Maria Luisa Aragon was killed in Juarez, Mexico, on Dec. 9, 2009, in a case of mistaken identity. She is among the 30,000 victims of Mexico's brutal drug war.
By Monica Ortiz Uribe
Jaime Aragon met his wife, Maria Luisa, at a restaurant he used to own. She walked in with wavy, jet black hair, pretty eyes and a radiant smile. Aragon was smitten. They shared a passion for cooking and loved Mexican country star Vicente Fernandez. A few months after they met, the couple married on Valentine's Day.
"She had a unique smile that brought warmth to everybody, made everyone feel happy and welcome," Aragon says.
Maria Luisa also was very charitable, and once a month she would visit a struggling family in a poor barrio in Juarez.
"So my wife would get together clothes for them, medicines, food, and we would take them a little bit of money," he says.
Last year, on Dec. 9, Maria Luisa was picking up medical supplies for that family. She and her pastor drove to a local hospital.
"And so she left him at the door. And when she went and parked, a car drove up and opened fire, and they killed her," her husband recalls.
She is one of the more than 30,000 people killed in the past four years in Mexico's war with drug cartels. In Juarez alone this year, more than 3,000 people died in drug-related violence. Many of those killed are involved in criminal gangs. But many others, such as Maria Luisa, were not.
'Wrong Place, Wrong Time'
It was a typical drive-by shooting, the kind that happens nearly every day in Juarez. But in this case, Maria Luisa wasn't the intended target.
"My wife was at the wrong place at the wrong time. It was a mistaken identity. Because at 2:25 in the afternoon, Channel 44 news, they tell me that they had found another truck — the same year, same model, same color, and they had killed a man and a woman," Aragon says.
In the other car, police identified a woman known as "La Jefa," or the boss. They also found weapons stashed in the back of the car. To date, police have not made arrests in either of the killings.
"We were not doing anything wrong. We were not involved with the wrong people. My wife was just an innocent bystander, and you know, what happens in Juarez affects all of us," Aragon says.
Like thousands of Juarez families, Aragon shuttered his home there and brought his children to live permanently in El Paso, Texas, where he works for a local college. Their lives are forever changed.
"It's very hard because I had the plans and the hope of my wife coming back to the U.S., and buying a house and growing old together," he says.
Doctor Dies Doing His Duty
Mistaken identity is one way innocent people are caught in the crossfire. Many others are killed simply doing their job — doctors, lawyers, police and journalists; among them, an anesthesiologist named Jose Ortiz Collazo, killed July 16. His brother Miguel tells the story.
"He was in his office a block away when he heard gunshots. He and his son went out to see what happened. When he saw someone was injured, he sent his son back to his office to get his first-aid kit," he says.
Moments later, a car bomb, detonated remotely, exploded. Ortiz was in the center of impact. Photos of the aftermath show him sitting on the pavement hunched over and surrounded by twisted metal and glass. His white lab coat is tattered and bloody. Ortiz only lived a few hours afterward. When his brother Miguel heard the news, he rushed from his home in El Paso to the hospital in Juarez.
"It's so difficult to describe. Half of his face was torn off by the blast. He was missing an eye. He lost two or three fingers. His arms were broken, his legs were fractured, and he was losing a lot of blood," he says.
Miguel's last words to his brother were that he would take care of his son, Kevin, the one who survived the explosion. Ortiz has three other children, including a 9-year-old daughter.
While Ortiz was a casualty of an attack believed to be aimed at federal police, violence has struck doctors in Juarez especially hard. This year, a pediatrician and an orthopedic surgeon were kidnapped and murdered. Many others are threatened and extorted. Gunmen even follow survivors of their attacks into hospitals with the intent of finishing them off. Many doctors have fled Juarez, but thousands more remain.
Miguel says his brother died unjustly. Even so, he says he died doing his duty helping others. Like many other families in Juarez and across Mexico, Miguel braces himself for yet another year in such a violent reality.
"We hope it gets better," he says.
But of course, that's what many hoped for last year.
Dr. Jose Ortiz Collazo is pictured here as a medical school graduate. In July, a car bomb in Juarez killed Ortiz as he was trying to help people injured by gunfire.