SAN JULIAN, Mexico – Outside the house, the annual fiestas
reverberated, three weeks of dancing, weddings, family reunions,
polished pickup trucks parading through town.
Inside, Maria del Carmen, 49, sat silently at her kitchen
table holding a photo of a man in a cowboy hat standing by his
beloved red horse.
The man should have been here with all the other husbands,
sons, brothers and fathers reveling in their hometown before
returning to work in the United States.
But 16 months ago, Denver police stormed the wrong house at
the wrong time. They killed him, the wrong man, in a botched drug
The man was her husband, Ismael Mena. To make amends, Denver
taxpayers paid $400,000. That money bought this house at the edge
of San Julian for Maria and her nine children – more convenient
than living on Mena’s hardscrabble farm southeast of here.
The kitchen is fancier than Maria ever imagined, with running
water, a stove, a 4-foot-tall refrigerator, tile floor, even a
microwave. In addition, monthly $1,600 checks are scheduled to
arrive for two decades.
Still, every check “makes me more sad, because I remember
what happened to my husband,” Maria del Carmen said. “I’m
thinking, it was much nicer when he was here in Mexico with us.”
And while the legal business is officially over, the Mena
case festers, raising questions of justice that have many
Coloradans, and Mexicans, furious.
Last month, Denver leaders let officer Joseph Bini, whose
faulty no-knock warrant triggered the raid, resume police work
after a three-month suspension. Last week, City Council members
agreed to pay $1.2 million – three times as much – to a Denver
teenager paralyzed when police shot him running from a burglary
with a gun.
“Disgusting,” Mexican Consul General Carlos Barros said in
Here in Mexico, people shake their heads, saying this just
cements the hypocrisy of a nation that relies on Mexican labor as
never before while openly discounting Mexican lives.
Yet Maria’s message to you in Denver is measured: “We thank
everyone who is helping us, supporting us,” she said. “I feel sad
when I think of what happened to my husband. I take consolation
that I’m with my children.”
For Bini, she voiced compassion. “I’m very sad about what
happened to my husband,” she said. “But him, he needs his work. He
has a family, too.”
New house means end
of life on the land
Big changes in the Mena survivors’ lives began six months ago
when they used some settlement money to buy the two-story,
three-bedroom house in this farming town of about 20,000 people.
It cost $70,000.
Living here’s easier, though not as free, as on the farm
where the Menas struggled before. Ismael Mena was exceptionally
devoted to traditional farming on his 14 acres. He kept his family
in a three-room adobe house. He invested in livestock despite
scarce water and globalization’s side effects: collapsing beef and
Mexico’s entry into the world economy means more competition
for small farmers and new factory opportunities for workers,
raising expectations – and shaking traditions Mena loved.
Now, his survivors’ house is fairly typical.
San Julian is filled with modern, bright two- and three-story
homes painted pink, turquoise and yellow, some adorned with
intricate round observatory towers and giant rooftop satellite
dishes. That’s because an estimated 90 percent of men here work in
the United States. They earn up to $20 an hour (about $41,600 a
year, not counting overtime), enabling an ever-more comfortable,
They are among 300,000 or more Mexicans who go north, legally
or illegally, to work in U.S. cities such as Denver. Mexicans
working in the United States last year sent home an estimated $7
billion. Meanwhile, poverty in Mexico is increasing, with 15
million people living on less than $1 a day. Ismael Mena worked in
the United States for years, with an official work permit at
times. In Denver, Coca-Cola accepted his papers and gave him a
$300-a-week night-shift job lifting red plastic crates.
Today in Mexico, the Menas are more or less middle class. Few
people know they receive money from Denver. The $1,600 monthly
checks, which started arriving in August, cover basic expenses.
Maria said groceries for 10 – including 2-year-old grandson Miguel
– cost about $1,000. Medicine costs about $100. Ismael Jr., 18, is
diabetic. Twin 21-year-old daughters Rosaelia and Rosalilia suffer
from headaches and underwent medical tests.
“They are traumatized,” Dr. Ismael Macias said in his
diagnosis. “It will take time.”
