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.

And on and on it goes.

One arrives DOA in a black plastic bag. Two police officers carry him in. He is so heavy they have to drop him in the kitchen; he doesn't fit under the staircase. Another is brought in with a rope around his neck. There was a third, the cops say, but he crawled under a truck, and so they shot him there and left him in the street.

Each time Lalo is asked to open the house for a carne asada, he will later say, he tells his handlers at ICE.

Sandy Gonzalez is the former head of the El Paso DEA who blew the whistle on the case.
Sandy Gonzalez is the former head of the El Paso DEA who blew the whistle on the case.
The House of Death sits in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood.
Jesse Hyde
The House of Death sits in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood.

Meanwhile, the cartel is bringing in at least $10 billion a year from the distribution and sale of cocaine in places such as Dallas, Houston, Chicago and New York. The cartel's kingpin, Carrillo Fuentes, is said to be one of the richest men in Mexico. He has houses on both sides of the border, BMWs and Porsches and Lincoln Navigators at his disposal, fine jewelry and thick wads of cash bound in rubber bands.

He maintains his power in Juarez through violence and intimidation. It is a city of two worlds: In many of the slums, there is no electricity or running water. The houses are made of cardboard and old tires, and the dirt roads are full of stray dogs and barefoot children. And then there is the Campestre, the country club district, where the houses are built of brick and pink stucco and trimmed in gleaming white. They are guarded by ceramic lions and the air smells sweet, of cut grass and palm trees and flowers. Carrillo Fuentes and his band are of this second world.

Although many of them maintain houses on both sides of the border, they confine most of the violence to Juarez. The cartel spends a rumored $500 million a year in bribes to police and elected officials, and its control is complete: Mayors are not elected, judges are not nominated, police chiefs are not appointed without its blessing.

Across the river, they say, it is different. The police are not corrupt. The streets are clean, and the houses are tidy and it is America. But sometimes, the cartel reaches across the border, into the schools and the churches and the small, poor communities along the river. "You have to understand how it works over here," law professor Weaver says. "You go to a quinceanera or something, and you have the cousins over here who work for ICE or DEA, and you have the cousins over here that run for the Juarez cartel. Everybody here knows people who are running or are in the drug trade. It is a career progression or career aspiration, just like joining ICE or DEA would be."

A man named Luis Padilla lives in one of these towns. It is called Socorro, and it sits just miles from the Rio Grande, out where the mountains and hills of El Paso flatten into the desert and the hay fields and orchards are surrounded by barren stretches of dirt and sage. The son of migrant workers, Padilla was an athlete in high school, and he still carries himself with a quiet grace. He is very religious, they say, and a devoted family man.

On the morning of January 14, 2004, he leaves for work. He doesn't call at 9 a.m. to check in with his wife, which is unusual. Then he doesn't call at noon and she begins to worry.

His car is found at his parents' house. The keys are still in the ignition. His wife calls his work, a diesel truck repair shop. No, she is told, he never showed up.

And then her mind races. People are kidnapped in Juarez all the time. But these are drug runners, she says to herself, and Luis has nothing to do with drugs. He is a good man.

That day in Juarez, three men are taken to the House of Death. Before they are killed, one of them gives up the address of undercover DEA agent Homer McBrayer, who is stationed in Juarez.

At about 6 p.m. that night, hired killers show up at McBrayer's house. McBrayer is not home, but his wife and two children are. The killers ring on the doorbell for 10 minutes straight. McBrayer comes home when his wife calls him, and the ringing stops. They pack their two girls in their car and head to El Paso.

As they're leaving the subdivision, they are pulled over by a marked Juarez police car. Two cars then pull in front and behind them. A man steps out of each vehicle and stands behind McBrayer's car. McBrayer doesn't know it, but these are state police officers who belong to the cartel.

When the uniformed cop asks McBrayer to step out of his car, he refuses. Instead, he calls another agent, who arrives shortly.

In the meantime, one of the men standing behind McBrayer's car relays the names of McBrayer and the other agent to Santillan. Santillan calls Lalo, whom he knows has connections with corrupt customs inspectors, and gives him the names. After calling ICE, Lalo confirms to Santillan that these men are indeed from the tres letras, or the DEA. McBrayer, his family and the other agent are let go. The cartel doesn't want anything to do with extreme provocations like killing a DEA agent.

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