A large swath of Ciudad Juárez is inhabited by people living on the edge of existence in shacks slapped together with sheets of plywood and cardboard. Those a bit luckier inhabit run-down, one-story cinder-block homes with barren yards that are lined along broken roadways.
The residential neighborhoods of this city sprawl over the dusty high-desert foothills of the Sierra Juárez mountain range. In the poor sections of town, dogs and drunks bark at passing cars as twilight descends on the unlit streets.
But the House of Death is sheltered from these harsher urban realities by a fenced yard, solid construction, and two stories of living space surrounded by other dwellings of similar stature. In this neighborhood, the dogs are well fed and don’t wander the streets in hungry packs, but rather bark at passing strangers through the screened doors of comfortable homes.
The House of Death, then, passes for a middle-class home in this Mexican border city of some 1.2 million people located across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas.
But this house has been touched by something dark, haunted by an evil that feeds on the very soul of this border community.
Despite its seemingly sedate-looking exterior, the House of Death serves as an execution chamber and its backyard as a tomb.
The victims are lured to this House of Death, restrained and then brutally tortured and murdered. Their corpses are covered with lime to speed decomposition and then buried in the backyard.
To receive an invitation to the House of Death is not a hard thing. You just have to make a mistake, to break one of the rules of the narco-trafficking business. In one case, a mother and her five-year-old daughter were murdered because the mother asked the wrong narco-trafficker for some extra money after her husband was arrested while smuggling drugs across the border. That narco-trafficker, in turn, was murdered because his impetuous actions angered his boss.
In another case, two men reported to the Mexican federal police (the AFI) that they had found a warehouse with a large stash of drugs. The federal police, in turn, told the narco-traffickers who owned the drugs that the two men had ratted on them. The men were subsequently brought to the House of Death, beaten with a hammer and a pistol (because a gunshot would make too much noise) and finally stomped to death by the assassins (local Mexican cops) employed by the narco-traffickers.
The assassins at the House of Death work for one of the most powerful Mexican narco-trafficking organizations, which is a business the size of a major corporation whose CEO is an individual named Vicente Carrillo Fuentes. – a dark-complected man with a thin black mustache; cold, vacant eyes; and ears that recede behind his thick jowls and high cheekbones.
Under Vicente are a host of managers, or lieutenants, who help run his organization, referred to as the VCF. In Juárez, at the time of the House of Death murders in 2003, the top lieutenant was a man named Heriberto Santillan-Taberes.
These lieutenants are always jockeying for higher standing and more power within the VCF. They achieve this standing by ensuring that the organization’s drugs are distributed, the money from drug sales collected, and its rules enforced. In the narco-trafficking world, those who violate the rules face the ultimate fate: execution.
Fernando Reyes, a Mexican attorney and drug smuggler, was one such individual who ran afoul of the VCF business model. He had 1,000 pounds of marijuana that he was trying to move from Juárez into the United States. He naively approached Santillan for help with his plan. Santillan saw both a threat from a potential business rival and an opportunity to advance his standing within the VCF.
As a result, Reyes was tricked into coming to the House of Death under the pretense of a business meeting. As he sat in a folding chair in the living room with two Santillan associates (one of whom was a U.S. government informant), two Juárez policemen burst into the living room and (with the help of the informant) restrained Reyes using duct tape. One of the cops stripped an electrical cord from a lamp and wrapped it around the lawyer’s neck, choking him until the cord snapped. The informant then pointed to a plastic bag. One of the cops grabbed the bag and placed it over Reyes’ head. Reyes struggled for air (the bag being sucked into his mouth with each breath). Reyes by now was near death, but still moving. So one of the policemen bashed Reyes with a shovel across the back of his head until his neck snapped.
The fact that the House of Death exists (and assuredly countless others like it along the border) should not be surprising given the ruthless nature of the narco-trafficking business. What is surprising is that we know about this particular House of Death in the first place.
After all, from the street, and to the world at large, the House of Death appears to be an ordinary house. We only know of its sinister purpose because we have chosen to enter this portal into the netherworld of the drug war.
And now, yet another document has come to light that provides us with new insight into that netherworld. That document, filed as an exhibit in a federal court case in El Paso, Texas, is a previously unpublished interview with the House of Death informant.
In the interview, the informant, who received some $200,000 from the U.S. government for his work, reveals, among other startling claims, that one of the individuals murdered as a result of his involvement in the case was an FBI informant. The informant also details the close relationship between narco-trafficking organizations and the Mexican government.
