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LAS AMERICAS Awaiting Death en El Norte BY JOHN ROSS Mexico City Javier Suarez Medina, one of a dozen Mexican citizens housed on Texas’ death row is scheduled to celebrate Mexican Independence Day September 16 strapped to a gurney, as a lethal injection spreads through his body. Suarez Medinds death certificate will corroborate that his court-appointed date with his maker was a homicide perpetrated by the state of Texas. Although Mexico tolerates abundant extra-legal executions \(such as the June 1995 massacre of seventeen farmers under the guns of are frowned upon by the government, the church, and a broad swath of society. The death penalty was virtually abolished here decades ago, and the murderous U.S. ritual of near nightly executions of death row inmates is seen as yet more evidence of North American barbarity. When the victim of such questionable U.S. justice is a Mexican citizen, the pending execution excites nationalist fervor that can threaten to boil over into retaliatory violence. U.S. prisoners in Mexican jails are moved into protective custody, to keep them from being attacked by their local counterparts, and in Mexico City, the U.S. embassy cautions its employees to maintain a low public profile. Such was the atmosphere in the days leading up to the June 18 execution of Irineo Tristan Montoya, at the Walls Unit of the state prison in Huntsville. Prisoner No. 847 had spent many years on death row, at the Ellis Unit twenty miles up the road from the killing chamber at the Walls. Only one other Mexican, Cesar Fierro \(convicted of killing an El Paso taxi tan Montoya was convicted in the stabbing death of a motorist who had given him and a companion a ride on a Texas border roadlargely on the basis of a four-page confession in English, a language he did not yet understand. For a decade, Tristan Montoya had been kept alive by a series of last-minute appeals. This time, the Mexican government \(which maintains a death watch over its citizens facto postpone the execution by citing the Con 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER vention of Vienna \(which mandates that foreign suspects must be informed of their right to contact the nearest embassy or conBush responded that Texas was not a signatory to the Vienna Convention, and refused to postpone the killing. In his last days, Tristan Montoya was seen often on Mexican television, through a glass prison panel, protesting his innocence and commending his soul to God. He was denied a last supper of nopal cactus because the prison did not have it in stock. Relatives of the victim, John Kilheffer, crowded into the ante-chamber to witness the clinical killing. Outside of the Walls, an angry band of Mexican Americans yelled ” iAsesinos!” and ” /Viva Irineo!” Tristan Montoya’s execution was the twenty-fourth of the 1997 Huntsville killing season, but he was only the secondor possibly thirdMexican to be hauled into the Texas death chamber since the state resumed killing prisoners in 1982. The executions of Ignacio Cuevas in 1991 and Ram6n Montoya in 1993 had little public impact. As often happens concerning Mexicans or Mexican Americans on U.S. death rows, Cuevas’ actual country of birth was disputed. Of the 106 prisoners executed in Texas in the ten years preceding Tristan Montoya’s June 18 execution, sixteen were classified as Mexican-Americans. Tristan Montoya’s final passage through his native state of Tamaulipas was a long, sad ride, flushed with nationalist outrage. As the cortege rolled through Matamoros, and Tampico, and Ciudad Mante, to its final resting place at Puerto Mexico on the Caribbean, roadside crowds reiterated the chants of “i Asesinos!” and “i Viva Irineo!” U.S. flags were burned outside that country’s embassy in Mexico City, and the front page of the daily La Jornada said simply INDIGNATION! in big black letters. A U.S. reporter witnessed Mexico City police officers draw their guns on two Englishspeaking tourists, accused of drinking beer in public. “When we break the law in their country, we are executed,” was how the officers’ justification their menacing demeanor, before accepting fifty pesos to reholster their weapons and free the women \(who turned out to be British and not North Tristran Montoya’s journey home in June contrasts sharply with the April homecoming of another death-row veteran, Ricardo Aldape Guerra. After more than fifteen years behind bars, Aldape Guerra was abruptly released from Huntsville. He had been been convicted of the 1982 shooting death of a Houston police officer in a tor, but his lawyers won a new trial early this year. Because key witnesses were no longer available and the eyewitness evidence had been suspect, the state of Texas chose not to retry the case. The Aldape Guerra decision was seen as a minor miracle in Mexicofour times he had been prepared for death by prison authorities, only to be rescued by his lawyers at the last moment. Now a “final feliz,” a happy ending, was at last in sight. Fiestas were in order. The governor of Nuevo Leon sent his private plane to welcome Aldape Guerra home. The nation’s second television network, TV Azteca, pulled off a ratings coup by writing Aldape Guerra into its hot soap opera, Al Norte de Corazon, a cautionary tale of life and love along the border. Within days of his release, the former resident of death row was presented by gloating TV Azteca flacks to the press at a Mexico City cocktail party. A SEPTEMBER 12, 1997