By Aaron Reiss
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By Dianna Wray
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Gonzalez then lists his frustrations: ICE ignored the DEA's request to take Santillan down after the first murder, they had blown off a subsequent meeting and from there on they had sealed the DEA out of communications concerning Lalo. ICE had also misrepresented Lalo's involvement in the first murder to the Mexican authorities, telling them Lalo had merely witnessed a murder, when their own debriefing stated he had participated in the killing. In short, they had shown no respect for the rule of law in Mexico. And finally, they had known in advance of at least two murders at the House of Death and had done nothing to stop them.
When word of the letter reaches Washington, an e-mail is sent from the office of the associate deputy attorney general advising DEA and ICE officials that the memo could cause a problem. The El Paso Times has already asked for the report, which states that the confidential informant "supervised murders." The e-mail concludes that they should avoid making any comments to the press.
On March 5, 2004, DEA chief Karen Tandy responds to the e-mail. DEA headquarters in Washington had no idea Gonzalez was planning to write the letter. Gonzalez has also been advised that he shouldn't write anything else about the JuĂˇrez case or speak to the press. Tandy's e-mail concludes by saying that Gonzalez will be brought in the next week for a performance evaluation.
In the meantime, ICE agents in El Paso are already reportedly doctoring the memos and debriefings related to the murders to minimize Lalo's involvement.
Later that summer, an attempt is made on Lalo's life at an El Paso Whataburger. After that, ICE takes him and his family into protective custody. Lalo is put into an undisclosed prison. His family is housed in New Mexico.
The next year, Santillan pleads guilty to one count of a continuing criminal enterprise and is sentenced to 25 years. Eleven other charges, including five for murder, are dropped.
In a press release, U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton says he dropped the charges because the murders happened on foreign soil. But others say he cut the deal because he didn't want Lalo to take the stand.
Lalo's handlers at ICE and several prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's Office in El Paso are temporarily transferred to Washington as part of a shake-up designed to restore confidence in their respective agencies, and one prosecutor is forced to resign, but no one is fired. Lalo's handler, Raul Bencomo of ICE, remains on paid administrative leave to this day.
At an immigration removal hearing in Bloomington, Minnesota, the next summer, Lalo is asked what would happen to him if he was sent back to Mexico.
"Well, they will kill me or they will torture me and then they will kill me," he says.
"Yeah, the police, the cartel, the government, it's all the same people."
"Why do you say it's the same people?"
"Because the police works for the cartel."
He testifies that the power of the JuĂˇrez cartel extends all the way to former Mexican President Vicente Fox, and that the cartel once used ships from the Mexican Navy to transport drugs from Colombia to Mexico, and that the PGR, Mexico's federal police, would then fly the drugs to JuĂˇrez.
The attorney arguing for Lalo's deportation scoffs at these claims, but the judge rules that it would be a violation of Article 3 of the Convention Against Torture to send him back to Mexico. He orders Lalo deported to any other country. The Board of Immigration Appeals has been fighting that ruling ever since. They want him sent back to Mexico.
"My experience with other informants, it's not incredible at all to me that ICE turned their back on him, because ICE always turns their back on them. I've never ever had one informant client for whom all the promises are fulfilled," says Lalo's attorney, Harlingen immigration lawyer Jodi Goodwin. "What's incredible to me about this is that, despite how helpful he was to ICE and to the U.S. Attorney's Office and the DEA and ATF, despite how much he was paid by them, how many arrests and drug seizures he was able to bring in, they turned their back on him."
As for Sandy Gonzalez, he is out of the DEA. In December, he won an antidiscrimination lawsuit against the Department of Justice. At trial, Karen Tandy, chief administrator for the DEA, testified that Gonzalez was demoted and passed over for promotions after he wrote the memo exposing what happened at the House of Death. "That letter was inexcusable," she said. "...It was like tossing a hand grenade into the middle of a firefight.
"It was such colossally poor, fatal judgment on Sandy's part, to get in the middle of what he knew was a sensitive, established, ongoing process to deal with the issues."
But Gonzalez says he doesn't regret writing the memo.
"Someone had to take a stand. If you're connected to a bunch of murders, what do you do? Not say anything for political correctness? That's basically what they wanted me to do."