In addition, the informant claims the U.S. government was fully aware, at the highest levels in Washington, D.C., of his involvement in the House of Death murders, yet allowed the operation (and the murders) to continue. He also claims the U.S. government now wants him dead, and that he was “blackmailed” into going to a U.S. prison (where he still remains) to await deportation because a U.S. prosecutor threatened to send his family back to Mexico, into the hands of the narco-traffickers the informant betrayed, if he did not agree to those terms.
The interview with the informant was recorded in 2006 while Raul Loya, the Texas attorney representing the families of the House of Death victims in a civil lawsuit, and a TV producer were visiting the informant in jail in the Midwest. The recording was later transcribed by a court-reporting service and recently submitted as an exhibit in the civil lawsuit.
Following are excerpts from this previously unpublished interview with the House of Death informant. The bulk of the interview can be found at this link — starting on page 20 of the document. The final pages of the transcribed interview are at this link.
(Information contained in [brackets] in the interview excerpts below represents this reporter’s notes for you, the readers.)
For those of you not familiar with the back story of the House of Death, (or for those who want a reminder) we’ll retrace the steps of this gruesome drug-war tragedy first — to provide some context for the interview excerpts.
The informant, Guillermo Eduardo Ramirez Peyro, was on the payroll of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when he helped arrange (and even participated) in about a dozen murders between August 2003 and mid-January 2004 at the House of Death, located at 3633 Parsioneros in Ciudad Juárez. Ramirez Peyro had attained high status in a Juárez-based narco-trafficking cell headed by Heriberto Santillan-Tabares, who himself was a capo in the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Juárez drug organization.
ICE’s complicity in Ramirez Peyro’s murderous activities was reported to U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton by DEA’s El Paso chief, Sandy Gonzalez, after a DEA agent and his family nearly became victims of the House of Death. However, Sutton chose to retaliate against Gonzalez rather than investigate his charges and take action against the U.S. prosecutor and ICE agents who oversaw the informant — and who had allowed the murder spree to continue in order to make drug cases, with the informant’s help, to boost their law-enforcement career prospects.
Sutton is a golden boy of the U.S. Justice Department and previously worked with U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as part of George W. Bush’s staff while Bush was governor of Texas. Since that time, Sutton has risen on the coattails of his “mentors” to the powerful position of U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas and also currently serves as chairman of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys, which helps set policy for the Justice Department. Sutton also has been implicated in the recent U.S. Attorney purge scandal by emails released by the Department of Justice.
After the House of Death murders became public knowledge through media reports, Ramirez Peyro became a thorn in the side of Sutton and the Justice Department (DOJ) as well as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees ICE. That’s because Ramirez Peyro could illuminate the complicity of U.S. government agents and high-level officials at both DOJ and DHS in the House of Death mass murder.
So once his role as an informant was deemed more of a liability than an asset, DHS initiated deportation proceedings against him, with the goal of sending Ramirez Peyro back to Mexico, where he claims he will be murdered by the narco-traffickers he betrayed. That case is still pending in the U.S. legal system.
In fact, Ramirez Peyro was targeted for assassination by the narco-traffickers he double-crossed in the summer of 2004. At that time, the informant, who, along with his family, was living in San Antonio under the guard of ICE agents, mysteriously was allowed to return to El Paso (in late August 2004) to pick up $25,000 in drug money from some of his narco contacts. Ramirez claims he was participating in drug sting set up by ICE. However, ICE agents claim the informant was acting without their knowledge.
In any event, Ramirez Peyro, by this point, was extremely paranoid and likely was suspicious that the El Paso money drop could be a set-up. He was already aware that the VCF in Juárez was kidnapping and killing associates who had been close to him, since the House of Death murders and the case against Santillan were the subjects of media coverage.
So Ramirez Peyro sent a “friend” to pick up the money. That individual, 27-year-old U.S. citizen Abraham Guzman, the father of two-week-old boy, was shot dead at the hamburger joint by a VCF-connected thug — who pumped four bullets into Guzman’s chest and face after mistaking him for Ramirez.
From that point on, Ramirez Peyro, who is a Mexican citizen, disappeared from public view, and was put in prison, supposedly for his own protection. His wife and children, who were allowed into the United States on humanitarian grounds, are now living in the Southwest with their living expenses being covered by the U.S. government.
(In the interview excerpts below, Smith is the TV producer, Loya is the attorney who represents the families of the House of Death victims and Ramirez is the informant.)
The Guzman Murder
SMITH: Were you – were you close with [Abraham] Guzman [who was murdered at a fast-food restaurant in El Paso]? I mean, is that – is that something that bothers you a lot or is that something that just happened?
