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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today we begin an in-depth look at a shadowy side of law enforcement: confidential informants. They pose as criminals putting their lives on the line to help investigators crack major cases. But there's a downside: Confidential informants sometimes play by their own rules and forget about the law. Some say that's what happened with the case we're about to describe.

NORRIS: It involves an informant who worked for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE. He helped federal agents make some big arrests but the informant also did some bad things while he was on the U.S. payroll. The question is: Did the government know and simply choose to look the other way?

It's the subject of a special NPR News investigation reported by Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN: The story begins a decade ago at the international bridge linking El Paso, Texas, with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. A Mexican drug runner walks over unannounced and asked to speak with a U.S. agent.

Mr. RAUL BENCOMO (Former Senior Special Agent, Immigration and Customs Enforcement): It was at 2:00 in the morning. I went to the bridge and I spoke to 913 for probably like an hour.

KAHN: Raul Bencomo was assigned to the U.S. Customs Office in El Paso. Nine-thirteen was the code number he gave to Guillermo Eduardo Ramirez Peyro, better known by his nickname Lalo. He was offering to talk about the drug cartel he worked for and Lalo would stay inside the gang as a confidential informant providing leads to Bencomo, his handler.

Mr. BENCOMO: He had a lot of information. And the type of information that he started providing was at a high level.

KAHN: Lalo's information was on the mark. He helped Bencomo nab a corrupt U.S. immigration agent who was taking bribes from drug gangs and also helped crack a major international cigarette smuggling ring.

Mr. BENCOMO: 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.

KAHN: 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.

Mr. GUILLERMO EDUARDO RAMIREZ PEYRO (Confidential Informant): That time I had believed in the American government.

KAHN: That's Lalo telling a story to a lawyer during a videotaped interview. It's precisely what he told me last fall during several phone conversations. In our talks, he insisted on speaking only Spanish. But in either language, Lalo's story is the same.

Mr. PEYRO: I believed in some kind of justice, yeah. I think I was doing something good.

KAHN: On the videotape, Lalo doesnt fit the stereotype of a drug thug. He's clean-cut, polite and clearly educated.

Mr. PEYRO: I was doing something good, something positive.

KAHN: The feds paid him well, nearly a quarter of a million dollars over four years. And Lalo was proving that he was worth it. Bencomo says his office was soon ready to set its sights on a major target, Heriberto Santillan, one of northern Mexico's top drug kingpins.

Mr. BENCOMO: According to what we were told, he was the number three man in the Juarez cartel.

KAHN: But then Lalo made a big mistake. Federal agents caught him smuggling more than a hundred pounds of marijuana in New Mexico. It was stuffed in the wheels of his pickup truck. Still, 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.

Mr. BENCOMO: That was the first incident that I ever came across that he was working both sides.

KAHN: Drug smuggling turned out to be the least of it. As Lalo climbed the ranks of the drug cartel, he was becoming a trusted ally to Santillan, the Juarez drug lord. In the fall of 2003, Santillan waged an eight-month war with rival drug gangs. And during the killings, kidnapping and torture, Lalo was there.

According to documents obtained by NPR, Lalo kept his handlers informed as the bodies piled up in Juarez. In fact, Lalo secretly recorded the first murder and admitted that he held the man's legs while he was being brutally strangled, suffocated and beaten with a shovel.

Agent Bencomo remembers listening to the tape.

Mr. BENCOMO: It just made me sick. 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 this case.

KAHN: But Bencomo stayed on and so did Lalo. Bencomo says his supervisors told him to just make sure his informant didn't take part in any more killings.

Today, Lalo insists he never killed anyone. But court documents obtained by NPR show he admitted being present during several murders. Those documents also show that he drove two victims to a Juarez house where he knew they'd be killed. Lalo says his actions were necessary to maintain his cover.

Mr. PEYRO: When you infiltrate a cartel, yeah, everybody knows you have to go like what? Like a criminal. And you have to act like a criminal.

KAHN: But former DEA Special Agent Phil Jordan says in Lalo's case, every federal rule and regulation was broken.

Mr. PHIL JORDAN (Former Special Agent, Drug Enforcement Agency): Even if the man was John Gotti in his prime, you do not allow an informant to run the investigation; you do not allow an informant to commit felonies, to commit murder. In my mind, he was given a license to kill.

KAHN: Jordan says ICE was well aware of the killings and torture but withheld that information from Mexican authorities.

Jordan was an expert witness in a civil suit filed against ICE by relatives of people killed by the Mexican drug cartel. One of the attorneys involved in that suit, Raul Loya, says the federal agents handling Lalo were a joke.

Mr. RAUL LOYA (Attorney): Are you kidding me? These guys are El Paso's version of the "Keystone Kops." They're poorly trained, they have limited education, and that's fine, but they had no business being involved in a cross-border covert operation involving drugs and murder.

KAHN: Through the years, ICE has refused to talk on the record about what happened with Lalo in Juarez, until now when a top ICE official finally agreed to this interview with NPR.

