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By Rachel Watts
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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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
Flores says he was shocked by the attitude of Lara and others at the consulate. "Their mentality is, 'It's them against us,'" he says. Nevertheless, he doesn't regret his month there. "It opened my eyes," Flores says. "I assumed the corruption was only in Mexico and that it couldn't happen here."
Dallas attorney David Reyna can confirm Lara's run-for-the-border advice. A client, Roberto Valles, came to him in a state of near-panic after Lara told him to flee to Mexico after Valles was cited for having a fake Social Security card. Valles didn't want to leave his job or his two American-born children, and Reyna assured him that skipping the country wouldn't be necessary. Valles went to court in October, and the case was dismissed. "This guy had the courage to come to see me and then the courage to show up to court," Reyna says, "but I don't know how many people took [Lara's] advice." Reyna is eager to talk to investigators about Lara's act. "There have been no consequences for what he almost did to that family," Reyna says.
Pablo Alvarado's privileged position at the consulate has also been confirmed by several attorneys, Loera says, including her employer John Read. Read did pro bono work for the consulate until earlier in 2005 and makes no secret of his position. "They're not really helping the people," Read says. "I got discouraged; I just quit working with them." Former city council member and attorney Domingo Garcia has also complained of having clients stolen away by Alvarado at the consulate.
Sylvia Gonzales, a local doctor, has added her voice to Loera's complaints as well. In two years as an immigrant advocate for the Irving Independent School District, Gonzales paid frequent visits to the consulate with her clients seeking information or documents. "The majority of the people that go there for help are poor, uneducated people, and the treatment they get is extremely bad," Gonzales says. "You always spend hours and hours--one case takes all morning, and many times we'd come away with nothing."
Not everyone is disenchanted with the consulate, however. Dallas attorney Charles Noteboom has done pro bono work there and has contributed money to fund consulate events as well. "There are just way too few people there trying to do way too big of a job," Noteboom says. "They're hard-working public servants."
Consul General Carlos Garcia de Alba has taken the lead in defending his office. "First, Susana Loera was never an employee of the consulate," Garcia de Alba says. "Ms. Loera was never an employee of the government of Mexico, despite what she says to the contrary. Secondly, all of her assertions are absolutely slanderous, all of them." He also has some words of warning for Loera: "She has made some very grave accusations," he says. "If any of them are proven, we would bear the consequences, as would be our responsibility, but if they don't find anything, which is what will be the case, Ms. Loera will be the one faced with a serious legal problem."
Loera says she has already faced anonymous e-mails attacking her character, saying she'd slept with multiple consulate employees. Another rumor circulated that she and John Read were lovers. Loera says both claims are false but not unexpected. "That's the old Mexican way of doing stuff, the old macho way--'She's a bad person because she sleeps around,'" Loera says. "My only motivation is Yolanda."
When Garcia de Alba is asked about Loera's possible motivations for her campaign against the consulate, the diplomat responds, "You'll have to ask her." But in a July 13, 2005, letter of recommendation Garcia de Alba wrote for Loera, a letter laden with praise for Loera's "diligence" and "calm resolve," his own words suggest a different rationale: "Her dedication to justice is the focal point of her life, and she is a woman that has made the decision to help those less fortunate than herself."