In Too Deep

01.06.15 10:55 AM ET

An Informant, a Missing American, and Juarez’s House of Death: Inside the 12-Year Cold Case of David Castro

David Castro disappeared 12 years ago after running afoul of a Mexican cartel—but the U.S. doesn't count him as dead and his case is riddled with bloody mysteries.

David Castro is a statistic. He has been disappeared, like some 30,000 other victims of the drug war in Mexico whose fates are unknown—some because they were involved in the narco business, some for far more innocent reasons—as the targets of extortion, or political oppression, or casualties of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In Castro’s case, it’s pretty clear he got in too deep. He was a truck driver and U.S. citizen living in El Paso, Texas, who found himself sideways on a valuable drug load—just one of the thousands of such cargos moved each year from Juarez, Mexico, into the United States. As a result, Castro owed money to the wrong people. It finally caught up with him.

According to those familiar with the case, including federal agents, family, and a U.S. government informant, Castro was abducted in Juarez in late September 2002. He was then apparently murdered, after the money he owed a player working for a cell of a major Juarez drug organization was not delivered in time. His body has not been found.

Between October 2002 and June 2014, at least 827 U.S. citizens were the victims of homicides in Mexico, including drug-related murders and executions, according to a report prepared by the U.S. Department of State.

Castro’s case, however, is not counted among those murders, because the figures reflect only deaths actually reported to the State Department. Absent a body, no one can say with absolute certainty whether Castro is dead, even if all signs point in that direction.

But even though he has been disappeared, Castro is not forgotten. His estranged wife and his girlfriend, pregnant with Castro’s child when he was kidnapped, are now raising hard questions about the U.S. government’s role in Castro’s cold case and seeking closure to a more than 12-year-old mystery that has wreaked havoc on their lives.

“My son cries and wants to know his dad,” said Yvonne Lozoya, who was living with Castro at the time of his abduction and is raising their now 12-year-old son. “There’s no closure or grave to visit.”

One former federal agent who spoke with The Daily Beast on background said Castro’s case does deserve more attention, but added a harsh assessment: “I doubt anyone will care,” given his alleged involvement in the drug business.

Grace Castro, David’s wife of a dozen years before they separated in 2000, said after she and her husband parted ways, she believes he did get sucked into the drug business and eventually found himself in over his head.

“Once he knew he was in that far,” she said, sobbing, “he stopped talking to us and seeing our [three] kids. … We still don’t have answers on what really happened. What am I supposed to tell our kids? They deserve to know.”

One thing is clear about Castro’s case, though. At the center of his disappearance in Mexico is a U.S. government informant named Guillermo Ramirez Peyro—a former Mexican highway cop who, in 2002 at the time of Castro’s kidnapping in Juarez, was working for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement while also serving as a key lieutenant in a ruthless cell connected to the Juarez cartel (also known at the time as the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization).

In a statement Ramirez Peyro, also known by the nickname Lalo, provided to the Mexican government in 2004 (and during subsequent interviews conducted with him for this report), he reveals his insight into Castro’s fate on the Mexican side of the border—a fate closely linked to Lalo’s role as an ICE informant. Yvonne Lozoya, Castro’s former girlfriend, has filled in the pieces on the U.S. side of the border as she experienced them. Castro’s story, as they each tell it, is a cautionary tale of the harsh realities of the drug war that have plagued the border for more than a decade.

Lozoya says she dropped off Castro, then 36, at a used-car lot in El Paso, Texas, the day he made his fateful trip across the border to Juarez. Castro hooked up at the car lot with Lalo. Together, they crossed over the International Bridges on foot into Juarez to conduct some business. Lozoya says the story she got from her boyfriend that day was that he was going to pick up a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in Juarez and drive it back across the bridge to El Paso that same day.

Lalo, though, concedes there was more to the trip. He also was working to recruit Castro as a driver for a drug load. Part of Lalo’s job for the Juarez cartel cell was to coordinate marijuana shipments into the United States, and for that he needed drivers, Lalo said in an interview.

A former federal agent familiar with Lalo’s informant work explained that the drivers he recruited served as “buffers” that would allow law enforcers to make arrests without compromising the informant.

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“Once a load is turned over to a driver, we could take the driver down [make an arrest] on the U.S. side of the border,” the agent explained.

It was very early in the recruiting process, though, and what happened next assured Castro would never wind up as a U.S. arrest statistic, though such an outcome at that time may well have saved his life.

Lalo, in his statement to the Mexican government, said that after he and Castro crossed over the bridge from El Paso into Juarez, they went to “a big park where a lot of people are” and that’s when they ran into an individual known as Chito—who also worked for the Juarez cartel, though with a different cell than the one Lalo had penetrated for ICE. Lalo insisted during a recent interview that they encountered Chito “and his people by accident.”

“When we crossed, we met with Chito...” Lalo said in the statement he provided to the Mexican Attorney General’s Office some two years after Castro’s disappearance. “Chito asked him [Castro] if he remembered that he owed him money from a drug load. … Chito was with six other guys, and he told me, ‘Go to hell! This is none of your business.’”

Lalo, who while an ICE informant used the cover name Jesus Contreras, said Castro left with Chito and his men. Lalo said he reported the kidnapping to his ICE handlers, which was confirmed by a former federal agent familiar with the case.

When Castro did not return home that evening or the next day, Lozoya said she called the El Paso Police Department to report him missing. The El Paso police brought in the FBI, a decision that likely sealed Castro’s fate at the hands of his abductors, Lalo said in an interview.

