He was a favorite child of two nations, though Jesus Manuel “Junie” Herrera didn’t see it that way at all. Not as he was crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on April 29, sandwiched in a leisurely procession of members of the Hotter Than Hell Drag Race Club, Presidio’s goodwill ambassadors. Wives and kids and vintage cars in tow, Herrera and his friends did not think of the short drive to Ojinaga as a venture into another country, a foreign republic with foreign people and customs and, especially, a foreign justice system. All their lives they had crossed that boundary. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. Out in the torrid Chihuahuan Desert in a place fittingly called Pista Caliente, or Hot Track, men from both sides of the Rio Grande raced each other monthly on a skinny, two-lane asphalt track. They had a common goal: a gaudy, three-foot-tall trophy that when Herrera won, he would showcase in the grocery store he owned with his father, whose patrons were mostly from Mexico. Afterward, the whole group would stop at La Estancia, a popular Ojinaga watering hole where they’d park their trucks and down some beers in good company.
The people of Presidio and Ojinaga were aware that they lived on the edges of their two countries, but except for bureaucratic nuisances like paying taxes or electing some distant government leader, here the Rio Grande had always seemed irrelevant. Because of the two towns’ isolation—two and a half hours to the nearest Wal-Mart in Fort Stockton or Chihuahua City—they had come to depend on the border economy. Social life and even family life here was profoundly international: Often, one’s mother, best friend, or significant other lived on the opposite side of a tollbooth. Sure, residents watched as U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents wrestled with a steady stream of drugs and illegal immigration. But that was another world, one from which they considered themselves immune. In theirs, the two towns nurtured each other more than they caused each other headaches.
That changed dramatically on April 29. Twenty minutes after the racers had gathered at Pista Caliente, as Herrera was completing his second trial run, he noticed a group of six men approaching him. They were judiciales—state police. “What I thought was maybe he didn’t pay a speeding ticket or something,” said Herrera’s friend Tiburcio “Butch” Acosta, a Presidio councilman and an assistant store manager at a duty-free shop who had been watching from a distance. The police swarmed around Herrera’s 1955 Chevy Bel Air; Herrera, as usual, offered his hand. The judiciales shook it. Then they brought out the handcuffs. Dryly, they informed him that they had “un orden de aprehensión por homicidio” and that he was under arrest. Herrera was so astonished that he asked for an explanation. “Don’t you know what homicide is?” the judiciales barked. Bewildered, he turned to look at his friends, but no one could explain what was unfolding as the agents walked him away to one of their trucks.
As his astounded family and friends soon discovered, Herrera had been arrested for the February 19 murder of José Luis Ortega Mata, the 37-year-old editor of the weekly newspaper El Semanario de Ojinaga. Ortega had been shot twice in the head with a .22 pistol and found a few blocks from his home, next to his minivan. To the racing club, and to almost everyone else in Presidio and Ojinaga, the charges were preposterous. Herrera was an immensely popular figure, a prominent, highly visible citizen with hundreds of friends on both sides of the border. The details behind the charges were even more absurd. The arrest warrant the state police had used when they handcuffed him carried someone else’s name. The government’s sole witness, a heroin addict and prostitute who habitually robbed her clients, was in jail for theft the day she said she saw Herrera shoot the journalist. The description she gave of the murderer—short, dark-skinned, with sideburns and a mustache—did not fit the fair-skinned, six-foot-one Herrera at all.
Then there was the victim himself, whose gutsy journalism in one of the most drug-infested corners of Mexico had seemed almost to invite reprisals. Four days before his death, Ortega had published a front-page story about the government’s investigation of a drug-trafficking operation near the state’s capital. In it, he claimed that traffickers from the city of Aldama were hustling drugs through Ojinaga into the United States, and he detailed their storage places, smuggling routes, and even the type of truck driven by the alleged ringleader. Recently he had reported that the fugitive drug trafficker Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, allegedly the head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, might be hiding out near Ojinaga. There were odd circumstances in Ortega’s personal life too that suggested other motives. Investigators found videotapes that he had made while having sex with married women.
