Celerino "Cele" Castillo III, a former DEA agent who played a key role in exposing the U.S. government's role in narco-trafficking as part of the Iran/Contra scandal, is now a discredited man.
At least that is what the office of U.S. Attorney Johnny "House of Death" Sutton in San Antonio, Texas, who is a "dear friend" of President George W. Bush, would like us to believe. The black mark now affixed to Castillo's reputation courtesy of Sutton's office, however, is a thin conceit on the eve of a presidential election that is expected to usher in a sea change in American politics that might well lead to a re-examination of Castillo's revelations - which also were supported and advanced by legendary investigative journalist Gary Webb and a host of congressional inquiries in subsequent years.
"United States Attorney Johnny Suttonannounced that in San Antonio yesterday [Oct. 22], 58-year-old former Drug Enforcement Administration agent Celerino "Cele" Castillo, III, of McAllen, Texas, was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for his role in dealing firearms without a license," states a press release issued recently by Sutton's office.
In other words, Castillo, a Vietnam veteran (an expert marksman who was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery) will spend the next three years of his life in prison, even though he has no prior criminal record, for the act of selling some firearms (mainly hunting rifles and shotguns at gun shows in South Texas) absent the proper paperwork. The federal judge in San Antonio ordered that Castillo be committed to a medical facility due to his multiple medical problems, including diabetes and heart problems.
"I thought the judge was doing me a favor by sentencing me to a medical facility," Castillo says. "But I recently talked to someone who just got out of one of these medical facilities and he said there isn't a day that goes by where someone inside doesn't die because of a dose of the wrong medication or maybe an overdose of chemo. So maybe it is a death sentence. I can't tell you."
For those who have an aversion to guns and the NRA, it's important to remember that the Second Amendment does protect an individual's right to possess firearms - as much as the First Amendment protects an individual's right to protest the Second Amendment. The government's role, as the law is now constructed, is to regulate that right to "keep and bear arms" - but the regulations it has created are byzantine in nature and subject to many degrees of nuance in interpretation.
For example, the Gun Control Act distinguishes between individuals who sell firearms as a hobby and those who engage in the practice as a business - the latter requiring a license issued by the government.
The term "engaged in the business" means … a person who devotes time, attention, and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms, but such term shall not include a person who makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms. [Emphasis added.]
The definition above is further rarified by a host of complex case law developed at the expense of accused violators over the years. So anyone who is charged with a firearms violation is well advised to find good legal counsel, since the law can easily be twisted to the wrong ends by over-zealous federal agents and prosecutors.
Castillo is honest about his activity in this case, but whether the government actually had the evidence that he crossed the line into committing a crime is a bigger question. And even if Castillo did broach that line, the question of the punishment fitting the crime is now a matter of an appeal filed in the case - though Castillo says he is still trying to find the money and an attorney to handle that appeal.
Here is what Castillo says about the case against him on his Web Site:
Approximately three years ago, I started to attend the Saxet Gun Show by selling my book, "Powderburns." I found the experience overwhelming because it turned out to be great therapy for my PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). To ease my "cutting edge" a bit, I was back to wearing my Vietnam attire for the gun shows.
… As time went on I started to collect Vietnam vintage surplus to sell. But before long, I began to do what most of the vendors were doing at the gun show, selling and buying both used and new guns without a license. Over half of the gun show vendors are still doing what I got charged with. However, I strongly believe that because of my involvement as an "expert witness" and an activist against certain actions of our government, I obviously had become a target.
After all, I had been forewarned by a defense attorney, that an AUSA Federal prosecutor had advised him to instruct me that in some way, shape or form, they were going to target me until they got me. And that they did.
Castillo, while a DEA agent in Central America in the 1980s, during the Reagan/Bush administration, uncovered evidence that the CIA and the White House National Security Council, through San Antonio, Texas, native and national counter-terrorism coordinator Lt. Col. Oliver North and other CIA assets, were carrying out illegal operations at two hangers at Ilopango Airport in El Salvador. Those airport hangars, Castillo contends, served as weapons and narcotics transshipment centers for funding and arming the U.S.-backed Contra counter-insurgency against the government of Nicaragua.
