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by James Corbett
May 14, 2013
In this day and age, the discovery of a string of brutal tortures and killings by drug gangs in Juarez, Mexico is hardly surprising. In fact, so synonymous is the Mexican border town with drug-related violence and corruption that such stories are barely even reported on anymore.
Before this current round of escalating violence in the drug war erupted, however, the story of a series of drug war murders with a twist began to emerge from the seedy underworld of Juarez. The case was remarkable not for its involvement in the brutal tortures and slayings of at least 14 people over a period of months, but because it centered on a high profile US government informant.
One of the key participants in this case was a former Mexican Highway Patrol officer who had managed to infiltrate the infamous Juarez drug cartel. He was working as an informant for the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, even as he was participating in the murder of over a dozen people in a grizzly story that has become known as the “House of Death scandal.” Unbelievably, he participated in these killings with the full knowledge (and even the foreknowledge) of his ICE handlers.
Last month I had the chance to talk to investigative reporter Bill Conroy of NarcoNews.com, the only journalist who has been exhaustively documenting this case since it first came to light, about the scandal and its background.
The sordid tale of the House of Death took place over several months from mid-2003 until January of 2004. The scandal was blown wide open when one of the torture victims at the house gave his captors the details of a DEA agent working in Juarez. This led to a series of events culminating in the evacuation of all of the DEA’s agents from Juarez across the border to El Paso.
The scale of what had taken place in the name of an ill-conceived “sting” operation is difficult to comprehend. Not only had the ICE informant participated in the torture and murder of more than a dozen people with the full knowledge of his government handlers; not only had this operation led to the needless endangerment of a DEA agent in Juarez and possibly that of other agents; not only had the ICE agents in charge of the case broken international rules and protocol by failing to report these murders to the DEA in Mexico City; not only had ICE then lied to Mexican federal authorities that their informant had merely “witnessed” a murder in Chihuahua, but ICE even refused to hand their informant over to Mexican authorities in the wake of the DEA evacuation to allow them probably cause to search the house in question and arrest corrupt police officials in Juarez who were colluding with the drug gang.
By February of 2004 the special agent in charge of the DEA’s El Paso field office at the time, a 26-year DEA veteran named Sandalio Gonzalez, had had enough. That month he wrote a letter to his El Paso ICE counterpart and sent a copy to US Attorney Johnny Sutton in San Antonio. Little did he know that what was to follow would be a years-long ordeal of attempting to blow the whistle on this story, and the subsequent pushback and retaliation from the DOJ, an increasingly hostile work environment at the DEA, the thwarting of his attempts to take his case through the proscribed whistleblowing channels, and, in the end, the almost total silence on the case and its true implications from the mainstream media.
In 2009, Sandalio Gonzalez appeared on the Boiling Frogs Post podcast to discuss his case and the ordeal he went through in attempting to have the scandal properly addressed.
Sadly, the intimidation and pushback aiding the cover-up of this scandal did not stop at derailing the efforts of Gonzalez. As the only journalist to exhaustively document the twists and turns in the case, Bill Conroy of NarcoNews.com was also subjected to intimidation by federal agents attempting to dissuade him from covering the story.
That a scandal like that which unfolded in Juarez ten years ago occurred at all should not be surprising. Enough such incidents have occurred over the years in the so-called cross-border drug war that only the most wilfully ignorant can believe that US government agencies have never crossed the line or broken the law in this pursuit. But that the cover-up of this scandal went so far, or that the media was so complicit in neglecting to follow the case or highlight the troubling role of the government’s own informant in these murders speaks volumes about the possibility of the public somehow keeping these federal agencies in check.
Here is yet another case of people risking their careers or even their lives to bring out information about a horrific scandal only to be brushed under the rug. Once again, it is imperative that we help to spread knowledge of this story to a wider audience so that the true criminals in this case can be brought to justice, and those who have participated in the suppression of this knowledge can be held accountable for their actions.