Despite all these facts, on May 4 Ojinaga judge Ramón Everardo Estrada Rascón declared that Herrera was a probable suspect in the assassination, launching what in Mexico is a lengthy process of collecting evidence for a final judgment. Because the charges involved murder, Herrera would have to wait behind bars.
Call it a doorway or call it a fence. In 152 years the United States has not figured out what to make of its border with Mexico—whether to open it or close it. (Sometimes, it tries to have it both ways.) Mexican president Vicente Fox’s vision, as he has told his Cabinet, is more explicit: Punch as many holes in it as you can. But residents of the U.S.-Mexico borderland often ignore the fact that they live in such high-stakes terrritory. For them, the border’s economic lessons—education is free in the U.S., health care is affordable in Mexico—are more important than the precariousness of traveling between two jurisdictions. Culturally they are more like their neighbors than they are different. That is why Junie Herrera’s imprisonment was like a loss of innocence for Presidio and Ojinaga, a stark betrayal of the old notion that crossing the border was not a political act. If Herrera—a symbol of the easy cohabitation of the two cities—could be thrown in jail for no reason, who was safe? It’s a frustrating reality for the Ojinaguenses, who see injustice all the time and who are visibly fed up with their leaders. But on the opposite bank of the Rio Grande, the residents of Presidio now took refuge in their Americanness.
“We thought it was the same thing to be here or over there in Presidio, but then you find out it’s a whole other ball game,” Herrera said one July afternoon in a sweltering Ojinaga jail just three miles from his American home. Sometimes, the Texas-Mexico border feels less like a ribbon of water and more like a stone wall.
Look who came to visit, your cousin from El Paso!” Marta Brummett tells her younger brother, Junie, as he greets her by the green bars of the Ojinaga state prison doors. Then she reaches up and says into his ear, desperately, in English this time, “Hug your cousin! Hug your cousin!” Junie Herrera looks only briefly confused when he turns to me. He catches on and leans down for a tentative hug and kiss, the same as he gives his mother, Lucia, and his other sister, Chely Baeza. I hand him a bundle of warm food his family had brought in a plastic grocery bag. The guards nearby don’t suspect a thing. As far as they know, at five feet four, with dark hair and brown eyes, I make a credible cousin.
Wednesdays and Sundays are family days at El Cereso, as the prison is called, and early in the morning the inmates mop up their cells in anticipation of the two hours they’ll spend with their mothers and wives and children—all squeezed together in a baking concrete building that reeks of urine. Sixty-six days after Herrera’s arrest, his family is fed up. They want me, they tell their brother once we arrange a messy circle of upside-down buckets just outside his cell, to show the world where he spends his days. They want me to describe what life has been like for this family since April 29. Plopped atop an ice chest, Herrera nods in agreement and says, “This is a good place to start.”
Herrera’s world is small, tightly circumscribed, and brutally hot. He lives in a six- by eight-foot cell, into which he has crammed a twin bed given to him by a family friend so that he will not have to sleep on a dingy sponge mattress like the other prisoners. Next to it, he has barely fit a small wooden table where he keeps his cigarettes, dental floss, and a pack of Breath Savers. On his bed is a pile of books, topped by Chicken Soup for the Soul in Spanish. The place had been inhabited by huge, flying roaches when Herrera moved in, but he has obsessively scoured every corner with Lysol and insecticide. On the table a small air conditioner the family had brought sputters a dry, warm breeze that doesn’t circulate. There are no windows in this place.
For Lucia Herrera, visiting her son in prison is, strangely, like mothering again at 68. She brings him food twice daily and picks out his clothes every morning, carrying them in a plastic grocery bag tied with a knot, then departs with his dirty jeans, shorts, and sweat-stained shirts. Knowing well the jail’s 100-plus temperatures from her visits, every night she freezes bottles of water for him. Though sometimes she breaks down after he waves good-bye from inside the jail, in front of him she is all steel. “You have to have courage because I don’t want you getting sick,” she says in her raspy voice, making two fists with her hands. “You have to have courage because I don’t want them to see you like this. That’s what they want, to see you look discouraged. No, sir, you walk out with your head up high.”
