By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
In 2003, the DEA launches an investigation with ICE, FBI and the Mexican feds into the Carrillo Fuentes organization called Operation Sky High. The idea is to share information and resources, and together, they will take these sons of bitches down, cut off the supply of all this cocaine and marijuana that makes its way to Phoenix and Dallas and Houston and beyond. Crush the head of the snake.
Santillan is one of the main targets.
In March of 2003, they make the first significant move of the operation: a controlled delivery of 29 kilos of cocaine belonging to the cartel, and Santillan specifically. The sting results in three arrests and forms the basis of a federal indictment against Santillan.
The next month Lalo gives his handlers Santillan's home address in the state of Durango, and later, the telephone number and address of a cartel safe house in Juarez, all highly valuable pieces of information.
And then he makes a mistake, something that gives his handlers pause: He is arrested in June 2003 at a Border Patrol checkpoint in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with an unauthorized load of 100 pounds of marijuana. He explains to his handlers at ICE that he had identified a new target and hadn't had time to tell them first. The DEA office in Juarez doesn't buy this explanation and deactivates him as a DEA informant. But ICE, after a long conversation with the U.S. Attorney's Office in El Paso, decides it will keep using him. He is too valuable to get rid of.
They are in a bar in Juarez and they have been drinking, and Santillan tells Lalo they are going to "rip" somebody. Lalo takes this to mean an execution, and he is pretty sure Santillan is talking about this lawyer friend of Santillan's named Fernando Reyes, but he can't be sure. Something Santillan says makes him think the hit might be on him. So he informs his handler at ICE of the situation. (According to a later investigation by the DEA, this is the first time Lalo would advise his handlers at ICE of a murder before it takes place.)
Two days later, on August 5, 2003, he helps kill Fernando Reyes. When he is debriefed that evening by his ICE handlers, he minimizes his involvement. He only held Reyes' legs down, he says. He initially thought the cartel was going to kill him, he tells his handlers.
That night, the U.S. Attorney's Office in El Paso is told of the slaying and of Lalo's participation. In the following days, El Paso ICE agents advise their management in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City of the murder. They give the green light to proceed with the investigation of Santillan and to keep using Lalo.
When word of the killing reaches the DEA office in Juarez, they recommend that ICE take down Santillan immediately. They also request the location of Fernando's body so they can help Mexican officials solve the crime.
But ICE ignores these requests and then blows off a meeting the DEA had requested to talk about the murder. The DEA, they believe, is too cozy with their Mexican counterparts. And there is no federal agency, no government office in Mexico that ICE trusts. You tell the Mexicans what's going on, and boom, targets you've been chasing for months go into hiding.
Throughout the fall and winter of 2003, the killing at the House of Death continues. The cartel comes up with a code word for the executions that occur there: carne asadas, or barbecues. Lalo is often called to open the house for a carne asada, and when the killing is done, he is responsible for the burial.
On September 11, 2003, Lalo is in Chicago, helping ICE with another investigation, according to the DEA. While there, he gets a call from Santillan, who tells him he needs to open the house for a carne asada. Lalo calls Alex Garcia, who assisted in the murder of Fernando, and asks him to open the house.
At this point, ICE has a wire on Lalo's phone and Santillan's phone, so it is likely that they hear the conversation. Still, they do nothing to stop the murder that occurs that day.
When Lalo returns to Juarez, the killing continues. In November, two drug mules, Paisa and El Chapo, lose 70 kilos on the Free Bridge in Juarez. The load belonged to Comandante Loya of the state police, Santillan's nephew. So Lalo takes the two mules to the House of Death. Santillan shows up with Comandante Loya and another killer named Crooked Fingers. Lalo tells Paisa and El Chapo, "You have to take business with us seriously." The Comandante tells them to lift their shirts over their faces so they don't see the boss, who is going to arrive shortly. He begins wrapping tape over their heads, but they can still breathe. One of the men starts moaning, so the Comandante shoots him in the head, at which point the other tries to break free. The Comandante shoots him in the head too.