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California and the West

Massacre Victims Mourned in Mexico

Violence: Hundreds gather at funeral for nine of the 18 killed in execution-style shootings. 'How is it possible to have such evil?' a bishop asks.

September 20, 1998|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EL SAUZAL, Mexico — Townspeople turned out by the hundreds Saturday to mourn nine of the 18 people killed in a massacre two days earlier that authorities have linked to feuds over drug trafficking in the area around the resort city of Ensenada.

Two tiny white coffins, bearing the bodies of boys ages 1 and 2, rested among the others at the front of the Maria Auxiliadora parish church, where it seemed nearly all of El Sauzal had gathered inside and out to grieve over the predawn attack on three families Thursday at a nearby ranch compound.

"How is it possible to have such evil in the hearts of men?" Tijuana's Roman Catholic bishop, Rafael Romo Munoz, asked during a Mass for one of the three families dragged out of their beds and shot execution-style.

"It's not possible," the bishop said as he spoke to about 300 people crowded into the quaint adobe-colored church in the center of this fishing village. "Yet the circumstances are before us. It's real."

The row of caskets included Luis Alberto Jaime Liera and his wife, Esperanza Tovar, four children--ages 1 to 17--and the boyfriend of one of their daughters. The boyfriend, Gerardo Saenz Arce, had been at the ill-fated home with his 17-year-old girlfriend, who was eight months pregnant when she was killed.

Also mourned were the wife and 2-year-old child of Fermin Castro, the 38-year-old ranch owner who authorities say led a small-time band of drug smugglers and may have been the target of rivals.

Officials said Saturday that Castro remained in a coma--one of two wounded who survived the attack. Federal prosecutors officially took over the investigation Saturday from Baja California state authorities but announced no new developments in the investigation.

Attention centered on Castro, who authorities said ran his smuggling ring in the countryside, receiving shipments of marijuana at isolated airstrips and then shuttling them northward.

Castro grew up a member of the indigenous Pai Pai in a rural area east of Ensenada known as Valle de Trinidad. He later taught indigenous students at a bilingual school in the mid 1980s.

Acquaintances later noticed "he was acting strange. He was driving luxurious cars," said Victor Clark Alfaro, a human rights activist in Tijuana who works with indigenous groups.

In recent years, Castro succeeded as a rancher and a rodeo promoter and built a modern compound in El Sauzal that was equipped with satellite dishes and populated by exotic animals. It was there that the attack took place.

It remained unclear Saturday whether Castro was wounded in his house or taken outdoors and shot with the others.

The apparent precision and brutality of the killings, in which the victims were lined up and sprayed with gunfire, has shaken the once-tranquil town of about 2,500 overlooking the sea just north of Ensenada.

"It's the most horrible thing you can find or see in my 10, 11 years in this business," said police Officer Diego Vazquez, who was among the first to arrive Thursday at the scene of the massacre.

The air seemed heavy with anguish Saturday as mourners crowded past flower-draped caskets in a funeral home before the church Mass.

A woman wailed next to the coffin of Esperanza Tovar. "Ay, 'Pera!" she cried, using the diminutive for the woman's name. "It's not true."

The coffins were so numerous that someone wrote the victims' names on each. Men wept as they loaded the nine coffins onto trucks for the short ride to the church.

Residents of El Sauzal took pains to point out that the Lieras were not the subject of drug trafficking allegations and said the family was well-regarded in the community, which is adjacent to a fish processing plant and maquiladoras.

The patriarch of the Liera family, Luis Alberto, was a welder.

"These were good people. These were not the ones dealing drugs," said Gerardo Garcia, 36, who grew up in El Sauzal. "These were the good people."

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