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Dora Garcia CISNEROS





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Murder for hire - To avenge her daughter
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: March 3, 1993
Date of birth: 1938
Victim profile: Joey Fischer, 18 (her daughter's ex-boyfriend)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Brownsville, Texas, USA
Status: Sentenced to 30 years to life in prison on April 19, 1994

The United States Court of Appeals
For the Fifth Circuit

United States of America v. Dora Garcia Cisneros

Dora Cisneros: A doctor's wife and mother of five, Dora Cisneros led an ordinary suburban life in Brownsville, Texas. She lavished attention on her youngest daughter, Christina. So when Christina's heart was broken, Dora took matters into her own hands.

In 1993, Christina's ex-boyfriend was gunned down outside his home. A clue at the scene led police to a fortuneteller and Mexican faith healer named Maria Martinez. She had hired the gunmen, at the request of her longtime client, Dora Cisneros. The city of Brownsville was shocked to see what the obsessed mother was willing to do to avenge her daughter.

Dora was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. A successful appeal set her free, but persistent prosecutors won a second conviction in federal court. Dora Cisneros is currently serving a life sentence in federal penitentiary.


South Texas woman who had daughter’s ex-boyfriend slain loses appeal

By Matt Peterson -

November 10, 2008

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear the appeal of a South Texas woman who is serving a life term for arranging the murder of a teenage boy who spurned her daughter, The Associated Press reports.

Dora Cisneros, the wife of a prominent Brownsville surgeon, originally asked her fortuneteller to put a curse on Joey Fischer but, when she refused, then asked for the woman’s help in having him killed, prosecutors say.

Mr. Fischer, 18, a high school senior, was gunned down in 1993 outside his home as he was washing his car. His mother found her son in a pool of blood, shot once in the head and once in the chest. The water hose was still in his hand.

Ms. Cisneros, 70, had her state murder conviction overturned because of an error by the prosecutor but was then tried and convicted in federal court because prosecutors said the hit men she hired came from Mexico. Her appeal took issue with that.

Maria Mercedes Martinez, the fortuneteller, is serving a 20-year prison sentence for her role.


Valley woman convicted in murder-for-hire trial

By Mark Babineck -

May 13, 1998

HOUSTON (AP) -- A federal jury on Tuesday convicted a Brownsville woman in the murder-for-hire plot that resulted in the death of her daughter's ex-boyfriend.

Dora Cisneros, who was accused of hatching a plot in which telephone calls and travel from Mexico were involved in the 1993 death of 18-year-old Joey Fischer, had no visible reaction to the verdict. The victim's mother and stepmother sobbed at the decision, which came after about three hours of deliberations.

"We're relieved," said Vernon "Beau" Nelson, Fischer's stepfather. "This woman is a murderer of children. She needs to be put away. Joey finally got some justice today."

Joey Fischer broke off his relationship with Mrs. Cisneros' youngest daughter in the summer of 1992. On March 3, 1993, he was shot to death in the driveway of his home as he washed off his car before school.

Mrs. Cisneros was sentenced to life in prison in 1994 following a murder conviction in state court. However, an error in jury instructions won her an acquittal from an appeals court in 1996.

To make a federal case, prosecutors this time had to prove Mrs. Cisneros was involved in a plot that included travel and phone calls from nearby Mexico. She didn't need to know about the "foreign commerce" under the statute.

She could face up to life in prison when she is sentenced July 27 in Houston. Until then, she'll remain at the nearby Montgomery County Jail without bond.

"My son's murderer is going where she belongs," said A.J. Fischer, the boy's father. "We've been here before. Hopefully what was done today, will stand."

Mrs. Cisneros' family and defense attorneys declined to comment on the verdict. Prosecutor Assistant U.S. Attorney Mervyn Mosbacker said he was pleased with the quick decision.

In both trials, prosecutors presented witnesses who testified that Mrs. Cisneros first asked a folk healer to cast a fatal spell on Fischer for breaking up with her daughter. The fortuneteller, Maria Mercedes Martinez, says she declined, prompting Mrs. Cisneros to inquire if Ms. Martinez knew anyone who could kill Fischer.

That's when Ms. Martinez set the wheels in motion through Daniel Garza, a lovelorn San Antonio housepainter who had sought Ms. Martinez' help for marital troubles.

Ms. Martinez, 77, is serving a 20-year prison term for her role.

Garza, serving a life sentence for finding the two gunmen who shot Fischer, testified he discussed the plot with the folk healer during four phone calls he made from Mexico. However, there is no documentation the calls were made.

Also, prosecutors said testimony by U.S. Customs officials, a motel manager and witnesses at the crime scene pinpointed a white car driven by the suspected gunmen as having come over from Mexico the day before the shooting.

"All we have to prove is somebody came from Mexico to the United States to commit this murder. And we did that," Assistant U.S. Attorney Mervyn Mosbacker told jurors in his final arguments Tuesday.