But Herrera looks anxious and worn today. His leg shakes constantly as he absently traces circles in the center of his forehead with his index finger. Raising Junie’s spirits is a family project. “We make it a big deal so he can eat,” Marta said before the visit. Today the family has brought brisket burritos with guacamole and chips, which we all eat together in an ironic Fourth of July picnic. They have also brought him letters, stacks of notes that his customers drop into a big basket at the store. “Hey, Junie, how are you?” one of them begins in big, awkward print. “Here Presidio is lonely without your smile.”
It is a strange, almost surreal situation in which he finds himself. In both towns Herrera is known as an exceptionally friendly, happy-go-lucky person, a 42-year-old who is still growing up. It was Junie who introduced people from both sides of the border to one another at annual Super Bowl parties in his home, Junie who could persuade a group of men aged eighteen to seventy to buy a lottery ticket together. Although he has a thirteen-year-old daughter with whom he is very close, he has never married (her mother lives in Presidio and has married). His brown-paneled bedroom in the tidy brick home where he still lives with his parents has all the trappings of the archetypal single guy: a computer for late-night Web surfing, stacks of paperback mysteries, Selena and Dale Earnhardt posters, and a glass-covered collection of Zippo lighters.
Throughout his twenties and thirties, Herrera helped around the H&H Supermarket, which his father then owned with Junie’s uncle, and cashed in bags of coins he collected from a small car wash he had bought. On long weekends he might have gone shopping in El Paso or hit the bars in Mazatlán. He often made a pilgrimage to the Tejano Music Awards in San Antonio. But Herrera finally buckled down last February, when he borrowed $250,000 to buy out his uncle’s share of the store. His grandfather had founded the business in 1929, and when Junie, the third generation, joined his father, Jesus “Chuchi” Herrera, in management, the local paper commemorated the event with a front-page shot of the two men shaking hands in front of the produce section. At age 41, it was the younger Herrera’s first mortgage—enough, friends say, to make him tone down the partying. But he became even more popular in his new job, greeting his customers by name and offering a little informal credit when they needed it.
Junie Herrera had so many friends that if the Chihuahua government needed a scapegoat for Ortega Mata’s murder, they picked the worst one possible. Within days, residents of both towns had painted their car windows with white shoe polish and plastered their buildings with fluorescent flyers written in indignant Spanish: “We’ve Had Enough. Free Junie.” “Junie Is Innocent.” “Justice for Junie.” People mobilized on both sides of the river to raise money for Herrera’s legal fund, and when reporters arrived from the Dallas Morning News, the New York Times, and Telemundo, they articulated their rage and posed for cameras with yellow ribbons, T-shirts, and posters. Some thirty to fifty people gathered every evening in the rose garden grotto at Santa Teresa de Jesus Church in Presidio to recite a tweaked version of the rosary they called a Rosary of Liberation. For every Hail Mary, they instead asked Jesus to free Junie. At the annual Onion Festival on May 19, the star of the parade was Junie’s Chevy Bel Air, which was tugged on a flatbed and revved up when it rolled by the H&H Supermarket. Presidio tracked Herrera’s absence in sunsets, on the store’s marquee: “34 Días Sin Junie. Junie Come Home.” Meanwhile Herrera measured his world in steps—30 if he walked the perimeter of the tiny courtyard he shared with sixty other prisoners; 27 if he cut corners.
The family also tried its best to enlist political help, but the most that American legislators could promise was that they would monitor the case. Every day, the Herreras made pleas to the Chihuahua prosecutors, to the media, to Jesus Christ himself. “Yesterday I was asking Him, ‘¿Qué pasa? Send us a sign also,'” Chely confessed one afternoon on the steps of La Iglesia de Nuestro Padre Jesús in Ojinaga’s main plaza, pigeons fluttering about. “You begin to question. You do. I do.”