Other monthly expenses include $80 for telephone service, $20
for electricity, $20 for cable television (39 channels) and $8 for
water. Maria and her daughters make most of their own clothes.
They walk to church and shops, though eldest son Heriberto, 22,
recently paid $8,000 for a used Chevy truck. Filling it with gas
costs about $50 – too much.
The main difference now: less work. Running water – “hot
here, cold here, and we even have hot water upstairs,” Maria noted
proudly – means she needn’t hike out to pumps or ponds and lug
buckets back every time she washes dishes or clothes.
The gas stove frees her from having to find, cut and haul
wood before meals.
The refrigerator enables a more diverse diet. Maria still
prepares corn tortillas and beans in the blackened ceramic pot she
used before. Now she also serves beef and fresh vegetables.
At last the children are regularly in school. At sunrise, as
roosters crow, Juanita, 13, and Irene, 15, their backpacks stuffed
with books and notepads, set out down Calle Reforma toward the
high school with 17 rooms and 700 students. Soon after, Alejandro,
12, who loves soccer, and Carmen, 9, who loves coloring books,
walk through a pasture to a primary school.
Ismael Jr., makes furniture at a small local factory. Wages
are less than $10 a day. But he’s proud, learning new skills. “Six
days a week,” he said, smiling, sanding a sheet of pine for
shelves that are sold here in San Julian.
Family keeps memories of hard-working patriarch
Mena’s family keeps a suitcase full of his work clothes to help
them remember him – very strong, hardworking, a loving man who
brought them toys from the United States, a horseman who could
also ride bulls.
“When you hold the clothes, it makes you content,
remembering,” Rosaelia said.
Yet memories also torment them, arriving unexpectedly,
sister Rosalilia added.
“Not exactly every hour, but at various times all the day.
Always when we see something he liked. Or when we see a red horse
– like his. It’s sad, thinking. …”
The twins plan to work at small household sewing centers in
the future if their headaches pass. Maria taught them to sew on a
white Kenmore that Ismael brought from the United States.
For now, they work at home, mopping the tiled floor daily.
They hang clothes to dry on the patio. The children help water red
flowers growing in silver coffee cans and clay pots. They’re not
allowed to play in the living room with immaculate new furniture.
One recent night, the Mena children walked through San Julian
to a carnival, part of the annual Candelaria fiestas. Originally
religious, the fiestas are adapted to a family-centered migratory
culture. The Menas passed bumper cars, a roller coaster and dart
games where visiting fathers hovered over other children smiling
It’s a source of great sadness for Maria that her eldest son,
Heriberto, plans to move north again in the migration that
consumed his father.
Heriberto, 22, first left at 16. That’s what local heroes do.
He excelled in the United States, essentially running one
restaurant, waiting tables at another. He graduated from high
school and had begun college computer courses when his father was
He never visited home for fear his lack of legal immigration
papers would make it difficult for him to get back to work. He
missed his father’s funeral for this reason. In December, he went
home because the settlement made his family’s situation less
He loved it. He went out every night, circling up and down
Avenida Hidalgo, letting friends drive his blue truck. A photo of
his father in his wallet, and long-awaited braces on his teeth,
Heriberto exchanged greetings, shook hands, savored every glance
at the beautiful women. He danced late into one starry night with
a girl in a pink top and tight black pants as Julio Preciado and
his band performed.
“But one month is enough,” he said. There’s no work here that
appeals to him, he said. Farming offers no future.
Looking at Heriberto chatting over tequila at a wedding as
the bride and groom danced, he seemed “like the happiest guy in
the world,” said Juan Herrera, 33, a close friend who stood nearby.
But Heriberto’s head is turning inside, Herrera said. “Maybe
after five years, this family will begin to feel better.” Denver’s
wrongful death money “is part of” the healing, Herrera said. “But
it’s not everything. Because in Mexico the family is so strong, it
is harder here. It’s going to take time.”
No formal apology from Denver ever arrived here, the Menas say.
One recent morning, Heriberto drove half an hour east to the
cemetery where his father is buried.
Caretaker Pedro Losano was hauling weeds in a wheelbarrow.