Despite 5-1/2 days of testimony and piles of circumstantial evidence, lead defense attorney Tony Canales told jurors they hadn't seen enough proof to meet federal standards.

"I submit to you that a clear conscience dictates that proof beyond a reasonable doubt was not met," he told the jury. "Whether you like it or not ... you've got to do the right thing."

The suspected killers are jailed in Mexico and did not appear in the courtroom in Houston, where the case was moved by U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela because of intense publicity in the Rio Grande Valley.

Mrs. Cisneros did not testify in her own defense.


After Prosecutor's Error, Woman Convicted of Murder Is Freed

The New York Times

March 3, 1996

Two years ago, a jury in this border town sentenced the wife of a prominent doctor to life in prison after convicting her on murder charges. Prosecutors said she had given a fortune teller $3,000 to arrange the murder of a high school honor student she blamed for jilting her youngest daughter.

Now, as the third anniversary of Albert Joseph Fischer Jr.'s killing approaches, the woman, Dora Garcia Cisneros, walks free, the result of a prosecutor's error and a Texas appeals court that ordered her acquittal.

On Feb. 22, Mrs. Cisneros, 58, was released from a Texas women's prison after appellate judges ruled that prosecutors here in Cameron County had presented evidence of a murder conspiracy, and then effectively asked the jury to convict her of direct participation in the crime.

"I'm just absolutely livid that they're going to allow this lady to move back to town and take up life like nothing ever happened," said Buddy Fischer, the victim's father.

His 18-year-old son, known as Joey, was a popular student at his high school when he was shot on March 3, 1993, in the driveway of the family's suburban home.

Testimony in the 1994 trial painted Mrs. Cisneros as a mother obsessed because Joey Fischer had ended a relationship with her daughter; she was said to have offered him $500 to get back together with her daughter Cristina. Evidence pointed to a conspiracy that led from the mother, through a fortune teller, Maria Mercedes Martinez, and another of her clients, to two men the Texas authorities say were the gunmen. The men, Mexican nationals, are being held in Mexico on other charges.

Mrs. Martinez pleaded guilty to murder conspiracy and is serving a 20-year sentence. She was an important witness in the prosecution's case against Mrs. Cisneros.

In its January ruling, the appeals court ordered Mrs. Cisneros acquitted, so she cannot be retried for the killing on state charges. Although the court agreed she participated by giving money, a photograph and instructions to the fortune teller, it said there was no evidence that she had contacted the killers herself, and insufficient evidence that they were the ones who had carried out the crime.

The Cameron County District Attorney, Luis Saenz, who declined to be interviewed about the case, has appealed the latest ruling to the state's highest appeals court.

Two lawyers who are advising the Fischer family said that the prosecutors had made a "rookie error."

"Do not hold the law responsible," said one of the advisers, David Berg, a Houston trial lawyer. "This is not a technicality or a fluke in the Texas law. This was negligence."

Cathy Herasimchuk, a Houston lawyer who specializes in appeals and is an adviser to the Fischer family, is more charitable.

The Texas statute on murder-for-hire, Ms. Herasimchuk said, "is really very difficult to use when the paymaster, the mastermind, insulates herself from the triggerman."

Mr. Fischer, however, holds the appeals process responsible. "What the court of appeals has done is overturn what the jury decided," he said. "The appeals court didn't hear the case; the jury did."

Mrs. Cisneros's husband still practices medicine in Brownsville, and declined to be interviewed. The family's eldest daughter continues in her job as assistant principal of a Brownsville school. Cristina Cisneros attends college out of town.

In instances when family members have spoken publicly, they have said that Mrs. Cisneros is innocent.

Mr. Fischer said: "How do you tell your children that we live in a society where murderers go free?"


Mother Gets Life Sentence

April 20, 1994

A Brownsville woman has been sentenced to life in prison for paying two men $3,000 to kill the teen-ager who had spurned her daughter.

Under the terms of Monday's sentence, the defendant, Dora Garcia Cisneros, 56, must serve at least 30 years before she is eligible for parole. Daniel Garza, who admitted passing $3,000 from Mrs. Cisneros to the killers, received the same sentence.

Prosecutors said Mrs. Cisneros became so upset about 18-year-old Joey Fischer's breakup with her daughter that she plotted for months to find someone to kill him.

A 73-year-old fortuneteller, Maria Mercedes Martinez, testified that she had delivered the money to Mr. Garza from Mrs. Cisneros. Mr. Garza, 43, said that he gave the money to the hit men but that he thought they would only beat Mr. Fischer, who was instead shot to death.



Joey Fischer was a teen-age honor student who flourished in the Texas border culture, but his death revealed a side of that culture he’d never imagined.

