Blowing the Whistle on the House of Death
DEA dissenter Sandy Gonzalez reveals the drug war's complicity in torture and murder south of the border.
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.
reason: So they were upset about the letter, but not what was actually in the letter?
Gonzalez: Well, prior to the letter, everyone was upset at the way ICE was behaving in general. ICE and the U.S. Attorney's Office had also prevented us from setting up a meeting to capture the corrupt police commander in Mexico, who was basically the head of the kidnapping squad for the cartel. So there was already tension between the DEA and ICE. But once I wrote the letter, they focused all their anger on the letter and me. 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 have said in other interviews that you wrote the letter because you saw signs that the investigation was looking more like a cover-up than an actual investigation.
Gonzalez: Right. There were two investigations going on. The first was the investigation into the threat against the federal agents. The [DEA agent's] manual says you investigate threats against agents immediately. So we had guys working on that daily. This was going to Washington every day.
Apparently ICE was doing their own investigation from their end, and they were reporting to their own headquarters at the Department of Homeland Security. When the headquarters 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. He had a load—I can't remember if it was 100 pounds or 100 kilos 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.
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 into this cell of the Juarez cartel headed by Heriberto Santillan. As long as he was there, he could provide information. So I think an assistant U.S. attorney asked the state's attorney in New Mexico to dismiss the marijuana smuggling case against Lalo because that case would have gone to state court and blown Lalo's identity.
reason: Of the 12 murders at the House of Death, in how many did ICE agents have prior knowledge that a homicide 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—which, by the way, also almost didn't happen. ICE and the U.S. Attorney's Office didn't want him to even do that, but I guess they were feeling some pressure and gave in. I think in that declaration, Lalo admitted to taking part or being present—and it's been a long time since I've read that—in five of those murders.
reason: And it was only after the threats against the DEA agents, then—not the murders of Mexican citizens—that ICE closed the investigation and stopped using him?
Gonzalez: Even after the threats, ICE didn't drop him right away. When we heard of the threat against federal agents, we asked to make Lalo available to the Mexican authorities so that they could gather probable cause to go search the house. ICE and the U.S. Attorney's Office still refused. They would not allow him to talk to any Mexican investigators because they didn't want to blow his status as an informant. We lost a couple of valuable days there. Eventually the Mexican authorities accepted the declaration from ICE agents that had talked to Lalo, and they used that as probable cause to go dig up the bodies.
I think it took two weeks—maybe longer—for ICE and the U.S. Attorney's Office to acquiesce. They were working together to obstruct the whole thing. Eventually they allowed a Mexican prosecutor to come up to Dallas to interview Lalo. The Mexican government had asked for a DEA agent to be present in that interview. ICE and the U.S. Attorney's Office refused.
Eventually ICE was forced to make Lalo available to DEA, and when that happened, they put a caveat on the interview. They said that DEA could only ask him questions about what happened on January 14 and afterwards but not before. In other words, they could only ask him about the threats to federal agents—nothing about the murders he committed while working for ICE. I suspect that's because they didn't want the questions asked that would have revealed that U.S. agents knew about the murders before they took place.
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 related to murders 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: 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, we had a prosecutable case, a drug case, on Santillan when 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 have 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, admitted in a deposition read into the record at your trial that she gave you the only poor performance review of your career because of your letter calling for an investigation into the murders. So you were punished. Have any of the ICE officers who handled the Lalo case been held accountable—criminally, professionally, or otherwise?
Gonzalez: I doubt it very much. I would have heard about it. See, they have never acknowledged anything. I've learned that this is the sure sign that the government is hiding something. It's when they have no comment, when they won't acknowledge that there's even an issue. Johnny Sutton refuses to talk about it. When The Washington Times did their story, he wouldn't talk about it. And no one is holding his feet to the fire. Not the Justice Department's inspector general, not the Office of Special Counsel, not Congress. No one talks about it, so it goes away. If the executive branch doesn't investigate, that's the end of it, unless Congress steps in. (Note: Since this interview, ICE agent Raul Bencomo has been fired, in part due to his handling of Lalo.)
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: [Sen. Charles] Grassley [R-Iowa] and [Sen. Patrick] Leahy [D-Vt.]. 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.
reason: You eventually won a lawsuit and a settlement from the federal government. Explain the basis for your suit.
Gonzalez: While I was in Miami, one of the agents that worked for me ran into a situation where an informant told him that there'd been 10 more kilos than the [DEA and Miami-Dade Police epartment] agents reported as being seized. So there were 10 kilos of cocaine missing after a raid. It turned out that the informant had brought this to the attention of the DEA at the time, but was ignored. So when he brought it to our attention, we reported it. Both the DEA and the U.S. Attorney's Office didn't want this thing looked into. But I sort of insisted.
