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Alvarado sees his support of the consulate as a civic duty. "They're so shorthanded and so underfunded that they need volunteer help," he says. But Loera soon realized that, in return, Alvarado essentially had a monopoly on any potentially lucrative civil suits stemming from cases the consulate handled, even though several other lawyers also perform pro bono work for the consulate.
Though she was troubled by what she saw, Loera continued in her job, convinced she could do more good from the inside. In September 2004, she got the chance when Yolanda Mendez, 17 at the time, came to the consulate for help, her newborn daughter in her arms. Mendez was the victim of eight years of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her uncle, an illegal immigrant living in Dallas. The birth of the child he fathered had given her the courage to escape from her apartment prison near Parkland Hospital.
Mendez's case would prove to be a watershed event for Loera. Not only would Loera push hard to exact justice in the case, but she would also adopt Mendez and her daughter. The case would also lead to the final break between Loera and the consulate and add substantial weight to her allegations against Lara. When confronted with the tearful victim of a heinous crime, Mendez says, Lara reacted as he had so many times before--he advised her to forget about American justice and flee to Mexico.
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Mendez's mother had died, and she was living with her aunt and uncle in 1996 when the uncle, Juan Garcia Aguilar, surprised the 9-year-old bathing by the river. "He raped me," Mendez says matter-of-factly. The incident was the beginning of seven years of sexual abuse and frequent, severe beatings. Garcia, now 47, threatened to kill both Mendez and her aunt if they told anyone.
In March 2003, Garcia forced Mendez to come to the United States with him. After a harrowing trek through the desert, Garcia and Mendez arrived in Phoenix. Over the next year they would travel to North Carolina and Atlanta, finally arriving in Dallas. Mendez was kept prisoner, locked into apartments they shared with various other migrants. She was often the only female and always the only child. Garcia alternately told people that she was his daughter or his wife and continued to abuse her sexually and physically.
On August 16, 2004, Mendez gave birth to a daughter at Parkland, and her desperation deepened. She was forced to live in a closet and was beaten if the baby cried. "He made me nurse the baby while he was raping me, to keep her quiet," Mendez says. She and her baby were denied even basic medical care. Mendez saw a grim future unfolding for her daughter. "I was really worried, because after living my childhood in terror, I didn't want the same thing to happen to her," she says.
It took Mendez nearly a month to summon the courage to escape with her daughter. She fled to the house of Garcia's employer, whose wife had grown suspicious when she saw bloodstains from a beating on Yolanda's sheet during a visit. The woman took her to the consulate, and after a half-hour wait, Mendez found herself in front of the vice consul for protection, Luis Lara.
In tears, the desperate girl told the story that she had shared for the first time only hours before. Lara paused, considered. Then he gravely informed Mendez that there was nothing he could do. "I just stood there, stunned," Mendez says. "I couldn't believe what he was telling me. I, a Mexican victim, am asking you for help, for support. What makes more sense than the Mexican government helping a Mexican victim?"
Lara explained that if he helped her, the consulate would be open to the accusation that it had aided in the prosecution of a Mexican national. He suggested she forget the whole thing and go home to Mexico, she says, even offering her money to help her on her way. "I told him that the only family I had in Mexico was Garcia's family, and that they would kill me and my daughter if I went back," Mendez says.
Mendez refused to take no for an answer, and an exasperated Lara finally went to Loera and asked her to take over the case. "I said, 'OK, Luis,'" Loera remembers, "'I'm going to take this case, but if I get on this case I'm going to follow it to the end, to make sure that if he did do this that he's going to get prosecuted.'" Lara agreed, and Loera immediately picked up the phone and dialed 911.
Until DNA tests proved that Garcia was the father of Mendez's child, Dallas police could not arrest him, so Loera filed for a protective order. The woman that Mendez was staying with was also an illegal immigrant, a fact that posed several legal hurdles. A lawyer advised Loera that the best way to settle Mendez's status would be if she were adopted by an American citizen. "I went home and decided that the person that needed to adopt her was going to be me, because no one else was going to stand up for her," Loera says.