By Marie Brenner

Last fall, my eighteen-year-old cousin Joey Fischer was assigned to read Gabriel García Márquez’s "Chronicle of a Death Foretold." Joey’s English teacher, Janice Johnson, believed that her honors students at St. Joseph Academy, a private school in Brownsville, Texas, on the Mexican border, needed to stretch themselves by taking on serious themes, such as the notion of mortality. In the book, Santiago Nasar, an amicable and rather feckless twenty-one-year-old, is murdered because he has possibly violated a daughter of the local town. Mrs. Johnson didn’t care that her students might not appreciate Márquez’s literary style of magic realism–his baroque chronicle of this particular killing which gradually reveals more and more details–but she was hoping that they would understand, and even be intrigued by, the subtext: that of a Latin culture in which a murder might be considered morally justifiable when it is motivated by the loss of a young woman’s honor. "This couldn’t happen," Mrs. Johnson later recalled Joey and his friends saying of the García Márquez novel. "This kind of thing only happens on soap operas."

Joey, whose full name was Albert Joseph Fischer, Jr., was slim and had neatly trimmed brown hair, a narrow face, and a wry smile; he was one of Mrs. Johnson’s most challenging students. At times, he could be as heedless as any other teen-ager, but she was impressed by his conversation, which was often serious. Joey had a deep voice and loved to bounce big words like "plethora," "lugubrious," and "pusillanimous" around with Mrs. Johnson. People who knew him often talked about him first in terms of his accomplishments: he had a 98.5 grade-point average for his senior year; he was eleventh in his class; and he had been immediately accepted into the honors program at the University of Texas at Austin. It could be argued that Joey’s confidence in his academic abilities gave him a certain margin to try to push his teachers to their limits. Joey always had a remark to make, on any subject. "One of these days, your mouth is going to get you in trouble," Mrs. Johnson often teased him.

However much Mrs. Johnson tried last year, she had a hard time getting Joey’s class to appreciate the rich ironies of "Chronicle of a Death Foretold." Joey told a friend of his that he thought all the omens were "ridiculous." He gave the friend the impression that he regarded the García Márquez novel as an anachronism, a throwback to the repressive sexual mores of Catholic mothers who chanted endless Rosaries to purify their daughters who had been degradadas. Joey said to Mrs. Johnson, "All the books you seem to pick for us are so morbid."

Mrs. Johnson was not originally from the border. As an outsider, she had a sharp sense of all the many contradictory aspects of the culture. St. Joseph Academy–and, for that matter, Brownsville–was at least eighty-five per cent Mexican-American. It was frequently said that the school, like the city, was "a mix of cultures," but it was impossible to think of either St. Joe, as the school is known, or Brownsville as an Anglo-versus-Hispanic world. Outside South Texas, it is often presumed that there is a continuing culture clash between the local Anglos and the Mexican-Americans. In fact, the closer you are to the border, the more the worlds meld together; ethnic and racial considerations are secondary to how rich a family is or how long it has lived in the area. On the border, the assumptions that outsiders make about the area often seem patronizing, because the Mexican-Americans define the culture and are its political power structure. It is common for the Mexican-Americans to tease their Anglo friends affectionately by calling them gringos, or even bolillos, meaning "white bread."

As an Anglo, Joey was most friendly with the Mexican-Americans in the school who were "second or third generation from across"–middle-class children whose last names were Ayala or Gonzalez, the kind of kids who wore boat shoes and polo shirts, sometimes applied to the Wharton School or Brown, and, at home, spoke Spanish mostly with their grandparents. This Brownsville world of established families does not show up in movies like "The Border" or "El Norte," for it is a society of subtle distinctions, in which Mexican-Americans and Anglos live in the same neighborhoods and go to the same schools and dances.

Joey and his friends could speak a perfect border Spanish, trilling their "r"s like natives, but for all their fluency in the language Mrs. Johnson remained convinced that they were unaware of the oddity of their environment. Brownsville is at the southern tip of Texas, across the Rio Grande from the Mexican city of Matamoros, and twenty-five miles from the Gulf of Mexico and the beaches of South Padre Island. It is a community of Bonanza restaurants, cineplexes, department stores, yogurt shops, and malls, where a small but significant number of the population truly believe that they have seen the Miracle Virgin of Guadalupe appearing in the clouds, on their tortillas, or, just recently, in the knot of a tree. It is a city where there are curanderos and curanderas–Mexican medicine men and women, sometimes benign but sometimes somewhat sinister, who practice brujería, or witchcraft. For a fee, the local curanderas will prescribe herbs for indigestion or employ spells, oils, and incantations–and, on occasion, tarot cards–to put the mal ojo, or evil eye, on straying boyfriends or unfaithful wives. A few miles from St. Joe, there are several storefronts advertising velas mágicas, aceite de suerte, sahumerio–magic candles, lucky oil, specially prepared incense–and other tools of curanderismo. Neither Joey nor his private-school friends appear to have ever shown the slightest interest in these things.

