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July 18, 2004 - The Dallas Morning News (TX)

Inquiry In Drug Slayings Turns To 4 U.S. Agents

Officials Had Oversight Of Informant Suspected In Juárez Killings

By Alfredo Corchado, Dallas Morning News

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

EL PASO - Four more U.S. Customs special agents are being investigated for their role overseeing activities of an informant who allegedly participated in killing suspected drug traffickers across the border in Ciudad Juárez, according to U.S. government officials.

Raul Bencomo, Todd Johnson, David Ortíz and Luís Rico of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, face questioning by the agency's Office of Professional Responsibility over their close relationship with the U.S. informant, who is said to have "supervised" the killings of at least five suspected drug traffickers last year, the officials said.

The agents declined comment, and ICE officials would neither confirm nor deny the expanded probe.

"It's our longstanding policy not to comment on pending criminal cases," said ICE El Paso spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa. "We will follow that policy in this case."

In June, ICE group supervisor Patricia Kramer and El Paso director Giovanni Gaudioso were transferred to headquarters in Washington as part of a shakeup designed to restore confidence in the agency, officials said. ICE has been in upheaval since March, when The Dallas Morning News first published details about the case.

Mr. Gaudioso is expected to return to his post in El Paso next month, while Ms. Kramer appears to have been transferred permanently from her post. Her El Paso home is up for sale, U.S officials said.

ICE's investigation explores what the agents knew about the killing of drug traffickers who were rivals of the Juárez drug cartel led by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes.

At issue is what and when the agents were told about the informant's criminal activities - apparently by the informant himself, said U.S. government officials speaking on condition of anonymity

The officials said they're particularly intrigued by reports from "sources" that Mr. Ortíz, the case agent monitoring the informant, was "largely kept in the dark" by his supervisors about the man's activities.

Mr. Ortíz's initial report about the informant, known within the agency by the nickname "Lalo," apparently was rejected by superiors for unknown reasons. Responsibility for documenting Lalo's activities was given to another agent, Luís García, who subsequently drafted a graphic memo on August 25, 2003, detailing the informant's first known killing, of Durango attorney Fernando Reyes Aguado.

"There are too many loose ends here, too many unanswered questions," said a U.S. government official familiar with the case.

A congressional hearing is scheduled for Friday in Washington in which the "informant's activities in Mexico are likely to come up," one official said. "Lalo" is a presumed former high-ranking member of the Juárez cartel, Mexico's most powerful drug organization. He operated on American soil under supervision of ICE officials in the United States. In Mexico, he worked for Heriberto Santillán Tabares, an alleged member of the cartel's elite group known as the Gatekeepers, or La Línea , said U.S. and Mexican officials.

The informant is in a witness protection program in the United States. The News has decided not to publish his name, which could expose him to retribution.

Last January, the bodies of 12 suspected drug traffickers were uncovered in the backyard of a house in a middle-class neighborhood in Juárez. In at least one of those cases, U.S. supervisors had been notified ahead of time and listened in on an open cell-phone line as the killing took place, U.S. and Mexican officials have said.

In a three-page memo written April 8, 2004 -- one month after the informant case came to light and 10 months after the first known killing -- an ICE investigator reminded Michael García, assistant secretary for ICE in the Department of Homeland Security, that "during the course of criminal investigations, threats to life or serious bodily injury to individuals, as well as threats to occupied structures and conveyance can become known to agents."

In such cases, the ICE investigator warned, "reasonable action must be taken to attempt to protect the individual or structure in question."

Failure to do so, he said, can result "in a Federal Tort Claims Act suit against the agency and the individual agents involved."

No one ever warned any of the 12 Juárez victims, among them Luís Padilla-Cardona, a U.S. citizen from the nearby town of Socorro, Texas.

Relatives of some of the victims are preparing a lawsuit against the U.S. government.

In a separate memo, dated May 27, Michael García reminded ICE directors about ground rules for using confidential informants.

"If an active informant is arrested or is believed to have engaged in unauthorized, unlawful conduct, including any act of violence, other than a petty crime or a minor traffic offense, the use of the CI (confidential informant) should be immediately suspended," the memo stated.

Lalo's alleged criminal activity has drawn criticism from current and former U.S. law enforcement officials, some of whom describe the case as one of the worst examples of governmental misconduct.

"I am embarrassed and disgusted that I am part of an agency that allowed this to happen," said one current agent who requested anonymity.

Meanwhile, pinpointing the dates of slayings and identities of victims has been a challenge. Two separate documents, one a U.S. court document and the other sworn testimony by Lalo before Mexican officials, offer contradictory information.

In an interview with the Mexican attorney general's office at the Mexican Consulate in Dallas on Feb. 12, Lalo described the killings of five people as carne asadas, or barbecues.

In that session, Lalo detailed two slayings on Nov. 23, 2003, two more on Jan. 8, 2004, and that of Mr. Reyes Aguado on Aug. 30, 2003. The ICE memo, however, states that the Reyes Aguado killing occurred Aug. 25, 2003.

A U.S. indictment has charged Mr. Santillán Tabares, Lalo's minder on the Mexico side, with five murders, including that of Mr. Reyes Aguado. The indictment does not list a date for that killing.

Mr. Santillán Tabares also is charged with the killing of Cesar Rubio, alias "El Doce," on Sept. 11, 2003, and with the killings of Omar Cepeda-Sáenz, Luís Padilla-Cardona and Juan Carlos Pérez-Gómez, all "on or about Jan. 14," 2004.

Those three killings occurred on the same day Juárez and Chihuahua state police, accompanied by "Lalo" and Mr. Santillán, pulled up at the home of an undercover agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and drew their guns on the front steps, as the agent's family hid inside, authorities said. The police were looking for a lost load of cartel marijuana, later found next door.

The undercover agent and his family, with the help of Mexican federal police, escaped unharmed to El Paso. The DEA agent has since been transferred to Austin.

Mr. Santillán Tabares is in an El Paso jail awaiting trial on the federal charges. A hearing is scheduled for August.

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