From that moment forward, Castillo became a target of those pulling the strings in that dirty war.
"Cele became a household word inside DEA," says Sandalio Gonzalez, a retired DEA commander who worked in Latin America at the same time Castillo was stationed in the region. "They ruined his reputation over the stuff that happened in El Salvador [Iran/Contra] and he became a target. He took on the Establishment, and it didn't come out so good for him."
Castillo's investigation into the Ilopango operation was eventually torpedoed via CIA interference and he was subjected to a steady stream of retaliatory DEA internal investigations.
Castillo subsequently, after a 12-year career, retired from the DEA, but to this day he has remained an outspoken critic of the hypocrisy of the war on drugs, penning a book about his experiences in DEA, called Powderburns, and appearing on numerous radio and TV shows -most recently in a Showtime series called American Drug War.
And Castillo tells Narco News that he also has caused the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which led the investigation against him in the firearms case, some heartburn in recent months. Castillo says earlier this year he went to City Hall and later to the newspaper in Pharr, Texas, to expose ATF agents who, he claims, were clandestinely filming shows at the Pharr Convention Center and racially profiling Hispanics attending the shows - sometimes showing up at their homes after the shows demanding to see the weapons they purchased legally.
Castillo also claims, as part of his part-time work as a consultant on criminal cases, he had uncovered evidence that two ATF agents "were on the payroll of a Mexican cartel."
"One informant, who actually paid one of these ATF agents in Monterrey, Mexico, told me about their involvement," Castillo asserts. "That informant later got whacked. They [the ATF brass] know who these corrupt agents are, but they don't want to deal with the embarrassment of cleaning the whole mess up."
Castillo was arrested in early March of this year in San Antonio on the basis of an ATF complaint strewn with allegations unconstrained by evidence and the word of a snitch trying to save his own neck.
The snitch, Jay Lemire, was confronted by ATF agents in February of this year concerning a series of alleged "straw" firearm purchases he made from licensed firearms dealers, according to court pleadings. Under U.S. law, an individual purchasing a firearm from a licensed dealer must fill out a form swearing to the fact that he or she is the true purchaser of the weapon. The purpose of the rule is to prevent "straw" transactions where the purchaser later provides the weapon to a "prohibited person" - such as a convicted felon.
According to the ATF complaint against Lemire, he admitted to making numerous straw purchases and claimed that they were made on behalf of Castillo. Lemire then became a snitch for the ATF in an attempt to ensnare Castillo. The ATF plan of attack included having Lemire make numerous phone calls to Castillo about weapons purchases, which Lemire recorded, and also setting up surveillance on Castillo.
The ATF complaint later filed in court against Castillo, which became the basis for the criminal indictment, attempts to paint Castillo as a major arms trafficker who was acquiring guns from Lemire in order to resell them in Mexico. But it offers no evidence that Castillo ever had contact with anyone from Mexico, what's more sold weapons into Mexico. Castillo also insists that he never sold guns in Mexico or to individuals who trafficked arms in Mexico.
Castillo concedes that he did purchase some guns, primarily hunting rifles or shotguns to be sold or traded at gun shows, from Lemire, whom he trusted and considered a fellow gun enthusiast. However, he claims that Lemire was reselling guns to a number of individuals and that the ATF falsely tried to pin all of Lemire's gun sales on him - some 35 purchases listed in the indictment.
It was on the basis of that evidence, however, that Castillo was arrested and indicted earlier this year and charged with two counts of making illegal straw purchases - and faced a potential 10-year sentence. Initially, Castillo was assigned a court-appointed public defender, who told Castillo that he could not help him, that "they [the government] got you," Castillo recalls.
At that point, Castillo says he put out the word through friends that he needed to find a good attorney. A short time later, Castillo claims attorney Roberto "Eddie" De La Garza of San Antonio, an old college friend, contacted him and offered to represent him. So Castillo, in mid-April of this year, retained De La Garza as his attorney.