On Wednesday, March 3rd, in the sweet, nervous time of his last months of high school, Joey was up early, as usual. He put on one of the St. Joe uniforms–navy trousers and blue-and-white button-down–and then tried to get his younger brother, Eric, out the door; Joey always drove Eric to school. Just before seven o’clock, Joey went into the garage and backed his mother’s car into the circular driveway. The traffic was light on Highway 77/ 83, visible just beyond an allée of palm trees in front of his house, on Cortez Avenue, in Rancho Viejo, an upper-middle-class community to the north of Brownsville. By Brownsville standards, Joey’s neighborhood was rich. A number of doctors and lawyers lived there, and so did executives of the local maquiladoras, the factories of vast American and Taiwanese companies, such as A.T. & T. and Zenith, in Matamoros. Rancho Viejo was the kind of place where people describe the houses by their measurements, as in "Look at the Hernándezes’–they have fourteen thousand square feet." One next-door neighbor, a Mexican national, had in his front yard a dozen plaster statues of ancient Greek goddesses holding urns. Compared with some of its neighbors, Joey’s house, a stucco ranch, was modest; it had a swimming pool, but a relatively small one.

Joey was one of only a few teen-age boys at St. Joe who did not have cars of their own, but his mother, Corinne, regularly let him borrow hers. After Joey backed the car up, he parked and got out to wash the dust off the car windows–a morning ritual. He walked to the front corner of the house, where the garden hose was curled on the ground. Suddenly, someone came up to the house with a .38-calibre pistol. As Joey stood with the hose in his hand, he was shot twice. The killer fired at close range, and one bullet tore into Joey’s chest and the other lodged in his brain. The killer did not use a silencer–the gunshots could be heard inside the house. It was later obvious to the sheriff that Joey’s killing was some kind of hit: the assassin had clearly sought him out.

Inside the house, Corinne went to the window to see what was going on. She thought, she later told Joey’s father, Buddy, that maybe some palm fronds had fallen on the roof or a car had backfired. She looked out the kitchen door but didn’t see her car. For a moment, she thought Joey might have gone to a convenience store to pick up something, but Eric told her that he saw her car in the driveway. Then Corinne, not moving much more quickly than usual, walked from the kitchen to the garage. When she opened the unopened door of the two-door garage, she saw Joey, lying face up, in the driveway. Later, Eric told his father that his mother’s scream was so terrifying that it would haunt him for the rest of his life.

"Call 911!" Corinne shouted to Eric. "Call your father!" she shouted to Joey’s older sister, Kathy. Immediately, Kathy rushed to the telephone and called her father, who lived only a few miles away. (Corinne and Buddy were divorced six years ago, and both had remarried.) It was a few minutes past seven. Buddy was still sleeping, and Joey’s stepmother, Connie, was getting ready for work. Their five-month-old baby, Michael, was asleep in the next room. From the bathroom, Connie heard Buddy answer the phone. "What happened?" she asked. Buddy told her, "My son has been shot!" Connie had to stay with the baby, so Buddy pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt and raced his car down Tandy Road, a shortcut to Highway 77/83, which led to Joey’s house. He sped past the Rancho Viejo National Bank and Kay’s Cactus. He had no idea how fast he was going; at some point he looked down at the speedometer and noticed that it registered a hundred and ten miles an hour. He made frantic gestures with his left hand, as if to brush other cars out of his way. At that early hour, the highway was almost deserted. As he approached the red tile roofs of Rancho Viejo, he didn’t wait to get to the exit; he crossed the grass divider and careered through the allée of palm trees. He could see the flashing red lights of the Rancho Viejo police patrol cars; he felt himself go numb. He saw Corinne, sobbing, in the garage with Eric. Then he saw Joey lying in the driveway. When he got near his child, he saw that Joey was holding the garden hose. Nonsensically, he waited for Joey to see him and to say, "Hey, Dad, what’s up?"–his standard greeting. The flow of the water from the hose had covered the driveway with blood.

In the kitchen, Kathy telephoned Joey’s closest friend, Patrick Aziz. She was crying hysterically, "Patrick, did Joey have any enemies?"

Patrick couldn’t think of anyone who disliked Joey.
By the time Patrick got to school, he was almost incoherent, and stammered badly when he encountered Mrs. Johnson in the teachers’ workroom.

"My word, what is the matter with you?" Janice Johnson remembered asking him.

"They killed Joey," he told her.

Mrs. Johnson said, "What?" Then, "Do you have any idea who would want to do this?"

"Yes," Patrick said, remembering some boys he and Joey had got into a fight with at a football game.

Mrs. Johnson had a strange feeling that "this is going to come right back to our doorstep," she told me much later.

Corinne, Eric, and Kathy immediately moved into Corinne’s mother’s house. According to Buddy, Corinne was in shock, but she knew, she later told friends, that she could never spend one more night in the house where her son had been murdered.

