Across the Borderline

The House of Death (The Observer, via Avedon Carol at The Sideshow)

This is a dirty story, about as dirty as it gets. It's a story of top government officials knowingly, deliberately, willingly countenancing a string of horrific murders – then punishing decent, law-abiding colleagues who tried to work through the proper channels in order to rectify the government's egregious complicity and ensure such barbarity wouldn't happen again. Those who sought to do right were beaten down. Those who covered up the truth, and the crimes – and even dismissed the multiple murder charges when they finally came to light – were hardwired into the very center of the country's political power grid, with close, long-time ties to the national leader himself.

And no, this story did not take place in the vasty deeps of Putin's Kremlin, or in the seething violence of Baghdad's fissuring Green Zone government, or some failing state in the Horn of Africa – it happened, and is still happening, in the United States, in the government of George W. Bush, whose "Drug War" minions, led by old-time cronies, stood by while one of their operatives took part in a series of gruesome murders by a Mexican drug lord. Why? Because, as David Rose makes clear in his report, the victims were all Mexicans, brown-skins, worthless trash. And when, many grisly killings later, the drug lord was finally brought to "justice," Bush's cronies struck a deal to dismiss the murder charges. The families of innocent victims were left shattered, to no purpose, with no justice, no recompense.

When an honest, conscientious Drug Enforcement Agency officer tried to complain about the bloody mess the Feds had made, he was swiftly chopped down. Why? Because his revelations would embarrass one of the top dogs involved in the quagmire: federal prosecutor Johnny Sutton – former director of criminal justice policy for Texas Governor George W. Bush, former legal policy coordinator for the White House transition team after the tainted election of 2000, now chairman of his old friend Attorney General Alberto "The Torture Facilitator" Gonzalez's "Advisory Committee." And Sutton was not the only Bush compadre entangled with the "House of Death."

But the story was completely buried – like the victims who died while American officials watched – and listened – through their inside man in the drug lord's gang. And that factotum – a dubious operator who nonetheless risked his life daily in the service of the American "Drug Warriors" – has also been cast off now. No longer of any use, he has been jailed for "visa violations" and facing deportation back to Mexico: a certain death sentence.

We wrote here last week of the "shadowlands," where the affairs of state mix with the underworld in a putrid stew of violence, murder, deceit and inhumanity. Here is another such tale – this time from the "heartland" of the "Homeland." You should read the whole piece, but below are a few excerpts.

Luis Padilla, 29, father of three, had been kidnapped, driven across the Mexican border from El Paso, Texas, to a house in Ciudad Juarez, the lawless city ruled by drug lords that lies across the Rio Grande. As his wife tried frantically to locate him, he was being stripped, tortured and buried in a mass grave in the garden - what the people of Juarez call a narco-fossa, a narco-smugglers' tomb.

Just another casualty of Mexico's drug wars? Perhaps. But Padilla had no connection with the drugs trade; he seems to have been the victim of a case of mistaken identity. Now, as a result of documents disclosed in three separate court cases, it is becoming clear that his murder, along with at least 11 further brutal killings, at the Juarez 'House of Death', is part of a gruesome scandal, a web of connivance and cover-up stretching from the wild Texas borderland to top Washington officials close to President Bush.

These documents, which form a dossier several inches thick, are the main source for the facts in this article. They suggest that while the eyes of the world have been largely averted, America's 'war on drugs' has moved to a new phase of cynicism and amorality, in which the loss of human life has lost all importance - especially if the victims are Hispanic. The US agencies and officials in this saga - all of which refused to comment, citing pending lawsuits - appear to have thought it more important to get information about drugs trafficking than to stop its perpetrators killing people….

The story turns on one extraordinary fact: playing a central role in the House of Death was a US government informant, Guillermo Ramirez Peyro, known as Lalo, who was paid more than $220,000 (£110,000) by US law enforcement bodies to work as a spy inside the Juarez cartel. In August 2003 Lalo bought the quicklime used to dissolve the flesh of the first victim, Mexican lawyer Fernando Reyes, and then helped to kill him; he recorded the murder secretly with a bug supplied by his handlers - agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (Ice), part of the Department of Homeland Security. That first killing threw the Ice staff in El Paso into a panic. Their informant had helped to commit first-degree murder, and they feared they would have to end his contract and abort the operations for which he was being used. But the Department of Justice told them to proceed.

Lalo's cartel bosses told him whenever they were planning another killing, using a grisly codeword - carne asada, 'barbecue'. In the six months after Reyes's death, they used it on many occasions. Each time, says Lalo, he informed his handlers in Ice. They did not intervene….

When Lalo returned to El Paso on the day of Reyes's murder and told his Ice employers what had happened they were understandably worried. They knew that, if they were to continue using Lalo as an informant, they would need high-level authorisation. That afternoon and evening he was debriefed at length by his main handler, Special Agent Raul Bencomo, and his supervisor. Then he was allowed to go back to Juarez – [drug lord] Santillan had given him $2,000 to pay two cartel members to dig Reyes's grave, cover his body with quicklime and bury it.

Meanwhile the El Paso Ice office reported the matter to headquarters in Washington. The information went up the chain of command, eventually reaching America's Deputy Assistant Attorney General, John G. Malcolm. It passed through the office of Johnny Sutton, the US Attorney for Western Texas - a close associate of George W. Bush. When Bush was Texas governor, Sutton spent five years as his director of criminal justice policy. After Bush became President, Sutton became legal policy co-ordinator in the White House transition team, working with another Bush Texas colleague, Alberto Gonzalez, the present US Attorney General.

Earlier this year Sutton was appointed chairman of the Attorney General's advisory committee which, says the official website, 'plays a significant role in determining policies and programmes of the department and in carrying out the national goals set by the President and the Attorney General'. Sutton's position as US Attorney for Western Texas is further evidence of his long friendship with the President - falling into his jurisdiction is Midland, the town where Bush grew up, and Crawford, the site of Bush's beloved ranch.

'Sutton could and should have shut down the case, there and then,' says Bill Weaver, a law professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who has made a detailed study of the affair. 'He could have told Ice and the lawyers "go with what you have, and let's try to bring Santillan to justice". That neither he nor anyone else decided to take that action invites an obvious inference: that because the only people likely to get killed were Mexicans, they thought it didn't much matter.'
In the days after Reyes's death, officials in Texas and Washington held a series of meetings. Finally word came back from headquarters - despite the risk that Lalo might become involved with further murders, Ice could continue to use and pay him as an informant. And although Santillan had already been caught on tape directing a merciless killing and might well kill again, no attempt would be made to arrest him….

*Corrected thanks to astute catch by commenter.*