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Families of migrants shot in Sierra Blanca seek justice, answers

By Corrie Boudreaux, El Paso Matters

CIUDAD JUÁREZ — A living room near downtown Juárez is filled with folding lawn chairs and hand-written signs that beg for justice.

Neighbors, friends and relatives from the small towns around Ceballos, Durango, Mexico, made the 400-mile pilgrimage to this border city to mourn the loss of one of their own and to find out the fate of his companions.

Jesús “Chuy” Sepúlveda Martinez, 22, was  killed on Sept. 27 in Sierra Blanca, Texas, near the Farm-to-Market Road 1111, where he and 12 other migrants from Durango stopped to find water after crossing the border.

“He was only 22, he was only just starting to live,” said Luz Maria Martinez, Sepúlveda’s mother. “I don’t understand why they did this to my son. We don’t know what to think. My son was a child compared to them.”

One of Sepúlveda’s companions, Berenice Casias Carrillo, was also wounded in the shooting and is in an El Paso hospital.

Two brothers, Mike Sheppard and Mark Sheppard, both of Sierra Blanca, were arrested on suspicion of manslaughter last week. They were being held in the El Paso County jail until Monday when they were transferred to the Hudspeth County jail in Sierra Blanca, officials from the two sheriff’s offices said.

They were released after posting $250,000 bond each on Tuesday,  the El Paso Times reported.

For the small communities in Durango near the town of Ceballos, the attack came as a shock that has affected everyone who knew Sepúlveda.

He left his agricultural community of San Martin on Sept. 14 “to find a dream,” his father, Napoleon Sepúlveda, said. He sat on a sofa in Juárez with his wife, who held up a portrait of their son.

“He wanted to have a house, a car, maybe start a business, something that would be our own,” Sandra Cárdenas, Chuy’s wife, said as she held their 6-month-old daughter, Sofia. Their 3-year-old daughter, Regina, played nearby.

“I don’t know how I will explain this to (Sofia) when she is older, because she won’t remember him,” Cárdenas said.

Napoleon Sepúlveda and his son raised melons back home, but the income from their harvests was never enough to cover their needs. Chuy wanted to earn money in the United States.

Napoleon Sepúlveda brought Chuy to the nearby town of Ceballos and helped him cover the cost of purchasing a bus ticket to Juárez. Chuy was in contact with his family during his journey. He arrived at the home of an aunt who lives in Juárez and spent a week with her. Then he sent his parents a message saying that he was going to attempt to cross the border.

It would be Chuy Sepúlveda’s third attempt to enter the United States. The first two times he was not successful. In his last conversation with his parents, he told them, “This try will be the good one.”

They did not hear from him again.

On Sept. 29, Napoleon Sepúlveda’s cousin told him that Chuy had “disappeared.” Later that day, he learned the truth from his sister in Juárez. Chuy was not missing; he was dead.

“It was very hard for us,” Sepulveda said.

He paused to catch his breath as tears filled his eyes.

“When I found out about my boy, it was very hard for me, and I can’t overcome it,” the father said. “I didn’t believe it, I didn’t think it could be true.”

In the doorway of the Juárez home, Silvia Carrillo Murillo held a cardboard sign demanding justice. Her niece, Berenice, was traveling with Chuy Sepúlveda and the other migrants. Berenice called her aunt from the roadside on Sept. 27 and told her that she had been shot.

“I am dying, they shot me,” Berenice is heard saying on an audio recording that Carrillo Murillo provided to El Paso Matters. “Please don’t tell my mother. Everyone else is OK, except for one other guy that they shot. He’s dead, and I might be (dead) soon.”

Carrillo Murillo told her niece to call authorities for help.

Carrillo Murillo then came with other family and community members to Juárez from Durango to find out more about what happened to her niece. They have not told Berenice’s mother about the shooting for fear of triggering an epileptic seizure.

Carrillo Murillo arrived at an El Paso port of entry and asked for a visa to visit Berenice in the hospital. She was offered a three-day visa, but could not afford to pay the fee. No one in the family has had contact with Berenice since the day she was shot.

Gloria Cáceres, whose young cousin is Chuy Sepúlveda’s widow, Sandra, and whose nephew, Uriel, was among Chuy’s companions, said that she does not believe the alleged shooters’ story about mistaking the migrants for some type of animal.

“This is racism,” Cáceres said. “How am I expected to believe that they could not see that these were human beings? I don’t believe that lie.”

The alleged shooters, Mike Sheppard and Mark Sheppard, in an interview with the Texas Rangers said they were hunting when they shot near a reservoir where they saw movement, according to an arrest warrant affidavit. Mark Sheppard, according to the affidavit, at first said he asked his brother if he “shot him.” He later changed his statement to did you shoot “it.”

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, is asking the U.S. Justice Department to  investigate the killing as a hate crime. Court records do not show any charges yet being filed against the Sheppards.

Mike Sheppard was the warden of a private, for-profit detention center in Sierra Blanca owned by LaSalle Corrections. Mike Sheppard was “terminated due to an off-duty incident unrelated to his employment,” a company spokesperson  told The Texas Tribune last  week.

Now, Chuy Sepúlveda’s family and community are waiting to receive his body while they wait on justice.

“I’m asking the authorities, Mexican and American, to work together and put these men in jail,” Napoleon Sepúlveda said. “That’s not going to bring my boy back to life. I know that. But I don’t want other people to suffer the way that we are suffering. (I don’t want) them to leave their wives behind as widows, or to leave children orphaned.”