I grew up with Buddy, in San Antonio. My father owned a small chain of discount department stores which had been started by my grandfather, Buddy’s great-uncle. Buddy’s father, Albert Fischer, was a surgeon, the chief of surgery of a local hospital. Buddy’s mother, Ella Zuschlag, was a highly respected pediatrician. His father and my father, both of whom still live in San Antonio, are first cousins, and so close that they are more like brothers; their connection is powerful, rooted in the nineteenth century in central Mexico, where their fathers, best friends from a small town in the duchy of Kurland, on the Baltic Sea, married two sisters and settled in Aguascalientes, hoping to strike it rich. By 1911, during the revolution, four Brenner children and two Fischer children were living in Aguascalientes. Pancho Villa’s troops massed in front of their ranch. Our grandmothers were often frightened by the local superstitions and folkways. From time to time, my grandmother told me years later, they found on their porches dead chickens or bananas wrapped in red cloths. They had no idea what the chickens and bananas meant. In the years when the revolution was brewing, a comet streaked across the sky, and my aunt Anita Brenner’s nurse, Serapia, held her up to look and said, "It means war, death, misery, hunger, and disease." Soon after, it rained ashes for a night and a day from a distant erupting volcano. Nearly two decades later, Anita wrote of these events in "Idols Behind Altars," a study of Mexican art and anthropology, published in 1929. The Brenners and the Fischers stayed in Mexico for only eleven years (they left during the revolution), but for eighty years most of my family has been unable to move any farther away from Mexico than South Texas. With time, the closeness of the clan weakened, but many of us have been drawn to the totems of the culture that drew our grandparents; our houses are full of Mexican paintings and religious kitsch. "For the dust of Mexico on a human heart corrodes, precipitates. But with the dust of Mexico upon it, that heart can find no rest in any other land," Anita wrote in "Idols Behind Altars."

Since the Brenners and the Fischers left Mexico, many interesting things have happened in our family. We have had relatives who achieved a degree of notoriety in Mexico for their various accomplishments; we have had the usual family betrayals, leading to arguments that wound up in litigation and court fights. There have been, as in most families, happy times and chilly remarks, broken relationships, money made, money lost and made again. We have had doctors, writers, newspaper editors, total failures, revolutionaries, merchants, lawyers, Communists, right-wingers. But until Joey was killed we had never had a murder in the family.

Some weeks after the killing, Buddy sounded withdrawn and tired on the telephone. A man who had always prided himself on his stoicism, he was now trying to stay in control of his emotions. The death of a child is every parent’s nightmare; the murder of a child is almost unimaginable. I had a sense from my father that my cousin was not only grief-stricken but also concerned that Joey’s killer, whoever he was, might never be brought to justice. Corinne, who may have shared his concern, had withdrawn completely, grieving in solitude.

Buddy and I had known each other well as children, but I hadn’t seen him in nearly twenty years. On my first morning in Brownsville, I waited in the lobby of the Sheraton for my cousin and his wife to pick me up. Buddy and Connie work at a local maquiladora, kemet de Mexico, a South Carolina electronics company that manufactures millions of electrical capacitors a day in Mexico. Buddy, a former banker, is a buyer and is implementing a new automated purchasing system for the factories in Mexico; Connie is an executive in charge of maintaining the quality of the product for all the Mexican factories. She worked her way through college and then took an M.B.A. in South Carolina. Connie’s intelligence and direct manner are not unlike those of Buddy’s mother, the only woman interne in her year at Robert B. Greene Hospital, in San Antonio.

As I waited for Buddy and Connie, tropical storm clouds from the Gulf of Mexico darkened the sky; the air was heavy, as if hurricane season were near. The palm trees in front of the Sheraton were bending in the wind. Many of the men who walked into the hotel were wearing guayaberas, shirts with pockets and pleated fronts. Suddenly, an athletic-looking man with a mustache, accompanied by a pretty blonde, walked up to me. It took me a moment to realize that they were my cousin and his wife. We walked through the parking lot to his car, a Subaru with a baby’s seat in the back. I noticed a plastic shopping bag filled with newspapers in it. "You need to read all of them," Buddy said. "These are all the clippings that have been in the papers since Joey was shot."

"It’s Brownsville" is an expression used by local Anglos and Mexican-Americans alike. It is meant to explain the lassitude of the city, the mañana attitude. "It’s Brownsville" is the reason given that, some years ago, Pan Am, after using the city as its South American headquarters for twenty-five years, finally moved away; Southwest Airlines lands in nearby Harlingen, which remodelled its airport and will be able to service the boom that the region has been anticipating if the North American Free Trade Agreement takes effect.

