Juarez killings
Christ Chavez / Special to DMN

Mexican federal police gather information outside a Juárez home where 12 bodies were found in January.

Sources: U.S. informant oversaw killings

Officials say customs authorities knew of role in drug smugglers' deaths

12:10 PM CST on Saturday, March 13, 2004

By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News


© The Dallas Morning News, 2004

U.S. customs officials knew last summer that an informant on their payroll supervised the torture and killing of suspected drug smugglers in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and intervened only when two U.S. drug enforcement agents were targeted for assassination, sources told The Dallas Morning News.

The informant continued working for the Juárez drug cartel and its chief, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, while providing details of the cartel's operations to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), according to current and former U.S. law enforcement officials.

Those officials are familiar with a confidential ICE intelligence memorandum, written in August, that details activities of the informant, most of whose work for the Juárez cartel was aimed at eliminating rival drug traffickers.

Some U.S. officials suggested the informant also knew of, or participated in, other slayings, including the killing of women in Juárez. Since 1993, more than 320 women have been killed, 93 of them believed to be victims of rape-slayings, and scores more are missing, many of them believed dead, according to Amnesty International.

An ICE spokesman in Washington declined to discuss the case involving the informant.

"Your questions concern a pending criminal case. It is our long-standing policy not to comment on pending criminal cases. We will follow that policy in this case. In general, ICE takes any and all allegations of misconduct seriously and resolves them with expediency," said the spokesman, Dean Boyd.

Mexico City-based officials with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and ICE declined to comment about the informant.



Killing caught on tape


The informant "supervised the murder" of a suspected drug trafficker in August on orders from the Juárez cartel, though he had "minimal participation," according to U.S. law enforcement officials with knowledge of the memorandum.

The informant went so far as to audiotape the interrogation and subsequent killing of the trafficker, according to U.S. law enforcement sources.

ICE officials apparently reined in the informant in January, but by then he had participated in the killings of at least 13 more people in the Juárez area, including one U.S. citizen, said sources familiar with the case.

The bodies of 12 of the 14 victims were unearthed Jan. 23 in the back yard of a modest dwelling used as a safe house in a quiet Juárez neighborhood. Mexican federal officials are looking for at least two more bodies, targeting several other homes around the city for possible excavation.



Reeling in 'big fish'


Customs agents apparently did not share details of the informant's actions with other U.S. agencies at the time. Over the next few months, that same informant helped apprehend or implicate several "big fish," such as 17 corrupt state police officers – including a top commander, Miguel Ángel Loya Gallegos – and a ranking Juárez cartel lieutenant, Heriberto Santillán Tabares, who was arrested on Jan. 15, U.S. law enforcement officials said.

One U.S. official attempted to defend the informant's actions, saying that once all the facts are known, "things won't seem so black and white."

A former U.S. law enforcement official, however, disagreed. "I can understand this happening one time, but you cannot allow it to happen 12, 13, 14 times," the official said. "The last time I checked in the dictionary, there's a big difference between being present at a murder and supervising it."

The Mexico attorney general's office, said to also be familiar with the informant's work and his relationship with the U.S. government, did not respond to written questions.

Top U.S. law enforcement authorities have been briefed about the informant's role, the former U.S. official said, noting that the detailed memo reached "the upper echelons" of intelligence and law enforcement agencies in Washington, D.C.

Some U.S investigators said the informant probably was an important member – perhaps a supervisor – of La Linea, or the Line, a group of drug traffickers and Juárez and Chihuahua state police officers who authorities say protect cartel leaders and smuggle drugs across the border. About 70 percent of the cocaine that reaches the United States flows through Juárez-El Paso, drug enforcement officials have said.

Mexican federal authorities are investigating La Linea for possible involvement in the slayings of the Juárez women.

"He [the informant] may definitely be involved in other murders, including the women," said one U.S. official who insisted on anonymity. "But at this time, all we know is those of the 14 men."

"He definitely cannot be any lower than a member of La Linea," added a former top law enforcement official. "The license to kill comes only from Vicente Carrillo Fuentes or another top lieutenant, and that kind of license or privilege is awarded only to members of La Linea."

The case underscores the risks U.S. agents face when they work with shadowy informants who often come with criminal resumes, U.S. law enforcement officials said.



'A price you pay'


"Unfortunately, this kind of stuff happens all the time," said Danny A. Defenbaugh, a security consultant and former agent-in-charge of the FBI office in Dallas. "It's a price you pay when you get too close to the ground."

And this particular episode, some U.S. officials added, could be one of the worst examples of an informant going bad.

