Posts Tagged ‘Mexico’

It’s hard to tell some stories in less than four minutes.

In a recent piece on NPR’s All Things Considered, there was a lot of detail I left out on account of time. The story was about how residents in the northern Mexican town of Ascension literally took justice into their own hands by beating two suspected kidnappers who eventually died.

Mexican military outside the state police office in Ascension.

I arrived in Ascension in the company of Adriana Gomez Licon, a young, yet enterprising reporter from the El Paso Times. We figured we’d be safer making the trip together. Because car jackings are a problem in Mexico, we opted for a 2 ½ hour bus ride from Ciudad Juarez to Ascension. That put us in town at 1 in the afternoon. By then we’d missed a big city hall rally where residents demanded that the mayor fire all 14 remaining police officers. About half the force had already resigned the high risk job.

The event that set off the public’s fury was the kidnapping of a 16-year-old girl. Adriana and I visited the girl’s aunt, Mari Cruz. The following account is her version of the ordeal:

The girl worked at another aunt’s seafood restaurant in order to pay for her high school. Tuesday morning she was apparently counting money behind the counter when the kidnappers entered the restaurant and mistook her for the owner. Then they took her at gunpoint.

Supposedly, there was a total of six kidnappers traveling in two separate vehicles. One was a stolen truck allegedly snagged the day before from a Mennonite farmer in the neighboring town of Buena Vista. Word about the kidnapping spread quickly and soon an angry group of about 200 townspeople gave chase.

One of the cars got a flat and the three men inside were captured by the Mexican military and taken to Ciudad Juarez. They are charged with kidnapping and illegal weapon possession. The other car ran off the road and the three inside fled on foot into side lining cotton fields. The girl was left behind in the truck where residents were able to retrieve her.

When the three young men in the truck took off, an incredible pursuit ensued. Residents say the group of 200 combed the cotton fields determined to find them. A local farmer even flew out in his crop plane to assist in the search. Within 30 minutes the people found two of the young men.

The fate that awaited them was brutal. The people of Ascension carried with them pent-up coraje, a Spanish word that means something like resentment mixed with rage. One man, a local kitchen cabinet maker, took us out to the site of the first beating. It was a soft soil road in between two cotton fields. The cabinet maker, who will sit on city council next month, gave us his first person account.

This is the spot where two suspected kidnappers were caught and beaten by residents.

“When the people got a hold of them they began to beat them and they began to shout at them about how much harm they’d caused and how much they suffered because of them,” he said.

In the crowd, he said he saw the faces of brothers, fathers and cousins who had all had a loved one kidnapped or had been kidnapped themselves.

People recognized the two young men, he said. They grew up in the community.

“I yelled at them too,” said the cabinet maker. He said he didn’t participate in the beating and that he didn’t agree with the people’s actions. “But it was hard for me to say ‘okay, that’s enough’ because I’m not the one who’s loved one was kidnapped.”

After about 10 minutes of beating, the federal police arrived and took custody of the two young men. At least one is under 17 a state police representative told me. The feds supposedly took the young men in someone’s pick up truck to a small nearby military base. A group of townspeople rode in the back of the pick up to supervise the feds.

But police didn’t hold onto the two young men for long. Residents say that soon a larger, angrier mob of at least 1,000 arrived at the military base. They broke down the gate and got their hands on the two suspects and beat them yet again. The story gets a little unclear at this point, but I was told the feds were able to get the two suspects into a federal police car which the townspeople then surrounded and prevented the feds from accessing again. A seven hour standoff followed. Residents say the townspeople were even able to prevent a federal police helicopter from landing near the base by obstructing it’s landing space. Meanwhile the two young men remained locked in the hot police car, badly beaten. According to the autopsy report, they eventually died of their injuries.

Part of the public’s anger has to do with the fact that they’re drowning in crime and never see justice. One resident told us that over the past year this town of about 15,000 experiences on average three kidnappings a week. Even if the kidnappers are caught she said they are typically released within two weeks, especially if they are minors.

She said one of the young men who was beaten was a minor. Once at the military base, she said he yelled at the crowd, “See you in fifteen days!”

It’s hard to say what is fueling the kidnappings in Ascension. The mayor blamed it on people formerly employed by the drug trade. He said that with all the border security on the American side it was getting harder for them to cross their merchandise. So now they’ve turned to other criminal activity. I’m sure the bad economy could also be a reason.

Residents told us that most of the time the kidnappers release their victims once the ransom is paid. They say most survivors aren’t seriously harmed by their kidnappers. But a lot of people don’t have the money to pay ransom. Some go door to door asking their neighbors if they can spare a little cash to help them collect enough money.

“Don’t give them too much money” the neighbors say, “Otherwise they’ll go out and buy bigger guns.”

Now the residents of Ascension are forming a sort of neighborhood watch committee. They’re joining up with the nearby LeBaron community, also known as a town that made self-protection it’s own responsibility. It will be interesting to follow what becomes of this little town in the coming weeks.

An indigenous woman breastfeeds her daughter in the central plaza of Ascension.


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September 10, 2010 

I’d like to introduce you to the Cadena family.

Their son Rodrigo was killed January 30th by a single bullet to the neck in a ruthless massacre at his friend’s birthday party in Ciudad Juarez. Fifteen others– mostly teenagers– were slaughtered that night by a commando of hit men who confused their party for that of a rival drug gang.

