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Dressed in an orange jumpsuit, his limbs shackled, Lalo enters the Newton County courthouse and labors to lower his six-foot-two-inch frame into a chair next to his public defender. It's late July, and he's in court for a hearing regarding the charges of kidnapping and violating a protection order that have kept him an involuntary guest of the Newton County jail since December 29.
Lalo's hair is longer than it was in his mugshot, and his body is thinner — a result, he says, of the crummy prison cuisine. As the lawyers debate his case before the judge, Lalo sits expressionless, occasionally looking down at his attorney's notes.
In April the court reduced his bond from $250,000 to $125,000. Around the same time, some individuals Lalo says he does not know offered to provide the funds necessary to secure his release. Captain Richard Leavens, with the Newton County Sheriff's Office, confirms that an offer was made to bail out Lalo. But the inmate refused the assistance, fearing they might be with the cartel. Lalo says he has heard from inmates associated with the Latino gang MS-13 that his old associates in the Juárez Cartel have placed a $500,000 bounty on his head. Attorney Mark Conrad, a former supervisory agent with ICE's predecessor agency, U.S. Customs, says that figure seems a bit inflated.
"Heck, for $10,000, they could get the job done," he says.
Still, for now it could be that jail is safer for Lalo than the streets. And the cartel is not his only adversary. Lalo believes the charges he's currently facing are trumped up in order for the U.S. government to finally deport the former spy it no longer has a use for.
"I'm absolutely going to be killed by the Juárez Cartel or the Mexican government, which is basically the same thing," says Lalo, speaking by phone to Riverfront Times.
That the cartel would want him dead is not all that surprising to Lalo. But that the U.S. would now be complicit in it by seeking to deport him is something he never foresaw back in 2000 when he crossed into the United States at El Paso and offered to provide ICE with intelligence on drug trafficking and other crimes.
Lalo says he had his reasons for offering to help the U.S. government. For starters, he didn't really like or trust his new colleagues in the drug trade. He also stood to make a good sum of money serving as a stool pigeon for the feds.
Lalo (short for Eduardo, his middle name) says he grew up "kind of spoiled" in upper-middle class surroundings in his home state of Durango. His parents were both civil engineers, and while his siblings chose careers in medicine and engineering, Lalo opted to enter the less lucrative field of law enforcement, working for the Mexican federal police.
ICE began paying him thousands of dollars per case for his information, and the return on investment for his tips proved substantial. In a four-year span Lalo's work for ICE — which included counterfeit credit-card, illegal-cigarette and drug-smuggling investigations — resulted in the arrest of more than 50 people and the seizure of some 660 kilos of cocaine and in excess of 20,000 pounds of marijuana, according to one accounting.
Eventually the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency also began using Lalo as an undercover operative in its larger efforts to stem the flow of narcotics across the border. But the DEA lost faith in Lalo and severed ties with him after he was busted smuggling 100 pounds of marijuana into New Mexico in June 2003.
"Confidential informants are liars 99 percent of the time," cautions former DEA deep-undercover agent Mike Levine. "The worst thing you can do is believe them. You have to check out whatever they say, even if they tell you it's nice outside."
Yet ICE wasn't as willing to let Lalo go. It was only natural that its cartel operative would have to break a few laws in order to not blow his cover. So after a U.S. prosecutor intervened to get the drug charges in New Mexico suspended (and later dismissed), Lalo returned to his clandestine work for ICE.
By now Lalo had wormed his way into the confidence of Humberto Santillan Tabares, one of the major players within the Juárez Cartel. One of Lalo's primary jobs for Santillan was to oversee a house at 3633 Parsioneros Street. On the outside the home was like so many walled-off houses in Juárez. But in reality the modest, cinder-block abode was an execution chamber for Santillan and the crooked Mexican state cops who served as his assassins. Santillan's men buried at least a dozen lime-covered corpses in the back yard of the property. As news reports would later detail, some of the victims were tortured and murdered at the house on Parsioneros Street; others were brought there after being assassinated elsewhere. Santillan and his men referred to the murders in code as carne asadas, Spanish for barbeque.
For Lalo, the killings began in August 2003, when he participated in the slaying of a Mexican attorney by the name of Fernando Reyes who had arranged to meet Santillan to discuss moving a large stash of marijuana. Santillan had other ideas; he planned to whack Reyes and steal his drug load. Inside the House of Death, Santillan's corrupt cops tied up Reyes in duct tape and covered his head in a plastic bag. Lalo got in on the action too, but only, he says, because his fellow cartel members were having such a hard time subduing Reyes.
"They just look at me, saying, 'Hey! Help us!'" recalls Lalo. "So I pulled his left leg like that, so they put him on the floor."
When Reyes wouldn't suffocate fast enough, Lalo says one the dirty cops slammed a shovel against the victim's head, breaking his neck. Lalo made an audio recording of the entire gruesome slaying, in which Reyes can be heard pleading for his life, and provided the tape to his ICE handlers. A memo drafted by ICE agents after that murder confirms Lalo's participation in the homicide. But even with that knowledge, officials with ICE and the U.S. Department of Justice approved keeping Lalo in the field, where more murders would play out. And they did, with Lalo present for at least two more killings inside the House of Death.
"After going through everything that happen [with the Reyes murder], [ICE] said, 'If something like this happens again, don't record it. Now go back [to Juárez] and see the state police and do whatever Santillan told you, and supervise the people making [the grave to bury Reyes], or whatever they have to do, and then come back to the [ICE] office,'" says Lalo today.
"I report all these situations to ICE, but they don't say nothing, really," he continues in his fractured English. "They don't really do nothing. It not happen on U.S. soil, and nothing we can do, so they just listen to it, but not show no interest in that."
But the House of Death wouldn't be the cartel's — and ICE's — secret for long. In January of 2004 Lalo informed his handlers that Santillan and his henchmen were planning to take out an undercover DEA agent and his family whose Juárez address was coughed up during the torture and execution of three drug mules at the home on Parsioneros Street.
The DEA, once made aware of the threat, evacuated all personnel from Juárez. Moreover, in learning about the assassination plot, the DEA also became aware of the full extent of ICE's and Lalo's association with the House of Death murders.
Soon after, the DEA special agent in charge of El Paso, Sandalio Gonzalez, fired off a blistering letter to his ICE counterpart in El Paso (and a copy to U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton of the Western District of Texas) decrying the needless loss of life as a result of the ICE informant's "homicidal" activities, his role in the threat to the DEA agent and the complicity of ICE in the whole sordid affair.
"Your CS [confidential source] knew on January 13, 2004, that Santillan was planning a 'carne asada' for the Parsioneros house the following day, and nothing was done about it until Santillan called your CS on the night of the 14th to check the names of our agents," Gonzalez wrote. "By that time, three more human beings had been tortured and killed."
Lalo was now a political liability for the ICE. Still, the agency needed him for one more task: nabbing Santillan. On January 15, 2004, Lalo lured Santillan to El Paso by arranging a meeting with him to discuss cartel business. ICE agents then arrested the cartel chieftain following a prearranged traffic stop initiated by El Paso police.
The feds got their target in Santillan, who's currently serving a 25-year sentence for drug trafficking. And, Lalo, his cover now blown, found himself a marked man.
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