Ema Bojado de Aguirre and her teenage daughters, Abigali and Ali, wept as they gazed at the photos on the mantelpiece in a relative's south Sacramento home last week.
On the left side is a handsome, well-groomed man with a bright smile: Bojado's late husband, Gerardo Aguirre Alfaro, a lawyer, teacher and municipal official in Tuxpan, Mexico.
On the right is a rough-hewn sugar cane farmer: Bojado's missing brother, municipal official Francisco Javier Bojado.
Ema Bojado believes the men may have died at the hands of Mexican drug traffickers in 2011. Shortly after her brother's disappearance that June, she fled with her daughters to Sacramento to live with another brother and his family.
Now Bojado, who had a successful family-law practice in Mexico, is contemplating a return to her hometown, even though the killing of her husband and disappearance of her brother remain unsolved.
Bojado speaks little English and has been unable to support her family in the United States. The family's tourist visas will soon expire.
Her dilemma is compounded because of the success of her teenage daughters, who are promising students at Burbank High School.
Because they were brought here as minors, the girls qualify for renewable two-year work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that could lead to faster legal residency. But their mother has no such guarantee, and Bojado said she can't afford the $20,000 in legal fees it would cost to file for asylum.
Before the new school year starts, Bojado will decide whether to stay or go.
In Mexico, the family owned two houses and Bojado handled divorces, child custody and other family-law cases, she said. In Sacramento, she has had to rely on her brother, a legal resident with a small trucking firm, for food and shelter.
"I have cleaned toilets in Sacramento and picked cherries in Bakersfield," she said through an interpreter.
'A message murder'
The terror began at 1:30 p.m. March 9, 2011, when Bojado's husband was shot 76 times while driving from the town of Tecalitlán to Tuxpan, a city of 33,000 in the state of Jalisco, according to news accounts.
Investigators found 51 AK-47 casings, 24 AR-15 shells and one from a 45-caliber pistol believed to be the "tira de gracia," or "final death blow," Mexican media reported.
Three months later, Bojado's brother Francisco was kidnapped and believed murdered.
"Neighbors heard him say, 'Why are you taking me?' then heard six gunshots," Bojado said.
She said she slept with a gun under her pillow, then heard gangsters were coming for her because she had asked the Mexican army to investigate.
Bojado and her girls grabbed one suitcase and "fled as if we were criminals," said Abigali, 16. "Not only did they murder our father, they also murdered our universe. Suddenly, everything beautiful had come to an end and all that was left was fear."
They settled in with another of Bojado's brothers and his family.
Bojado said she believes her husband was gunned down because he refused to defend drug dealers and their relatives and spoke out against the violence.
He used to represent family members of narcotics traffickers in federal cases. But when the Mexican government asked him to defend drug dealers full time, "he decided not to get involved," both as a matter of conscience and because defending traffickers often turned into a death sentence, his wife said.
"Lawyers who defend them will get rich but within a year or two they will all be killed," she said.
"It's called a 'message murder,' " said Herb Brown, former Sacramento FBI special agent in charge.
Brown led a team of FBI agents investigating the March 2010 killings of two Americans, one a pregnant woman, at the U.S. Consulate in Juárez.
"If you're in concert with the cartels and protect them you're fine," Brown said. "But if all of sudden you are not in concert with them and become an activist who says you want to protect your community, they send a message: 'If you don't get in line with us, this will happen to you.' "
Brown, now executive director of the federal government's Central California Intelligence Center, said the Aguirre story is all too common.
"Many local officials including police and mayors – very brave men and women who took a stance – lost their lives. We had videos sent to us where they would decapitate a chief of police and play soccer with his head."
In the Juárez case, Brown said the FBI arrested members of Barrio Aztecas, a cross-border prison gang used to protect the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels.
While the "gracia" bullet to Aguirre's head is emblematic of people involved with organized crime, his wife thinks he was killed because he was against the cartels.
"His funeral was packed," she said. "If he was a drug trafficker, no one would have have been at his funeral."
Addressing the violence
Bojado met Aguirre in Guadalajara while working her way through law school selling earrings and pork tostadas.
"He was very persistent. He played the song "Quiere Me" ("Love Me") 10 times in a row on his car stereo."
Bojado said they made a good living practicing law in Tuxpan. She concentrated on family law, and he defended people charged with federal crimes, including gun possession.
In 2000 he gave up law to become a teacher and activist.
"For five years in a row he was voted best teacher," she said. "In 2009 he ran for mayor of Tuxpan and lost, but joined the winner's staff."
After 11 people died in a gunbattle in the main plaza of Tecalitlán during the Virgin of Guadalupe celebration in December 2010, Aguirre began to speak out, Bojado said.
"Seeing the fear in people at public gatherings he cursed the killers and said the government can control this if they want to," she said. "He only trusted the army, because we saw local government officials and police hanging around with narco traffickers."
The day her husband was killed, he took his daughters to school and said he was going to Guzmán, a city of 100,000 known as "the Athens of Jalisco." His wife knew nothing about his plans to go on to Tecalitlán. He called her that afternoon to say he would be home in 20 minutes, "and then he was killed."
"They wouldn't let me see his body."
The Mexican Consulate in Sacramento said Jalisco authorities are investigating Aguirre's murder but could not provide a motive.
"The government of Mexico laments the deaths of victims of security problems in some municipalities" and is working to stop the violence at the grass-roots level, said Consul General Carlos González Gutiérrez.
Bojado prays the violence in Tuxpan is over. "Here I go to bed safe and dream in peace. I'm happy to see a police car because here you can trust them.
"But if I can't find a job, I have no other option."
The daughters are torn between Mexico, where their mother could practice her passion, and Sacramento, where they have found teachers they adore.
Their mother's degree "doesn't have any value here, and because of their legal status they're facing a lack of work, money and opportunities," said the girls' mentor, Burbank High School Spanish teacher Elizabeth Villanueva. "The kids don't have an option but to follow their mother back to Mexico."
Abigali, who hopes to become a teacher, has become a leader at Burbank, Villanueva said. Ali's also doing well in school.
The girls desperately miss their dad. "He was like my friend," said Abigali. "He was very playful, and we were always singing 'Espejeando' – 'Looking in the mirror.' "
Ali, 14, wants to be a lawyer like her parents, but says his profession is probably why her dad was killed. "Many people loved him, but there were those who didn't.
"I want our life back."
Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini.