|English | Español||July 24, 2017 | Issue #39|
Tracking the Bloody Footprints in the House of Death: Part III
The Bodies Are Uncovered, a Rogue Cop Gets Away, and a Cover-Up Begins
By Bill Conroy
Inside the now-abandoned House of Death, where the tortures and murders presumably took place.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Klaas Wollstein
In other words, the drug case against Santillan was deemed more important than a dozen human lives.
The explosiveness of the situation was not lost on DEA agents in Juárez. In the wake of its agent’s traffic-stop encounter with Santillan’s thugs, resulting in three DEA agents in Juárez being identified by the narco-traffickers, the DEA evacuated all its personnel from the Mexican border town.
Now, the cat was out of the bag, and the bodies were being dug up at the House of Death.
But there were still plenty of loose ends, chief among them being the fact that one of the major House of Death executioners —Mexican State Judicial Police Commander Miguel Loya Gallegos — and several of his henchman were still at large. Despite this fact, ICE officials and the U.S. prosecutor handling the Santillan case deemed it more important to protect the informant Contreras, so that he would remain their man in the box in making the case against Santillan – and an unrelated cigarette smuggling case that Contreras had worked.
However, there may well have been another motivation that led ICE officials and the U.S. prosecutor to be less than cooperative in the hunt for Loya. The Mexican State Judicial Police Commander, a longtime associate of the informant Contreras (himself a former Mexican cop) might have a lot of stories to tell that would compromise Contreras’ integrity as a witness against Santillan.
(After all, the plan was for Mexican law enforcers to take Commander Loya into custody. What might he tell them that ICE officials sought to keep secret? To this point, even the true identity of the informant “Contreras” had been concealed from the Mexican government.)
That is the backdrop for Part III of the House of Death Diary.
Over the past several months, with the help of multiple sources and by piecing together information from a variety of documents, Narco News has created this diary, which traces the events and background of the House of Death mass-murder case.
The diary is based loosely (and at times paraphrases or draws directly from) an actual timeline of events developed by the DEA in the days immediately following the evacuation of its personnel from Juárez.
January 27, 2004: Mexican law enforcers, in cooperation with DEA agents from Juárez, continue their efforts to locate Mexican State Judicial Police Commander Miguel Loya Gallegos and one of his police associates. The duo is linked to the Santillan narco-trafficking operation, which spawned the House of Death. Santillan is a high-level associate within the Vicente Carrillo-Fuentes Organization (VCFO). Santillan is currently sitting in jail in the United States, after having been set up by a U.S. informant, codenamed Jesus Contreras, who is on the payroll of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
A DEA source inside the Chihuahua State Judicial Police reports that Loya did not show up for work the prior evening. The governor of Chihuahua orders the State Attorney General to call Loya and his associate in for questioning. The governor also orders that the entire night shift crew under Loya’s command be fired, according to the DEA source. Loya has sixteen State Police agents under his authority.
The caretaker of the House of Death, and his son, who served as a gravedigger, have contacted the informant Contreras seeking his assistance to enter the United States. U.S. and Mexican law enforcers hatch a plan to use the informant to snare the caretaker and his son. The informant contacts the pair and sets up a meeting at a border crossing. When they arrive, Mexican law enforcers take the House of Death caretaker and his son the gravedigger into custody. They are then sent to Mexico City, kept under house arrest and questioned.
The DEA asks ICE to talk to their informant, Contreras, to gather any additional leads the informant might be able to offer with respect to Loya, and again suggest that the informant be used as a lure. ICE agents tell the DEA that the U.S. Attorney’s Office, along with ICE leadership in El Paso, have ordered that no other agency will be allowed to interrogate the informant. ICE also informs the DEA that the informant indicated that Loya would be suspicious of any to lure him to the border for an arrest.
Although the DEA is not allowed direct access to Contreras, the ICE agents controlling him did agree to act as intermediaries in showing the informant photographs of suspects that might need to be identified.
January 28, 2004: Mexican law enforcers arrest 13 Chihuahua State Judicial Police Officers who are under Loya’s command. They are sent to Mexico City for questioning.
The House of Death caretaker and his son, the gravedigger, confess to having a role in the House of Death murders. They offer some leads to Mexican law enforcers as to where Loya might be found.
Despite repeated requests by the DEA for the informant to reach out to Loya, ICE confirms that the informant has not contacted Loya.
January 29, 2004: The Mexican law enforcement team assigned to locate bodies at the House of Death on Parsioneros Street in Ciudad Juárez recovers a 12th body. It appears to be the body of the first murder victim (Fernando), who was killed, with the help of the informant, on Aug. 5, 2003.
DEA agents meet with Mexican law enforcers in Juárez and ask for the forensic reports on the bodies found to date at the House of Death. Also, the DEA proposes to Mexican law enforcers that they collect photos of all Juárez Municipal Police officers for review. The DEA suggests that the agents involved in the traffic stop, including DEA agent McBrayer, might be able to use the photos to identify the cop (a Loya and Santillan associate) who pulled over McBrayer’s car on January 14, 2004.
