By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Susana Loera remembers the first time she heard her boss tell somebody to break the law. It was in early 2004, and the parents of a Mexican man arrested in Dallas had come to the consulate seeking advice. Luis Lara, Mexican vice consul for protection, found out that U.S. immigration had neglected to put a deportation hold on the prisoner, meaning he could still be released on bail. Lara turned to the anxious parents as Loera stood nearby.
"He said, 'My advice to you is to go bond him out now and go back to Mexico,'" Loera says. "He said, 'If he stays here, he's going to get convicted. The American justice system is very corrupt. He's going to get an outlandish sentence, so you need to bond him out now and run to Mexico.'"
Loera, a round-faced, energetic 33-year-old Texas native of Mexican descent, was in the second day of an internship serving as a legal assistant in the Mexican Consulate in Dallas. The job would be the final requirement for her degree in criminal justice from UT-Arlington, and she had high hopes of helping Mexican immigrants negotiate the twists and turns of the U.S. legal system as she prepared for law school. She never expected to hear them told that the best course was to head due south.
At first, Loera thought she'd somehow misunderstood Lara--but in the weeks and months ahead, she says, Lara repeated that advice dozens of times to Mexican nationals accused of everything from petty theft to murder. "I had problems with two things about telling these people to run to Mexico," Loera says. "One, it makes [the accused] look guilty, and maybe he's innocent. Secondly, maybe he's not innocent--maybe he's guilty, and there's a criminal out there now who's running to Mexico for a small period of time and changes his name and he comes back and he's living next to me."
Loera has since left the consulate and is now leading a campaign to put an end to the "many ethical violations and in some cases the blatant disregard for the well-being of Mexican nationals," as she wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Another charge she's leveled is that consul officials allow Dallas attorney Pablo Alvarado special privileges in exchange for cash and favors. Several supporters have rallied to her cause, including former consulate employees and Loera's current employer, Dallas attorney John Read. "It's pretty damn unethical as far as I'm concerned," Read says of the atmosphere at the consulate. As a result of Loera's efforts, the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs has launched an investigation into its Dallas office. Requests for comment from Lara were directed to the diplomat in charge, Consul General Carlos Garcia de Alba, who insists that Loera's story is baseless. "We have nothing to hide," he says.
According to Loera, suspected criminals weren't the only ones Lara advised to return to Mexico. During her time at the consulate, Loera says, victims, too, were often told they would be better off escaping to Mexico than looking for justice from the U.S. legal system. Heated arguments became a regular feature of Loera's job as she protested against the policy, first to Lara, then up the chain of command, eventually reaching Garcia de Alba, who was appointed in March 2004. She says her protests were ignored, and her initial incredulity gave way to frustration.
Despite the tension, Loera was asked to stay on when her internship ended in May 2004. Her fluent English and knowledge of the U.S. system made her an invaluable resource. Though the consulate didn't have the money to pay her, Pablo Alvarado, at the request of the consul general, was willing to do so. Loera says Alvarado offered her a deal: $36,000 a year, or $24,000 plus a nice commission on any personal injury cases she referred to him.
Alvarado already had one employee, law student Alvino Guajardo, who often volunteered at the consulate--and, according to Loera and others, recruited clients for Alvarado from among those seeking help from the Mexican government. Loera, leery of serving two masters, skipped the commission, figuring the criminal cases she would handle would be of little interest to Alvarado anyway. "I talked to him that one time, and the next time I talked to him was probably months later," she says. "I just went in and picked up my check, and I didn't have anything else to do with him."
Loera worked in the consulate's Protection Department under Luis Lara and his supervisor, Consul Miguel Eduardo Rea. The department's task is protecting the rights of Mexican nationals in their dealings with U.S. authorities. Mexicans in the country illegally are often victimized by their employers, who skimp on pay and safety equipment, banking on their worker's reluctance to involve the law. Many such victims come to the Dallas consulate seeking advice and aid.
For all intents and purposes, Loera was a consulate staffer, with a desk, a consulate e-mail address and a photo ID signed by the consul general--but a paycheck signed by Alvarado. Alvarado also contributed to other consulate causes including paying members of Lara's family to help produce a video aimed at educating Mexicans about U.S. laws.