EL PASO - U.S. officials soon are expected to extradite to Mexico a controversial figure who took part in several killings for a Mexican drug cartel while working as a U.S.-paid informant, said government sources familiar with the case.
Guillermo Eduardo Ramirez Peyro, a.k.a. "Lalo," lost a bid to seek asylum and faces extradition, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The extradition would end the U.S. government's relationship with a man who once provided valuable intelligence on Mexico's Juarez cartel and its murky operations, but who also is accused of participating in a number of cartel-ordered assassinations, including the killing of a U.S. citizen.
But the extradition is not likely to end the controversy surrounding the handling of the informant by the U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement - or ICE. Critics have long insisted that the informant was in a position of power and not merely a submissive spectator in criminal activity, as privately claimed by agency officials.
"He's a liability because he knows everything our government did," said Raul Loya, an attorney representing some of the families of victims of the Juarez cartel. "The U.S. government wants him to stay hidden, so by extraditing him, he in effect disappears in Mexico and the U.S. government wipes its hands clean."
The El Paso office of ICE has been in upheaval since March 2004, when The Dallas Morning News first published details about the informant's case.
Agency spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa in El Paso wouldn't comment on the status of Mr. Ramirez Peyro but issued a statement:
"ICE has completed an internal investigation; however the Privacy Act prohibits release of information related to matters such as this. In general, ICE takes any and all allegations of misconduct seriously and resolves them with expediency."
Mexican authorities have a standing warrant for Mr. Ramirez Peyro in connection with the January 2002 discovery of 12 bodies in the back yard of a suburban Ciudad Juarez home.
According to documents and transcripts: Mr. Ramirez Peyro had the keys to the house where the victims were executed. He assigned corrupt policemen their roles in several killings, going so far as to recommend how best to eliminate the victims, whether by shooting or by suffocation. He called in gravediggers to bury bodies, paid off the killers and notified his contact that the job was done. He described the killings as carne asadas, or barbecues.
In at least one of case, U.S. officials said, agency supervisors had been notified ahead of time and listened in on an open cellphone line as the killing took place, an allegation that ICE authorities have privately denied. ICE officials also say they had limited knowledge of Mr. Ramirez Peyro's alleged criminal activities.
So far, ICE's internal investigation has led to the removal or transfer of several officials. Top supervisors Giovanni Gaudioso and Patricia Kramer were transferred to Washington from El Paso. Ms. Kramer resigned under pressure last October, U.S. officials said.
Two agents were suspended without pay for about a month. Another remains on an extended leave of absence, and at least four directors have come and gone over the past two years.
Even so, Congress hasn't shown interest in investigating the agency, said Sandalio Gonzalez, the former special agent in charge of the El Paso field division of the Drug Enforcement Administration who blew the whistle on ICE. Mr. Gonzalez said he's met twice with Senate committee investigators with no results. Calls to the panels weren't returned Thursday.
"The real question is who polices the executive branch of government," said Mr. Gonzalez. "It's Congress' job, and they have done nothing." ICE, which reports to the federal Department of Homeland Security, falls under the executive branch.
Mr. Ramirez Peyro was part of a criminal organization led by Chihuahua state and municipal police officers who worked for the powerful Ciudad Juarez cartel.
Nineteen officers were detained, questioned and then released following the discovery of the 12 bodies in Ciudad Juarez, including that of Luis Padilla-Cardona, a U.S. citizen from the nearby town of Socorro, Texas.
Six other officers - including Miguel Loya Gallegos, the Chihuahua state police commander who officials say was a ringleader of the cartel's Gatekeepers, or La Linea, escaped and continue to elude authorities.
Mr. Ramirez Peyro, a former Mexican federal highway policeman, quickly rose through the ranks of the cartel, according to U.S. officials.
By 2000, he was working for ICE as an informant, providing valuable information about the cartel, leading authorities to the mass grave and helping U.S. authorities on one of the largest cigarette smuggling cases ever. He also helped confiscate tons of marijuana and cocaine and personally turned in Heriberto Santillan Tabares, another member of the cartel's Gatekeepers, said U.S. and Mexican officials. Mr. Santillan was sentenced last April to 25 years in prison.
In late 2004, Mr. Ramirez Peyro returned to El Paso and arranged for an acquaintance to pick up a package of money owed to him. The man, waiting at a Whataburger parking lot, was killed - presumably by members of the Juarez cartel who wanted to kill Mr. Ramirez Peyro in retaliation for his role as an informant.
A U.S. federal judge initially approved Mr. Ramirez Peyro's asylum request in July, but the decision was appealed and overturned in January, U.S. officials said.
Leaders of the Juarez cartel still want him dead, one official said.
"You don't go up against the U.S. government and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes and expect to live to tell about it," said the U.S. official, referring to the cartel's leader. "Lalo is a dead man walking."
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