Mexican law enforcers are cooperative and agree to assist in making the photos available.
In the meantime, the Mexican government delivers photos of the thirteen State Judicial Police Officers who had recently been taken into custody. An ICE agent shows the pictures to the informant Contreras. He identifies one of the officers as a participant in the House of Death murders and another officer as one of Loya’s partners in crime.
ICE finally informs the DEA that the informant Contreras tried to reach Loya by phone, but he did not answer. This contact was made only after DEA, between January 24 and 29, had made repeated requests of ICE to get their informant to contact Loya.
January 30, 2004: An ICE agent informs the DEA that Contreras has provided no additional information. He also tells the DEA that he has not spoken with Contreras for two days because other ICE agents and Assistant U.S. Attorney Juanita Fielden have been questioning him.
A DEA source indicates that the thirteen Mexican State Judicial Police Officers arrested on January 28, 2004 are under 90-day house arrest and that it is suspected all of them knew of Loya’s criminal activities and even possibly had knowledge of the House of Death.
January 31, 2004: The digging operations at the House of Death are nearly done, and no other bodies have been found.
The Mexican federal police are finishing up gathering evidence needed to secure search warrants for several other locations in Juárez and the state of Chihuahua.
February 1, 2004: Mexican law enforcers express frustration with the fact that the informant Contreras has not been made available to provide a formal statement to Mexican officials.
February 2, 2004: Mexican law enforcers submit applications for 12 search warrants targeting locations related to the State Judicial Police officers now on the run, as well as stash houses, meeting places and an additional burial site.
February 3, 2004: The search for bodies at the House of Death is completed. A total of 12 bodies have been found, including the three individuals who were tortured and murdered on January 14, 2004.
Mexican law enforcers obtain warrants to search the additional locations. These include two homes thought to be used by Loya and two suspected safe houses for the Santillan narco-trafficking operation. At the sites, law enforcers find firearms, ammunition and a number of documents.
February 4, 2004: Mexican law enforcers also obtain a search warrant for a ranch near Juárez, where they believe additional bodies are buried. They begin excavating the site.
The DEA again asks ICE officials for permission to question the informant Contreras. ICE finally gives the go-ahead for such a debriefing, but informs DEA agents that they cannot ask Contreras any questions about the House of Death murders or other criminal activity that has taken place in Mexico.
The DEA is adamant that its agents be allowed to question Contreras about the three House of Death murders that occurred on January 14, 2004, since those have a direct bearing on assessing the ongoing threat to DEA agents and their families in Juárez. ICE officials give in, but make it clear that DEA agents can only question the informant about the three murders on January 14 and no others. Also, Assistant U.S. Attorney Fielden insists that she be present for the debriefing and that she also be allowed to help select the DEA agents who will be questioning Contreras. Then ICE informs the DEA that the informant Contreras is out of town, and will not be available for questioning until the week of February 9, 2004. ICE also assures Mexican government representatives that the informant will be made available to them for questioning during the week of February 9.
February 5, 2004: The Mexican state of Chihuahua posts a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrests of Loya and three other Mexican State Judicial Police officers.
The search for bodies at the ranch near Juárez continues. Mexican law enforcers ask for assistance from the Austin Police Department canine unit. The Mexican government agrees to dispatch more law enforcers to Juárez to assist with the threat assessment related to the DEA agents and their families as well as several incidents involving U.S. consulate personnel.
February 6, 2004: The last body unearthed at the House of Death is identified as Fernando Reyes Aguado, an attorney from Durango, Mexico. Mexican federal law enforcers agree to continue to commit a large force to Juárez to advance the House of Death murder investigation and to continue assisting with security provisions related to the threat against DEA agents and their families.
Mexican officials inform the DEA that they have identified one of the bodies found in the backyard of the house as a legal resident alien of the United States. (His name is Luis Padilla, of Socorro, Texas, which is located just south of El Paso. Padilla, 29 at the time of his murder, left behind a wife and three small children.)
February 9, 2004: The canine units from the Austin Police Department arrive at the ranch near Juárez and, along with the DEA and Mexican law enforcers, begin the search for more bodies.
The DEA sets up surveillance on a motel in El Paso, where it suspects that Loya might be hiding out. The tip was passed onto the DEA by the Mexican government.
February 10, 2004: The search of the ranch near Juárez is completed. No bodies are found.
Surveillance continues on the motel location where Loya is suspected to be hiding out. Four rooms are searched with no success.
Loya has vanished.
February 12, 2004: ICE finally gives the Mexican government access to the informant Contreras for questioning.
The gravedigger for the House of Death identifies the Contreras from a photo spread. He confirms that Contreras was present at the House of Death for at least five murders.
