Sentimental local boosters still describe Shelby County, Alabama as “The Heart of Dixie.” The geographic center of Alabama lies within the county — in the Richardson-Randall Cemetery, about 2 miles east of Montevallo. The county, founded in 1818, was named after Isaac Shelby, a hero of the King’s Mountain Battle during the Revolutionary War. According to the 1820 Shelby County census records, two years after its founding, 2,492 people lived within Shelby County bounds: 2,044 whites and 448 “Negroes.” The ethnic ratios have stayed pretty much the same throughout the turbulence of the Civil War, the national involvement in various World Wars and assorted foreign adventures, the fight for Civil Rights, the emergence of the New South, and the Era of Millennial Wisdom that is upon us now. Fried chicken, grits, and sweet tea are not hard to find in Shelby County.
Even though there has lately been a tiny but growing Latino presence, Shelby County seemed a slice of American pie, about as far away from Mexico as one could get culturally and geographically.
That is, until the five guys incident. Not the famous “Five Guys” hamburger chain. No, I’m talking the five Mexican guys that Shelby County Sheriff’s Deputies found when they conducted a “welfare check” at an apartment on August 20, 2008. The five guys who had been tortured with electrical shocks, mutilated — whispered local accounts include the horrific traditional stuffing of severed genitalia into the living victim’s mouth, secured with all-purpose duct tape — and throats slashed. Those five guys.
This incident is worth keeping in mind when one hears abstract discussions about the “drug war in Mexico” and “violence jumping the border.” This horrific violence did not happen in a “ghetto” or a “marginalized barrio” in Los Angeles or Chicago. It happened in a nice apartment complex in a nice community that may be very much like the one you love in. Apparently, one of the victims just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as he had come over to the apartment in connection with a used car sale.
The Birmingham News reported on September 19, 2008, “Killed were Angel Horacio Vega-Gonzalez, 23; his brother, Gustavo Vega-Gonzalez, 24, also known as Armando Lopez; 24; Ezequiel ‘El Chino” Rebollar-Terevan, 23; and Jaime ‘Tuso’ Echeverra, 30, and Armando Ibarra Mendoza, 31. Charged with capital murder in the slayings are brothers Alejandros Castaneda, 31; and Juan Francisco Castaneda, 25; Jaime Duenas-Rodriguez, 22; Christopher Scott Jones, 40, and Derreck Renone Green, 32.”
According to various published reports, this was a case of pay back between Mexican drug trafficking organizations.
Here is how it went down, according to an account in the Birmingham News on September 18, 2008:
A source close to the Shelby County investigation detailed the events that led to slayings, and identified the connection to the Gulf Cartel. Police believe that Echeverra’s brother is a top leader in Atlanta’s Gulf Cartel, the source said.
The Castaneda brothers, though not members of any cartel, were drug dealers caught in a feud between Gulf Cartel factions in Texas and Atlanta, the source said.
According to the source, a truck carrying drugs or drug money, roughly $450,000, was delivered to the Castaneda brothers. They took the load, and transferred it to a different pickup truck.
The Castanedas then hired couriers to deliver the haul to an undisclosed location. Instead, a group of men and women wearing ski masks carjacked the truck, the investigator said, and the dealer in Texas told the Castaneda brothers they were still responsible for the shipment.
The brothers, the investigator said, deduced that if the truck was found in Birmingham, it was stolen by some local drug faction. If it was found in Georgia, they believed, the Atlanta faction of the Gulf Cartel would be the culprits.
When the truck was recovered several days later in Jackson County, Ga., the Castanedas believed that the Gulf Cartel in Atlanta was responsible for the theft, investigators said.
To get revenge against the leader of the Atlanta faction, the Castanedas targeted the Atlanta ringleader’s brother, Jaime Echeverra, and his cousin, Ezequiel Rebollar-Terevan, two of the Shelby County victims, investigators said.
The plan was to interrogate them and torture them until they told whether Echeverra’s brother was responsible for the stolen drugs or money, the investigator said.
”Whatever came out of that interrogation, we don’t know, but they must have found their answers and then they all were killed,” the source said.
The Vega-Gonzalez brothers, the source said, were small-time dope runners with Echeverra and Rebollar-Terevan. Authorities believe Mendoza, at the apartment trying to sell a car, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The local law enforcement task force concept kicked in and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office arrested suspects remarkably quickly. This posting on the Sheriff’s website indicates both the scope of the investigation and the scope of the Mexican drug organizations’ operations in the Heart of Dixie:
In the course of this investigation, 24 search warrants were obtained and executed (17 of those in Shelby County and seven in Jefferson County). In all, 14 vehicles, 14 weapons including 12 assault rifles, one handgun, one shotgun, and approximately 426 grams of methamphetamine, 20 grams of cocaine and drug paraphernalia have been seized. Investigators continue to process and examine all of the evidence gathered to date. The Sheriff’s Office will work to ensure that the weapons seized do not make it back onto the street through judicial proceedings.
Here is another remarkable bit of information. Sheriff Chris Curry did not dissolve into a rant about “illegal aliens.” Quite to the contrary, his office contacted an Hispanic advocacy group — the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA) — and invited it to expand its operations into Shelby County! Here are excerpts from a Birmingham News report:
“We have asked HICA into the area to help us improve community relations with Spanish-speaking members of the community,” said Capt. Ken Burchfield of the Sheriff’s Office. “My gut feeling is that a lot of Hispanic victims don’t report crimes because they have an illegal alien status and are afraid to call us … There are predators inside their community and outside, because people know a lot of Hispanics won’t call police…Our job as a local law enforcement agency is not to deport people. That’s a federal issue. But if you are a battered spouse, or you’ve been robbed, you should call the sheriff’s office, irregardless of your race and ethnicity.”
Good, cooperative, multi-agency police work. Enlightened police-community relations. We are going to need all of that in our own war against transnational gangs.