“Welcome to the real frontier” reads a sign that greets visitors after they have passed Marfa and rolled down the Chinati Mountains on U.S. 67, bumping into the Mexican border an hour later. Presidio is a town of 6,000, ninety miles west of Big Bend National Park. Visually it comes as quite a contrast to the West Texas highlands: brown, bleak, and seemingly broke. Jobs are scant besides those in the schools, the government agencies, the ranches and the cantaloupe, onion, and alfalfa fields. Only the two main highways and a road linking them are paved. Mobile homes, unpainted cinder-block dwellings, and several dozen handsome brick houses all sit on dirt and rock lanes. But on the opposite riverbank, Ojinaga is basted with color and people—30,000 of them. Though its industry is similar to Presidio’s, there are many more reasons to hang out there: the horse races, the cockfights, the drive-ins, the clubs, the restaurants, the pretty plaza between the church and the city hall. Compared with other Mexican border towns, Ojinaga is cleaner, more orderly—almost, one is tempted to say, uncorrupted.
In December 1913 the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa attacked Ojinaga; by January he was in control. “Everybody was expecting a massacre, and that’s what occurred,” said Ojinaga mayor Víctor Sotelo Mata. “All the refugees ran to Presidio, where their relatives gave them shelter.” Thus began the marriage of Presidio and Ojinaga, a pragmatic commitment based on the realization that only they could help each other in bad times. A unique social structure exists here too. In other border cities people of the same skin color will group themselves by citizenship and class. That would be a luxury in tiny Presidio and Ojinaga. Here, melon pickers and teachers and accountants from both sides of the border mingle.
While Presidio is known as the hottest place in Texas—the temperature routinely exceeds 110 degrees in the summer— Ojinaga’s claim to fame is more dubious. It is known as a leading transshipment point for drugs headed for the United States, and the rugged mountains on both sides of the border serve to shield drug runners. In October three of Ojinaga’s leading drug lords were charged in a 24-count Midland federal grand jury indictment that included murder, money laundering, and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. The late Mexican drug lord Pablo Acosta headquartered his multimillion dollar operation in Ojinaga, smuggling some sixty tons of cocaine into the U.S. annually until he was gunned down by Mexican federal police in 1987. In 1990 American journalist Terrence Poppa published Drug Lord, an enthralling look at Acosta’s life in which he argued that drug dealing in Chihuahua and throughout Mexico is controlled and protected top-down, involving state governorships, federal and state police, and the military. Presidio, though, is hardly immune to the lucrative border business. In 1992 Presidio County sheriff Rick Thompson was caught with a ton of cocaine.
With so much drug trafficking and death, the attorney general for the state of Chihuahua, which makes up fully one eighth of Mexico, has a big job. Arturo González Rascón, the current attorney general, has a long list of unsolved high-profile cases: the attempted assassination of Governor Patricio Martínez García, the slaying of dozens of maquiladora women in Ciudad Juárez, and most recently, the murder of two family members of the forensic scientist who was studying the women’s killings. In a country known to repress the media, a murdered journalist like Ortega Mata only worsened González Rascón’s image. State investigators initially questioned more than eighty people about Ortega Mata’s murder, with possible motives morphing from politics to a crime of passion to a drug deal gone bad.
Then, a month before Herrera’s arrest, Guadalupe Valenzuela Lozano, a prostitute and drug addict known as La Tecata, declared that she had witnessed Ortega Mata’s murder from a vacant lot where she had stopped to urinate that cold February night. One of about twenty addicts who regularly beg for money in the Ojinaga plaza, La Tecata is apprehended two to three times a month for theft, public intoxication, or disturbing the peace, one jailer told a Mexican newspaper. On March 16, the day she testified, she was in jail for robbing an elderly man who had solicited her for sex. Though La Tecata didn’t recognize the man that she allegedly saw shoot the journalist, she said that the following day she had described him to Arturo “El Fay” Molina Aguirre, a fellow addict who shines shoes for a living. El Fay then declared to the court that the man La Tecata had described was Otoniel Herrera Valdés, El Jimmy, a customer of his and, he thought, the son of a Presidio grocer. For reasons that will never be known—perhaps an error, perhaps a cover-up, perhaps a combination of both—the government proceeded to arrest a different Herrera.
