Monday, October 16, 2006

Feds should use snitch testimony to out corruption

Speaking of the snitches (in my review yesterday of Martin Scorcese's The Departed), a commenter points to a story from the Dallas News regarding the informant from the infamous "House of Death" in Juarez, Mexico - El Paso's sister city across the river ("Cartel figure lashes out," Oct. 15). Here's another informant whose crimes were tolerated by his law enforcement handlers. (See also, Narco News recently published an interview with the feds' least favorite snitch, and last year offered this timeline of events.)

The News' Alfredo Corchado, who's ably covered this story since it broke in 2004, wrote that "In sworn testimony and in response to questions submitted through his attorney, Guillérmo Eduardo Ramírez Peyro, the man known as 'Lalo,' provided new details about his work as a drug cartel operative and as a U.S. government informant, and he claimed to have personal knowledge of extensive government corruption." Now the feds want to deport their snitch to Mexico, where both he and a US federal judge believe he would likely be killed.

The world of criminal informants almost by definition resides in a legal and moral gray area - law enforcement officers use criminals to perform what are in essence police functions. So when said criminals engage in criminal acts, they essentially do so under the protection of a badge. In Ramirez's case, that included disposing of corpses after cartel murders, usually victims of Juarez police officers on the take, he says. Reported the News:
Mr. Ramírez, in confidential memos to ICE, had described how he infiltrated Mexico's powerful Juárez drug cartel and on two occasions witnessed cartel-ordered assassinations and supervised disposal of the victims, including a U.S. citizen. The bodies were found in January 2004 buried in the yard of a Juárez home.

In his latest comments, Mr. Ramírez said the killings usually were carried out by night-shift Mexican police officers working for the cartel and using the nickname "La Linea," or The Line.

"Not all the victims were assassinated at the same house," Mr. Ramírez said. "Some were left on the streets. They would kill people all the time, people who were not buried in [the same house], but in other homes too." He said there were "many more" killings but did not elaborate.

Mr. Ramírez insists he played no direct role in any killing, but critics of his role with ICE have said he was not just a spectator, as agency officials have said.

Reports in The News about his role in the cartel killings rocked the El Paso office of ICE, where four special agents were investigated and two supervisors were transferred. ICE is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

"The U.S. government is afraid of Lalo's mouth," said Ms. Goodwin, "afraid that Lalo will tell the whole story, which will say that every step he took, every move he made, was with the full knowledge of his ICE handlers."

Because of my view that combating law enforcement corruption should be the highest border security priority, I was particularly interested to read of the role of US state's attorneys who allegedly ignored reports of officer misconduct:

Questions have been raised specifically about the roles of Johnny Sutton, the U.S. attorney in San Antonio, and Juanita Fielden, assistant U.S. attorney in El Paso.

Sandalio González, former Drug Enforcement Administration agent in charge in El Paso, says Mr. Sutton ignored allegations of misconduct by ICE and Ms. Fielden that Mr. González outlined in a lengthy memo to the U.S. attorney's office and the ICE chief in El Paso. He says Mr. Sutton instead used his office to retaliate against Mr. González, who later retired.

"They were not interested in investigating the allegations in my letter; they were more interested in jamming me for writing the letter," Mr. González said.

Investigators need to keep Lalo in the United States and milk him for information until they ferret out every last bit of corrption he knows about - it would be an injustice to ship him off to Mexico to shut him up. While his handlers deserve prosecution and Lalo himself likely deserves imprisonment, informant or not, he also deserves witness protection in exchange for the assistance he gave law enforcement. For that matter, I'd love to see him get an as-told-to book deal and reveal the whole story of his experience as a snitch from the inside. But first things first - keeping him alive is the current priority. The information he knows about both the cartels and US drug enforcement corruption deserves to be made public, whether in court or even in some future Scorcese movie.

See prior Grits posts on the use and abuse of criminal informants.

UPDATE: Bill Conroy at NarcoNews didn't think much of the Dallas News' coverage, mostly beefing over who scooped who and whether DEA agents were corrupt or merely inept. He preferred the Houston Chronicle's recent coverage. NarcoNews has also posted Ramirez-Peyro's testimony before a US immigration court (pdf).

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