AUSTIN, Texas >> Juan Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife warned a federal judge this spring that her husband would be killed if the U.S. government followed through with his deportation.
Her prediction came true last week. Three months after the former Austin resident was taken back to central Mexico by federal authorities, his body was found on the side of a road in San Luis de la Paz, Guanajuato, near where he had been living with his wife’s family.
Coronilla-Guerrero’s death comes six months after federal immigration agents took the rare step of entering the Travis County criminal courthouse to detain him on charges of illegal re-entry — a move that escalated fears about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s crackdown on unauthorized immigrants.
“I knew,” said Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife, who has returned to Mexico and spoke to the Austin American-Statesman on the condition of anonymity because she fears for her family’s safety. “I knew that if he came back here, they were going to kill him, and look, that’s what happened. That’s what happened.”
She suspects the 28-year-old was killed by the same gangs that had prompted the family’s move to Austin in the first place.
Since the Trump administration stepped up deportations of people living in the U.S. without authorization, immigration activists, attorneys and the relatives of deported immigrants have warned of the heavy collateral damage to families and of safety risks in Mexico related to drug trafficking and gangs.
“There’s a real reason people want to come here. I don’t think it’s going to change,” said Austin attorney Daniel Betts, a lawyer who defended Coronilla-Guerrero in criminal court.
In the middle of the night on Sept. 12, Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife says four armed men barged into a house owned by her family in San Luis de la Paz. She had stayed behind in Austin with one of their children and was not at the home on the night of her husband’s death.
The intruders pointed a gun at her mother while they scoured the house, until they found Coronilla-Guerrero asleep in bed with their son, his wife said. They ripped the father from the bed and held a pistol to his head, she said.
Coronilla-Guerrero told his son, “‘Don’t worry, my love. Don’t worry,’” his wife said.
The next morning, Coronilla-Guerrero’s body was found about 40 minutes away from their home.
Local Mexican police declined to release information about the case. Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife said police have not told her anything. A spokesman with the Mexican Consulate in Austin said he had no details.
An autopsy report obtained by the Statesman confirms the basic information, saying Coronilla-Guerrero was killed by gunshot wounds in a homicide.
Local media reports say six other people were killed in the area around the time of Coronilla-Guerrero’s death.
DEPORTEES ARE TARGETED
Coronilla-Guerrero was taken into federal custody March 3, as he waited for a routine court appearance on misdemeanor charges of family violence and marijuana possession.
News of the arrest stoked fear that ICE would use the courts as a hunting ground for people they suspected of living in the country without authorization. However, ICE has made no other known arrests there since that day.
Coronilla-Guerrero had been deported before, in 2008, but eventually made his way back to the U.S. and was working for a construction company in Buda when he was arrested for the misdemeanors.
Asked about his family violence charge, the wife said it was a misunderstanding and that he never hit her. He was granted a bond and later was sentenced to time served after pleading no contest. He had been arrested once before, when he was 18, for unlawful use of a motor vehicle and evading arrest. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail.
Early this year, Coronilla-Guerrero was one of the jail inmates whom Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez had refused to hold for federal immigration officials because of her controversial policy not to honor detention requests for most inmates suspected of being in the country without authorization. The Travis County sheriff’s office honors such requests only for those charged with the most serious crimes — among them, murder, human trafficking and child sex abuse.
“Juan was a very nice young man who always had a smile on his face,” said local attorney David Peterson, who represented Coronilla-Guerrero in federal court on the illegal entry charge. “This is a true tragedy for him and his family. Deportation should never be a death sentence.”
Immigration experts say gangs often prey on deported immigrants, kidnapping them at dangerous border crossing points in Tamaulipas and Coahuila and holding them while their loved ones come up with ransom payments.
Mexican officials have encouraged the U.S. government to take immigrants to safer interior locations, such as Mexico City.
“It really is an act of violence at this point to continue the immigration policies that the government is currently pushing that are sending so many people back to their deaths,” said Bethany Carson, an immigration researcher and organizer for nonprofit Grassroots Leadership.
Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife said they had chosen Austin because of its Mexican population and because they believed they would face less racism. But in recent years, the political climate changed and state laws like Senate Bill 4, the so-called sanctuary city ban, were passed, she said.
“Even though it was illegally, we brought our kids to give them a better future,” she said, but in the end, “it wasn’t possible.”
Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife, who did not have legal authorization to live in the U.S., said she traveled to Mexico for the funeral and has no plans to return to Austin. Without papers and without a second income, it would be too difficult, she said.
Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife described her husband as a good father who worked hard to support his children. Even after his return to Mexico, she said he called often to tell his family he loved them. A friend said that Coronilla-Guerrero often gave her diapers and milk for her children when her husband was out of town for work.
“Yes, he made mistakes in the past, but he had a family,” Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife said. “It wasn’t fair because he had changed. Because all people change, and he had changed for the better.”