Even before Judge Estrada Rascón made his ruling to bind Herrera for trial on May 4, the state’s case had fallen apart. Two days before, Ojinaga police chief René Cardona Bejarano had presented jail intake records showing that La Tecata had been imprisoned on February 18 and not released until February 20, a day after she said she’d witnessed the journalist’s murder (later in the trial, three jail employees and a woman who was incarcerated with La Tecata corroborated the jail records). Then things got worse. El Fay retracted his previous declaration, confessing that La Tecata had persuaded him to testify and that the two had been paid off by the state’s investigators. El Fay, whose arms are lined with puffy pink scars where he slashes them when he goes through withdrawal, told me that he was offered eight payments, which he gladly took to buy his drugs.
Yet prosecutors pushed forward anyway. Judge Estrada Rascón, who appeared jittery during court proceedings and avoided eye contact with reporters, insisted that he had made his decision on his own. But he would not say what, in his view, incriminated Herrera enough to hold him for trial. “He’s getting his due process according to all the formalities of the law,” he said from his hot, bare office in the municipal compound next to the jail where Herrera sat behind bars. “I’m not getting any type of pressure from anyone. We’re autonomous.” Most people who know how the Mexican justice system works believed differently. “It’s just that he feels pressure, not directly, but indirectly,” said Valentín Escontrías Galindo, the jail administrator. “I don’t know what words they [state prosecutors] use to suggest that Junie shouldn’t be let out. But then the judge thinks, ‘I could be fired.'”
There were other signs that law enforcement was breaking rank, nowhere more evident than at a July 5 hearing. The prosecutors had introduced a Mexican border-crossing video that was supposed to prove that Herrera had been in Ojinaga the night of the murder. It was obvious that the tape was worthless: The cars whizzed by so fast that license plates and drivers were indistinguishable. Slumped in a corner chair, Herrera remained silent throughout the proceedings. But when the room had almost cleared, he let out a loud sigh. Ojinaga district attorney Sergio García Gámez turned and his eyes met Herrera’s. The attorney’s face softened. “It’s difficult, I know,” he told Herrera. “Your lawyer is going to get you out. Don’t worry.”
Hearing this, Herrera’s attorney, Adolfo Baca Magaña, exploded. García Gámez was the prosecutor who had prepared the statement in which La Tecata changed the suspect’s name from Otoniel Herrera Valdés to Jesus Manuel Herrera. The statement is dated April 28—a day before Herrera’s arrest—but the stamp that reflects the court’s receipt of the document reads April 27. Baca Magaña believes that it was prepared only after the state discovered the mismatch in names, then slipped into Herrera’s file. “Why don’t you tell him [Junie] that?” Baca Magaña thundered.
García Gámez had quietly withstood Baca Magaña’s piercing remarks that afternoon, but then his patience broke. Ignoring the presence of a reporter in the room, he issued a stunning declaration. “Look,” he shot at Baca Magaña with a long, knowing stare, “so you won’t break your head, you know where this is coming from.” The room was dead silent as three people waited for his revelatory words. “This isn’t coming from here. You know how things work.”
“This,” said Baca Magaña, ceremoniously holding up a piece of beef he had just sheared off an enormous T-bone steak, “is just in case the attorney general decides to throw me in there with El Junie.” Then he shamelessly devoured it. That is Baca Magaña’s style: frank, audacious, sarcastic. It suits him well as an attorney. In court he is imposing—intimidating, really—and he likes to pontificate and make rambling statements punctuated by rhetorical questions and metaphorical allusions. Sometimes he may even employ a popular Mexican dicho, or “saying.” He scoffs at everything—the law, the press, Americans. He is a wealthy rancher and along with his father, one of the most prominent lawyers in Chihuahua. Tonight he was clad in Wranglers, a short-sleeve Tommy Hilfiger cotton blend, and pointy black cowboy boots. In the courtroom he wears expensive suits. When asked if it’s true that he has represented some of Chihuahua’s most notorious narcotraffickers, he gave a lawyerly response: “Well, they were accused, but nobody proved anything.” But then he started ticking off names of his other clients, including the infamous drug lord Amado Carillo Fuentes, Pablo Acosta’s successor and the so-called Lord of the Skies, who died mysteriously in 1997 while undergoing plastic surgery.
