gave an affidavit or a declaration to the Mexican authorities where he admitted to taking part and/or being present—and it's been a long time since I've read that—in five murders.

reason: If ICE had handled the situation properly after they learned of the first murder, do you believe the subsequent murders could have been prevented?

Gonzalez: Oh, absolutely. I mean, after the first murder, they had all the evidence they needed. At the time that first murder took place, we already had a prosecutable drug case against Santillan. And then we had the murder on top of that.

reason: After all this, the main target of the investigation—Santillan—was only charged with drug trafficking. He pled guilty, and received a 25-year sentence. U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton dropped five murder charges against him—all committed at the House of Death. Do you think Sutton was afraid of what would come out in a trial where Lalo and Santillan were called to testify?

Gonzalez: Oh, there's no question about that. No way they could afford to put Lalo on the stand and have him testify to all of this.

Remember, he had a drug case before the first murder took place. That's the case that he pled guilty on. The murders had to be dismissed because the government's star witness and informant, Lalo, would have had to testify that he took part in them. At that point, any defense attorney worth his salt would've gotten out of Lalo that he was reporting these murders to federal agents before they happened.

reason: The DEA administrator at the time, Karen Tandy, has admitted in court testimony that she gave you the only poor performance review of your career because of your letter calling for an investigation into the murders. That led to your retirement. Have any of the ICE officers who handled the Lalo case been held accountable—criminally, professionally, or otherwise?

Gonzalez: Not to my knowledge. I doubt it. I would have heard about it.

reason: Have you had any indication that Congress might step in? Have you talked to anyone on Capitol Hill?

Gonzalez: Back in 2005 I went and briefed the senior staff of two senators.

reason: Which ones?

Gonzalez: [Iowa Sen. Charles] Grassley and [Vermont Sen. Patrick] Leahy. I think what happened is one of the members of Leahy's staff was a Justice Department officer who was on loan on a detail to the senator's staff. I think she knew Johnny Sutton. She worked out of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys. She knew Sutton personally and throughout the whole interview she was antagonistic. My guess is that she railroaded the whole thing.

reason: You eventually won a lawsuit and a settlement from the federal government. What exactly did the jury determine in that case?

Gonzalez: I was suing the government for retaliating against me when I blew the whistle on some missing drugs on another case in Miami. But I amended the lawsuit to include their retaliation for my letter in the House of Death case. This was an ongoing pattern of discrimination and retaliation against whistle-blowing that began in Miami and continued in El Paso. Believe it or not, the government tried to use the letter against me in the case. The jury didn't buy it.

reason: What were the terms of the settlement?

Gonzalez: The jury ruled in my favor and awarded me $85,000. Both parties appealed, and the government settled for $385,000. But the jury that heard all of the evidence ruled in my favor. Of course, the government didn't admit to doing anything wrong.

reason: Some of the families of the people murdered at the site brought a class action suit against the federal government for its complicity in their deaths. Do you know the status of that case?

Gonzalez: The judge threw it out. I don't know if they've appealed, but I don't think they had a chance. I mean, these federal judges, they're not really independent. They like to say they are, and I guess maybe some of them are, but most of them will rule in favor of the government every time.

reason: The Department of Homeland Security is now trying to deport Lalo back to Mexico, where he'll almost certainly be murdered. Two questions. First, what is their stated reason for deporting him? And the more obvious question—do you think they're trying to deport him because he's likely to be killed?

Gonzalez: There's no doubt in my mind that they're trying to deport him because they know he'll be killed. It gets rid of the main witness against the government should someone ever look into this.

I don't know the stated or official reason they're trying to deport him. I would guess that it's because he's an illegal alien, or something like that.

I mean, they want him dead. There's no question about it.

reason: He has asked that if he is deported, it be to someplace other than Mexico. The government is arguing against that, too.

Gonzalez: I wasn't aware of that, but it wouldn't surprise me. All I know is that they are trying to get rid of him so he can get killed. Once he's out of the picture, there's no way this case can be revived, because all the other witnesses are government agents.

reason: Tell me about the Joint Assessment Team Report.