RAMIREZ: No, no, no, no. It bothers me. It’s very sad to me. Guzman was my only – my only – how can I say it – the only one I can trust, yeah? And it – obviously, it bothers me. There’s more people who got killed, and I don’t know – nobody mentioned them, yeah.
There’s – that’s not the only one who they killed trying to kill me….
LOYA: Did you know when you sent him to, I guess, pick up – was it money [at the fast-food restaurant] – there was a danger he could get killed?
RAMIREZ: No. If I’d know, I don’t do it like that way. If I know, I don’t do it.
LOYA: Why send him? Why him?
RAMIREZ: Why him? I just say it. That was his job, and that was my – my confidence man. He work with us for – well, with me, yeah. He don’t – he don’t knew about that we were working for the government, but he work for almost a year, two years.
SMITH: Oh, is that right? Was he – that’s never come out.
SMITH: He worked – he worked for the government for a year or two years?
RAMIREZ: No, for me.
SMITH: Oh, for you. Oh, I apologize.
RAMIREZ: Yeah, yeah. He never knows. He was – and this is the – something. He was loyal to me. He was an FBI informant [emphasis added]. He signed for that, yeah. But he never informant, nothing, at least about us.
I don’t know if – if they give information about other people, because about us, he never said that. He used to like stash drugs, drive. He was the one who got in contact, because that way, I don’t get in contact with the drugs, yeah? He was people who – who can go and do this – that kind of job.
… LOYA: What about Guzman? He died in the U.S.
RAMIREZ: Well – but that was the – after that, yeah. That was – and they were trying to kill me, not him, yeah? They – that’s a situation after the investigation, and that time – that’s a consequence of the investigation [the Santillan/House of Death case]. I agree with that.
LOYA: How did the killers get away? I thought they were close. Do you know?
RAMIREZ: How did they get away?
RAMIREZ: I don’t know. I – as I – as I read, they just shot him and leave, leaving in a vehicle. Yes.
The first thing I don’t like why everybody get so – in the government get so disappointed it wasn’t me that was dead. [emphasis added]
[Some law enforcement sources have told Narco News that they suspect ICE might have been trying to set up the informant for assassination by narco-traffickers at the El Paso burger joint where Guzman was killed, but no solid evidence of that allegation has surfaced to date.]
The House of Death
SMITH: Can I – I just want to ask you, on the Parsioneros house [the House of Death], can you describe that? I mean, did they just call you and say, we’re going to have a “carne asada?’ I mean, is that all – is that accurate, the “carne asada” words and all that? Because we saw it in newspaper articles, on the Internet – I mean, in the documents. Is that accurate?
RAMIREZ: There’s a lot of terms they used to make you understand. Over the phone, they don’t want to say, hey, we’re going to kill someone.
SMITH: No. No, exactly.
RAMIREZ: They can say anything, yeah, that – that you can understand they need to use that place, and you know for what is that place doing, yeah?
… SMITH: Yeah. Can – what was that Parsioneros house like? Didn’t that smell like crazy?
SMITH: Can you describe it? It didn’t? With bodies being drug underneath the staircase, blood –
RAMIREZ: No, you prepare everything.
SMITH: It isn’t — when you went in there, you wouldn’t suspect it was a – a torture house if you walked in there?
RAMIREZ: If you – in the first place, you don’t go over there if you weren’t part of the mafia, yeah? You have to do something with the mafia, yeah?
And this is the scary thing and this is what the people don’t – don’t understand. You go inside of that home, yeah, like all of us, all friends, all – all accomplices, all – all the same mobsters, yeah, one or two or four or – I don’t know – are not coming out, yeah.
You’re not going there with a – this is the scary thing. And no one – and this is very – I saw in the faces of all – even the [Mexican] cops [who did the killing] – everyone has got fear when go inside that house, because nobody knows who’s the one who’s going to walk out.
SMITH: You never knew?
RAMIREZ: You never know. All of us were buddies. And then inside it was, hey, what’s going on with this? Oh, this, this, this. Sometimes okay; everybody walks out, no problem. But sometimes, when this man was there, and you don’t know.
And I have to say this. I got a lot of guilty [fear] for be – for be killed there. Why? Because I was working for the U.S. government. So I was a lot of basis to be scared every time we go inside that house. I don’t know if they found – if they discovered what I was doing, yeah?
So if the people who doesn’t do nothing bad or supposedly nothing bad were scared, imagine me when I was no – I was betraying them, so –
SMITH: Do you have any – when you guys were burying those bodies – I mean, you weren’t burying them, per se?
RAMIEZ: No, no no.
SMITH: You kind of – you made sure that they buried them, right? Is that fair?