This time Baca Magaña had an innocent client—”The only one in my career,” he said only half joking. An old schoolmate of Herrera’s brother-in-law, he took on Junie’s case after the family fired its first attorney. Ironically, it may prove to be Baca Magaña’s hardest case yet. Though in public he exuded confidence, his brother said that privately he appeared frazzled, distressed over the mysterious forces that were keeping Herrera in jail. “Legally, it’s an extremely simple case for me because the prosecution has no evidence, no testimony, no scientific proof—nothing that implicates my client in the crime,” Baca Magaña said. Then he added, “But there’s something there. There’s something.”
On paper Mexico has strong criminal laws, including a detailed constitution that grants its citizens civil rights that are similar to what Americans possess in the United States. According to the law, prosecutors carry the burden of proving a suspect’s guilt. But there is one significant difference. In Mexico there are no jury trials. The judge single-handedly directs the collection of evidence, applies the law, and hands down judgments. It’s a system that has matured over 71 years of one-party rule, and one that works especially well for drug lords and other criminals. It is difficult to influence or outright buy an entire jury; judges are a much easier matter. President Fox has pledged to clean up the system, but that job will take decades of work. And Fox can’t even touch the state governments. The people of Mexico are well aware of that, and even in Presidio one family expressed its frustration by taunting him on an enormous piece of canvas they draped over one side of their house: “Señor Fox, if Mexico has truly changed, give Junie back to us. He’s innocent.”
Baca Magaña, then, had two separate jobs: to prove Herrera’s innocence and more important, to figure out how to get him out of prison. The problem was that it was impossible to determine who his true adversary was. He had gone to see Attorney General González Rascón, who had admitted he lacked evidence to win a sentence, but González Rascón said he had to support his subordinates. That would seem to narrow the field to his assistant attorney general who had headed the investigation, the state judiciales who had arrested Herrera, and the district attorneys who had collected the evidence. From the American side, U.S. consul general Edward Vasquez met with the Chihuahua governor and the chief Supreme Court judge, but all he got was an assurance that Herrera would get his due process. It was yet another layer of silence in the Mexican justice system.
The longer officials remained mute, the louder the protests became. As June dragged on into July, Ojinaga’s radio talk-show hosts continued to demand Herrera’s liberty, and callers expressed outrage at the entrenched corruption of their justice system. The indignation perhaps was deeper in the southern border town since the stakes there were arguably higher: Mexicans live this reality every day. “The attitude is the same in both places because this is the border,” said Jorge Pando, a young Ojinaga professional who is one of Herrera’s friends. “Unfortunately, a lot of injustices are committed here.” Even the Ojinaga mayor, a member of the state’s minority party—the National Action Party, or PAN—called for Herrera’s freedom.
In Presidio residents could barely contain their anger. They held nothing against the people of Ojinaga. But how to forgive and forget? It was a messy job to disentangle their personal loyalties from their newfound distrust of the Mexican government. Where citizenship had always been a second thought, now those north of the Rio Grande fiercely asserted their nationality, to the point that Presidio’s fight for Herrera at times resembled an international war. The night Judge Estrada Rascón announced that Herrera would be held for trial, some three hundred enraged protesters blocked the bridge that links the towns and came face-to-face with Mexican law enforcement authorities right where a crack in the pavement demarcates the limits of the two countries. Herrera’s friend Rene Molinar was asked by a member of the Mexican Federal Preventive Police to cross that line and call Junie from an office and verify that he was fine. But Molinar was too cynical—or perhaps too smart—to take one step onto what now seemed uncharted grounds. Ojinaga law enforcement officials responded to the blockade with a warning to Herrera’s friends, delivered through the Presidio County sheriff: Don’t cross the border or there could be trouble.
Judge Estrada Rascón, word had it, was not crossing north either. Seeing the fury of Herrera’s supporters in his own courtroom, now he too was afraid of what might await him on the other side.