For a long time, there has been a feeling that Brownsville will become a boomtown at any moment, but in the last few years the city’s economy has been depressed. "I think it’s getting better," a friend of Buddy’s remarked to me. "It used to be when we would go through town there were no cars at the light. Now there are at least six." Since 1985, nearly a hundred major factories have opened in the industrial parks of Matamoros and the nearby Valle Hermoso. Matamoros is now a large industrial city with a population of almost a million. Brownsville’s development has been slower, although the city now has about a hundred thousand residents. "If General Motors has twelve thousand people at its plants in Matamoros, they might have eighteen working in Brownsville," a local businessman told me. It is often difficult for outsiders in Brownsville to understand that the city’s power structure, which has slowly favored the ascent of Mexican-Americans, who now dominate political office, is representative of the city’s melded culture. These local politicians, like those anywhere in the United States, concern themselves with such matters as passing bond issues for a new convention center.

The closer you are to downtown Brownsville, the closer you are to Mexico. Just two or three blocks in any direction from Market Square and the cathedral, it is difficult to tell that you aren’t in Mexico. In downtown Brownsville, most of the signs are in Spanish. Soap operas blare out from dusty shops of ropa segunda; dozens of these secondhand-clothes stores line Adams Street, one of the town’s main thoroughfares. Fat blossoms of bougainvillea trail off Cyclone fences around many of the small frame houses a few blocks from the Rio Grande.

Many women who come to Brownsville with their husbands join a group called Border Maquiladora Wives. It is intended to help Anglo newcomers become acclimated, but it occasionally becomes a forum for anxious discussion about the area’s drug smuggling and violent deaths, which are often reported in the Brownsville Herald. On some level, these newcomers may actually be baffled by what they view as the heavy folk-Catholic underboil to the culture–a sense that some ideas from el otro lado ("the other side") remain completely unassimilated.

On my flight to Harlingen, I overheard a well-dressed Anglo woman talking to the woman next to her: "You go to a restaurant and all they speak is Spanish. You go to the beauty shop and all they speak is Spanish. I don’t know if they are laughing at me. I don’t know what they are saying." Like our grandmothers at the turn of the century, some of the maquiladora wives are put off by the local customs. They worry about the coyotes, sinister-looking men who sometimes circle the good neighborhoods to collect their weekly payment from illegals they have smuggled across, who now work as maids in the air-conditioned houses of the Anglos. And there are wives who find nothing charming about the local H.E.B. grocery chain, which has cafés that sell gorditas, fried-cornmeal pockets filled with beans and cheese or whatever you want. There are times when you cannot see an Anglo face in a grocery store. At the meetings of the wives’ group, the women sometimes talk as if they were expatriates, trying to cope in a colonial outpost.

In Brownsville, the story of Joey Fischer’s murder was given a banner headline on the front page of the Herald: "ST. JOE PUPIL SHOT TO DEATH IN DRIVEWAY." A photograph of his body covered in a bloodstained coroner’s cloth took most of the width of the front page. Buddy is prominent in town–he used to be the president of a local Rotary Club and was also active in a community group called Leadership Brownsville–and Joey’s grandfather on his mother’s side, Louis Lapeyre, had once been mayor of Brownsville, so it was not hard to understand why Joey’s death was big news in the Rio Grande Valley. Already, his short life was reduced to sound-bites. He was "the honor student," "eleventh in his class."

On the night before his funeral, more than six hundred people came to a Rosary service for him at St. Mary’s Church. His parents had decided that there should be an open casket with a kneeler, so that whoever wanted to could pray by the coffin, in the traditional Catholic manner. Corinne’s family, who were originally "Louisiana French," as one friend put it, were devout Catholics. Although Buddy’s father is Jewish, when Buddy married Corinne he converted to Catholicism and became active in his church. The funeral, also at St. Mary’s Church, was jammed with friends. Besides all of Corinne’s and Buddy’s acquaintances, many people from St. Joseph Academy appeared. Joey’s girlfriend Marianela Caballero and her mother attended both the Rosary and the funeral, and sat in a pew, sobbing. Joey’s family came up to Marianela to reassure her, saying, "Don’t worry, he looks just like himself." Nearby sat a former girlfriend, Cristina Cisneros, also weeping. Although many parents of St. Joe students came, Cristina’s mother was nowhere to be seen. Victor Ayala, who had been a friend of Joey’s since kindergarten, had volunteered to give a eulogy. Victor suddenly found himself having to reconstruct the history of a childhood friendship, and he was so worried about writing the speech that he felt unable to bring his close friend into focus.

For days after the funeral, Buddy and Connie’s house filled with friends. It was a long weekend, one of them told me, during which the parents of the teen-agers who had known one another since they were toddlers felt so intimately connected with Joey’s death that they could think of little besides their inability to protect their own children. Joey’s murder came to represent their own fears and sense of powerlessness. Buddy’s neighbor Mike Gonzalez, a partner in a local advertising agency, had seen Joey almost every weekend at his father’s house. His own son went to Pace, a public high school in Brownsville. After Joey was killed, Gonzalez became very strict with his son. "If it could happen to Joey Fischer, it could happen to any of our children," Gonzalez said. Another friend recalled, "We left Buddy’s house sobbing, imagining our own children lying in our driveways."

