By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
So yes, it would be fine to go to this house, they tell you. No one is watching it anymore. Just don't stay too long.
On this crisp winter morning, the house is still. The door creaks open easily. The living room where Fernando was killed is covered in dirt and shattered glass. In the kitchen, the clothing of some of the victims remains, as do dusty bags of concrete and lime. The concrete was part of an unfinished plan to cover the backyard in cement so that the bodies would never be discovered.
To this day, the death of one of the men killed here remains a mystery. It is the death of Luis Padilla, the El Paso diesel mechanic who disappeared from his house in January 2004.
So far, every media report that has touched on Padilla's story has concluded that he was an innocent bystander, that he had nothing to do with the drug war. But this is not true.
A year before Padilla was executed at the House of Death, he was busted for running a load of marijuana. In court records, the load is described as more than 50 pounds and less than 2,000 pounds. (Considering that an ounce of Mexican marijuana has a minimum street value of $75, Padilla was carrying somewhere between $60,000 and $2.4 million worth of marijuana) His wife, Janet, says he was carrying the loads in hidden compartments in a truck, something that would have been easy for him to arrange as a diesel mechanic.
"That kind of a load has to be sanctioned by the Juarez cartel. I mean you can probably go in to Culiacán and buy two and three kilos yourself and try to sneak them across the border," says Phil Jordan, the former head of the DEA's El Paso Intelligence Center and the former chief of the DEA's Dallas field office. "But a load like that with compartments and everything else, that is the Juarez cartel. There's no way he was working independent."
When Padilla was arrested, he was not given jail time, even though a load of this size typically carries a penalty of anywhere from three to 10 years in prison, Jordan says. Instead, he received probation.
To Jordan this suggests one thing: Padilla was given this deal because he agreed to become an informant. And then there is this—after Padilla's body was found, his wife says, Lalo's handler, Raul Bencomo, visited her. She says Bencomo and another agent told her they would do whatever they could to help her. But when Padilla later asked them to write a letter for her saying she had nothing to do with her husband's death, they didn't respond. To this day, she says, they have done nothing to help her.
"I think they just wanted to know what I know," she says. "Once they realized I didn't know anything, they weren't really interested in helping me."
This visit proves to Jordan almost beyond doubt that Padilla was working as an informant. "He meets the total criteria for an informant. A guy being killed by the Juarez cartel, there's no reason other than if he's an informant that anyone from the government would visit his wife. They were not going to help her; they wanted to know if this guy, Padilla, had told his wife any secrets. And then maybe Customs could try to do something to quiet her, and when she told them basically that she didn't know anything about it, then they didn't come back to her."
Lalo also thinks Padilla may have been an informant, says his attorney, Jodi Goodwin.
"Lalo's point when we talked about Luis Padilla being killed was, 'Look, not only does the government not have respect for life in general, they don't have respect for the lives of people who work for them. I mean, look at Luis, look at me.' It just goes to show you even further that the big-G government will do whatever they have to do to get their good press, do their drug war and try to come out covering their asses."
To Jordan, it doesn't matter if Padilla was an informant, a drug trafficker or something in between. "If you're in law enforcement, you don't kill people. Period. It doesn't matter what kind of case you are trying to build."
Janet Padilla still wonders why her husband was killed. She doesn't think he was an informant. She doesn't think his death had anything to do with drugs, either, despite his previous conviction.
"I mean, look at the way we were living," she says. "We had one car. Don't you think if he was into that stuff we would have had something to show for it?"
To this day, she says, people are watching her house. Whether they are from the cartel or the U.S. government, she doesn't know. But she has reason to fear both. And so she doesn't want her address in the newspapers.
Her main concern is raising three children on her own. Someday, she will have to tell them how he died. They already know he was murdered, but they don't know everything. They don't know about the blood in the crotch of his jeans, a sign that he was tortured before he was smothered to death. But she knows that one day they will ask, and then she will have to tell the whole story.