So they started messing with the agent who had reported the discrepancy. They started with the usual stuff; they accused him of being chummy with the informant. They were both Cubans, so they started attacking the agent who initially reported the drugs missing in a racial way. So I basically just put my foot down and just called it like I saw it. That's when they transferred me [to El Paso, in April 2001].
reason: Was there ever an investigation into the missing cocaine?
Gonzalez: No one was held accountable. They went through the motions, but basically everyone was exonerated. It would have involved assistant U.S. attorneys, you know, prosecutors, lawyers, and stuff like that. They weren't about to do that.
reason: Assistant U.S. attorneys were involved in the missing cocaine?
Gonzalez: Well, in the cover-up.
reason: What exactly did the jury determine in the case that you brought in response to the transfer?
Gonzalez: They determined that my transfer to El Paso was retaliatory.
reason: So the lawsuit didn't have anything to do with the House of Death case?
Gonzalez: I amended the lawsuit to include their retaliation for my letter in the House of Death case too. My assertion was that 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. The government then appealed the jury's verdict, at which point I filed a notice of cross appeal. We felt that one of the earlier judge's decisions was incorrect and hurt our case. The judge was pro-government the whole time; he initially threw out my case, and we had to appeal to get it back. Anyway, when we cross-appealed, they offered to settle for $385,000. But the jury that heard all of the evidence ruled in my favor. The settlement came during the appeal. And of course, the government didn't admit to doing anything wrong.
reason: Homeland Security is now trying to deport Lalo back to Mexico [on immigration charges], where he'll almost certainly be murdered.
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 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'm sort of amazed that the mainstream media has not followed this case with the zeal that they followed the Scooter Libby case, because in this case, the government is actually trying to get somebody killed. I mean, I'm not standing up for the guy. He's a dirtbag. But he is a human being. He is also a witness to this whole thing.
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. Once he's out of the picture, there's no way this case can be revived, because all the other witnesses are government agents. (Note: At the time of publication, Lalo was scheduled to appear March 9 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to appeal his deportation.)
reason: Tell me about the Joint Assessment Team Report.
Gonzalez: The Joint Assessment Team was a way for the DEA and ICE to get together and get the story straight, because both agencies were reporting to Washington and their reports weren't jibing. So they came up with this idea of sending two guys from ICE and two guys from DEA to go in and interview everybody, and then hopefully come to a conclusion about what happened. They interviewed over 40 people, including me, and issued a classified report. But when I asked for a copy during discovery [in the employment lawsuit], 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 onto my letter to ICE about Lalo.
reason: So you don't know of any ongoing investigations into this? It's pretty much done unless Congress gets involved?
Gonzalez: Correct. I wrote a letter to the inspector general, and they kissed me off. I went to the Office of Special Counsel. They kissed me off. The only thing I could do was file an appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board about my negative evaluation. It wasn't about the case itself, but we reached a settlement on that. The government agreed to take out the negative portion of the evaluation, because otherwise we were going to have a hearing and the whole thing was going to come out in public. They didn't want that to happen.
reason: You've said that while corruption is a problem, the bigger problem is that federal prosecutors don't hold corrupt agents accountable.
Gonzalez: Yes. Prosecutors have way too much discretion. Let's go back to the missing cocaine case in Miami. The problem there is that the prosecutor's office was involved in the cover-up. So no one was about to go after their own people. Same thing in Juarez or El Paso.
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.
reason: How closely was Sutton's office working with ICE and Lalo?
Gonzalez: In that civil case by the families of the victims that was dismissed, ICE personnel and at least one prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office, if not more, admitted that they had been informed of the first murder. They passed the buck up to San Antonio and to Washington. They testified that they had told their bosses and their bosses approved the continued use of the informant, even though he had helped commit a murder while working for them. That's all on the record.
reason: Have the higher-ups at 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.
The key person here is the United States attorney. 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 this looked into, it would have 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: Are there any policy changes that could, if not prevent this kind of abuse from happening, at least ensure that people are held accountable when it does?
Gonzalez: Under the present system, I doubt it. The way the system is set up discourages accountability. Maybe if you had an inspector general who reports only to the legislative branch, who is totally independent from the executive branch.
If Congress were to take its oversight role seriously, that might work. Right now, the executive branch is all-powerful. They have all the discretion in the world to investigate or not investigate an allegation against their own people.