"How are you sleeping?" I asked Buddy on our first afternoon together.

"Not well," he said. "I have terrible dreams. Often I stay up all night long just so I won’t have nightmares." Buddy and I were sitting in the living room of his house–a modern house, with comfortable beige sofas and a large kitchen filled with cooking equipment and a sheaf of recipes clipped from Southern Living. He was smoking cigarette after cigarette and got up many times to show me yet another picture of Joey. "It’s like I am living somebody else’s life," he said. "I had a wonderful son for eighteen years."

Later that night, Buddy and I drove by Joey’s house. Buddy was driving fast; he wanted to show me the route he had travelled when he learned that Joey had been killed. We drove north on Highway 77/83; Buddy’s face was hard in the darkness. He took the exit for Rancho Viejo and then parked in front of the small house on Cortez Avenue. A "For Sale" sign stood in front of the house. Suddenly, Buddy said, "Another father might say, ‘If Joey came back, I would make this right with him.’ Or ‘I would make that right with him.’ But I don’t feel that way." He waited a moment. "I wouldn’t change anything about Joey," he went on. "Not one thing. I want my son back just the way he was." For the only time in the days we were together, I saw Buddy’s eyes fill with tears.

At eighteen, Joey’s personalitywas still in formation, but he loved basketball and computers, and often talked about his desire to become an engineer. At school, his class voted him, along with two others, "most sarcastic," and they posed for their picture carrying a sign that read "What Us Sarcastic?" He had a fine sense of the absurdity of high school. Once, a teacher took two balloons away from Joey and put them in a closet. A few days later, Joey asked for his balloons back. The teacher opened the closet and a bunch of balloons floated out. Joey waited a full beat. "That’s what happens when you leave two balloons alone," he said.

For an adolescent, Joey sometimes showed a surprising concern for his parents. In the spring of 1992, when his stepmother, Connie, was six months pregnant, she received a note from him. "So the baby is due in late September. I wonder if he’ll look like Mikey from ‘Look Who’s Talking’ or like Wally from ‘The Beaver.’ Either way, he should look pretty funny. But don’t you worry, I’ll take good care of him." Joey was twelve when his parents divorced, and he had had a hard time, but he and his father maintained their close relationship. There was never a Lakers game that Joey did not try to watch with Buddy.

Joey and his friends often complained that there was almost nothing to do in Brownsville. The parents of the girls they dated did not want them to drive to the beaches of South Padre Island except on special occasions. Across the Rio Grande was Matamoros, long the equivalent of a theme park for Texas teen-agers, with its easy liquor and, before the age of aids, quick and memorable sex in the red-light section. Soon after Joey and many of his friends got their driver’s licenses, at age sixteen, they visited the bars in "Mata" from time to time–places like Blanca White’s and Hobie.

By the end of their junior year, the raffish atmosphere of Matamoros had become less appealing to them. Joey and his friends knew that their parents worried about occasional shootings in the bars and about people being kidnapped off the streets. Matamoros had had a lot of bad publicity in 1989, when Mark Kilroy, a University of Texas student, on the border for spring break, disappeared from a bar in Matamoros. His body and at least a dozen others were found buried on a desolate ranch nearby, apparently the victims of a cult involved in the drug trade whose members believed that sacrifice would make them invincible. The appearance of a satanic cult a few miles from their quiet neighborhoods had terrified many of the St. Joe parents whose children were old enough to get their driver’s licenses.

People in Brownsville sometimes say that the parents who send their children to St. Joseph Academy want them to be "part of the St. Joe mafia" and "meet the right kind of people." St. Joe is one of the few private schools in Brownsville; the tuition is three thousand dollars a year, and ninety-eight per cent of the students go on to college. The school occupies a red brick building in Rio Viejo, one of the most elegant of the Brownsville neighborhoods.

The building, which has open-air corridors and patios, to take advantage of the mild Brownsville winters, stands near a resaca, one of many charming old cutoff river channels to be found all over Brownsville, and is surrounded with flowering cenizo shrubs, which are indigenous. Most of the children at St. Joe are wealthy: the sons and daughters of the rich families of the Rio Grande Valley; the children of Taiwanese entrepreneurs who came to the border to run the maquiladoras; and even the children of several rumored drug and arms dealers in the area. In the morning, the St. Joe parking lot fills with expensive cars, some of them, it has been thought, surely belonging to drug dealers’ children.

The counselling problems at the school are idiosyncratic in the extreme; guidance counsellors had to use special expressions like being "in the paper a lot" when one of the fathers–allegedly a member of a Matamoros-based drug ring linked to a Colombian drug cartel–was indicted last year. On the surface, all the different Hispanics, Taiwanese, and Anglos at St. Joe seem to get along with one another, but, as in every high school, there are cliques. Some of the more assimilated Mexican-American students have little to do with the Mexican-Americans from el otro lado.