Lozoya added that she had met Chito previously, on the U.S. side of the border, at a bar in El Paso that she and Castro frequented. “I thought we were just there having drinks,” Lozoya said. “But they [Castro and Chito] must have been talking business.”

Lalo said after the FBI was brought into the case, he spoke with their agents to brief them on what he knew about Castro’s abduction. But he also said during an interview for this story that he was concerned their involvement in the case would not turn out well for Castro.

Lozoya said Castro did call her a couple of times while he was being held hostage in Juarez, indicating that his captors were demanding an $80,000 ransom. She said the FBI was listening in on the calls.

“I remember he said, ‘Bring over the money,’” Lozoya said. “But there was no money.”

She claims the FBI tried to enlist her as a cooperating source in their investigation. The plan, Lozoya alleges, was to use her as bait to set a trap for Chito by “luring” him into the United States, where he could be arrested. She also said Chito had contacted her as well in the weeks following Castro’s abduction and threatened her life. Those threats prompted Lozoya to move her family to California for a time until things cooled down, she said in an interview.

“I told them [the FBI] no,” Lozoya said. “I was pregnant and scared and I couldn’t do that [become an informant].”

Some three weeks after Castro’s abduction, Lalo’s concern about the FBI’s involvement in the case appears to have been well founded.

“After the incident [Castro’s kidnapping], I went to the El 16 Bar [in Juarez] to meet with Chito, who explained to me that [since] he could not cross over into the United States, and [because] David Castro had not wanted to pay the debt… that was why he had kidnapped him,” Lalo said in his statement to the Mexican government. “Several days later, I found out that the FBI had went to visit the wife and children of Chito in El Paso, and they alerted Chito, and that is why he decided to kill David.”

The FBI did not respond to a request for comment on Castro’s case.

Grace Castro said she was pretty much in the dark about her husband’s kidnapping until “his divorce attorney filed a motion in court withdrawing from the case because … he [David] had been reported kidnapped in Mexico.”

“I thought it was BS,” she added. “I called the FBI, and they told me they did have a report of him missing, but they couldn’t investigate because it happened in Mexico. And two years later [in 2004], they finally told me they think David was killed in Mexico.”

But there is a big twist in this story that has left both Grace Castro and Lozoya frustrated and grasping for more answers. Castro’s body, according to the informant Lalo, was buried in the backyard of a house in Juarez that would eventually become a tomb for at least a dozen bodies—victims who crossed the Juarez cartel in one way or another.

Lalo, while working as an ICE informant, oversaw the burial of those bodies and the use of the house as a murder chamber, according to his statement to the Mexican government. In fact, Lalo said he participated in one of those murders—that of a Mexican lawyer tortured and killed at the house in August 2003, about a year after Castro disappeared—and Lalo said in an interview he was present for at least two additional murders at the house. The slayings, Lalo said, were carried out by Mexican police on the payroll of the Juarez cartel cell that Lalo helped to oversee while working as an ICE informant.

“I tell ICE that he [Castro] was buried at this house [at 3633 Parsioneros in Juarez], but they did not know where the house was, or nothing else, and they didn’t ask questions about it,” Lalo said in an interview for this article. “Well, it worked like this: Sometimes they would bring a body to the house already dead, and yes, sometimes they bring the people alive and they killed them there.”

The bloody deeds at this House of Death came to an abrupt end in early 2004, after the Juarez cartel cell that employed Lalo threatened the life of a DEA agent and his family in Juarez. That event forced ICE to pull the plug on their operation targeting the cell and, with Lalo’s help, the leader of the cartel cell (and Lalo’s boss at the time), Heriberto Santillan Tabares, was lured to El Paso and arrested. He later accepted a plea deal that put him behind bars for 25 years. A number of the Mexican cops who allegedly carried out the murders, though, remain at large.

But when the corpses were finally dug up at the House of Death in Juarez in early 2004, after Santillan’s arrest, Castro’s body was not among the dead, according to reports in the Mexican media and interviews with law enforcement. It’s not clear why his body remains missing.

Maybe Lalo got it wrong, and Castro was buried elsewhere. This house on Parsioneros, after all, was only one of many such narco-tombs in Juarez, known as narcofosas.

Or maybe Castro’s body was there, but simply not identified by Mexican authorities because of the state of decomposition—or possibly even to avoid the embarrassment for both U.S. and Mexican authorities in having to explain the presence of a U.S. citizen among the carnage enabled by an ICE informant. Lozoya suspects either of those scenarios is realistic.

But we simply can’t see the full truth through the fog of the drug war as of now, and so David Castro remains disappeared. That is a reality that still eats at Grace Castro and Yvonne Lozoya.

From Lozoya’s point of view, had David Castro not gotten entangled with the informant Lalo, he would not have been abducted in Juarez that day in late September 2002, and then vanished from the face of the earth.

“The government just wanted to catch the big fish [in the Juarez cartel] and they ignored everything in between,” Lozoya said. “David’s killer is still out there.”

Grace Castro adds: “No one deserves to die like that, and we’re left behind to put the pieces together.”

The informant Lalo is in jail and awaiting trial in Missouri on what he claims are bogus kidnapping charges unrelated to his informant work. He has a different take on the House of Death murder victims in Juarez, one that is a bit more chilling: “ICE monitored my phone calls and knew hours ahead that murders were going to happen [resulting in bodies being buried at the house on Parsioneros]. They don’t really do nothing. It wasn’t happening on U.S. soil, and so there was nothing we can do, so they just listen to it but didn’t show no interest in that.”