By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
A few minutes later, ICE agents call the DEA. They have a crisis on their hands. U.S. law enforcement has been identified by the cartel, as well as the house of one of the agents. A forced entry is planned for later that night. All DEA agents stationed in JuĂˇrez, as well as their families, are in grave danger. They must evacuate immediately.
That night Sandy Gonzalez is called at his daughter's home near Washington, D.C., where he is traveling on business. On the other line is a supervisor from ICE in El Paso. Gonzalez is told about the murders, the burials and the evacuation of the agents. He cannot believe what he is hearing.
Finally, the investigation of Santillan is over. Lalo is told by his handlers that it is time to take Santillan down. So Lalo arranges for a meeting with Santillan in El Paso. They talk about the previous day. And then Lalo, driving with Santillan, purposely commits a traffic violation. His car is pulled over and Santillan is arrested.
At 4:11 p.m. that day, January 15, 2004, an e-mail is sent to the Department of Justice attachĂ© in Mexico City. Santillan, one of the top bosses in the JuĂˇrez cartel, is in custody in the United States.
Eight days later, at about noon, members of the AFI, Mexico's elite federal police agency, descend upon the House of Death. Carrying assault rifles and dressed in fatigues, they form a perimeter around the house, and then they go into the backyard, which is surrounded by a cement wall.
They use dogs to sniff the ground for bodies, and then they begin excavating the ground with a Bobcat front loader. Six hours later, the first body is found. Health workers wearing white smocks and green plastic gloves continue the digging by hand. At 11 p.m. that day, the second body is located.
For six days the digging continues. Journalists from both sides of the border camp out in front of the house. Relatives of the missing stand outside, their hands clasped over their mouths, hoping and at the same time fearing that their loved ones will be found.
On January 26, seven more bodies are found. One is wrapped in a newspaper dated January 14, the day Luis Padilla disappeared. His wife is called in El Paso and asked to come to the house. She identifies his blood-soaked clothing and then his body. Because he's the only U.S. resident killed there, his death makes headlines. Unlike the others, he had nothing to do with drugs, the stories say. He was an El Paso family man, a devoted father, a diesel mechanic, a man who was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Comandante Loya and some of the other killers go into hiding. DEA informs ICE that there are 80 AFI agents from Mexico City on their way to JuĂˇrez to help capture Loya and his henchmen. They will take the police station by force if necessary. DEA suggests that they set up a trap for the Comandante, using Lalo. But ICE refuses. They worry that it wouldn't be safe for Lalo. The Comandante escapes, but 13 other state police officers assigned to the night shift under him are arrested and taken to Mexico City for questioning.
The cartel has been weakened, the newspapers say. There is a new alliance, called the Triangle of Gold. It is an alliance for the cartels that operate out of the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango. Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, the head of the JuĂˇrez cartel, is the odd man out, reports say.
On February 10, 2004, nearly a month after the evacuation of the JuĂˇrez DEA office, two agents are flown in to El Paso: one from ICE, and one from DEA. Officially, they are called a Joint Assessment Team, and they have been sent by Washington because the reports from their respective agencies on what happened at the House of Death are not jibing. They will spend nine days in El Paso and Mexico, conducting 44 interviews of DEA, ICE, U.S. Attorney's Office and Department of State personnel.
When they sit down with Sandy Gonzalez, the head of the DEA office in El Paso, they stress that this is a fact-finding mission and nothing more. Gonzalez tells them what he knows and then they leave. He can already tell what is happening. He has seen this before. "This is not an investigation," he will later say. "No one is going to be prosecuted for what happened there. This report will be filed in a desk drawer somewhere in Washington, and it will never be seen again. It will be like this whole thing never happened."
So on February 24, 2004, he sits down to write a memo to his counterpart at ICE, Giovanni Gaudioso. He also sends a copy to the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Antonio. If crimes have been committed by U.S. law enforcement, as Gonzalez believes, federal prosecutors must be advised so they can take the appropriate steps.
"There is no excuse for the events...which led to the emergency evacuation of our personnel and their families in Ciudad JuĂˇrez," he writes. "I have no choice but to hold you responsible for this unfortunate situation."
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city