Grief in Honduras after Fort Lauderdale slaying
Originally published in the Miami Herald
JUTICALPA, Honduras – The men left their young families behind in this poor city next to the mountains and settled in a strange place called Fort Lauderdale.
There, they found lawns that needed mowing, cars that needed washing, sheetrock that needed hanging — and people willing to pay decent wages for such work.
The money that Oscar Castro and José Alfredo Sánchez sent home to their wives and children bought a refrigerator, furniture, private schools and food. It even afforded them a taste of middle-class Americana: buying on credit.
All the while, of course, the men were breaking the law. Castro and Sánchez had entered the United States illegally, like an estimated 10.5 million others who have since become the subject of the nation’s emotional debate over undocumented immigrants.
To see another side of the issue, The Miami Herald went to Juticalpa this summer, to visit the parents, the children and the wives Castro and Sánchez had left behind.
The men went back as well. They were in coffins.
‘JOBS DON’T EXIST HERE’
There was never enough money.
Twelve people were living in Oscar Castro’s one-room house in a muddy hilltop barrio, including four daughters, his father-in-law and a handful of grandchildren.
They had no running water or electricity. Some weeks, they ate just one meal a day. Beans and rice.
“Sometimes, yes, it is better to live poor but together,” said Castro’s daughter, Santa, 22. “But the problem is that jobs don’t exist here. And he who doesn’t work doesn’t eat.”
And so, in late August almost exactly a year ago, Castro, then 42, made arrangements to become one of the estimated 850,000 illegal immigrants who the federal Office of Immigration Statistics says are living in Florida.
He asked his nephew in Fort Lauderdale for help. Miguel Maradiaga loaned him $5,500 to pay a coyote — a human smuggler — to sneak him to the United States.
He crossed the U.S.-Mexican border by hiding in a luggage compartment on a bus, said his wife, Marina Castro. On the other side, he walked for seven days through the desert.
In Fort Lauderdale, Castro moved into his nephew’s two-bedroom apartment. He shared his room with José Alfredo Sánchez, another Honduran, whose journey to South Florida had started in 2000.
For three months that spring, Sánchez and his wife, Telma, 33, argued.
He was tired of life in Jutiquile, a sprawling rural village outside Juticalpa. He dreamed of a house on the north coast, his own business and sending his son and daughter to private schools.
But he never found steady work. Some months he loaded luggage for Juticalpa’s buses. Some weeks he built houses.
In April of that year, he left. He was 27, and his wife was one month pregnant with his third child. He promised he’d return in a year.
“I didn’t want him to leave,” Telma said. “A home falls apart that way.”
Telma had friends whose husbands had left the country to find work, forgotten their families and never returned.
But in time, Sánchez would return.
CORN FLAKES AND TV
In Fort Lauderdale, the men quickly found what they never had in Honduras: steady jobs.
Sánchez cleaned offices, washed cars and installed sheetrock in Miami, West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.
He sent $100 home twice a month, money that his wife used to buy treats like Corn Flakes and junk food. The children were enrolled in private school. He bought them a refrigerator — and right next to it, on a shelf, a color TV set.
For his father, he purchased about 20 acres of fertile land near Jutiquile. He paid the medical bills for his mother, who was paralyzed after a stroke in 2000.
He financed two of his brothers’ illegal forays into the United States. He helped his wife’s sister pay her college tuition.
“He didn’t waste his money,” Maradiaga said. “He treated his family well.”
Sánchez called home once a week, sometimes less often. He argued with his wife about his daughter Yennifer’s hair — it could never be too long for him — and asked his son Wilder about soccer. He knew his younger son, Edgar, only from the phone conversations.
Sánchez spent some of his extra cash on nice clothes; his favorite brands were Nike and Polo. He was “fascinated” with food, especially carne asada and Corona beer, his wife, Telma, said. After six years in Florida, Sánchez had gone from 180 pounds to 300 pounds.
When he got lonely for women, Telma Sánchez said, he hired prostitutes: “He told me about it. I didn’t like it, but I knew how much he loved me.”
For Castro, it was his first time away from his wife, Marina, in 26 years. He was homesick; he called every night.
Sometimes he called during dinner and listened to her chew. He said he liked the sound. He told her about the city and his job at a landscaping company. But mostly he asked about his “chihuines” — the word he used for his children and grandchildren.
From Fort Lauderdale, Castro made payments on a six-chair dining-room table and a refrigerator. He asked Marina to keep it full for his kids.
Eventually, South Florida grew on Castro. He planned to send for his wife in January.
“One day we’ll be together here,” he told her. “If you could only see the ocean, if you could only see how pretty it is.”
Not everything was pretty.
Castro was afraid to stray far from his neighborhood in the 800 block of Fort Lauderdale’s Southwest 30th Street. Twice he was robbed at gunpoint outside the apartment, he told his wife. The first time, robbers made off with only $9; the second time, they took a few hundred dollars.
