You may have seen this movie, or perhaps this one and believed that the portrayals of violence, corruption and links to high government officials was a little over the top. Hollywood going for maximum effect and using liberal literary license. Except that it may be that Hollywood actually underplayed the truth.
Via Richard, the Guardian has documented a real-life story of drug cartels, smuggling and murder on the El Paso Texas-Ciudad Juarez Mexico border that would make John LeCarre proud. It also points at involvement, and not in a good way, by the highest levels of the US government in condoning murder.
The Guardian's story is long, but it is the first (established) documented version of a story which is so complicated that it may take you a couple of reads to actually comprehend it. It's worth reading Richard's post on the subject first.
At the heart of the story is the ICE, the US Customs and Immigration Executive, an enforcement body that was formed out the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003. The tentacles of the story work their way right up to the US Department of Justice at the very highest levels.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration in El Paso had been running an informant in an attempt to infiltrate the drug cartels in Juarez. The informant was doing a little freelancing on the side, smuggling drugs into the US, and was arrested in New Mexico. The DEA immediately "deactivated" the informant in accordance with standard procedure and US law.
ICE saw things differently and, in a move that would come to involve the top end of the Justice Department, used the now-useless DEA informant as their own source against Heriberto Santillan-Tabares, also known as Il Ingeniero, the Engineer, and a man well-known for his violence and cruelty. (All emphasis mine)
Lalo claims to have facilitated numerous drug seizures and arrests. But on 28 June, 2003, his loyalty came under suspicion when he was arrested by the DEA in New Mexico, driving a truck he had brought across the border containing 102lb of marijuana. He had not told his handlers about this shipment and, in accordance with its normal procedures, the DEA 'deactivated' him as a source.The story gets even more weird. Special Agent Sandy Gonzales, formerly the Special Agent in charge of the El Paso DEA office, complained to superiors about how ICE was handling the case. Gonzales's complaint and knowledge of ICE activities cost him his career and he was forced to resign.
Ice took a different view. Agents in its El Paso office were trying to use Lalo to build a case against Santillan, and to nail a separate cigarette-smuggling investigation. At a meeting with federal prosecutors the week after Lalo's arrest, Ice tried to persuade assistant US attorney Juanita Fielden that, if Lalo were closely monitored, he would continue to be effective. Fielden agreed. She says in an affidavit that she called the New Mexico prosecutor and got him to drop the charges. Lalo was released.
A month later, on 5 August, Santillan asked Lalo to meet him at a cartel safe house at 3633 Calle Parsonieros, in an affluent neighbourhood of Juarez. The Mexican lawyer Reyes would be there too, Santillan said, and with the help of some members of the Juarez judicial police - the local detective force - they were going to kill him.
When Lalo arrived, two cops were already there. He went out to buy the quicklime and duct tape, and when he returned Santillan turned up with Reyes. The policemen jumped on the lawyer, beating him and trying to put duct tape over his mouth. Lalo, wearing his hidden wire supplied by Ice, recorded Reyes's desperate pleas for mercy. 'They [the police] asked me to help them get him to the floor,' reads a statement he made later. 'They tried to choke him with an extension cord, but this broke and I gave them a plastic bag and they put it on his head and suffocated him.' Even then, they were not sure Reyes was dead. One of the officers took a shovel 'and hit him many times on the head'.
When Lalo returned to El Paso on the day of Reyes's murder and told his Ice employers what had happened they were understandably worried. They knew that, if they were to continue using Lalo as an informant, they would need high-level authorisation. That afternoon and evening he was debriefed at length by his main handler, Special Agent Raul Bencomo, and his supervisor. Then he was allowed to go back to Juarez - Santillan had given him $2,000 to pay two cartel members to dig Reyes's grave, cover his body with quicklime and bury it.
Meanwhile the El Paso Ice office reported the matter to headquarters in Washington. The information went up the chain of command, eventually reaching America's Deputy Assistant Attorney General, John G. Malcolm. It passed through the office of Johnny Sutton, the US Attorney for Western Texas - a close associate of George W. Bush. When Bush was Texas governor, Sutton spent five years as his director of criminal justice policy. After Bush became President, Sutton became legal policy co-ordinator in the White House transition team, working with another Bush Texas colleague, Alberto Gonzalez, the present US Attorney General.
Earlier this year Sutton was appointed chairman of the Attorney General's advisory committee which, says the official website, 'plays a significant role in determining policies and programmes of the department and in carrying out the national goals set by the President and the Attorney General'. Sutton's position as US Attorney for Western Texas is further evidence of his long friendship with the President - falling into his jurisdiction is Midland, the town where Bush grew up, and Crawford, the site of Bush's beloved ranch.
'Sutton could and should have shut down the case, there and then,' says Bill Weaver, a law professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who has made a detailed study of the affair. 'He could have told Ice and the lawyers "go with what you have, and let's try to bring Santillan to justice". That neither he nor anyone else decided to take that action invites an obvious inference: that because the only people likely to get killed were Mexicans, they thought it didn't much matter.'
In the days after Reyes's death, officials in Texas and Washington held a series of meetings. Finally word came back from headquarters - despite the risk that Lalo might become involved with further murders, Ice could continue to use and pay him as an informant. And although Santillan had already been caught on tape directing a merciless killing and might well kill again, no attempt would be made to arrest him.
While the US news media has either missed this story or intentionally avoided it, one source hasn't.
Narco news has been following and documenting this story for over two years. Bill Conroy has published over forty articles which lay out a horrific story of torture, corruption, murder - and a US Dept. of Justice which not only condones it, but is involved.
ICE itself has been criticized in several quarters for mismanagement. ICE agents are deemed to possess more investigative power than any other US agency. Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security for ICE, Julie L. Myers, is considered by many to be wholly unqualified for the position and her appointment is seen as yet another bit of Bush cronyism. Myers is the daughter former Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard B. Myers, who retired in September 2005.
It's a horrible story, but it's a good read. Just remember - it's non-fiction.