‘It was fueled by hate and bigotry’: one year on from the El Paso shooting | El Paso shooting

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For Angel Gomez the sunny Saturday morning of 3 August 2019 was hectic in El Paso-Ciudad Juárez, the binational community in the west Texas borderland with Mexico. His nonprofit, Operation Hope, was hosting its annual back-to-school event.

“We were getting everything ready. Everything was set, we had music, we had food,” Gomez said.

More than 800 families were expected to attend. They hailed from El Paso on the Texas side and Ciudad Juárez on the Mexican side of the border that bisects the sister cities, and people arrived at Memorial Park in El Paso well before the 10am kick-off.

The event was barely 30 minutes old when phones started going off.

“People were getting phone alerts and they were starting to panic,” Gomez said.

Scattered pieces of information suggested a shooting. Gomez’s son-in-law was an off-duty police officer at the event and had received a chilling text message.

“He goes, ‘Oh my God! There’s an active shooter at Walmart. And they say that he’s on the loose.’ Oh, man. So we started moving the children and the parents [out of the park],” Gomez said.

The Operation Hope team packed up, sending families home immediately.

“We’re coming home and listening to the radio of course,” Gomez said. “I was thinking, it’s gonna be bad, it’s gonna be bad.”

Shoppers at the Walmart at Cielo Vista, a 10-minute drive from the park, had become victims of yet another American mass shooting. This time it appeared that it was an anti-immigration attack targeting Hispanics.

It was a busy, back-to-school shopping day. Shots began ringing out at about 10.30am. The first emergency calls made it to 911 dispatchers by 10.39am. Almost two dozen people were killed and many injured.

The shooter, from Allen, near Dallas, had driven more than nine hours across Texas to El Paso. According to a four-page, racist manifesto that he is alleged to have posted online shortly before the shooting began, the shooter had plans to carry out a mass attack in “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas”.

A year on it still pains people in El Paso that race was allegedly a leading motive for the suspect, who survived and is now awaiting trial on federal hate crimes, which he denies.

The shooting was crushing. But also infuriating, firstly because El Paso had become one of the cities caught up in Donald Trump’s battle against migrants and asylum seekers crossing the border into the US, drawing negative attention. Secondly, because key figures ignored the racial element of the attack.

Democratic congresswoman Veronica Escobar, who represents El Paso in Washington, had long feared an attack on her city. She had already been the target of death threats because of her advocacy for immigrants.

“One of the things that stuck me that day was I kind of knew in my heart of hearts that it was a racially-motivated attack,” Escobar told the Guardian last week. “When I heard about the mass attack … I kept holding on to hope that it was not what I feared.”

It was the deadliest attack on Hispanics in the US in modern history.

On the day of the shooting, Escobar, along with several other Hispanic elected leaders, ended up standing behind Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott, and El Paso’s mayor, Dee Margo, during a press conference she described as “very tightly controlled”. She said only those seated at the table with the governor were allowed to speak.

Abbott focused on mental health, saying: “That’s a component to shootings that take place in schools, I think that’s a fact … probably is a component to any kind of shooting that takes place.”

On television, Escobar could be seen shaking her head behind the governor. She told the Guardian she was very upset.

“Number one, the governor could not know that in that moment. And number two, unfortunately, that’s become a classic talking point from the NRA [National Rifle Association] in their effort to detract from the easy access to guns,” she said.

The police at the time said: “Right now we have a manifesto from this individual that indicates to some degree it has some nexus to potential hate crime.”

When a reporter at that press conference asked Escobar about the manifesto, she said: “It’s fueled by hate and it’s fueled by racism and bigotry and division.”

Escobar now says: “The lack of acknowledgement from the governor, even after the city’s police chief said it, I found it to be shocking.”

And of any connection between Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant push and the shooting, she added: “When you fan the flames of hate in the country, when we have leaders who scapegoat and make targets of people you are going to fuel violence, in my mind it’s inseparable.”

On the day of the shooting, the issues converged for Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. She was in Ciudad Juárez visiting a migrant shelter with her staff and some guests from Florida, the Oliver family. The Olivers had lost their son Joaquin at the Parkland school shooting in 2018 and had come to paint a mural, advocate for gun law reform and, as Venezuelan immigrants themselves, learn more about immigration issues.

Rivas had been involved in helping those affected by Trump’s brutal 2018 policy of separating many migrant families at the border. She also helped people seeking asylum in the US who were forced to wait for months in dangerous conditions in Mexico.

Mannequins representing the 23 victims of the shooting have been placed in a community healing garden
Mannequins representing the 23 victims of the shooting have been placed in a community healing garden. Photograph: Paul Ratje/Reuters

As the shooting unfolded, Rivas said the bridges back to El Paso from Juárez closed down.

“We ended up having to go through another bridge. So we ended up driving past Tornillo,” she said.

Tornillo is the tiny town near El Paso where hundreds of migrant children had been detained in federal government tents. Some were victims of family separation, others undocumented minors who had crossed the border alone. The camp had provoked uproar and was later closed.

For Rivas the experiences of 2018 and 2019 felt like a series of attacks on El Paso.

Then, as the city was digging deep into its resilience in 2020, Covid-19 arrived.

Gomez’s Operation Hope helped families coordinate with funeral homes after the shooting. Now he is doing the same for more than 160 families affected by Covid-19, as the death toll in the city climbs towards 300.

“Right now our city is hurting, to be honest with you. I believe it’s hurting quite a bit,” Gomez said.

Twenty-two victims died almost immediately after the gunman opened fire at the Walmart. Guillermo “Memo” Garcia underwent dozens of surgeries but died nearly nine months later from complications from his wounds, bringing those killed in the attack to 23.

Gatherings to commemorate the first anniversary of the shooting have had to be sharply curtailed due to Covid-19.

Still, one poignant memorial in a local park features 23 rings of luminarias, candles glowing in simple paper bag lanterns, to honor the dead.

Another in the specially-created community healing garden has 23 human silhouettes decorated with flowers and mosses. The frames for some younger victims, including the youngest, 15-year-old Javier Amir Rodriguez, are filled with flowers.

The florists who crafted the tribute said it symbolized how those lives were cut short and didn’t get to bloom.

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