Gonzalez: The Joint Assessment Team was two guys from Customs, two guys from ICE, and two guys from DEA who were to go in and interview everybody and then hopefully come to a conclusion about what happened. They did that. They interviewed over 40 people, including me, and issued a classified report. But when I asked for a copy during discovery, they would only release the portion that was their interview with me. They said the rest of the report was "national security."

So I was the agent in charge of that whole area, and they never showed me the results of the report. The only thing I can conclude from that is that what they found out was not pretty, and they weren't about to tell me that I was right. They also never showed it to the regional DEA director in Mexico City, who had also signed on to my letter. Odd that neither he nor I received a copy of the report, isn't it?

reason: You've had a long career at the DEA and you've seen two pretty serious abuses of power in that time. In both the House of Death and the Miami cases, you took more punishment for blowing the whistle than the people actually involved in the corruption.

Gonzalez: There's no question.

reason: How widespread do you think these abuses of the informant system are in federal law enforcement?

Gonzalez: Well, I'm not sure that there is an "informant system." I think every agency has its own rules and regulations regarding informants. It all has to do with individuals and how they handle their informants, but in general I think there is a tendency throughout the government to cover up misconduct, whether it's informant-related or otherwise. At least in the law enforcement agencies.

reason: You said at a conference earlier this year that while corruption is a problem, the bigger problem is that federal prosecutors don't hold corrupt agents accountable. Is that an accurate assessment of your opinion?

Gonzalez: Yes. In the House of Death case, the prosecutor's office is involved, the U.S. Attorney is involved. So it gets covered up. If there had been no involvement of the prosecutor's office in the misconduct, they might have gone after some of the agents. But Sutton's people were in the thick of things. So, you know, it gets covered up.

reason: Have the higher-ups in Sutton's office, the DEA, or ICE been questioned about the case? About why they allowed it to continue?

Gonzalez: No. Who's going to question them? No one made the decision to investigate the initial misconduct, so everyone's off the hook. I mean, the key person here is United States Attorney Sutton. He's independent from Washington in the sense that if he decides to conduct an investigation, it gets done. I guess conceivably he could get enough pressure from the DOJ to step on it, but by then, so many people would know about it, it would turn into a major scandal. But if the U.S. Attorney wanted—if he had wanted this looked into—it would've happened.

reason: You're now retired after a career in the federal government. What have you taken away from all of this?

Gonzalez: 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.

reason: You've had more than a 30-year career as a DEA agent and you've seen all of this corruption go down. Has it caused you to rethink or reconsider the War on Drugs?

Gonzalez: I'm not ready to say that we should legalize drugs, if that's what you're talking about. I just don't think that the problem has been dealt with properly. I think that we probably should concentrate more effort on demand reduction than give, for example, the Pentagon a bunch of money so they could run their ships and planes and say that it's detection and monitoring, which doesn't work.

Maybe concentrate more on education, when kids are young—making an effort in their formative years to make it so that they don't ever think of using drugs. I know this is wishful thinking but just going at it through enforcement alone…I think it's been shown that it really doesn't work. We're successful in putting people behind bars, but then other people take their place right away. It's a never-ending cycle.

NEXT: Bobos in Limbo

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  1. 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.

  2. Get him! He’s actually doing the job we hired him for!

  3. “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!

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. “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.

  7. sorry about the misplaced tag in the quote. my bad

  8. 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.

  9. “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.

  10. 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.

  11. of course not. they’re mexicans, not people!

  12. 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.

  13. of course not. they’re mexicans, not people!

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

  14. 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.

    “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.”

  15. 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.

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

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. If Sandalio “Sandy” Gonzalez is telling the truth, why didn’t he post on Wikileaks?

  20. 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…

  21. And by “witness” I mean, didn’t literally witness. Just that he found out it was happening.

    bad beer. No biscuit!

  22. That was my reaction too dead_elvis.

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

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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!!

  27. 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

  28. 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.

  29. 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?


    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?

  30. 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?

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