He never filed a police report.
Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, called undocumented immigrants “easy targets” for armed robberies because they are often paid in cash and lack the proper identification to open bank accounts.
“They walk around with a lot of cash and have cash in their homes, stuffed under their mattresses,” she said. “And because they’re undocumented, they’re very likely unwilling to talk to police after they’ve been victimized.”
It’s not clear how often it happens, but on Florida’s east coast, some Central American immigrants — particularly Guatemalans — are so frequently targeted for attacks that there is a nickname for the phenomenon. “They call it Guat-bashing,” Little said.
Still, Castro downplayed the incidents to his wife. Every evening, he walked a half-mile to a convenience store and bought a pack of Marlboro Reds, four or five 16-ounce cans of Budweiser and a few $5 phone cards. Then he’d call Marina.
“He’d get a beer and a phone card, go outside and talk on the phone and come back in and buy another beer and phone card,” said Hadi Jaber, a clerk at the Star K store.
On Friday, May 19, Castro did not call his wife.
He, Sánchez and Maradiaga were outside their apartment, drinking Miller Lites about 11:30 p.m., when three men walked past.
“I asked them if they needed help or something,” Maradiaga said. “They said they were at the wrong address.
”OK,’ I said. ‘No problem.’ They didn’t ask anything else. They walked away.”
But they came back, each with a gun in his hand. “I said, What’s going on?” Maradiaga said. “Do you need money?”
A robber opened fire.
One bullet tore through Sánchez’s head. Another pierced Castro’s chest. They died there, in the asphalt parking lot.
Fort Lauderdale police say the robbers stole Sánchez’s cellphone and some cash. In June, police charged Norman Breyon Brown, 21, with first-degree murder, armed robbery and attempted robbery. Detectives are looking for at least two other suspects.
“I don’t know why I wasn’t shot,” Maradiaga said. “Only God saved me.”
‘PLEASE SEND HIM HOME’
In Juticalpa, Marina Castro waited for her husband’s call. When it didn’t come, she went to sleep in her bed with her six children and grandchildren.
The phone rang at 3 a.m. It was her nephew, Maradiaga.
“Look here, some . . . guys came by the apartment and killed my uncle.”
She screamed, “My God, they killed Oscar!” into the dark room.
The little ones started to cry. The neighbors could hear the family’s screams.
Twelve miles away, Sánchez’s family got a phone call, too. Telma Sánchez collapsed on the kitchen floor. “That was the scariest night of my life,” she said later. “I couldn’t sleep, only cry and cry and cry. The kids woke up and asked me why I was crying.”
She couldn’t tell them. A neighbor broke the news that their father was dead.
Marina Castro remembers begging one thing of her nephew that night:
“Please send him home. Just like you sent for him, send him back. Don’t leave him there.”
It took Maradiaga a couple of weeks to raise the $7,000 to honor her request. Other Honduran immigrants, friends of the two men, put up collection boxes at restaurants and cafes. Donations came in dollar bills and higher.
On May 31, two caskets arrived at the Toncontín International Airport in Tegucigalpa. Castro’s cousins put them in the back of two pickup trucks and drove them home.
A SON’S PLANS
Castro’s father-in-law sleeps on the floor of the one-room house. Before daybreak, José Murillo, 89, wakes up, shoves his dirty feet into rubber boots and starts to walk — looking for cans to sell. He makes 20 centavos, about one penny, per can.
It has been his daily routine since Castro’s death.
“Life is tedious here,” Murillo said. “The entire day, we look just for a bite of food.”
When Marina Castro buys a special medicine for her 7-year-old daughter, Ritzi, who is anemic, there is no money left for food. It’s not unusual to go two days without eating.
One afternoon in July, men from the furniture store came to repossess the family’s dining-room set. Marina Castro broke down crying.
“I couldn’t bring myself to let them take it,” she said. “How can I let them take away my memories of him? That was bought with his sweat.”
She talked them into giving her until Aug. 22 to settle the debt of 8,000 lempiras, or $423. She also might lose the refrigerator — empty except for three cups of water.
And there’s the debt of $340 or so for the wires she strung up herself from a neighbor’s house to have electricity during Castro’s wake.
She cries at night when she remembers the dinnertime phone conversations with him.
“Last night, when I went to bed hungry,” she said, “I thought about that.”
Telma Sánchez has pulled her children from their private Catholic school, unable to afford the monthly tuition, 300 lempiras, about $16 a child.
In November, she will move out of her in-laws’ home and back with her parents. She doesn’t want to burden her dead husband’s family.
Her son Wilder, 12, says he wants to move to Florida.
“I want to help the kids and work, and the money that they give me I will give to my mom for food,” he said.
His mom said she would send him if she could afford to.