Mr. KUMAR KIBBLE (Former Director, Criminal Investigations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement): And I want to emphasize our primary obligation is to protect life and limb.

KAHN: Kumar Kibble was the former director of criminal investigations for ICE. He says the agency's guidelines for using confidential informants are sound. But he says in Lalo's case, the blame lies squarely with the Texas agents who were handling him and knew what Lalo was up to.

Mr. KIBBLE: Had management been fully informed, we could have implemented strategies and taken a different tack that ultimately would have safeguarded, you know, more lives. This is not an appropriate case to comment on because the procedures that we implemented weren't followed.

KAHN: Yet those familiar with the case wonder how ICE's top management could have been oblivious to Lalo's exploits. Most of the killings took place at a small house in a middle-class section of Juarez. It's been dubbed the House of Death.

(Soundbite of tapping)

KAHN: Today, no one comes to the metal gate at the house where cartel murderers brought their victims and buried them in the tiny backyard. We went there with veteran Juarez crime reporter Carlos Huerta. He says Lalo was the keeper of the keys.

Mr. CARLOS HUERTA (Crime Reporter): (Through Translator) There were these code words that the bosses would say to Lalo: We're going to have a barbecue. That meant Lalo was to go get the house ready because someone was going to be brought there to be killed.

KAHN: Some of the details are spelled out in documents obtained by NPR. Lalo himself describes how he stopped at a local hardware store on the way to the house to buy duct tape and quicklime - two essential items for binding murder victims and dissolving their remains.

Eventually, U.S. officials told Mexican authorities about the murders and the bodies buried at the House of Death.

Lorenza Magana, a victims' advocate in Juarez, was there the night Mexican authorities began unearthing the remains.

Ms. LORENZA MAGANA (Victims Advocate): (Through Translator) We stayed there all night long and watched as they pulled out the remains. It was so horrible. With every new body, the smell would hit us. The smell was so bad. It was terrible. But we came back night after night to see how many they dug up.

KAHN: In all, there were 12 bodies. Magana said she couldn't believe it when she found out that Lalo, the gatekeeper of the death house, was a U.S. government informant.

Ms. MAGANA: (Through Translator) It hit me like cold water in the face. It just feels terrible. Here in Mexico, there is no justice, only impunity, so where are we going to find any help if we can't trust the U.S.?

KAHN: But it wasn't just the people of Juarez who were outraged, so was the head of the El Paso DEA office.

Mr. SANDALIO GONZALEZ (Former Special Agent in Charge, Drug Enforcement Administration): I was shocked. I couldn't believe it. I...

KAHN: That's Sandalio Gonzalez. He got involved after two DEA operatives in Mexico were targeted by the Juarez drug gang Lalo worked for. Gonzalez says DEA wanted to question the informant, but when the agency tried, ICE circled its wagons around Lalo.

Mr. GONZALEZ: 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? What's wrong with this picture?

KAHN: Gonzalez lodged a complaint against ICE. He also tried to get Congress to investigate but that went nowhere. Six years later, ICE's Kumar Kibble insists his agency did nothing wrong.

Mr. KIBBLE: We have thousands of informants that are active that we're managing on a daily basis that are, you know, protecting our communities, rescuing human trafficking victims, and this is an isolated incidence, where in fact the person was held accountable when they didn't follow the procedures.

KAHN: ICE blames former agent Raul Bencomo, Lalo's handler. The agency says it finally terminated Bencomo because he failed to inform his supervisors that Lalo was still involved with murder and torture in Juarez.

Bencomo was the only one fired. Two ICE employees were forced to take early retirement, but others received light reprimands and they're still on the job.

Today, Bencomo views himself as a scapegoat. This the first time he's ever spoken out in an interview. Bencomo insists that his bosses at ICE and their bosses in Washington knew all along what Lalo was doing.

Mr.�BENCOMO: He would report a murder or either we heard it on a phone. Nobody told us to stop doing the case. We were told to continue. So for them to say that they didn't know about it, that's a total lie.

KAHN: 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. And once the case was done, ICE was done with Lalo. The agency began deportation proceedings with the intention of sending Lalo back to Mexico.

Mr.�PEYRO: Right now, I'm just fighting for my life.

KAHN: Lalo has been in solitary confinement for more than five years, and 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. For now, Lalo says jail is better than the fate he faces if forced to return to Mexico.

Mr.�PEYRO: I don't know if they are going to keep me here for the rest of my life. I don't know what's going to happen to me. Right now, I'm just trying to say: Hey, don't put me in the hands of the people who are going to kill me. That's all I'm doing right now.

KAHN: ICE may have learned some lessons dealing with Lalo. NPR obtained an internal agency memo written in May 2004 instructing agents not to use informants who commit crimes. The memo also indicated a new policy handbook would be issued soon, but six years later, it still isn't finished. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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BLOCK: And tomorrow, we'll hear from the informant's attorney. She says the government is treating her client and other informants like disposable property. You can also track the evolution of the case at npr.org, where we've got an interactive timeline, including video and newly obtained documents.

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NORRIS: You're listening to NPR News.

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