Describing the mishandling of the House of Death case and ICE’s treatment of confidential informants goes something like this – what happens in Mexico, stays in Mexico or government agencies gone wild; or law enforcement agencies gone wild.
Not only has the House of Death incident never been fully investigated, but also none of the DEA, ICE and DHS management officials responsible for supervising the case reprimanded. No rule books were written to ensure U.S. law enforcement agencies could ever take part in covering-up a dozen murders that crossed international borders with Mexico.
Once the case was shut down and the ‘stuff’ hit the fan ICE agents found themselves in the middle of a game of ‘Clue.’ Except this was very real – it was Mr. ICE agency, with the rope in the House of Death.
A common fact that many news stories and ICE representatives in Washington D.C. conveniently leave out about this gruesome murder tale is the fact each time informant 913 – Guillermo Eduardo Ramirez Peyro or ‘Lalo’ was debriefed about his visits south of the border, several ICE agents and supervisors were present in the interrogation room.
In a recent series of articles by NPR a Kumar Kibble, acting director of criminal investigation for ICE said, “we have been successfully recruiting informants year after year, and I think they have a comfort level working with ICE,” he says. “I mean, otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to continue to bring the highly successful investigations that we have been bringing.”
But according to the NPR story Kibble wouldn’t talk about Lalo. He had no comment about why the agency wants to send its star informant back to Mexico, where Lalo faces torture and death at the hands of the cartels he sold down the river.
Several attempts were made to contact ICE and Mr. Kibble, but the agency could not find an employee with that name. Nevertheless Lalo’s attorney Jodi Goodwin made it clear that this problem is not isolated and she represents many informants in similar cases. “The fact they tried to blame this on Lalo and his ICE handler Bencomo and not any of the supervisors who made the decision to move forward after each murder is ridiculous.”
In an effort to cover-up their tracks ICE fired Lalo’s handler, Raul Bencomo. Not only was Bencomo a low-level agent, he was never in a position to tell Lalo to participate in murder and stay inside the Juarez drug cartel and collect damning information to bring down a major kingpin and give ICE some much-wanted notoriety. “In the end ICE did me in. They wanted a fall guy and I shouldn’t have been the fall guy. Why weren’t any of my supervisors who directed me through this case I didn’t want to be a part of lose their jobs?” Bencomo said.
The House of Death case did garner ICE notoriety, but it was the kind Washington decided to sweep under the mat and cross their fingers mainstream media would fail to pick up on the cover-up that went all the way to the Bush White House. ICE got lucky and indeed the mainstream media decided to focus on the war in Iraq.
Sandalio Gonzalez, the retired DEA Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of El Paso who blew the whistle on the House of Death says that members of Congress have been, and are being bamboozled by the Executive Branch on this issue. By failing to ask the tough questions relavent to this case makes Congress complicit with the federal law enforcement agencies involved in the House of Death cover up.
The JAT Report remains elusive
Emails posted on FBI Watch in March of 2006/07, quote the cover memorandum to the DEA/ICE Joint Assessment Team (JAT) Report prepared in connection with the House of Death debacle. The memo is directed to John Clark, ICE Director of Investigations, and Michael Ferguson, DEA Chief of Operations, from; (name redacted) Special Agent in Charge Buffalo and Rodney Benson ASAC, DEA Boston Field Division.
The memorandum reads, “This review commenced on February 10, 2004, and ended on February 19, 2004. In connection with this review, the JAT conducted forty-four interviews of DEA, ICE, United States Attorney’s Office and Department of State personnel in El Paso, Texas, and Mexico. In addition, the JAT conducted investigative and confidential source file reviews and reviewed several hundred recorded conversations in connection with the ICE and DEA [redacted] investigations.
This assessment report consists of the JAT timeline of pertinent events, JAT interview summaries and noteworthy reports; all the facts detailed within the JAT timeline were agreed upon by ICE and DEA JAT personnel,” the email read. (Link- FBI Watch 4th post down http://forums.signonsandiego.com/showthread.php?t=59139&page=28)
All parties involved know the JAT report exists yet very few eyes have been privy to the entire report including former DEA SAC Gonzalez. There have been claims that the report may be classified as National Security to shut the door for questions, however, Gonzalez sees it differently. “It’s not National Security issue, it’s a national embarrassment issue.”