February 24, 2004: Sandalio Gonzalez, special agent in charge of the DEA’s El Paso field office, writes an internal letter to John Gaudioso, head of ICE’s El Paso field office. He also sends a copy of the letter to U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton in San Antonio, whose office is overseeing the House of Death case. Gonzalez expresses his frustration with ICE’s handing of the narco-trafficking case and of Contreras, which has led to at least a dozen murders and the forced evacuation of DEA personnel from Juárez after a DEA agent and his family became the targets of House of Death executioners.
From Gonzalez’ letter:
Since our meeting on January 25, 2004, and our telephone conversation on February 14, 2004, I’ve had an opportunity to digest what you’ve said as well as to conduct a careful review of the material in this case. I am now writing to express to you my frustration and outrage at the mishandling of the Heriberto Santillan-Tabares investigation that has resulted in unnecessary loss of human life in the Republic of Mexico, and endangered the lives of Special Agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and their immediate families assigned to the DEA Office in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico.
There is no excuse for the events culminating during the evening of January 14, 2004, and absent a complete and logical explanation of these events, which led to the emergency evacuation of our personnel and their families in Ciudad Juárez, I have no choice but to hold you responsible for this unfortunate situation.
March 5, 2004: DEA Administrator Karen Tandy fires off an e-mail to high-level officials within the Department of Justice (DOJ), including the Deputy Attorney General, blasting DEA field office commander Gonzalez’ “inexcusable letter.” In the e-mail, Tandy also begins orchestrating a plan to prevent the sordid details of the House of Death case from being picked up by the media.
Gonzalez, according to documents and pleadings filed later as part of whistleblower proceedings before the Merit Systems Protection Board, alleges that U.S. Attorney Sutton was outraged by the letter as well, and sent it up the chain of command at DOJ, where it eventually landed on Tandy’s desk. Tandy would later admit under oath that the U.S. Deputy Attorney General’s office informed her of Gonzalez’ letter.
From Tandy’s March 5 e-mail:
Subject: Re: Possible press involving the DEA Juárez /ICE informant issue
DEA HQ officials were not aware of our el paso SAC’s inexcusable letter until last evening – although a copy of the letter first landed in the foreign operations section sometime the day before. The SAC did not tell anyone at HQ that he was contemplating such a letter, and did not discuss it or share it with HQ until we received the copy as noted above, well after it was sent.
I apologized to Johnny Sutton last night and he and I agreed on a no comment to the press.
Mike Furgason, Chief of Operations, notified the El Paso SAC last night that he is not to speak to the press other than a no comment, that he is to desist writing anything regarding the Juárez matter and related case and defer to the joint management and threat assessment teams out of HQ – and he is to relay these directions to the rest of his El Paso Division.
The SAC, who reports to Michele, will be brought in next week for performance discussions to further address this officially.
Tandy would later admit under oath in legal proceedings related to a discrimination case filed by DEA agent Gonzalez that she was well aware of the Contreras fiasco before Gonzalez wrote his letter to ICE and the U.S. Attorney. She also concedes in her testimony that she had “already briefed the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General on the issues, the underlying issues with ICE’s handling of this informant.”
In addition, Tandy admits in her testimony that her first reaction after learning of Gonzalez’ letter was to have him demoted. She also concedes under oath that Gonzalez was not considered for promotions within DEA in the wake of his letter. (Gonzalez subsequently received a negative job-performance evaluation in retaliation, he says, for writing the letter.)
A joint assessment team composed of ICE and DEA investigators did undertake a management review of the House of Death mass-murder case, which involved conducting more than 40 interviews with DEA and ICE personnel and others. To date, the report prepared in the wake of those interviews has not been released publicly. Gonzalez sought to have the report produced as part of the discovery process in his Merit Systems Protection Board whistleblower case, but was not successful.
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, when asked recently by Narco News, said he was aware of the House of Death mass-murder case, but he declined to comment on whether there is any investigation currently underway into the role that the informant and U.S. law enforcers played in the homicides. So it appears, to date, that the cover-up is continuing.
When it comes to the House of Death, it seems the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security find it convenient to wash their hands of the blood and to turn the tragedy into a two-dimensional media circus touting the virtues of the war on drugs. How else do we explain the plea deal cut with the narco-trafficker Santillan, a deal that involved dropping all murder charges against him and assuring that the informant Contreras would never be put on the stand in a courtroom? Murder charges against Mexican State Judicial Police Commander Loya also were dropped, with U.S. Attorney Sutton justifying that decision by claiming the Mexican government is in a better position to pursue the matter — the same Mexican government that his own Assistant U.S. Attorney in El Paso did not trust enough to provide with information that might have led to Loya’s capture.
So, our fearless leaders at DOJ and DHS continue to play the role of Principal Skinner on the Simpsons cartoon show:
“Children, I couldn’t help monitoring your conversation. There’s no mystery about Willie. Why, he simply disappeared. Now, let’s have no more curiosity about this bizarre cover-up.”
To date, the leadership of these powerful law enforcement agencies appears content to let the House of Death remain buried in the bowels of the bureaucracy. It seems treating the American public like children is preferable to revealing the truth: that the war on drugs is a cynical game in which human life is only an opening wager.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism