ICE agency marred by cover-ups and blunders
By Alicia A. Caldwell
EL PASO, Texas — One immigration agent was accused of running an Internet pornography business and enjoying an improper relationship with an informant. Another let an informant smuggle in a group of illegal immigrants. And in a third case, an agent was investigated for soliciting sex from a witness in a marriage fraud case.
These troubling misdeeds are a sampling of misconduct by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel as the agency seeks to carve out a bigger role in the deadly border war against Mexican drug gangs.
According to documents obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, ICE agents have blundered badly in their dealings with informants and other sources, covering up crimes and even interfering in a police investigation into whether one informant killed another.
At least eight agents have been investigated for improper dealings with informants since ICE was created in 2003, and more than three dozen others have been investigated for other wrongdoing, the records show.
The heavily redacted documents detail how one agent failed "to report murders ... to her supervisor" and how another failed "to properly document information received from a confidential source in violation of ICE policy and procedure."
In the case involving one informant charged with murdering another, Jose Daniel Gonzalez Galeana, a smuggling manager for the Juarez cartel, was gunned down this spring in his upscale El Paso neighborhood. El Paso police say ICE delayed its investigation, steering detectives away from the man now charged with arranging the contract hit.
Kelly Nantel, an ICE spokeswoman in Washington, said in an e-mailed statement that the agency "works with confidential informants in accordance with established best practices and guidelines of federal law enforcement agencies."
The statement noted that ICE fired an agent last year for "negligence in performing his duties, misdirecting funds and submitting false documents" in relation to his work with an informant. Also, an agent in Miami was sentenced to two years in federal prison and resigned from ICE earlier this year as part of a plea deal for accepting gifts from an informant.
ICE officials in El Paso have repeatedly declined to comment on the Gonzalez case, but John Morton, Homeland Security's assistant secretary for ICE in Washington, said, "I'm aware of that situation and it is under review." He declined to answer other questions.
Problems with ICE informants are not a new phenomenon. According to a Feb. 24, 2004, letter from the head of the DEA office in El Paso to the head of the ICE office there, a man described as "a homicidal maniac" was allowed to continue working as an ICE snitch even after he "supervised the murder" of an associate of the Juarez cartel.
In a recent AP interview, the informant, Guillermo "Lalo" Ramirez Peyro, now confined to an ICE detention facility, denied participating in any homicides.
Even when not working with informants, ICE agents have gotten in trouble. The documents show that agents in field offices all over the country, and in several foreign posts, have been investigated for offenses including drunken driving in government cars, lying to other investigators in ongoing cases, and misusing their position for personal gain.
In one case, an agent was probed for having an inappropriate relationship with the target of an ICE investigation. Another agent was investigated for using his government position to ask questions from Texas about his mother-in-law's eviction in New Mexico.
El Paso, which sits on the Rio Grande across from the virtually lawless Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, is populated with numerous law enforcement agencies that try to work together on stopping the northbound flow of drugs, immigrants and violence and the southbound flow of weapons and cash.
ICE was spun off from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to become the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security when DHS was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. ICE also handles the processing and detention of illegal immigrants and miscellaneous tasks like oversight of security at federal buildings.
The agency has long been interested in joining the border drug war, and has been stepping up its efforts as drug-related violence has killed more than 13,500 people in Mexico and threatens to spill into the United States.
Some local and federal authorities in El Paso are hesitant to work closely with ICE because of the way it operates, said law enforcement officers who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the issue.
In the 2004 DEA letter, inaction by ICE officials was blamed for "allowing at least 13 other murders to take place in Ciudad Juarez" and for endangering the lives of DEA agents and their families.
The murder of informant Gonzalez is another example of concern.
"It is interesting that an agency like ICE would be handling a cartel hit man, especially when you consider the other types of agencies in El Paso," said Stephen Meiners, a senior analyst for Stratfor, an Austin-based global intelligence company. "There's probably more than 50 agencies there who might be the more natural handler for that type of informant."
Law enforcement officers say agents follow general rules on informants: Federal investigators are supposed to keep close tabs on informants, approve any criminal activity that might be necessary to complete an investigation, and cut loose an informant who gets caught violating his agreement with the agency.
But it's not always easy, considering the kind of people involved in organized crime.
"You are automatically dealing with bad guys," said Phillip Lyons, a criminologist at Sam Houston State University. "It's a dirty business from the outset."
In the Gonzalez case, El Paso police were outraged by what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to steer them away from the prime suspect. They laid out their complaint in an interview with the AP.
As Gonzalez bled to death on the cul-de-sac in front of his house, his wife, Adriana Solis, made two phone calls, as her husband had instructed her to do if anything happened to him. First, she called ICE, then 911, said Lt. Alfred Lowe, the lead investigator.
Gonzalez, a Mexican national, had been living in the U.S. on an ICE-issued visa given to him as a perk for his informant work.
The ICE official his wife called, who remains unidentified, called El Paso police a bit later to tell them their murder victim worked for the Juarez cartel, but also was an ICE informant. They promised to help.
Solis told police that her husband believed a Juarez cartel assassin nicknamed "El Dorado" was hunting him down.
According to Lowe, the ICE official didn't contact police again for three days. When he did, he gave police a photo array of Gonzalez's known associates. A Texas Ranger noticed that the array contained one less photo than the last time he'd seen it. The ICE agent said he couldn't explain the discrepancy, Lowe said.
A few days later, the agent said the missing person was a man he called "Mayer," an ICE informant who might have information about the Gonzalez killing.
But ICE had given the police a false name and a false lead.
Mayer was really Ruben Rodriguez "El Dorado" Dorado, a twist police discovered when the man was arrested along with a U.S. Army solider and two other teenagers trying to steal a trailer full of televisions. Lowe said police recognized the photo of Rodriguez in the El Paso Times as that of the man identified to them as Mayer.
Nearly two months later, they charged informant Rodriguez with arranging the hit on informant Gonzalez. The soldier, the alleged triggerman, the teens and another man also are charged in the case.
Neville Cramer, a retired INS special agent, said ICE was obligated to turn over Rodriguez to police as soon as they thought he might be a murder suspect.
"If ICE knew ... this individual was involved in any manner whatsoever, they had better not have kept the information from the police, no matter what the circumstances were," Cramer said.
Added Lowe: "Some agencies don't take murder as seriously as drugs."