"I told him [De La Garza] that I had very little money," Castillo says. "But he charged me very little [to take on the case] but said he wanted $15,000 if the case goes to trial, but that he normally charges $20,000 or $25,000."
The truth was, Castillo says, he didn't even have the $15,000 for the case, should it go to trial. Castillo had purchased weapons from Lemire and there was evidence of that fact, so De La Garza arranged a plea deal in June, which Castillo accepted, expecting a lenient sentence because he says De La Garza insisted the judge was fair and Castillo had a record of exemplary service to his country.
After several delays, a sentencing date was set for Oct. 1 before Judge W. Royal Furgeson Jr. in federal court in San Antonio.
Castillo says he was aware early on that his attorney, De La Garza, had a potential conflict of interest in the case. But De La Garza, he says, assured him he should not worry about it.
De La Garza's son, Andrew, in February 2007 was indicted on weapons charges as the result of an ATF investigation in McAllen, Texas - near the Mexican border. Andrew De La Garza was charged with making a false statement to a firearms dealer in acquisition of a firearm and possessing a firearm with an obliterated ID and was facing a potential 15-year prison stint. That case was playing out in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Castillo's case was being heard in the Western District of Texas - prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for that district, led by Johnny Sutton.
On May 2, 2008, within weeks of De La Garza taking on Castillo's case, a plea deal was reached in the case involving De La Garza's son. The prosecutor in the case agreed to drop one count "at the time of sentencing" and agreed to recommend a decrease in the offense level on the other count - a good deal that promised to substantially reduce the potential prison sentence. But clearly, that deal was still subject to the judge's discretion at the time of sentencing.
After being rescheduled a couple times, the sentencing date in Andrew De La Garza's case was set for Oct. 14, a little less than two weeks after Castillo's Oct. 1 sentencing date, according to the court docket for the case.
Despite the fact that his son's fate was in the hands of the same federal judicial system seeking to punish Castillo, Eddie De La Garza told Narco News that "he did not feel any pressure" as a result of his son's pending case that in anyway affected his handling of Castillo's case.
When Castillo showed up in federal court in San Antonio on Oct. 1 with De La Garza, he was dealt a surprise that, at first, must have seemed to lift the weight of the world from his shoulders. The prosecutor informed Castillo's attorney that the straw gun-purchase charges pending against his client had to be dropped, because, due to case law precedent, they didn't apply in Castillo's case. In other words, Castillo was not guilty of a crime in purchasing firearms from Lemire.
From a motion filed by the U.S. prosecutor to dismiss the indictment against Castillo:
United States v. Polk … precludes an individual being charged with [a crime] where the straw purchaser bought a firearm for an individual who was not a prohibited person [such as a convicted felon]. The defendant [Castillo] … was not a prohibited person.
That's right. Castillo had just spend some seven months in a judicial vice as a result of bogus charges brought by the U.S. Attorney's office in San Antonio.
But there was a catch, of course. Before agreeing to dismiss the bogus charges, the U.S. prosecutor said Castillo would have to plead guilty to two new charges of dealing firearms without a license. Castillo says he was told that if he refused to do so, then Sutton's office would re-indict him on four new counts and he would be arrested again and forced to battle the system with even more serious charges pressed against him - and still no money for the fight.
So, at his attorney's urging, according to Castillo, right there in court, after only being allowed to skim through the new plea deal, he signed off on the new agreement - to charges that involved the same sentencing guidelines as the bogus charges that would be dismissed.
However, Castillo claims De La Garza told him he was confident in the fairness of the judge and that he would likely receive probation, or at worst a year of home confinement. In addition, Castillo alleges the prosecutor told De La Garza, and later the judge, that the plea deal would assure that Castillo would not lose his DEA or other government health and retirement benefits - a promise that Castillo says he has since discovered was as bogus as the initial straw gun-purchase charges brought against him.
"There was evidence of him [Castillo] selling guns," De La Garza says. "And even if that evidence was not substantive, they [the prosecutors] could have proven a conspiracy. If he [Castillo] had not taken that [new] plea, they could have brought in multiple new charges. I would not have pled out if it was not in the best interest of my client."
