El Paso, Texas
Like the neighboring residences, nothing appeared odd about the split-level home located in the middle-class Juarez subdivision of Las Acequias. Laughing children rode bicycles and played in the street outside, while just around the corner, customers sauntered into the unisex hair-styling salon and a 24-hour convenience store. But inside the house on Parsioneros Street rented to Alejandro Garcia and his family, something devilish was afoot.
For months, according to Mexico's attorney general and US legal investigators, men who had run afoul of the Juarez drug cartel were treated to what their hosts gruesomely called "carne asadas," or "barbeques." The "guests" were bound, gagged, tortured, bludgeoned with hammers and shovels, and finally strangled or suffocated to death. Prominent among the executioners were active-duty members of the Chihuahua State Judicial Police, the same police agency entrusted with investigating the rape-murders of young women in Juarez and Chihuahua state.
Once a killing was finished, Garcia and others buried the corpses in the backyard, sprinkling them with lime to hasten the decomposition of the bodies. Like one of the assembly plants, or maquiladoras, that ring Juarez, the Las Acequias house of horrors operated around the clock until January 2004, when a tip from federal US law enforcement authorities to their counterparts in Mexico City advised the latter to unpack their shovels.
Now a wrongful death lawsuit pending in El Paso's US District Court accuses the US government of having a big hand in the carnage. Filed on behalf of relatives of Las Acequias victim Luis Padilla by Dallas attorneys Loya and Associates, the civil suit accuses the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the US Department of Justice, the US attorney's office and the Drug Enforcement Administration of responsibility in several of the Las Acequias deaths because of the key involvement of a paid US government informant.
The central villain is a shady, double-dealing, ICE informant possibly named Guillermo Peyro but better known as Jesus "Lalo" Contreras. According to the Padilla lawsuit, Lalo gave tips to the US feds while continuing his drug smuggling business.
Plantiffs' attorney Raul Loya contends that in their zeal to achieve "glory" in the drug war, federal law enforcement officials knew for months that Lalo was helping commit murders. "Those goofballs in El Paso, single-handedly, with the informant while he was killing people, thought they would bring down the Juarez Cartel," contends Loya. "The level to which they violated the law is incredible," he adds. "They turned from law enforcement into a bunch of thugs. Are they going to enforce the law or turn into the hoodlums they are supposed to arrest?"
Lalo's intrigues haphazardly led to the snaring of one alleged cartel operative charged with directing the Las Acequias murders: Heriberto Santillan Tabares. Arrested in El Paso on Jan. 15, 2004, Santillan is accused of five of the murders as well as drug violations. But the high-profile case won't get a public hearing in El Paso. Heading off an expected local media frenzy, the federal case has been transferred to San Antonio.
Twelve bodies were recovered from the Las Acequias residence, though suspicions exist that 20 killings might have been committed by the ring responsible for the bloodbath. Mexican federal authorities jailed 11 people on homicide and drug charges related to the macabre discovery, and four former state policemen remain fugitives.
In one instance, the Padilla lawsuit claims that US government officials eavesdropped via a cell phone feed from Lalo as Juarez attorney Fernando Reyes was killed.
"The ICE officials listened as Contreras and his Mexican accomplices bound Reyes using duct tape, a rope, and finally used a plastic bag and shovel to kill the victim," states the lawsuit.
Carl Rusnok, ICE's public relations officer in Dallas, says his agency won't comment on the lawsuit. Phone calls to Justice Department spokespersons in Washington, D.C., were not returned.
But Sandalio Gonzalez, former head of the DEA's El Paso office, lodged accusations against Lalo and his supervisors similar to the ones contained in the Padilla lawsuit in a February 2004 letter to ICE, portions of which were recently quoted in the El Paso Times and Narco News. Calling Lalo "a homicidal maniac," Gonzalez wrote that the operation amounted to a "total disregard for human life and disrespect for the rule of law in Mexico."
Patricia Garibay of the El Paso-based International Association of Relatives and Friends of Disappeared Persons considers the Lalo affair a red flag about the US government's conduct in the "drug war." While border federal law enforcement has been refocused to hunt shadowy terrorists, Garibay insists that cartel-linked violence has spiraled out of control. Representing family members and friends of people from both Mexico and the US who have gone missing amid the narco-violence, Garibay calls for "a fair and just investigation" of US authorities involved in the Las Acequias case.
"If this means removing them from office, then it should be done, because it's a disgrace to have them in those offices and positions," adds Garibay.
Kent Paterson is a writer based in Albuquerque, N.M.