By Maggie Ybarra
El Paso Times
The family and friends of alleged gunman Joél Ernesto Cereceres, 24, bury his body Tuesday in a southwest Juárez cemetery. Family members said Cereceres did not have a gun and was not shooting at police when he was killed Saturday in a gunbattle, which ensued after assailants first attacked Juárez municipal police and then Mexican federal police responded.
An El Paso family torn apart by a border and a drug war reunited at a funeral Tuesday.
More than 10 El Pasoans drove into Juárez to attend the funeral of Joél Ernesto Cereceres, 24, who was killed Saturday during a gunbattle that took place across the border from the University of Texas at El Paso and the nearby Sunset Heights neighborhood.
Mexican federal police said Cereceres, a Mexican national, was a gunman who exchanged bullets with them shortly before 6 p.m. Three Juárez police officers were wounded during that shootout, said Mexican federal police spokes man José Ramón Salinas.
The family of Cereceres said he was not shooting at police. They said he was running through the street seeking cover from the onslaught of bullets being exchanged between police and narco traffickers. Police got the facts and Cereceres' age wrong, family said. Police say he was 24; his family says he was 22.
Cereceres was a chef at a maquiladora who worked hard for his money, said his U.S.-born cousin, Elizabeth Contreras.
"It's not fair for him to die like that, alone, and for them to ruin his name when it's not even like that. He had so much to live for," she said.
Residents of Calle Vanadio said they saw Cereceres chasing after a car before he was shot and killed by Mexican police Saturday. They said that police shot the wrong man and that Cereceres was unarmed.
Contreras, 23, wept bitterly over her cousin's death as she watched her relatives throw dirt on his casket Tuesday at the Jardines del Recuerdo cemetery in southwest Juárez.
Not all of her El Paso and Juárez relatives were able to make it to the funeral, Contreras said. Everyone wanted to attend, but some people were afraid there might be a shootout in the middle of the burial. Retaliation against family members has been a common theme at Juárez funerals, she said.
Contreras said she was willing to take the risk.
"This is the last time we're ever going to see him," she said. "So if anything happens, well, we might as well be together."
Contreras said the area Cereceres lived in has become increasingly dangerous over the years. When she was younger, she used to play with him in the streets. Now, children who live in the brightly colored homes with iron bars on the windows no longer talk to strangers because those strangers could have perilous drug-trafficking connections.
The gunbattle that Cereceres died in on Saturday took place in an area comprising several small neighborhoods where three major incidents have affected El Pasoans in the past two months.
Family and friends of alleged gunman Joél Ernesto Cereceres mourn during the burial service for him in a southwest Juárez cemetery Tuesday. Cereceres died Saturday in a shootout with Mexican federal police.
On June 29, a gunfight between Mexican police and criminals erupted near an S-Mart parking lot. The battle near the supermarket chain store killed one Mexican federal police officer and probably created seven bullet pockmarks in the walls of El Paso City Hall, according to the El Paso Police Department.
On Aug. 6, Irvin High School teacher James Patrick Barnes was shot in the back on the balcony of his girlfriend's house, according to Colonia Cazadores Juarenses residents. That house was two blocks from where the gunbattle took place Saturday.
UTEP police suspect that a stray bullet from that battle pierced a glass panel of Bell Hall and hit the corner of College of Science adviser Margie Gutierrez's office door.
In addition, El Paso police are investigating the possibility that another stray bullet struck a car. On Tuesday, Rescue Mission of El Paso employees said that the mission was hit by at least one bullet from the gunbattle and that they found three ricochet marks.
Residents of Sunset Heights who witnessed Saturday's shootout said they have noticed that the violence just across Paisano Drive has increased over time.
Alejandro Olvera, 39, said he is worried about the safety of Sunset Heights and his family. He said he has lived in the 1300 block of Main Street for the past three years and has been shocked recently by hearing multiple bullets slicing through the air.
Irma Davila, 47, also lives in the 1300 block of Main Street. She said she, too, has noticed the escalation in violence across the Rio Grande.
"In the past couple of months we've seen a lot of Mexican police dressed in black going through that neighborhood (in Juárez)," she said.
Salinas, spokesman for the Mexican federal police, declined to comment on the reputation of the neighborhood.
The drug war in Juárez has killed more than 1,900 people this year. A total of 6,159 have been slain since 2008, according to an El Paso Times tally.
But even though violence has increased just yards from Sunset Heights, the demand for a house in the historic neighborhood has not changed.
During the first eight months of 2010, homes in Sunset Heights sold at prices from about $90,000 to $250,000. Those homes stayed on the market for less than a year, according to data provided by the Greater El Paso Association of Realtors.
In addition, crime statistics show that assaults, burglaries, burglary of vehicles, larceny and robberies are down for one of the oldest areas in the city by about 7 percent this year, according to the El Paso Police Department.
Olvera said the house he lives in has been owned by his wife's family for about 30 years. Leaving at this point is not an option, he said.
"We won't change homes," Olvera said. "We will continue to live here."
Maggie Ybarra may be reached at email@example.com.
Adriana Gómez Licón contributed to this story.