If that evidence exists, we'll never know now, it seems, since it will never have to be produced in a trial before a jury of Castillo's peers.
And so the deal was struck, and Castillo walked out of court that day facing yet another sentencing date on Oct. 22. Coincidentally, nine days later, on Oct. 10, the sentencing date for De La Garza's son was pushed back, to Dec. 15, the court docket in the case shows.
Mike Levine is a former DEA agent who provided a supportive letter to the judge hearing Castillo's case that praises Castillo's long record of service to the country. Levine, who now works as an expert witness in court cases and has a radio show in New York City, had this to say about De La Garza's apparent conflict of interest in Castillo's case:
In the best of all possible cases, this attorney takes on Cele's [Castillo's] case with a natural reluctance to go to trial against those who held his son's future in their hands. …
Of course one cannot say this is what happened with certainty; however, the fact that this outcome is a reasonable possibility should have been enough to indicate to the court - if the court was aware of this conflict of interest - that Cele needed a different attorney. And under the stewardship of Mr. Sutton, who has already placed himself well above the laws of God and man, this particular arrangement just sucks....
On sentencing day, Oct. 22, the prosecutor took it to Castillo, even bringing before the judge the unproven ATF allegations that Castillo was trafficking arms in Mexico, both Castillo and De La Garza confirm. The judge, despite De La Garza's assurance to Castillo, came down hard on Castillo - sentencing him to 37 months in prison plus two years of probation after release - and, as a result, a loss of his DEA and other government retirement and medical benefits for at least the period of incarceration and possibly forever.
Castillo is now all but broke, wondering how his wife and children will survive while he is locked up, wondering if he will ever see his 84-old mother again outside the walls of a prison, and consigned to a fate that he himself concedes he helped to create by "screwing up."
As a former DEA agent, Castillo understands how the legal system works - or doesn't work. He confesses that he was too trusting; even foolish, though not criminal, in his actions when he knew he was a target of the government; and somewhat reckless in ignoring the gut instinct that all cops have to watch their backs when under attack.
The one telling thing Castillo said was that after years of battling the system, "as we get older, we kind of lose the fight in us."
It seems Castillo was willing to take a hit on this travesty of justice, believing and trusting, by his attorney's word, that he would only get probation and keep his benefits, and avoid a trial he couldn't afford and the great risk of being put away for a long time if he was convicted (railroaded) and the consequence that would have on his family.
Maybe Castillo did technically break the law in that he sold a handful of guns without the proper license, a paperwork crime that should merit a paperwork punishment - not three years of prison. He wanted to believe the system would be fair, even though he should have known better.
Former Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean are now each doing 10-plus years in a federal pen for shooting a known drug smuggler in the posterior after he fled from a van packed full of dope - a prosecution courtesy of Johnny Sutton that has been the subject of a congressional hearing.
Sutton's office continues to prosecute people like Castillo (a decorated war veteran with no prior criminal record), destroying lives for political gain, for case stats, even though Sutton himself has been accused of enabling grave transgressions against humanity - such as turning a blind eye to an informant's role in the torture and murders of more than a dozen people in the House of Death in Juarez, Mexico, and then assisting in the subsequent cover-up of the U.S. government's role in the bloodshed.
Castillo should have seen it coming, but he was tired of the struggle, and just wanted to rest, and in that moment, when his guard was down, after he failed to appease the bureaucracy with the proper paperwork, they nailed him to the cross.
"This is the kind of stuff [Castillo's case] that happens in nations ruled by dictatorships," says former DEA commander Gonzalez, who exposed Sutton's role in the House of Death murders and suffered the swift injustice of retaliation from the minions of the Bush Administration as a result - resulting in Gonzalez being denied deserved promotions and leading him to take an early retirement.
"I'm not surprised this happened in Sutton's district," Gonzalez adds. "He and his people did a whole lot of egregious things in the House of Death case, and still they are allowed to go around prosecuting people. It's amazing."