SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Blanca Estela Garcia remembers watching the news on television: A group of migrants headed north had been shot to death by the Mexican cartel known as Los Zetas Aug. 24, 2010.
Newscasts would refer to it as the San Fernando massacre. A group of 58 men and 14 women were killed after they were intercepted by a cartel near San Fernando in Mexico’s state of Tamaulipas as they tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
“When I watched the news and after the news, I would pray to God for the families, those who had lost family members, that God would give them strength,” Garcia said in an Aug. 4 interview with Catholic News Service.
A few days later, someone rang the bell at the residence of Discalced Carmelites in San Salvador, where she works, to tell her that authorities had found her son’s identification on one of the victims.
Rubbing an enlarged photo of her son’s Salvadoran ID card between her fingers, Garcia said she didn’t even know he’d left the country. Jose Francisco Garcia, 34, had been deported from the U.S. a few months earlier.
After his deportation, he was living with his sister, who knew of his plans to leave for the U.S. again. Both agreed they would not tell their mother so she would not worry.
Because Garcia also lives, during the week, in the house where she works as a cook for a community of friars, she had not seen her son and had not realized that he had left again for the U.S. However, when the government worker arrived at her workplace to tell her about finding her son’s ID card, she said she knew in her heart that he was dead.
“Men are mistaken when they think that if they kill someone, that’s where it ends,” she said. “The body dies, but the soul lives.”
That’s what she told the government worker as he struggled to tell her the news. He showed her copy of the documents they had found near one of the 72 bodies, while also telling her that nothing was certain until they could do a DNA analysis.
She said she remembered when her son first left in 2005. He had been in the Salvadoran army, a sergeant, and while it had provided a lot of training and education, the dream of having a home, which he would never had been able to build with average wages in El Salvador, had pulled him to the U.S.
He ended up in Houston, where he worked in construction. Although life as an immigrant, particularly an undocumented one, wasn’t as rosy as others had painted it, he had been able to buy property back home and was proud of it.
She does not know why he left again. But she said it was probably for the same economic reasons that led him to leave the first time.
Less than a month after he left the second time, she was in an office, getting blood drawn for a DNA comparison to see if they could match it to one of the bodies found piled up against a wall, hands tied behind the back, blood everywhere from those who had been shot in the head. Two men who pretended to be dead survived and left the scene of the bloodshed, which made headlines around the world as one of the worst attacks against migrants by Mexico’s deadly drug cartels.
On Sept. 5, 2010, Garcia and her daughter set out with other families for the airport to welcome home the bodies of 12 Salvadorans who were among the victims of the massacre, which also included migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, and one from Brazil.
Garcia said she was calm, but she saw people passing out, crying hysterically, angry at God. A few days earlier, while filling out paperwork to pick up her son’s body, she had run into a woman screaming at what she said was God’s injustice, asking why God allowed gang members to live but had taken her brother. She told the woman she had no right to repudiate God and the woman told her that only someone who hadn’t lost a family member in such a terrible massacre could speak that way.
“I told her ‘I’m not here as tourist. I lost my son,'” she recalled. “She was silent and clutched the photo (of her brother).”
At the airport, Garcia sat close to where sealed coffins carrying the bodies were passing by. They were numbered. Her son was number five. Salvadoran cadets carried his coffin, which they took back to the Garcia family’s hometown of Talnique for Mass and burial.
A few days before she was told of his killing, she said she inexplicably started crying after she was done with work. And she said she was having a conversation with God, giving thanks for giving her a good son, a responsible young man.
“I think now that maybe that was the moment he was being sacrificed,” she said.
Though she lost her appetite for a time and couldn’t sleep, she never lost her spiritual strength, she said, and never felt weak. She still meets with some of the families who share the pain of that terrible August day.
“I ask God to forgive them,” she said of the perpetrators. “I don’t hold anger in my heart toward them. I ask that they be forgiven, and it will be God who will take care of it.”
She said her son often called her on the phone, told her about the difficult parts, the loneliness, the hard work, the constant worry about being caught by immigration authorities. That pain is all gone now.
All that’s left is the property he left behind and the belongings he had worried about in the U.S. and that possibly prompted him to leave El Salvador again. She said she considers herself blessed because at least she knows where her son is buried; there are families who’ve seen their loved ones leave and never heard from them again.
Those who leave for the U.S. or other countries always speak of “a better life,” she said.
“But it’s not” a better life, she said, warning that sometimes the price is too high.