A summary of the interview with the then DEA SAC Gonzalez, says the House of Death debacle reads something like this;
“On February 11, 2004, JAT members conducted an interview of Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Sandalio Gonzalez, explained that the interview was in connection with a joint review being conducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The purpose of the joint review was to ascertain the facts related to the events surrounding the evacuation of the DEA Resident Office in [Ciudad Juarez] Mexico and events and activities related to ICE and DEA investigations targeting [the VCF Juarez cartel and Heriberto Santillan-Tabares]. It was stressed by JAT personnel that this was solely a fact-finding inquiry to which the final report would be provided to the DEA Chief of Operations and ICE Director of Investigations,” the interviewers stated.
At many intra-agency meetings, during his four-year stint in El Paso, “SAC Gonzalez advised they discussed significant cases, operational and administrative matters, pertaining to Operation Sky-high: SAC Gonzalez was aware that it was an ongoing multi-agency operation including DEA, FBI, ICE, USAO (U.S. Attorneys Office) and Mexican Authorities targeting elements of the [Vicente Carrillo Fuentes] VCF [drug] organization in Mexico. According to Gonzalez, this multi-agency operation was initiated by DEA [El Paso].”
“Over the years, there has been some concern from U.S. Law Enforcement Agencies regarding the sharing of information with Mexican Authorities. SAC Gonzalez stated that he stressed that DEA would not share another agency’s information with Mexican Agencies without permission from the agency providing the information. Gonzalez stated that the FBI and ICE did not want certain information passed to the Mexican Authorities. SAC Gonzalez stated that the [Heriberto Santillan-Tabares] investigation was a joint investigation between DEA and ICE and that the FBI had very little involvement with this investigation,” the JAT Report team found.
Gonzalez recalled a March 2003 controlled delivery of “twenty-nine kilograms of cocaine that was received by the ICE [El Paso] CS [confidential informant, Guillermo Ramirez Peyro ‘Lalo’] from [Santillan]. In addition, SAC Gonzalez commented that DEA [El Paso] provided an undercover agent for the controlled delivery and DEA [El Paso] intelligence analysts participated in the debriefing of the CS shortly after the controlled delivery. According to SAC Gonzalez, Group Supervisor [redacted’s] group had primary oversight of the DEA [case] targeting VCF,” the report concluded.
Once the JAT report was finished and many questions remained unanswered about the misdoings by ICE, DHS and DOJ regarding the House of Death, many news agencies and attorneys began requesting the report through the Freedom Of Information Act or (FOIA). To this day the JAT report remains in a cabinet drawer in Washington D.C. or South America as some have reported.
Bill Weaver, a law professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who has written extensively about the murder case, stated that a letter from DEA in December 2006 stated, “that his FOIA request for the JAT is being jammed up because some documents are in South America and due to national security concerns.”
Weaver replied to the letter from DEA and said, “There is nothing in the Joint Assessment Team report or supporting materials that remotely involved ‘South America’ or the ‘Southern United States.’ All of the events investigated by the team occurred in the El Paso/Juarez region. Some interviews were made in Mexico City.”
A letter from DEA headquarters in Washington and the Department of Justice, to U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton’s office is proof that the JAT report does in fact exist. It also shows that Washington was concerned enough about a possible public relations disaster and then they buried the JAT report and settled their case against Santillan in a plea deal which didn’t include any murder charges.
The memorandum read, “This is a partial response to your letter of April 6, 2004, to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) El Paso Division Special Agent in Charge Sandalio Gonzalez concerning the captioned [Santillan] case. In that letter you requested any and all impeaching or otherwise exculpatory information relating to two essential witnesses for the Government (namely), Eduardo Ramirez, aka Lalo [the ICE informant] (and) Jose Jaime Marquez [Ramirez’ assistant in the House of Death murders].
More specifically, this memorandum is in response to paragraph 10 of your letter in which you requested ‘(a) copy of the final report, any internal memorandum or other documents prepared by the joint management inquiry team [the DEA/ICE Joint Assessment Team].’ Please note that the enclosed final report also includes a ‘Joint Assessment Team Timeline,’ which is referenced in paragraph “9” of your letter. This report is being provided to you in its entirety because we fully appreciate your office’s need to review all potentially relevant information with regard to the Santillan-Tabares case, and we understand that disclosure of this information outside of the United States Attorney’s office will not be made without further notification to, and consultation with, DEA,” the memo states.
