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Norte newspaper headline of Almaraz murder

Mexican Attorney Sergio Almaraz {format} {format} 4:57 Scott Carrier

Remembering a brave lawyer from Mexico.

Broadcast: Jan 25 2007 on NPR Day to DaySeries: Juarez: City on the Edge Subjects: Hispanic, Justice, International

Appreciation: Mexican Attorney Sergio Almaraz

January 25, 2007 from Day to Day

ALEX CHADWICK, host: Perhaps the roughest town on the U.S.-Mexico border is Ciudad Juarez across the Rio Grande River from El Paso. Among the atrocities committed there, a string of gruesome murders of women and girls. The exact number of victims is still unclear. Most agree it's around 400.

A couple of years ago, we aired a series of stories about Juarez from producer Scott Carrier, and in that series he talked to an attorney investigating the murders. And a year ago today, that lawyer, Sergio Dante Almaraz, was gunned down on the streets of Juarez. Today, Scott Carrier shares a remembrance of Sergio. And here's a caution. Scott's piece is powerful and includes some graphic details.

SCOTT CARRIER: He was sitting in his car behind the wheel at a stoplight a block off Benito Juarez Avenue. Four o'clock in the afternoon, long shadows growing down the street. On one side of the street there's a pharmacy. On the other, there's an abandoned building used by heroin addicts as a shooting gallery.

Along the wall of this building, there are torn and faded posters of men in masks and capes. Ads for Lucha Libre, Mexican professional wrestling. I wonder if he sat here waiting for the light to change, looking at the posters. Or maybe the posters were why he drove this way to pick up his wife after work. Maybe he came this way to remember when he was young in Mexico City, going to law school by day and battling the forces of evil by night as Sergio El Hermoso, Sergio the Beautiful.

He knew he was going to die. He told his brother his days were numbered and asked him to take care of his two small children. His brother asked him, Why don't you leave? Cross over while you still can. And Sergio told him, I am a lawyer. I practice law in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. This is who I am. So don't ask me that question again.

(Soundbite of music)

CARRIER: I met him once for an interview, late at night in his office near the jail. That was three years ago. At that time, he was defending a bus driver who had confessed to raping and killing eight young women and burying their dismembered bodies in a vacant field by the factories. In the beginning of the case, there had been two bus drivers who confessed to these crimes, and in the beginning Sergio had a law partner.

Sergio and his partner brought the bus drivers into court and showed the judge where they'd been beaten and tortured. They showed dried blood on the legs, bruises around the groin where the electrodes had been attached, four inches of intestine hanging out of an anus. The judge responded by saying there wasn't enough light in the courtroom to see.

Sergio and his partner believed the bus drivers were being scapegoated by the district attorney and the governor of the state of Chihuahua in order to protect the real killers, whom they believed were members of the Juarez cartel. They made these beliefs known in public by speaking to the press and to anyone who would listen.

Not long after that, Sergio's partner was gunned down by state police in a car chase through downtown Juarez. Then one of the bus drivers died in jail under mysterious circumstances. Sergio was threatened, told he'd be killed in the same way as his partner.

In 2004, there were state elections and Chihuahua got a new governor and district attorney. Also, the remaining bus driver was found innocent and released from jail. Victories for Sergio, but he didn't shut up, because nothing had really changed. The justice system was still corrupt.

The car pulled up alongside Sergio on the wrong side of the road, to his left, blocking his view of the wrestling posters. I wonder if he knew the man pointing the nine millimeter automatic pistol at him. I wonder if he spoke before 10 bullets flew into his head, neck and chest. I wonder if he said, My name is Sergio Dante Almaraz and I practice law in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico.

CHADWICK: Producer Scott Carrier comes to us through