As Chely Baeza often said to her brother in jail, something had to give. Baca Magaña decided to place his bets on the Chihuahua Supreme Court. In Mexico a judge’s declaration that a person is a probable suspect can be appealed even as the prosecution unfolds. On Thursday, July 5, Magistrate Rosa Isela Jurado Contreras accepted Herrera’s case. Baca Magaña worried, though, that the following Friday, July 13, the court system would shut down for a two-week vacation. If nothing was resolved before then, Herrera would face at least fourteen more days of agonizing uncertainty. Any rational person would not have expected Jurado Contreras to reach a decision within a week, when the process of issuing an appellate ruling normally takes months. But life no longer was rational. On Thursday, July 12, those who attended the Rosary of Liberation tacked on a word to their prayer: “Jesus, free Junie tomorrow.” Friday, July 13, was the longest day the Herreras will ever remember. Nerves frayed like an old carpet, Junie’s mother and sisters decided to wait it out with Herrera, whom the jail guards had allowed to stay in the administrator’s office. When they had heard nothing at four o’clock, their hopes began to fade. It was three-thirty, then four. Nothing still.
Then, at about four-thirty, Baca Magaña’s son burst into the office from the municipal compound and told Herrera, “You’ve got your freedom.” Twenty minutes later, a court clerk walked in with a faxed copy of the judge’s order to let Herrera go.
It seemed that God had heard Presidio’s and Ojinaga’s prayers. The prison guards slapped each other’s backs, and the inmates who had been Herrera’s sole companions for two months cheered as if they were the ones going home. As the guards helped pack his belongings, the deejay at one of Ojinaga’s favorite radio stations repeated the news to listeners on both sides of the Rio Grande. By the time Herrera squeezed into the back seat of his brother-in-law’s white Yukon, people had congregated outside their homes and were honking their horns throughout the city. In just a few minutes the big SUV approached the narrow bridge that links the two towns, and Herrera now says that he was overcome when the U.S. Customs agent asked him for his nationality. It was a declaration he had made countless times during a lifetime of crossing the border, but on this occasion the words came out deliberately and heavily: U.S. citizen. Nearby, a deputy sheriff grinned as Herrera drove away and said, “It’s good to have you back home.”
After 76 days, Herrera was finally free. Baca Magaña said it was because he had managed to have the appeal assigned to a single judge: his old college classmate, Magistrate Jurado Contreras. He said that he had kept her informed of the prosecution’s maneuvers even before she took the case and that she had already decided that it was “nonsense.” Jurado Contreras delivered her decision in roughly a week.
Still, attaining his freedom cost Herrera and his family a small fortune. His mother said they incurred between $100,000 and $120,000 in expenses. Baca Magaña said he was paid $70,000 for his services. Lucia Herrera said that the family also paid $12,000 to their first attorney and several thousand to a third lawyer who assisted Baca Magaña. Asked about the high expenses, Herrera’s sister Marta replied, “With the anger that I still feel at this point, I’d rather not comment.” It will take Junie Herrera years of work to scrape together the cost of being innocent.
And then there are all those unanswered questions—why Junie?—which the Herreras, like other victims of the Mexican justice system, will simply have to let go. The personal scars also will take time to fade. Chely was beginning to shed her anger by the time dozens of friends poured in to see Junie the weekend after his release, but her older sister, Marta, was still furious. Herrera had trouble adjusting to the cold of an air-conditioned home and continued to fidget nervously in his chair. He was wary of being alone on the streets, and he had to be cheered on by his friends after every smile.
It is a conflict that, for the Herreras as for the rest of Presidio, will have to be resolved internally, deep down in the heart. Nearly every day during Herrera’s imprisonment, Marta was reminded that Ojinaga had always been a second home—a place where, in her teenage years, she spent long days at the movies and then walked back to the bridge with her sister. The memories hurt. “We used to have a lot of friends from across the border,” she reminisced. Junie was also worried about the future. While he maintained deep affection for his southern neighbors, who made up the majority of his clientele and who showered him with support during his imprisonment, he wondered whether he could ever step back into Mexico without fear or cynicism. To date, he has not returned.
“Whoever did this doesn’t know how much they killed my brother’s spirits,” Marta said one afternoon.
Then she thought twice. “Our people’s spirits. On both sides of the border.”