Confidential informants — people who pose as criminals so they can provide information to the police or some government agency — have helped crack some major U.S. cases.
They are part of the shadowy side of law enforcement and operate in a secret and largely unregulated world.
And sometimes, things go terribly wrong.
'I Was Doing Something Good'
A decade ago, at 2 a.m., a Mexican drug runner walked over the international bridge that links El Paso, Texas, with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and asked to speak with a U.S. agent.
Raul Bencomo, then an agent with U.S. Customs, assigned code No. 913 to the runner, Guillermo Eduardo Ramirez Peyro, who went by the nickname Lalo.
Bencomo says Lalo was different from other informants. He was well dressed and always respectful — and anxious to talk about the Mexican drug lords he worked for.
"He had a lot of information, and the type of information that he started providing was at a high level," Bencomo says.
Lalo's information was on the mark. He tipped Bencomo to a corrupt U.S. immigration agent who was taking bribes from drug gangs. He also helped crack a major international cigarette smuggling ring.
"He kept us so busy — we were so behind on reports that we told him to go take a vacation just to let us catch up on reports," Bencomo says.
Lalo wasn't looking to make a deal. And he didn't need the money — he was already making plenty in Juarez's drug trade. But he had his reasons for informing on the drug gang.
"I was doing something good, something positive," Lalo said to an attorney during an interview that was videotaped four years ago.
During several phone conversations with NPR last fall, Lalo insisted on speaking only Spanish. But in either language, his story is the same.
"I believe in some kind of justice, and I think I was doing something good," he said.
On the tape, Lalo looks more like a victim than a drug thug. He's clean-cut and clearly educated.
"I really was doing something good," he said.
The ICE Target: Heriberto Santillan
The feds paid Lalo well: nearly $250,000 over four years. His handlers did well, too.
The El Paso Customs office (Customs later became Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE) had never gotten much recognition. Now, with Lalo on board, agents set their sights on a Juarez kingpin known as the Engineer: Heriberto Santillan Tabares.
Bencomo says the agents were told that Santillan was the No. 3 man in the Juarez cartel.
But as that investigation started, ICE's prized snitch came under suspicion. At a Border Patrol checkpoint, Lalo got caught smuggling more than 100 pounds of marijuana stuffed into the wheels of his pickup. The Drug Enforcement Administration blacklisted him. ICE kept Lalo on its payroll, and even worked with a federal prosecutor to get his drug charges dropped. In hindsight, Bencomo says, the pot in the pickup should have been a warning sign.
"That was the first incident that I ever came across that he was working both sides," Bencomo says.
Drug smuggling turned out to be the least of Lalo's exploits. He was climbing the ranks of the drug cartel and was becoming a trusted ally to Juarez's third in command.
Killings Caught On Tape
In the fall of 2003, Santillan and a band of crooked Mexican police officers went on an eight-month crime spree — killing, kidnapping and torturing drug rivals in Juarez. And Lalo was with them.
According to documents obtained by NPR, Lalo kept his ICE handlers informed of the murders piling up in Juarez. In fact, Lalo secretly recorded the first murder — and admitted that he held the victim's legs while the man was being brutally strangled, suffocated and beaten with a shovel. Former agent Bencomo remembers listening to the tape.
"It just made me sick," he says. "I had to go to the restroom and throw up. I took the recording and I told my supervisor that I didn't wish to be part of the case."
But Bencomo stayed on, and so did Lalo. Bencomo says his supervisors told him just to make sure Lalo didn't participate in any more killings.
Today, Lalo insists he never killed anyone, though court documents show he admitted being present during several murders; he even acknowledged driving two victims to a Juarez house where he knew they'd be killed. Lalo said his actions were necessary to maintain his cover.
"When you infiltrate a cartel, everyone knows you have to go like what — like a criminal," he said. "And you have to act like a criminal."
Every Federal Rule Was Broken
But former DEA Special Agent Phil Jordan says in Lalo's case, every federal rule and regulation was broken.
"Even if the man was John Gotti in his prime, you do not allow an informant to run the investigation; you do not let the informant commit felonies, to commit murder," he says. "In my mind, he was given a license to kill."
Jordan says on top of all that, ICE knew who was doing the killing and where the bodies were buried, but didn't share any of that information with Mexican authorities.
Jordan was an expert witness in a civil suit filed against ICE by relatives of people killed by the Mexican drug cartel. Among the victims were two U.S. residents. Attorney Raul Loya, who represented them, said the federal agents handling Lalo were a joke.
"Are you kidding me? These guys are El Paso's version of the Keystone Kops," Loya says. "They are poorly trained, they have limited education, which is fine, but they had no business being involved in a cross-border covert operation involving drugs and murder."
The killings in Juarez took place more than six years ago. Until now, ICE has always refused to talk on the record about what happened there and why Lalo was kept on the U.S. government's payroll while he was involved in torture and murder.