… RAMIREZ: Yeah, yeah, because they – they doesn’t want – I get a level of confidence – confidence, yeah? So what they – what they used me is like if someone stirs the – or something is – when someone stirs the water, I have to go over there and see everything gets clear, yeah?
Ramriez: Is that – does that make sense?
SMITH: I understand.
RAMIREZ: So the – the boss [Santillan] doesn’t – doesn’t going to bother going to see if they really – really covered the bodies, did a good job or not, yeah? That was my job, to go and watch if they do okay, and just take care the people are not doing stupid things, right, like playing with the bodies or something to make them discovered, little things like that.
I never take a – a shovel – is that what you say – or make a dig or move the body. No, no, no, no. That was not my job. I got – I got some level.
RAMIREZ: … When you infiltrate a cartel, yeah –
RAMIREZ: — you cannot – you cannot establish your limits, yeah.
If you’re going to act like them – like I said to the agents, hey, c’mon. I cannot say to the bad guys or to the mobsters – I cannot say, hey, Saturdays and Sundays, the Feds doesn’t like to work, so don’t – don’t move any drugs on Saturday or Sunday, yeah. But that’s that’s stupid and ridiculous, yeah?
RAMIREZ: They’re going to know. They’re going to know I’m working for the government, yeah?
Now, it’s well known – and this group too, yeah – that in the – in the – in the mafia, if you don’t do exactly what you’ve been told to do, you get killed, yeah?
Like some of these guys, yeah? So you cannot go infiltrate the mafia and say, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m so special; I’m going to do what I want to do, and you’re going to play by my own rules, because I’m in the – part of the government, and – you cannot do that, because you’ll get killed, yeah?
If they order to you, do this, you do it, and you’d better do it; and if you don’t do it, you get killed.
… SMITH: How close did you get to Vicente Carillo Fuentes? How close were you?
RAMIREZ: No, not – not close. I never seen him. I didn’t know him. I never got close to him.
SMITH: Is he that insulated? I mean, I thought maybe you were pretty close.
RAMIREZ: No, no. This – its very – there’s – there’s a lot of levels, and – and he’s – he’s the boss. He’s the cartel, yeah? He’s not – he’s not dealing with people. He got his – the people he trusts. He’s – he saw just the big guys, and I know – I wasn’t one of them.
SMITH: … Did they [ICE agents] ever give you any warnings about – that it [your activities in Mexico] might be used later against you?
RAMIREZ: I – no, no, no, no. We – all of us consider a lot of times suspend the investigation, yeah? Why? Because that was something big [the first House of Death murder on Aug. 5, 2003, in which Mexican attorney Fernando Reyes was killed], yeah? We were – yeah, in the first place, like in this – this first time, when I saw that killing, yeah, it – what can I do? Call the police?
The [Mexican] police was already there. The police kill him, yeah? So who I going to call? [Remember, according to ICE documents, Ramirez supervised and participated in that killing.]
Am I going to pull my gun and shoot the policeman? So then I’m going to be a police killer, and they’re going to kill me anyway, because they’ve got an AK-47 with them, yeah?
Or I’m going to disappear? And my family, they’re going to ….
I have to stay there. And I went very scared, yeah, because the way they used to work that day was so different. All that I could think was – (snapping fingers) – they – they bust me; they new I’m working for the U.S. government and they’re going to kill me, yeah.
… LOYA: Did any of the [ICE] agents tell you that they were concerned that these people are dying in Juárez? Did they say, hey, there – we were concerned; we don’t want to –
RAMIREZ: All of us were concerned, but I – I repeat to you. In the first place, they – they were not dying because of what we were doing; they were dying because their – their connections, yeah, with the mafia, the way of life they choose, yeah? That’s why they were dying.
And second, there’s nothing we can do. What we can do? Go to the police? Two of them [victims] was there [at the House of Death] because they went to the [Mexican] federal [law enforcement] agency, AFI, in Mexico and tell, hey, there’s this storage with drugs. The AFI call the mobsters….
That was the federals, huh? There’s nothing we can do.
… LOYA: Why don’t they [the U.S. government] just send you to a farm in Idaho somewhere?
RAMRIEZ: … No, no. They [the U.S. government] want to kill me in the hands of the authorities of the Mexican government.
SMITH: And that means to you?
RAMIREZ: I’m going to be killed. That’s not a – that’s not a big – a big question. That’s what’s going to happen.
SMITH: You look – you look awful calm for a guy that’s talking about this kind of stuff.
RAMIREZ: Well, I got two years thinking on this. And I’m not coward. I’m – I’m praying, yeah. I believe in God. And I’m praying that they – they [the U.S. courts] make the decision that – I’m – I’m hoping the Supreme Court say that you cannot – like the judge here told them, you cannot deport this guy. …
LOYA: Why this court here in Minnesota? Why are you here?
