EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Jose Alfredo Holguin endured with dignity ordeals that would’ve traumatized many people for life.
He once had a rifle pointed at his chest by drug traffickers demanding “protection” money for his transportation business. He saw his precious passenger buses burned. He buried a son killed by gunfire waiting for his family to join him for dinner at a Juarez restaurant. And he and his family left behind a lifetime of memories in Mexico to go through an oft-humiliating, years-long asylum process in the United States.
“He was an exceptional human being who had compassion for others even after everything he went through. He survived all those injustices, the only thing that killed him was COVID,” said his lawyer, Carlos Spector of El Paso.
Holguin, 59, a past president of Mexicans in Exile, died last week of the disease that so far has claimed 1,358 lives in El Paso and afflicted 96,078.
The asylum seeker’s case dating back to 2008-2010 was emblematic of the violence inflicted by the Mexican cartels on merchants and residents south of the Rio Grande during the drug wars of a decade ago, Spector said.
While waiting for the U.S. immigration courts to decide his fate, Holguin became part of a group that comforts newly arrived refugees and presses the Mexican government for accountability on the violence that drove them out. “As president of Mexicans in Exile, he always demanded justice for each member of the organization. He was a brave man and a fair leader, kind and with a smile for all,” his lawyer said.
Holguin also participated in an oral history project at California State University Northridge. His testimony stored at the Tom & Ethel Bradley Center sheds light on what life was like when the Sinaloa cartel ruthlessly asserted control in Juarez and nearby Mexican border communities between 2006-2011.
Life under the yoke of the cartels
Holguin told researchers his transportation company began getting telephone calls from criminals in 2008 demanding “protection” money. He stated he declined and sought help from a trade union and local government officials. The criminals learned about it and showed up in force at his business.
“They visited me at my business in three dark-colored trucks. They were heavily armed and they beat up everyone there,” Holguin told the CSUN project. “They tell me, ‘you, don’t move.’ A big man who looks like a soldier kicks me in the chest and knocks me down … He points a big rifle at me and cocks the trigger. […] He says, ‘you know why we’re here. Don’t make a move and don’t (make waves).”
He said he called the police and they showed up almost immediately. They asked a few questions and left. “They knew what was going on.”
Holguin stated he and his brothers made payoffs for about a year, wrapping cash inside a newspaper and taking it to a different street corner each week after getting a telephone call from the criminals.
“Everybody paid. They wanted 10,000 pesos ($500) from us, we settled on 5,000 ($250). Others paid different amounts. Even the cart vendors who only make 200 pesos ($10) had to pay,” he said. Businesspeople who didn’t pay had relatives abducted and then had to pay a ransom.
But the brothers kept complaining to authorities and threatening to organize a march if the extortion continued. In late 2008, one of their buses was burned. In May of 2009, one of his sons was shot dead in Juarez along with a friend. “They shot them seven, eight, nine times … in the body, in the head, they tore them apart,” he told CSUN.
Family members began to flee to the United States. Some got temporary permits, others filed for political asylum. Few ever came back. Holguin told the oral history project he was in a state of mental limbo for a long time, getting therapy and trying to get close to God.
He said Mexico finally sent soldiers to keep the peace on the border but told interviewers that the crime continued. One time they searched his business and tried to make an issue of his diabetes pills.
“There’s still kidnappings, they’re still extorting and they’re still killing people,” he told CSUN. “They’re catching one or two, but it’s people they themselves plant drugs or guns on.”
Holguin filed for asylum in the U.S. in 2011 and was still awaiting a resolution when he died.
Spector said Holguin’s funeral is next week. Mexicans in Exile plans to hold an online memorial on Jan. 14.
The activist’s family has set up a GoFundMe account to defray funeral expenses.