Heriberto found the white tomb. He faced it silently for
nearly two minutes. He cried quietly.
He went to Losano and asked what the family must pay to keep
the bones in the tomb after five years.
Then Heriberto drove west, kicking up contrails of dust, on
the road to the family farm by an old church and a few houses that
together are known as San Felipe Jesus de las Casas Blancas.
He stopped at the church. Old men were fixing it up slowly
for a fiesta today. Heriberto entered through the side. He
crossed himself and sat in the front pew where the family used to
Outside, Sara and Francisco Cabrera, selling sodas to passing
pilgrims, told Heriberto it’s not right that police responsible
for killing his father continue to work.
Heriberto drove on to the family farm where his grandmother
Dona Julia, 81, putters alone with her mutt and caged dove. She
refuses to leave the crumbling old house with dirt floors: “mi
She padlocks herself into her room every night, where candles
burn by the carved statues of saints on her shelves.
Heriberto sat with her, and reluctantly gave her $100 for
food. He gave her money before and she promptly donated it to the
church in memory of her son.
An old friend, Santiago Torres, approached on his burro,
asking if anybody had seen three stray cows.
He told how he knew Ismael Mena when Heriberto was a toddler,
helped him build the gray adobe house and work the cornfield.
Torres knew Ismael “better than I,” Heriberto recalled sadly, for
his father worked in the United States during much of his childhood.
His grandmother returned to her stitching and watering her
plants. She said Ismael’s ghost visits her on the farm. “I still
cry for my littlest boy,” she said tearfully.
“I had a dream. My son was calling. “Mama! Mama!’ I woke up.
I went to console him, my poor little boy. But he wasn’t there.”
THE CASE OF ISMAEL MENA
Sept. 29, 1999
Denver police kill Mexican migrant Ismael Mena in a botched
no-knock drug raid on High Street in Denver. SWAT officers went to
the wrong house because of a mistake in a search warrant prepared
by officer Joseph Bini. Mena had been sleeping after his night
shift at the Coca-Cola bottling plant.
Dec. 15, 1999
The FBI launches as investigation of possible criminal civil
rights violations after Mexican officials raise concerns in
Feb. 4, 2000
Special prosecutor appointed by Denver District Attorney Bill
Ritter charges Bini with perjury. Bini allegedly lied to the judge
who signed the warrant, claiming he knew the address in the
warrant was correct because he saw his informant enter and leave
Feb. 8, 2000
Denver Police Chief Tom Sanchez returns from Hawaii after being
called back by Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. That evening, Webb
fires Sanchez as chief.
Feb. 23, 2000
Webb names Division Chief Gerry Whitman interim police chief.
Feb. 24, 2000
Webb announces a proposed overhaul of Police Department
policies, including reducing the number of no-knock raids and
giving the public access to discipline records.
March 23, 2000
Mena family settles with the city of Denver for $400,000.
May 19, 2000
Gov. Bill Owens signs Senate Bill 208, which tightens
requirements for approval of no-knock warrants. A prosecutor’s
signature now is required before a judge is asked to approve a
July 7, 2000
Whitman becomes police chief.
July 18, 2000
Denver police alter ride-along rules after revelations that
then-Colorado Rockie player Mike Lansing accompanied police during
the Mena raid.
Sept. 1, 2000
A Denver judge limits evidence that can be presented against
Bini. Mention of Mena’s death during next month’s trial is
Dec. 1, 2000
Denver District Judge Shelly Gilman sentences Bini to 12 months
probation and 150 hours of community service after he pleads
tearfuly for mercy. Bini pleaded guilty to first-degree
misconduct, a misdemeanor.
Jan. 15, 2001
Denver Manager of Safety Ari Zavaras and Whitman concur: Bini
can go back to work. They announce he received a three-month
suspension without pay.
Jan. 29, 2001
Denver City Council members approve a $1.2 million settlement
for a Denver teenager shot at the scene of a burglary by Denver
police officer Keith Cowgill. The teen was left paralyzed. Police
emphasized he had a gun. The $1.2 million is three times what
Denver paid Mena’s family.