RAMIREZ: They move me here. Why? The excuse or the thing they told me is, they [ICE] are afraid of my life. Yeah? So they don’t want me near to Mexico because they are afraid somebody kill me in jail.
That’s why I’ve been in the hold, in segregation, all that – all that thing. They are afraid they [the cartel] kill me, but they want to put me in the hands of the killers. Do you understand that? ….
U.S. Government Complicity
SMITH: … You know that the [U.S.] government wants you dead. There’s no doubt in your mind?
RAMIREZ: … Do you – do you doubt that?
SMITH: That’s why I’m here. No, I don’t probably doubt that.
SMITH: They want you deported, and the likelihood is what? And if you go to Mexico, the likelihood is what?
RAMIREZ: Do you got any – do you really think in Mexico you’re going to survive after infiltrate the cartel and the Mexican government and show the proofs that the Mexican government is like this with the cartel?
… SMITH: Again, and I’m talking more from their end. You can’t break the law. You cannot participate or do illegal acts to enforce the law. It says specifically like that in their [ICE’s] guidelines.
Did they never discuss that with you? Did they ever say, you can’t grab a gun, you can’t pick up a gun in Mexico when you go over there because you’re breaking Mexican law?
RAMIREZ: No, they [my ICE handlers] they say, in Mexico, whatever you do is your problem. If you get busted in Mexico – because this is how it works, yeah? When I have to start working in Mexico, I need to receive the green light from Washington, not from [my ICE handler agent Raul] Bencomo. Bencomo is nobody, yeah?
They have to send paperwork, and Washington have to send back the – the – the okay – yeah, to me for being – it’s not just an – an informant; it’s an operative informant, something like that, yeah? You have to be imperative, yeah?
So that means you can handle drugs and meetings and all the equipment we’ve got for it – for all the work you do, because you are not an – you are not an agent, yeah? Your are – you are just – literally, they said, you are an extension of them ….
… When you infiltrate the cartel, yeah, everybody knows you have to go like what? Like a criminal, yeah? And you have to act like a criminal because you know how you’re going to be between the criminals.
… LOYA: … Did you ever meet anybody from San Antonio, like [U.S. Attorney Johnny] Sutton?
RAMIREZ: I meet a – people in San Antonio, but I really don’t remember their names. …
As soon as they finished, they start like pushing me aside and – and trying to get rid of me, or say like that.
… Now, why did – don’t [ICE] arrest him [Santillan sooner]? I don’t know. I mean, this is not in me. I repeat you. I worry nobody. If my life doesn’t even important to them, do you think the life of the people they don’t know important to them. They don’t care.
Now we are looking, they don’t care about my life, right? You okay with that? Why they’re going to be worried about the – the people [killed at the House of Death] they don’t know and – I — I repeat to you, we don’t do nothing with that people. We don’t even met them. They come, most of them, from other [cartel] cells, yeah.
… The cartel killed a lot of people. It wasn’t just 12 [at the House of Death]. Make a research how many have disappeared over time.
LOYA: Are you – are you aware that the agents and the handlers and the people, maybe even all up to Washington, they have violated federal law just in what they did in the directions [to you]?
RAMIREZ: Well, that’s – that’s a possibility, all right?
… SMITH: They [ICE] told you afterwards [after the first House of Death murder, which was recorded on tape] – they praised you for your work. But what did they say? Did they tell you distinctly, no more [murders] what? We don’t’ want any sounds of death in tapes or what? I mean, what did they tell you?
RAMIREZ: No, they told me, try to keep out of that situations, like if I got a choice. And I explained to them, hey, I – I don’t – I don’t have a choice, yeah? I don’t got an excuse.
LOYA: You signed a paper to agree to stay in custody [in jail in the U.S.]?
RAMIREZ: To agree what?
LOYA: To stay in protective custody or agree not to be deported or –
RAMIREZ: Yeah, they – they [the U.S. government] – they blackmailed me. They said, you sign to stay here in jail, or we’re going to kick out your family.
LOYA: What do you mean?
RAMIREZ: Yeah, if I don’t – if I don’t sign I accept to be in jail, in protective custody, they’re going to put my family in the hands of the killers.
SMITH: Who said that … who said that, specifically? Who said that?
RAMIREZ: [Assistant U.S. Attorney] Juanita Fielding [who works under U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton] the – my – the attorney they put me. And – yeah, it was Juanita Fielding, because the guys from Customs [ICE] don’t’ even give the face anymore. I never see them again.
Bill Conyers, Narcosphere.com