Seventeen-year-old Rodrigo Cadena was killed Jan. 30 at a friend's birthday party.

This night forever ripped a gash in the lives Adrian Cadena and his wife Guadalupe Davila. They are Rodrigo’s parents. Adrian is an auto mechanic and his wife works for the city government. The couple lives with their three remaining children in a tiny government subsidized home in south central Juarez.

Rodrigo played American football for a local community league founded about eight years ago by Juarenzes who love the sport. His team is the Jaguars. After the massacre, Mexican President Felipe Calderon promised to build the league a brand new football field in honor of those killed. I decided to check out the new field several weeks ago and write a story about it.

That’s how I met the Cadena family.

I arrived at their home late one afternoon. The family welcomed me with smiles and right away began to bring out photos of their deceased son. “Look,” said Ms. Cadena “This is my baby when he started kinder”…. “This is him after their big championship win.”

Then they shared the terrible story of the night their son died. The birthday party was for Rodrigo’s friend, Charlie, in a far off neighborhood called Villas de Salvarcar. A bunch of Jaguars teammates were at the party including other neighborhood teens.

Mr. Cadena said the last time he talked to his son was 9:30 that night. Rodrigo begged his father to let him stay just a little later. The next call the family received was to tell them their son had been killed.

The birthday party was intercepted by hit men carrying high caliber weapons. They blocked off the streets with several vehicles before storming the block and the three side by side houses where the party was held. Then they opened fire.

Rodrigo was killed along with three of his team mates. One was Juan Carlos Medrano, the Jaguars’ star quarterback. Juan Carlos was killed alongside his girlfriend, Brenda. Others survived the attack, some badly injured. One player still has a bullet lodged near his kidney.

The state attorney general later told the families of those killed that the hit men had mistakenly targeted these young people. Their intent was to hit the party of a rival gang know as the “Double A’s,” short for Assassination Artists.  They’d come heavily armed, prepared to face retaliation.

The terrible mistake was that in the football league, the category the Jaguars played for was also known as the “Double A’s” or the older adolescents. The younger adolescent category was simply known as the “A’s”. The league has since changed the category names.

“It was an army of assassins that unleashed their fury on a group of indefensible young people,” Mr. Cadena said.

Despite the horrific tragedy, I noticed an incredible strength and sense of peace in the Cadena family. I soon realized that they drew their strength from their continued support of the football league. This from a family that knew little about the sport before their son began playing four years ago.

Rodrigo’s mother told me, “I may have lost one son, but I gained hundreds more.” She was referring to the boys and teens who remain on the league. She said she sees her son in each and every one of them.

“Every kiss, every hug I receive from them, it’s as if I was receiving it from my son,” she said. “Their dreams are the same as my son’s and I want to support them.”

The Cadena family knows football kept their son straight. And they know it can do the same for other young people. So they volunteer their time with their league. They plan to go to every game this season and cheer louder than ever.

“Not 20 thousand soldiers or 10 thousand federal police or even the president himself can change the situation here in Juarez,” Mr. Cadena said. “It’s up to us, the citizens of Juarez to turn things around. Each one of us has to take responsibility for our community and work to make it better.”

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Family members take a final look at Sergio Hernandez Guereca before he is buried in a Juarez cemetery.

June 10, 2010

Today Sergio Hernandez Guereca was buried high in a mountainside grave overlooking the vast urban desert of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas. Hernandez is the 15 year old boy who was shot dead by a border patrol agent on Monday– a tragic event that has flared tensions between the Mexican and American governments.

Friends, family and media trailed behind a grey and blue hearse up a lonely hillside in the far western outskirts of the city. He was buried in Panteon Jardines de Recuerdos, or Garden of Memories. The cemetery is a atop a desert plateau with a magnificent view of the two sister cities.

I was driving along with fellow reporter John Burnett of National Public Radio in a white Chevy Malibu that was far too fancy to drive comfortably in Juarez. We were near the tail end of the procession and I marveled at the height of the cemetery and the long procession of cars and buses.

The scene at the grave sight was intense. The sight and sounds of grieving family members hits hard emotionally. My mind immediately flashed back to the funeral day of six teenagers who were gunned down at a birthday party earlier this year. The sobs, the anger, the frustration and hopelessness were inescapably in-your-face.

Family and friends make their way toward the burial site.

“My son, my son,” the mother wailed while she clutched the edge of the boy’s coffin. A crowd of people and cameras crowded around her in a tight, disorderly circle. It was difficult to watch and listen. This very private and personal moment felt disrupted and invaded. But a journalist must document these moments. They best illustrate the intensity of these circumstances. The key is to document such moments in a way that is respectful– not something you learn in journalism school.

Sergio Hernandez Guereca was perhaps no angel (American officials have said he has a criminal record) and anyone who trespasses in the limbo zone between Mexico and the United States is putting themselves in a risky situation– but the sense I get from most people in El Paso and Juarez is that his death is unjustified. A video released today by a Spanish language television news network certainly casts doubts on what American officials have told the media thus far about the shooting.

The mayor of Juarez told us in an interview this afternoon that the case will have to work it’s way through the American judicial system in order for all sides to be presented and a resolution to be sought. I’m grateful for the technology that made that citizen video possible. Such public documentation can be a powerful tool in the path to justice.

Friends and family grieve the death of Sergio Hernandez Guereca

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