By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Even after Garcia's arrest, Lara continued to urge Mendez to drop the charges, Mendez and Loera say. Lara confidently predicted that Garcia would get little if any prison time and would come out eager for revenge. Then one day Lara approached Loera at the consulate. "He said, 'You know, Yolanda's been lying to you,'" Loera says. Garcia's son had come from Mexico, bearing a birth certificate that appeared to show that Mendez was actually 19, which would mean she was an adult when she crossed the border.
Loera was unfazed. The only personal possession that Mendez had been able to keep during her transient existence in the United States was a tattered copy of her birth certificate. Loera contacted the appropriate agency in Mexico and, within days, had an answer via e-mail: Mendez was 17, meaning Garcia's document was a fake.
After the birth certificate ploy failed, Garcia pleaded guilty. In a meeting with Mendez, Lara tried to take credit for discovering the forgery, Mendez says, but when she asked why he hadn't then filed charges against Garcia's son, Lara dropped the matter. All that remained was a sentencing hearing on April 22, 2005, the day that would determine whether Lara's prediction of a light sentence would come true.
The court proceedings in English were incomprehensible to Mendez. When the judge announced Garcia's sentence, the uproar in the courtroom told her that something important had happened--but she didn't know what. "I turned to Susana, and she was crying," Mendez recalls. "She said, 'Oh, Yolanda,' and I was like 'What? What? Did he let him go?'" They had not let Garcia go--he was sentenced to life in prison, the maximum penalty. Realizing that her nightmare was finally over was "the best moment of my life," she says.
Mendez knows exactly where she would be if fate hadn't brought her into contact with Loera. "If it wasn't for Susana Loera, I would be chopped up into a million pieces along with my daughter, somewhere in the woods in Mexico," Mendez says.
Now she spends her days studying at home, trying to make up for the lost years of schooling. Tests showed that Mendez, now 18, was at the educational level of a second-grader. She is progressing steadily but painfully in her lessons, interspersed with the demands of caring for her 16-month-old daughter. "I never got to have a childhood," Mendez says, "so I'm having it now along with my daughter." Two weeks ago, Mendez received an unexpected phone call from her aunt in Mexico, thanking her for what she had done.
Adjusting to the new living situation hasn't been easy for anybody. "I love what I did, but I never expected it," Loera says. "Financially it's been a huge burden." Loera was also faced with the task of explaining to her own 11-year-old daughter just why she suddenly had an older sibling, one who needed a lot of understanding and support. With her new responsibilities, Loera postponed future plans. "After I graduated from UTA, my plans were to go to law school," Loera says. "You have to put your priorities on the line, like, 'Am I going to go to law school, or am I going to help this victim?'"
She also began telling her story to anyone who would listen. Loera says she spoke to several Spanish-language news organizations, but they were hesitant to run a story that would damage the reputation of the Mexican government. It took until November before an interview finally aired--in English. Once that report ran on November 15 on KDFW-Channel 4, articles began appearing in Spanish-language newspapers across the United States and Mexico, including in Dallas.
Loera also began sending letters to law enforcement officials at all levels of the U.S. and Mexican governments. A November 28 letter to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales opens: "I am writing to you today to report activity occurring at the Mexican Consulate in Dallas, Texas, that I feel is not only unethical but clearly illegal." It was her letter to the Mexican Foreign Ministry that finally brought the desired result--an official investigation.
In the meantime, Loera has garnered support from several directions. Most significant has been the inside perspective of Greg Flores, a UTA student who worked at the consulate for a month on an internship arranged by Loera. Flores says he saw Lara use many of the same practices that drew Loera's ire, including advising victims to flee the country.
"A battered wife would come in and say, 'I want to press charges against my husband,'" Flores says. "Luis Lara would say, 'Well, the laws are so lenient here, he'll just get probation and come back and beat you some more. It's best for you to just go back to Mexico.'" When Loera left the consulate in May, Flores wasn't comfortable staying, and he performed the rest of his internship at Loera's new employer, Read & Wright.