15 Minutes of Hell in a Juarez Prayer Assembly
by Molly Molloy
Posted on August 18, 2008
The massacre took place at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008 at the CIAD (Center for Drug and Alcohol Integration) Rehabilitation Center #8 in the Colonia First of September. It was the single most deadly violent incident in Juárez in recent times.
Socorro Garcia, a pastor from the Blessed Works Christian Family Center, an Assembly of God congregation, had come to preach the gospel to some 30 or so residents receiving counseling and treatment for their addictions. She stood at the podium in the little conference room and gave the invitation to those at the prayer meeting to come forward and give their lives to Jesus. Many had their arms raised, faces turned toward heaven, praising the Lord and asking to be saved. At that moment at least four masked and hooded gunmen burst into the room and began to shoot. According to Socorro, “…the bullets came from all directions, from the right and the left, meanwhile I was crying out to God to send His angels to protect us and I saw the young people falling injured all around me and others managed to run for their lives…”
When the shooting stopped, bodies lay all over the room. The director of the center (who has not been identified in press accounts) lay with his body over another pastor’s wife. She and her unborn child survived. The man died. Joel Valles, 47, a deacon of the church, was also killed in the attack. Other witnesses reported that before commencing to shoot everyone in the room, the assassins dragged several people out to the patio, threw them face down and shot them at point blank range.
The gunfire went on for 15 minutes.
Media reports say that at least eight (some say nine) people died at the scene. Five others were taken to the hospital with serious gunshot wounds, transported in the old van belonging to the rehab center because too much time went by before a Mexican Red Cross ambulance arrived. One young man, Luis Angel Gonzalez, was found lying dead at the nearby intersection of Zaragoza Boulevard and Avenida de los Aztecas. He lived in the house next door to the center and had begun to seek detox help there a week and a half earlier for his addiction to glue and solvents.
Juárez papers the next morning reported eyewitness testimony that a group of seven or eight men wearing the uniforms of a special Mexican Army unit—the Red Berets—and traveling in an official-looking white Ford Lobo pickup, had parked at the corner of Barranco Azul and Casa de Janos streets, about 50 yards away from the site of the massacre. A pair of state police agents on their way to the crime scene also reported seeing the soldiers. These and other witnesses expressed anger and mistrust toward the authorities because they saw the soldiers nearby, but no one came to the aid of those being attacked, even though the gunfire could be heard for blocks. Residents close to the center hid in their houses when the shooting broke out, but a few managed to call the Emergency Response Center. Yet, witnesses said that the soldiers parked nearby did not come and that the truck drove past the front gate of the center at high speed while the bullets were still flying. No one stopped. No one came. The gunfire lasted for 15 minutes.
“We are sure that the soldiers were guarding the killers or maybe they came with them so that the police would not be able to intervene. They had to have known what was going on because they passed right in front of the center.” The witness, quoted in the newspaper, asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals. The newspaper also said that an unnamed source inside the Mexican Army denied that the military had carried out any operation at the scene or that they were aware of what had happened. Later, municipal police cordoned off the area and offered no help to the wounded. By the afternoon, the eyewitness accounts of the army soldiers had disappeared from the English language wire reports.
Did I mention that the high caliber gunfire went on for 15 minutes?
I sit at my computer early Thursday morning and almost forget to check the Juárez papers as I’ve done compulsively nearly every day this year, trying to keep track of the unprecedented violence in the city. At the time I write in mid-August, the toll has climbed to more than 815, more than 120 in the first 15 days of August alone. I’m jaded, addicted to the numbers, the tally, how many killed today? This week, this month, this year? The headline, “Asesina commando a 9,” wiped the callousness away. I grew up going to a tiny Baptist church. The idea of people mown down by gunfire during the “invitation” at a prayer meeting—this is evil. I contact a reporter working on the Juárez story.
The next morning we drive up to the high ground on the southwest side of the city, crowned on the side of a hill by the Cementos de Chihuahua plant. Some of the residents of CIAD #8 tried to escape the massacre by jumping over the fence in back of their building and ran toward the cement plant to hide. The truck feels tired even before we turn off the paved avenue onto the broken cement and gravel of Casa de Janos street. The CIAD building is painted white, in fact, we can barely see the shadow of the logo under its brand new whitewash. We are there less than 40 hours after the massacre and the place has already been shut down.
Next door is a house where some 40 people are gathered on chairs under a dirty canvas shelter. It is the wake for Luis Angel, the teenager left for dead on a nearby corner. His grandmother, Librada Limones, 79, saw his body on the street. “His head was very bad, his body was covered with blood. I got close to him but he no longer had any reaction. He stayed there a long time, they were going to take him to a clinic but they never made it and they left him there." She was hospitalized with heart trouble the next morning.
The coffin is in the kitchen of the cement block house and perhaps a dozen people are sitting and standing in the room. Over the sink is a row of old cups holding toothbrushes. His mother is small with long dark hair, her eyes are red. She looks tired and sad and agrees to answer our questions with a resigned shrug. She sits in a small row of chairs with several other middle-aged women in front of a banner painted in gang graffiti style, “REST IN PEACE.” A constant stream of young people, mostly girls, but a few boys with piercings and tattoos come into the dark room to look inside the glass window of the coffin at the boy’s face. His eyelashes are long and lie slightly curled on his smooth face, a pencil-thin mustache traces his upper lip. He is dressed in a peach and white polo shirt and above the glass are photographs of Luis Angel with his friends. In one photo, the boys flash gang signs with their hands. The mother tells us that when they heard the shooting next door, they hid for a long time. My friend asks permission to take photographs. Luis Angel’s mother goes away, we talk to some of the other women. One lost her son a few weeks earlier. She says a police patrol came and took him away one night while she was working. He was 25. Several days later, his body was found assassinated in the street.
