House of Death

A dozen men were tortured, killed and buried in a small house in Juarez. Three years later, the U.S. government is still trying to cover up what happened.

In fact, major American media have mostly ignored the story, perhaps because it happened on the other side of the border. But this is more than a border story. This is a story that goes all the way to Washington.

"This is a big deal, a very big deal because of the scope and duration of the activity. For six months, you had members of the U.S. government who knew that a person on their payroll was engaging in murder, and they did nothing to stop it," says Bill Weaver, a University of Texas at El Paso law professor who has closely followed the case. "As much as they deny it, they had prior knowledge."

To date, Lalo's handlers at ICE and the U.S. Attorney's Office in El Paso have declined comment. An official report of what happened at the House of Death has been classified for national security reasons. To Weaver's knowledge, that has never before happened with a report of this kind.

Some had been covered in Quicklime to speed decomposition.
Some had been covered in Quicklime to speed decomposition.
After five days of digging, they had unearthed 12 bodies.
After five days of digging, they had unearthed 12 bodies.

"Has there been a cover-up? Absolutely there has been a cover-up," says Sandy Gonzalez, the former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in El Paso who blew the whistle on the case. "The executive branch has decided not to investigate this, because there is a very real possibility here of government officials committing crimes, and they don't want that to get out."

But the story will not go away. Now, three years later, a wrongful death lawsuit is pending in federal court on behalf of several of the victims. It names Lalo, his handlers at ICE and prosecutors at the El Paso U.S. Attorney's Office as defendants. Within the next three weeks, a judge is expected to decide whether the suit goes to trial. And if it does, the attorney for the plaintiffs—Dallas lawyer Raul Loya—says he will call Lalo to take the stand.

"Anyone with half a brain would know there's not a chance in hell [the U.S. government] is ever going to allow this guy to be put on the stand to testify. They're afraid of what he might say," Weaver says. "Now they want him dead. They want him killed."

And that's exactly what will happen, Weaver says, if the U.S. government succeeds in its current bid to deport Lalo back to Mexico.

Lalo has already testified that his handlers at ICE knew about each murder he participated in or witnessed at the House of Death, and that on at least two occasions, they knew beforehand.

If this is true it reveals a disturbing truth about the way America is waging its War on Drugs—that agents sometimes look the other way when murder occurs, especially if it means making a case and especially if the victims are from the other side of the border.

What follows is the first narrative account in the U.S. press of what really happened at the House of Death. The story reveals new information: that in all likelihood one of the last people killed at the House of Death was a U.S. government informant. Supported by sworn affidavits, court testimony, confidential memos and interviews, this is a journey deep inside America's drug war. It is a story of murder, corruption and the great lengths to which the United States government will sometimes go to cover up the truth.

This story, like most drug stories that find their way to Dallas, begins on the other side of the border. It begins with a Mexican highway patrolman, the son of two civil engineers, a man who was born Guillermo Eduardo Ramirez-Peyro but would come to be known as Lalo, or in secret U.S. intelligence reports as special agent 913.

It is 1995 and the Juarez cartel is rising in power. For two years now, women and men have been disappearing in this city, with its smoking factories and its crooked, dust-filled roads. There are rumors that the women from Anapra, the ramshackle slum along the river, are being kidnapped and taken to all-night orgies organized by the cartels, where they are raped, murdered and then hacked to pieces. There are other stories about satanic worship and organ-harvesting and whispers about the sons of the city's elite, that maybe they are committing these murders.

Men go missing too. Most are drug mules who lose loads trying to cross the border, or foolish men who try to steal from the cartel or the stupidly naïve who report what they have seen to the police. Some of these men are buried alive. Others are tortured first, with ice picks—they call it tickling the bones—to discover what they know.

At this time, Lalo is nothing. He is not a member of the Juarez cartel, he is not an informant for the U.S. government. He is in Guadalajara, and he has been with the federal highway patrol for a year.

Unfortunately, he will later testify, he meets drug traffickers during his stint as a cop, and when he is fired over disagreements with his commanders, these contacts lead him to his next job. That's the way it works in Mexico. If you are a cop, he will later say, the best job, or maybe the only other job you can get, is to become a drug trafficker.

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