FABENS, Texas — Months after her husband was killed by gunmen who entered the couple’s home in Guadalupe, Chihuahua — just across the Rio Grande from El Paso County — Lorena Acosta still couldn’t have a proper funeral for him. She didn’t have a body to bury.
The body of Manuel Chavez, who was killed in October by men described by witnesses as municipal or state police officers, had yet to be officially identified after he was shot in the head and buried by his assassins in an unmarked grave. The body was found weeks later on the outskirts of this small community, but law enforcement declined to perform DNA tests for months.
Acosta, a U.S. citizen who also lives in New Mexico, finally got a call last week confirming that her husband’s body was in police custody. That confirmation only came after law enforcement in Mexico was pressured by a Texas-based exile group, the Chavez family and various media reports highlighting the case.
On Monday, Acosta, sobbing as both sorrow and relief washed over her, watched as mourners threw clumps of dirt on his white casket at Chavez’s funeral in Fabens.
“He was a good father. He took care of his children,” Acosta, a schoolteacher, said as she clutched a portrait of the slain 31-year-old. “I do feel better and I am glad that we did find him.”
The circumstances surrounding the killing could have warranted a private ceremony, Acosta acknowledged. But she wanted to highlight what she said are deep-seated problems within law enforcement south of the border, so she invited activists and news outlets to attend the services.
“We want justice for my husband and everybody else who is over there,” she said. “The police killed him, they buried him and they still made it a problem for us to get him back.”
Among those in attendance at the funeral was immigration attorney Carlos Spector, the co-founder of Mexicanos en Exilio, or Mexicans in Exile, a group of more than 300 Mexicans seeking asylum in Texas, which helped Acosta finally get Mexican authorities to conduct DNA tests that confirmed that Chavez’s body was in their possession.
Getting such confirmation was somewhat of a victory, Spector said, and shows the growing band of exiles is making gains in its mission to go beyond protecting survivors of Mexico’s violence.
“Our goal in 2014 is to have the exile community responded to and have cases investigated,” he said.
Spector added that he hopes groups like his can help bring attention to what he has called a lawless battleground in parts of Mexico. He wants to bring the spotlight to tragedies such as the murder of Chavez, who grew up in Fabens after being brought to Texas at age 6. He was deported in 2006, however. In October, officers entered the couple’s home under the assumption that Chavez had a gun. After fatally shooting Chavez, his brother and nephew were beaten and loaded in the back of a truck with Chavez's body. The brother and nephew were driven to the outskirts of town and forced to watch the burial.
Spector said he recognized that after years of seeing corruption and violence, the farming communities on both sides of the border have started to steel themselves and fight back. At Monday’s funeral, he encouraged mourners to rely on more than their religion.
“I know you are a people of faith,” he said. “But what also drives me” is fighting for justice while we’re alive.
As part of that mission, other exiles — whether close to the victims or not — are attending memorial services in a display of solidarity and support for change in Mexico. But they also draw attention to their own plights. On Monday, Gerardo Reyes held a picture of his cousin, Lorenzo Chavez Aviles, who was kidnapped the same day Manuel Chavez was killed. Reyes seeks the same closure as Acosta.
“We want to know, we want to have certainty,” he said. “If he’s alive, then tell us where he is. If it’s the opposite, then we’d like to know where he is so we can at least visit him.”
Such visitors also highlight the discrepancies in U.S. immigration law as it pertains to asylum.
Reyes was granted humanitarian parole and is in the country legally while his claim is processed. He has an asylum hearing in December after arriving at a port of entry seeking refuge last February. Several members of his family were killed for speaking out against the government, and he feared he was next.
Meanwhile, as his brother was being buried Monday, Efrain Chavez sat in a detention facility after his own parole claim was denied in November. Efrain Chavez was kidnapped and beaten after his brother was shot.
Efrain Chavez was returned to his house to deliver a message: If anyone asked what happened to his brother, he was ordered to say that “Martians took him.” Chavez’s parole claim was denied in part, because of a domestic violence charge that was later dropped. The U.S. government deemed him a possible risk to U.S. security.
Though asylum claims by Mexicans have skyrocketed in recent years, more than 90 percent are denied. The U.S. government says it is in the country's best interest to vet the applicants and ensure they are not gaming the system. It is also difficult to prove an applicant is in danger; asylum claims are usually granted to people who have been persecuted due to their participation in a political group, or because of their gender, ethnicity or race.
Acosta said the asylum process — and the denials — illustrate how isolated people living through the violence are.
“They just don’t know what it is to live over there, and when something like this happens, it’s their own police against the people,” Acosta said. “There is no protection. You can’t run to the police like you can here. If you do, you’re going to get killed.”