In an interview with NPR, Kumar Kibble, a top ICE official and a former director of criminal investigations for the agency, says, "I want to emphasize that our primary obligation is to protect life and limb." He says that the agency's guidelines for using confidential informants are sound. But in Lalo's case, he says, rogue agents didn't properly follow them.
"Had management been fully informed, we could have implemented strategies and taken a different tack that would have ultimately safeguarded more lives," he says. "This is not an appropriate case to comment on, because the procedures that we implemented weren't followed."
The House Of Death
But those familiar with the case wonder how ICE could not have known about Lalo's exploits in Mexico — the majority of which took place at a house in a middle-class neighborhood in Juarez. It has been dubbed the House of Death.
Today, no one goes to the metal gate at the house where cartel murderers brought their victims and ultimately buried them in the tiny backyard. NPR went there with veteran Juarez crime reporter Carlos Huerta. He says Lalo was the keeper of the keys.
"There were these code words that the bosses would say to Lalo," Huerta says. "He would say, 'We're going to have a barbecue.' That meant Lalo was to go and get the house ready, because someone was going to be brought there and be killed."
According to a document obtained by NPR, Lalo admitted to Mexican authorities in Dallas that on his way to the house, he stopped at a local hardware store and bought duct tape and quicklime — essential items for binding murder victims and dissolving their remains.
Eventually, U.S. officials told Mexican authorities about the bodies buried at the House of Death.
Lorenza Magana, who works with victims of violence in Juarez, sat vigil with relatives of missing family members outside the house the night that Mexican authorities began unearthing the remains.
"We stayed there all night and watched as they pulled out bodies," Magana says. "It was so horrible. With every new body, the smell would hit us — it was horrible. We came back night after night to see how many they dug up."
In all, there were 12 victims. Magana says she couldn't believe it when she found out that Lalo, the gatekeeper of the death house, was a U.S. government informant.
"It hit me like cold water in the face; it just feels terrible. Here in Mexico, there is no justice, only impunity," Magana says. "So where are we going to find any help if we can't trust the U.S.?"
But it wasn't just the people of Juarez who were outraged. When the El Paso DEA office got wind of what was happening, the agent in charge was stunned.
"I was shocked. I couldn't believe it," says the DEA's Sandalio Gonzalez. He got involved after two DEA operatives in Mexico were targeted by the Juarez drug gang that Lalo worked for. Gonzalez says when he tried to question the informant, ICE circled its wagons around Lalo.
"We have threats against the lives of DEA agents, we have dead bodies, and you don't want to let us talk to this guy?" he says. "What is wrong with this picture?"
'This Is An Isolated Incident'
Gonzalez lodged a complaint against ICE. He also tried to get Congress to investigate, but that went nowhere.
ICE's Kumar Kibble insists that his agency has already thoroughly investigated the matter.
"We have thousands of informants that are active that we are managing on a daily basis," he says. "This is an isolated incident, where in fact the person was held accountable when they didn't follow our procedures."
ICE says the fault lies with former agent Bencomo, Lalo's handler. Specifically, ICE officials say Bencomo was terminated because he didn't tell supervisors that Lalo was still involved with murder and torture in Juarez.
Bencomo was the only one fired as a result of the Lalo fiasco. Two ICE employees were forced to take early retirement, but others received light reprimands and are still on the job.
This is the first time that Bencomo has talked publicly. He views himself as a scapegoat and says his bosses at ICE and their bosses in Washington knew all along what Lalo was doing.
"He would report a murder, and either we heard it on a phone, nobody told us to stop doing the case," Bencomo says. "We were told to continue, so for them to say that they didn't know about it, that is a total lie."
'I'm Just Fighting For My Life'
Whether or not the top brass knew about all of Lalo's exploits, there is no denying they used him to nab a Juarez drug lord and lock him away. Once the case was done, ICE was also done with Lalo. The agency began deportation proceedings with the intention of sending him back to Mexico.
Lalo has been in solitary confinement for more than five years. He's in jail not for any of the crimes he allegedly committed in Mexico, but because ICE says he no longer has a legal right to be in the U.S.
"Right now, I'm just fighting for my life," Lalo said.
For now, he said, jail is better than the fate he faces in Mexico.
"I don't know if they are going to keep me here for the rest of my life," he said. "Right now, I'm just trying to say, 'Don't put me in the hands of the people who are going to try and kill me.' That's all I'm doing right now."
ICE says it learned some lessons dealing with Lalo. NPR obtained an internal agency memo written in May 2004 that clearly prohibits using informants who commit crimes. The memo stated that those rules would be part of a new policy handbook. But during our interview, ICE said that handbook still isn't finished.
This story was produced for broadcast by Marisa Penaloza.