"Black Mass pales in comparison to this," said a former U.S. law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He was referring to an FBI scandal in Boston from the mid-1970s through the early 1990s in which Irish-American informants protected by the agency killed several members of the Mafia. In 2002, agent-in-charge John Connolly was convicted of racketeering, obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The Juárez-informant case comes amid the biggest reorganization of federal departmental agencies in more than 50 years. After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Washington created the mammoth Department of Homeland Security, into which were subsumed a number of formerly free-standing departments, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Customs Department, which became ICE.



Lack of communication


More than ever, an effective fight against terrorism requires interagency cooperation, said current and former law enforcement officials, who added that the failure of ICE and the DEA to share notes, or talk to each other, constitutes a security risk.

ICE officials declined to comment. A DEA spokeswoman referred questions to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. Embassy officials did not respond to written questions.

Law enforcement officials with knowledge of the informant's complex history gave these details to The News:

• The informant had worked for the DEA less than a year before that agency "deactivated" him last summer, when the U.S. Border Patrol caught him trying to smuggle more than 220 pounds of marijuana into the United States.

• Instead of landing in jail, the informant continued his affiliation with ICE, for whom he already had been working at least three years – unbeknownst to his DEA handlers.

• ICE intelligence agents apparently were equally unaware that the informant was still taking orders from the Juárez cartel.



Agents targeted


The informant's activities in Juárez probably would have continued had he not tried "whacking two undercover U.S. drug agents," a U.S. official said. Those agents had been living in Juárez to better gather intelligence. It is not clear if the informant knew the targets were U.S. drug agents, sources said.

On Jan. 14, about a dozen armed Chihuahua police officers led by Cmdr. Loya knocked on the door of a rental home occupied by an undercover DEA agent and his wife and children. The agent wasn't home, and the family, trained not to open the door, ignored the knocks, authorities said. DEA officials in El Paso, tipped by the family, requested help from Mexican federal agents, who responded immediately.

Thirteen Chihuahua police officers are under house arrest in an undetermined place in connection with the attempted raid. Cmdr. Loya and three other state police officers remain at large. Chihuahua state Attorney General Jesús José "Chito" Solís resigned last week, amid questions about the conduct of his police officers.

On Jan. 15, the informant – apparently to save face – helped set up the capture of Mr. Santillán, 49, the cartel lieutenant. Mr. Santillán was arrested as he tried to cross the border past El Paso sheriff's deputies, who had been lying in wait. Mr. Santillán remains in an El Paso jail, awaiting a March 24 court hearing on federal drug trafficking charges.

"The informant seems to have wanted to deflect the attention from himself, so he helped capture Santillán," said the former U.S. law enforcement official.



Damaging to cartel


For this reason, added another police informant, "no one is more interested in this case than Vicente Carrillo Fuentes. He's desperate to know the name of the informant – if he doesn't know already – so he can whack him. This has been very damaging for the cartel."

Eight days after Mr. Santillán's arrest, Mexican federal agents armed with an affidavit signed by two ICE agents got approval from a Mexican federal judge to dig up a 4-foot-by-6-foot patio of a house on Parsioneros Street in the Acequias neighborhood of Juárez.

Two Austin Police Department officers were deployed to Juárez with trained dogs, which immediately sniffed out 10 spots, one of which yielded two bodies, one on top of the other. The home's occupants, Alejandro García, his wife and two sons, were arrested as they tried to flee to the United States. Authorities said they suspect that Mr. García, a former Chihuahua police officer, had worked for the Juárez cartel for more than a year.

The victims apparently were rivals of Mr. Carrillo Fuentes' drug gang and had been executed with "extreme violence" as long as six months ago, said Mexico Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha. Several of the victims were strangled or had suffocated.

"They had been tortured and executed to cement the power of the Carrillo Fuentes drug cartel, a cell allegedly headed by Santillán," the U.S. attorney general's office in San Antonio said, citing Mexico's deputy attorney general.



Killed in drug dispute


The 12 men buried in the Juárez back yard were killed in a drug dispute, the Mexican attorney general's office has confirmed. The victims told their executioners that they had a large quantity of marijuana stored at another Juárez home, prosecutors said in a statement. Authorities went to the second home Thursday and seized almost two tons of marijuana.

Mr. Santillán, already facing federal drug charges, has been indicted by the U.S. government on charges of "killing, or helping to kill, five of the 12 men," according to the indictment. Eleven others, including Mr. Loya, also were indicted on those charges.

The victims included Luis Padilla Cardona, 29, a 1995 graduate of Socorro High School in Socorro, a small farming community outside El Paso. The others were Fernando Reyes Aguado, Cesar Rubio, Omar Cepeda Saenz and Juan Carlos Pérez Gómez. The indictment said the men "died after Aug. 5th."

Staff writer Ricardo Sandoval in Mexico City contributed to this report.


E-mail acorchado@dallasnews.com

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