When we go back out to the street, the metal gate in front of the CIAD #8 is open. Several vans with Sonora plates are parked haphazardly on the sidewalk. We walk through the gate into the patio. Several guys are up on the roof tossing bundles of plaid blankets from the dormitory upstairs down to the ground. The same blankets that often appear in murder stories in the newspaper, wrapping victims tossed into the streets. These bodies are known as “encobijados.” In the rooms are discarded sandals and odd shoes. Pill boxes tossed on the floor of the tiny clinic. Upstairs in the bedrooms are a few books and religious tracts, odd bits of clothing, towels, an empty cedar box that might have held something very personal, a velvet painting of an Aztec eagle.
Workers dismantle metal bedframes and haul the pieces out to the vans. Eventually, they toss the blankets into garbage barrels on the street. The CIAD organization is based in Cananea, Sonora and operates a chain of rehab centers in the border region, including three centers in Juárez. On Aug. 1, two men were shot and killed at another center and there were other warnings. One center had been closed and abandoned since last Sunday. Between 80-100 inmates scattered and workers erased their logos from the buildings and left clear messages on the walls: “This Center is leaving Cd. Juárez,” “This place is Closed” “We are leaving this city.” Inmates had traditionally raised money for their rehabilitation by selling candies and seeking donations at busy intersections all over the city. As of last week, other street vendors said that the reformed addicts had abandoned their posts. The men cleaning up on Friday at CIAD #8 were driving from Sonora on Wednesday to help in shutting down the remaining Juárez centers. They arrived two hours after the massacre. They also said that they had told the authorities that they were closing down and leaving town. They had asked the police and the army for protection. They arrived too late for CIAD #8.
None of the guys working on Friday give their names, but they have no trouble with a couple of Americans being there while they work. In fact, they probably figured that as long as we were there, it was less likely the hooded men with AKs would return. The guy in charge from Cananea took us into the Conference Room where at least four or five people had died. It was about 30 feet long and perhaps 12 feet wide, painted white and dark yellow, an uneven floor of mismatched ceramic tiles of various colors. A dozen or more people attending the prayer service had tried to save themselves by running into the tiny bathroom at the back corner.
In the opposite corner, blood splatters and fingerprints smeared the floor and wall, dark brown stains soaked the seams between the tiles, chipped and cracked where the bullets hit. The man said the bodies had piled up here and the blood pooled in this corner. Now a small crucifix leaned against the wall, a red Virgen of Guadalupe candle burned down and someone had placed a burning cigarette on end in front of the candle. Mounted on the wall were the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and a piece of paper was taped over a tiny window with the words of the Serenity Prayer in Spanish. A man from Imuris, Sonora talked to me quietly in that corner. He showed me the thick callous on his arms where he had injected himself, but he had been clean now for more than three years and believed in rehabilitation. He wondered why the centers had been targeted. “All we do is detox, counseling, we try to get people jobs.”
The man took us out to the patio where the killers had dragged four people out of the meeting and shot them with AK-47s as they lay face down on the ground. Bullet holes marked the cream-colored walls. A passage about two feet wide ran between the external and internal walls on the street side of the building. Here, the office secretary tried to run to safety but he was chased down the passage by AK rifle fire. He managed to climb a metal ladder to the roof where the killers mowed him down. I can easily put two fingers through the bullet holes shot into the thick metal window frame along the narrow passage.
After a couple of hours, it is time to leave. The men have salvaged the little there was of value in the building and we know they are terrified and desire nothing more than to get out of Juárez as quickly as they can. We ask the man who does not give his name but who has given us his time: What is going on in Juárez? “Something evil. Something very very evil.”
And I go away thinking of recent mass murders in my country and of all the cop and crime scene shows so popular on TV. And I realize that less than 48 hours after this horrific crime, no evidence remains at all. No investigation will ever take place. Not one shred of crime scene tape can be seen. The blood is mostly washed away. The bodies are buried. The family next door saw the killers drive away up the street toward the main avenue that leads to the cement plant. The soldiers sped away to their barracks about a mile to the south. The newspapers print verbatim the communiqués from the state investigators: 61 ballistic elements of various calibers secured at the scene, 9 mm, 7.62 x 39, .223 and 40 mm. The names of the dead and injured appear in neat lists. The numbers never quite match up. And there will be no arrests.
When I tell this story to friends, they ask why? Some say it is like El Salvador in the 1980s, except that there is no Cold War, no ideology that can explain it. U.S. press accounts say it is a drug cartel war, but nothing about the sad faces of the CIAD workers or the defeated families of the dead in this poor barrio can be connected to these cartels generating billions with their commerce. The newspapers, the politicians, the academics never say what the victims know: something evil, something very very evil.
On Saturday afternoon, less than 72 hours after the biggest single-incident mass murder in recent Juárez history, 14 people, including an 18-month old baby, are gunned down at a party in the Sierra Tarahumara tourist town of Creel, Chihuahua. Most of the dead are members of a prominent family in the region. State justice officials appear on the scene to lead the investigation and launch a massive search for the killers by land and air.
And in Colonia First of September in Juárez, families hold funerals for the drug addicts, workers and church people killed at CIAD #8. The rehab workers head back to their headquarters in Sonora where they hope they will be safe. Blankets are dumped, perhaps to be burned but more likely to be reclaimed, washed and used again. White paint washes the walls and across the street, in front of Luis Angel’s house, his gang has left a message: Locos 23. RIP.
Conference room, CIAD #8, four or five people were shot to death in this corner when killers burst into a prayer meeting on the evening of Aug. 13.
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