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Mexico celebrates unlikely martyr: executed laborer

June 20, 1997

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ He is an unlikely martyr.

A laborer with a fifth-grade education, he was convicted of murdering a man who picked him up on a desolate Texas highway, and was executed this week at a prison in Huntsville, Texas.

But when the Chevrolet Suburban carrying Irineo Tristan Montoya’s body rolled into Mexico late Thursday night, hundreds of people thronged the bridge over the Rio Grande to salute him _ and curse the country that killed him.

As Mariachis in full costume played the popular folk song ``Beautiful and Beloved Mexico,″ the crowd cheered and children flocked after the convoy.

But it was a bitter celebration. Montoya’s punishment, which many Mexicans deem unjust, symbolized _ at least for a day _ the chronic indignities that Mexicans feel they suffer at the hands of their northern neighbors.

A handful of men, apparently drunk, threatened to kill ``gringos″ in Mexican prisons. A group of women yelled: ``An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.″ Mexican police scanned the crowd. U.S. officials cautioned tourists crossing the border that there could be trouble.

Jules Silberberg, vice U.S. consul in Matamoros, said U.S. officials have not issued a travel warning, but urged Americans to exercise additional precautions if they plan to travel to Mexico over the next few days.

``The fact is that people are out there saying they want to somehow retaliate or let the gringo know they don’t approve of what’s going on,″ he said.

Mexico doesn’t have a death penalty, except in military courts, and many people here felt outraged that the United States could execute a man they believe was innocent.

But the elevation of Montoya to popular martyrdom has as much to do with the perception among Mexicans of mistreatment by Americans.

Steel walls along parts of the border, increasingly restrictive immigration laws, violence and discrimination faced by many immigrants in the United States _ Montoya has come to represent all such insults.

``Beyond the formal relations of governments, this touches popular sentiments,″ said Oscar Gonzalez, president of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights. ``It has left a deep mark.″

Added Rodolfo Stavenhagen, a sociologist at the Colegio de Mexico: ``(The execution) is an expression of racism, of marginalization, of the exclusion of Mexicans by a system that is controlled by others.″

Stavenhagen said people are beginning to view Montoya as a ``bandit-hero.″ Since the Mexican Revolution, men who defy bullying sheriffs and are killed while defending themselves have been venerated in popular lore.

``People have identified this person as a victim,″ Stavenhagen said.

Montoya, 30, was given a lethal injection Wednesday evening for the 1985 robbery and stabbing death of motorist John Kilheffer near Brownsville, Texas. Supporters say he had signed a confession in English that he did not understand, had no attorney at the time of his arrest and was denied the right to contact Mexico’s consul.

On Friday, Montoya’s brother, aunt and grandmother led a group in prayer in their red cement house in the dusty town of Congregacion Anahuac, 280 miles north of Mexico City.

Montoya’s body was being driven there for burial Saturday in a small graveyard. Black mourning ribbons hung from poles along the town’s dirt roads.

Montoya was the second Mexican executed in Texas; 10 more sit on the state’s death row. Ricardo Aldape Guerra also was on death row in Huntsville, but was freed in April after a court ruled that police and prosecutors mishandled the investigation of a police officer’s death.

After 15 years of prison, Aldape Guerra returned to a hero’s welcome in his hometown of Monterrey and has since signed a contract to act in a soap opera about Mexican immigrants in the United States.

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