ICE investigation backfires
By Diana Washington Valdez
El Paso Times
EL PASO, Texas — An investigation intended to showcase what a young U.S. federal agency can do along the border has turned into a nightmare for just about everyone involved.
Several federal agents were disciplined, the case has raised questions about a cover-up, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has changed its guidelines and procedures when it deals with confidential informants.
In addition, a law-enforcement advocacy group has asked for an independent investigation with a special prosecutor.
Six years have passed since a dozen bodies were unearthed at a house in Juárez and an ICE informant, wearing a wire, witnessed the first slaying on Aug. 5, 2003, the year ICE was created through the Homeland Security Act of 2002.
The informant, Guillermo Eduardo "Lalo" Ramirez Peyro, said he handed the killers a plastic bag to suffocate the victim -- a lawyer named Fernando Reyes Aguado -- according to Ramirez's affidavit given to Mexican authorities.
Today, the U.S. Justice Department is trying to deport Ramirez. He appealed his deportation order under the Convention Against Torture, and is in custody in Minnesota awaiting the outcome of his case.
Sandalio "Sandy" Gonzalez, the former DEA special agent in charge in El Paso in 2003, said documents prove that high-level U.S. officials knew Ramirez participated in the first slaying, and should have stopped the investigation then.
"Instead of investigating ICE's handling of the case, U.S. government officials chose to cover up what happened," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez alleged in a lawsuit that top officials in the U.S. Attorney General's Office tried to silence him after he complained that the investigation had endangered two DEA agents in Juárez and their families.
Now retired, Gonzalez won his lawsuit against former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales after a Florida court agreed that the government had retaliated against him and awarded him a $85,000 settlement in 2006.
Another federal official, Raul Bencomo, an ICE agent who worked on the 2003 case and was one of Ramirez's handlers, was fired this year and is trying to get his job back. He said he was fired in part for his role in the case.
"I was told that was part of the reason I was terminated," Bencomo said.
Bencomo said other ICE employees associated with the case received lighter punishment than his.
ICE officials in El Paso said they could not comment on personnel matters.
Andy Ramirez, president of the Law Enforcement Officers Advocates Council, an advocacy organization for U.S. law enforcement, said an independent special prosecutor should be appointed to review the ICE investigation involving Ramirez.
"Lalo Ramirez should not be sent back to Mexico, where he will probably be killed. He is a material witness in the events that led to the 12 murders and to the DEA agents nearly being killed by the drug cartel," said Andy Ramirez, who is not related to the informant.
In a related case, relatives of two El Paso men filed and lost a lawsuit against Lalo Ramirez and the U.S. government after U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo ruled in 2007 that the informant's U.S. handlers could not have prevented the series of murders that took the lives of the El Pasoans in 2004.
Relatives had argued that Abraham Guzman, who was shot to death in El Paso in 2004, died as a result of the informant's work in an ongoing ICE investigation.
ICE officials denied that Lalo Ramirez was conducting an ICE mission when Guzman was killed.
Gonzalez said it was also worth noting that although most of the crimes took place in Mexico, ICE did not notify Mexican officials immediately after the first killing, nor did they share the location of the house.
ICE officials said they stand by their previous statement regarding the case: "As a result of (the Office of Professional Responsibility) investigation, ICE overhauled its guidelines on the use and handling of confidential informants -- tightening controls, oversight, responsibility and accountability in these processes.
"ICE took disciplinary actions against a number of ICE employees in connection with this situation. At this time, ICE's OPR considers the investigation into these matters closed."
Copyright 2009 El Paso Times, a MediaNews Group Newspaper