CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Grieving neighbors and friends are struggling to understand the horrific killing of eight members of a religious family, including three young children — a massacre that prosecutors in this Mexican border city say was over a $115 debt the father couldn’t repay.
About 150 people gathered Wednesday night at the Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall in Ciudad Juarez for the funeral service of four members of the family whose head, Maximo Romero Sanchez, worked as a mechanic and fixed and sold used cars.
“They, the family, were honorable people, dedicated to the church and to God. They would come to the church’s meetings every Thursday and Sunday,” church elder Ismael Toribio said. “This is something I can’t explain. We are in shock.”
Earlier in the day, prosecutors said the killers had gone to the family’s home a month ago trying to collect a debt that was owed by Romero Sanchez for a $115 stud fee for a dog. At that time, Romero Sanchez said he didn’t have the money.
When the suspects returned Sunday and Romero Sanchez once again told them he didn’t have the money, the family members were bound, gagged and stabbed to death in their home in a poor neighborhood. Killed along with Romero Sanchez were his wife, their 4- and 6-year-old children, and four other relatives, including a 2-year-old.
Church elders said they never heard anything about Romero Sanchez’s family having any problems.
“Why (did this happen), you ask?” church elder Daniel Sierra asked the congregation. “Because Satan is the ruler of this land.”
Authorities arrested two suspects Tuesday after investigators found traces of blood on their clothing, assistant Chihuahua state prosecutor Enrique Villarreal Macias said. DNA tests were ordered as well as samples taken from the victims’ fingernails.
A widespread lack of confidence in the justice system of Ciudad Juarez and suspicions that confessions have been tortured from innocent people led prosecutors to present the two men in custody to the press and allow journalists to ask them questions Wednesday.
Neither appeared physically mistreated, but only one of them, Jesus Mendoza Hernandez, 21, spoke to reporters. He said he stood guard outside while the other suspect, Edgar Lujan Guevara, 31, stabbed the family members.
“I was guarding the door, but I didn’t kill anybody,” Mendoza Hernandez said.
He told reporters that he heard screaming, went inside and saw Romero Sanchez and one woman dead. He said at that point he took 2,500 pesos ($192) from the pockets and purses of people at the home and left.
The prosecutor, Villarreal Macias, said two other suspects still being sought also participated in the killings, piling the corpses of the three young children atop those of the five adults on beds in the home. But Mendoza Hernandez said that he and Lujan Guevara acted alone.
A bundle of red police crime scene tape was left at the door of the family’s house. The neighborhood’s dusty streets were deserted late Wednesday and neighbors didn’t want to comment on what happened. Most houses had heavy chains and padlocks on their doors.
There was no clear explanation why the young children were killed, although prosecutors speculated that because the suspects lived nearby and one of them knew the family, they may have feared the children could identify.
Investigators appear to have all but ruled out drug-gang involvement in the killings in a city that has suffered years of cartel violence.
“We can’t say these are isolated incidents with certainty, but evidence shows that (in this case) the killers did not intend to kill their victims, they didn’t bring firearms” and used restraints and gags that they found in the house, Villarreal Macias said.
Associated Press writer Ricardo Chavez in Ciudad Juarez contributed to this report.
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