EL PASO, Texas — When Elmer Garcia Archuleta noticed that many teenagers in his home town were turning to drugs, he organized sporting and musical activities to keep them away from trouble.
“He was an activist. He was a young man who wanted to improve his town and help others. He wanted the kids not to do drugs or get involved in drug trafficking. Already, some were starting to run errands for drug dealers,” said his sister, Elvira Garcia Archuleta.
But the Juarez Autonomous University psychology student’s actions did not sit well with the criminal organization that controls the Guadalupe, Mexico-Fabens, Texas drug corridor.
In the early hours of Dec. 6, 2014, a group of men dressed in black and carrying rifles stormed his mother’s house.
“They yelled, ‘Military police!’ and made my mom and my brother Victor get on their knees. They threw a blanket over them as my mom held on to her 4-year-old granddaughter. Then they went into Elmer’s bedroom,” Elvira Garcia said.
The men questioned Elmer Garcia and dragged him away to a waiting vehicle. Hours later, the same group broke into his cousin Gabriel Archuleta’s house and took him, too. At daybreak, the armed commando stopped a bus heading from Guadalupe to the factories in Juarez and brought down Ivan Edgar Garcia Archuleta, Elmer’s brother. Their bodies were found in the desert five days later.
“All but one of the men who took them had their faces covered. Everybody in town knew who the bad guys were, but we thought they wouldn’t bother us if we didn’t mess with them. That man was Mauricio Luna Aguilar,” Elvira Garcia said.
Luna, a.k.a. “El Papacho” or Big Daddy, had such a hold on Mexican authorities east of Juarez, Mexico, the family feared filing a police report on the abductions, according to Elvira Garcia. She said the drug traffickers told her family to “get out of town, but leave the keys to your houses and your cars because everything that was yours is ours now.”
Thirty-three members of the Garcia Archuleta clan left Guadalupe between December 2014 and January 2015 and are seeking asylum in the United States. Most are already on their third asylum hearing; some are waiting for their final audience as their case drags into a fifth year.
Their lawyer, Carlos Spector of El Paso, says they will be murdered if they’re denied asylum and deported to Mexico.
“Papacho was eventually arrested and charged with the kidnapping and murders of the Garcia Archuleta’s. He is in a Juarez jail, but we have reports that he is running things inside the prison and controls the Guadalupe corridor on behalf of the Sinaloa cartel,” Spector said. “My clients fear is that, upon returning to Mexico, he will track them down and kill them because their (complaint) led to his arrest and because these organizations like to leave messages to those who have turned them in.”
The Sinaloa cartel, formerly headed by drug lord Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, is still one of Mexico’s most powerful and violent drug organizations.
“I don’t want to think about what would happen if our asylum petition is denied. I go into a panic thinking what will happen to us in Mexico. They will find us, they will hurt us and then they will kill us. … He (Papacho) remembers that he is in jail for the next 50 years because of us,” Elvira Garcia said.
Juarez authorities overwhelmed
As of Thursday, Juarez had recorded 1,187 murders in 2019, most of them drug-related and many of them in the “Juarez Valley,” an area along the Rio Grande that includes Guadalupe. The fighting for control of drug-staging areas in Guadalupe peaked this summer when public schools canceled classes and bus drivers refused to work after 6 p.m. following the discovery of human body parts strewn along roads or left inside abandoned coolers.
Authorities have blamed a gang known as “Mexicles” — which has fought for or against the Sinaloa cartel depending on the timing — for much of the violence. However, Chihuahua state authorities have refrained from mentioning the group in public since it hung banners from Juarez bridges threatening to go to war with them.
According to an Aug. 22 report by the newspaper Diario de Juarez that cites state sources, “Papacho” and the Mexicles are now working together to ensure control of The Valley. “Papacho” and Jesus Eduardo Soto Rodriguez, a.k.a. “El Lalo,” the reputed leader of the Mexicles, share a cell block in Juarez’s Cereso 3 prison.
Chihuahua state Deputy Attorney General Jorge Nava said police are investigating whether convicted drug traffickers are still communicating with their gangs. “We don’t discount that. Part of our investigation is to establish if orders are being given from the inside of the prison to members of the cells they used to belong to on the outside,” Nava said.
He added that the traffickers who operate in the Juarez Valley are part of gangs that have been in that region for many years.
Nava was not in office when members of the Garcia Archuleta family were killed. However, veteran state police employees say drug killings have happened in the Juarez Valley since the early 1990s but have increased substantially since 2008.
Elvira Garcia Archuleta said she’s been losing family members to criminals in Guadalupe since 2010. “My cousin Irma Erica was a police officer when (criminals) started killing off all of the police in Guadalupe. She quit but the mayor begged her to go back to work. … One day they came to her house and took her. They found her body months later in a canal,” she said.
The family asked the mayor for help to solve the killing, but he told them he had left the office. The new mayor refused to help “because he was afraid,” Elvira Garcia said.
The woman said her family feared the authorities in Mexico as much as it fears the drug traffickers.
“When my brothers were killed, we tried to file the complaint in Juarez, but they told us we had to file it in Guadalupe. It was like sending us to the slaughterhouse, so we left for the United States.” She said that in El Paso other families whose relatives had also been murdered by drug traffickers helped them out financially and gave them advice.
“They put us in touch with a Mexican congresswoman. My mother, my brother and some relatives went back to file the police complaint. They were still afraid because they weren’t sure that the cops (the congresswoman) sent were good or bad,” Garcia said.
Mauricio Luna Aguilar, then 42 years old, was arrested on February 2015 for kidnapping and murder.
“We were not going to let it go. They were good, innocent young men … Elmer was about to get his degree; he would’ve turned 23 the next day if they hadn’t killed him,” Garcia said.
As she waits for her final asylum hearing, Garcia fears the outcome may not be favorable to her. “So many people have come to the courts recently … so many people may not have told the truth and the judges may be fed up. It is going to be hard,” she said.