The theory behind JAT Reports is two-fold. First they can hold a governmental agency accountable for mishandling operations, straying from agency policy and getting to the bottom of what happened and when. The second is to designate a new game plan when another similar event unravels and providing the rulebook to play by.
Neither has occurred in this case.
“The reason the Joint Assessment Team (JAT) Report remains so elusive is because the government has something to hide. It’s kind of like the child who breaks a toy and then hides it. The old adage out of sight, out of mind, can’t get in trouble. DHS has been hiding the facts for so long, they don’t know any other way. Unfortunately, DOJ also did this constantly during the Bush Administration. Had there not been anything to hide, they would have gone public long ago, instead of continuing to keep it quiet, hoping that it would all just go away. Remember that Acting DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart testified under oath during Sandy Gonzalez civil suit that ICE was responsible for the House of Death murder spree,” stated Andy Ramirez of the non-profit Law Enforcement Officers Advocates Council.
This case screams for Inspector General oversight
Currently there are approximately 69 federal Offices of Inspectors Generals (OIG), who are supposed to look out for the taxpayers and for the most part they try to sell the public on their anonymity. The IGs employ criminal investigators and auditors.
One of the goals many Inspector Generals are responsible for is uncovering misconduct activities by federal agencies including the detection and prevention of fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement of the government programs and operations within their parent organizations. IG investigations may be internal and can target government employees; or external when it comes to targeting grant recipients, contractors, or recipients of the various loans and subsidies offered through the thousands of federal domestic and foreign assistance programs.
The mission statement of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) states “was statutorily established as an independent entity within the executive branch by the Inspector General Reform Act of 2008 to address integrity, economy, and effectiveness issues that transcend individual Government agencies; and increase the professionalism and effectiveness of personnel by developing policies, standards, and approaches to aid in the establishment of a well-trained and highly skilled workforce in the offices of the Inspectors General.”
Once the House of Death was discovered, Clark Ervin, the DHS Inspector General, began to write a series of reports on security programs used by DHS that were failures and run by “inept” government officials. “There isn’t a concern about the importance of spending every single dollar to the maximum effect of the core mission of the department,” Ervin told ABC News in 2004.
The White House only appointed Ervin for one term. He was appointed to oversee issues within the Department of Homeland Security. ABC reported he wanted to stay on, but was informed that he would be replaced. “I think this was a voice that was a little too critical and made the administration a little too uncomfortable,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit government watchdog group.
Former DEA SAC Gonzalez reported the House of Death murders to the two most appropriate government watchdog agencies. As a Department of Justice employee he wrote to the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General to request appropriate action, and as a government whistleblower he wrote to the Office of Special Counsel seeking protection from retaliation. In addition, after he retired Mr. Gonzalez personally briefed senior staff members of Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Patrick Leahy (D- VT) about the House of Death murders and the subsequent cover up. All parties he tried to inform ignored him.
In a letter from Office of Special Counsel to DEA agent Gonzalez dated July 2, 2004 the OSC office appears to take a blasé tone regarding the SAC of El Paso’s concern regarding mismanagement -resulting in 12 murders. The letter reads in part; “This will acknowledge receipt of the above-referenced disclosure matter… Please bear in mind that each year OSC receives a large number of matters concerning disclosures of information of a violation of law, rule or regulation, gross mismanagement, gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority or substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.
We attempt to handle all the cases as expeditiously as is possible. Cases are generally processed in the order in which they are received,” The OSC office said in the letter. Wow, murder doesn’t appear to garner much attention from the Washington D.C. It’s worth pointing out that there has yet been a report taken by DHS, DOJ or ICE that has been made public detailing the atrocities that occurred at the House of Death.
For now Lalo’s family in the U.S. remains hopeful the government will pull through and honor their promises to give Lalo his U.S. paperwork so he can get on with his life. “I just came from a visit with my son in New York,” says Lalo’s father. “They only allowed me one hour a day and I had to talk into a phone through thick glass. This isn’t right my son isn’t a wanted criminal in any country. Why are they treating him like this – solitary confinement and no TV or computers, it’s just no way to live.”