In the view of one person who knows the school and its students well, the lack of much to do in Brownsville for the middle-class teen-agers leads to a great deal of early sex. "It is surprising that, with the Catholic doctrine and the Mexican-American doctrine, there is so much sex going on, but the parents and the school refuse to talk about the problems," this person told me. "They say, ‘That doesn’t happen here, and neither does anorexia, or drug or alcohol abuse.’ " Some of the Anglo boys at St. Joe who get involved with the girls from the old-fashioned families have no idea of the expectations and pressures that are put on the Mexican-American daughters. In Brownsville, Mexican-American girls are often pushed to marry as soon as possible after high school.

Joey was often attracted to the more Latina girls of the school. During his junior year, he asked out Cristina Cisneros, a sophomore. The other boys were surprised. "I didn’t really know that much about her," a close friend of Joey’s told me. Cristina, the youngest of five children, had long curly dark hair and a pretty face with small features. Although she once tried out for cheerleader, for the most part she seemed to keep to herself. "In the cafeteria at lunch," one of her friends told me, "when all of us would be laughing, Cristina would be very quiet." Another friend saw her differently: "Cristina could be quiet when you didn’t know her, but when you know her she’s bouncy, happy, and friendly."

Joey may have appeared to Cristina’s mother, Dora Cisneros, to be a catch: he was an ambitious student from a good family, and he wasn’t wild, like many of the St. Joe boys. Cristina and Joey often played tennis together or swam in his pool. His stepmother, Connie, thought they were "just friends." Some weekends when Cristina was at Joey’s house, she would sit by herself playing video games while Joey did his homework in the dining room. "It was strange," Connie told me. "I never saw anything remotely intimate between them. They didn’t even hold hands."

One day, Joey told one of his closest friends that he and Cristina had gone alone to South Padre Island, to a condo her parents had there. It is impossible to know exactly what went on there between Cristina and Joey, but Joey later told his friends that they had slept together. He didn’t brag about it, his friends told me, and one friend said that he even seemed to regret it. His friends think that Joey and Cristina slept together only once or twice, but they have no doubt that Joey was telling them the truth. Cristina later denied that anything had happened between them, according to a friend of hers. In any case, later that spring Joey took Cristina to the junior prom; a photograph of Joey in his tuxedo was taken.

That June, Joey broke up with Cristina. One of his closest friends told me that he thought Joey had decided that it had been just a physical attraction, and that there weren’t many emotional ties between them. He wanted to get out honorably, without "hurting her feelings," he told his father. He had given Cristina his ring, and when he broke up with her he asked for it back, but she refused.

During the first few weeks of the summer, Buddy told me, Dora Cisneros began to call Joey. She was very polite on the telephone. "Why have you broken up with Cristina?" she would ask. Joey, uncomfortable at hearing from Cristina’s mother, was apparently almost excessively polite, using his Catholic-school manners. "Well, Ma’am, I think she is very nice," he would say, "but I just want to see other girls." According to Buddy, Mrs. Cisneros called him and asked him why Joey had broken up with her daughter. At first, Buddy remembers, he thought Mrs. Cisneros was just being "a concerned parent," but when he realized that she was truly concerned about a high-school romance that had fizzled he could not understand how a mother could risk humiliating her daughter by calling her boyfriend’s parents.

Joey was angry that Cristina had not returned his ring, and he decided he would write her a polite but firm letter asking for it back. To his teen-age mind, the letter had a menacing legal tone. Buddy, who had seen the letter, recalled that it said, in effect, "You have ten days to return my ring or I am taking action."

After Joey sent the letter, according to Buddy, Dora Cisneros called Buddy at home and said, "I want to meet you and talk to you about Joey’s ring and other things." Buddy agreed to meet her at a Burger King. When he got to the table, he saw Cristina sitting there with her mother. An outsider might have thought they had come to negotiate a marriage, an old-fashioned Mexican custom. Dora Cisneros again asked, "Why did Joey break up with Cristina?" Buddy answered, "This is really between Joey and Cristina. It has nothing to do with us." Buddy expressed the opinion that Joey was old enough to conduct his own personal affairs, and that, as the father, he had to stay out of it. Inexplicably to Buddy, as Mrs. Cisneros talked about her daughter’s private life Cristina did not protest but remained silent for most of the meeting.

Then Dora Cisneros said to Buddy, "Are you aware that your son drinks?"

Buddy wasn’t particularly upset. He remembered his own teen-age years in South Texas. "What eighteen-year-old doesn’t?" he answered.

"I’ve seen him drunk once," Cristina said.

"Well," Buddy said, "if Joey has been drunk, he has never been drunk in front of me."

The meeting, however bizarre, was perfectly friendly, Buddy recalls. The subject of sex never came up. Buddy told Mrs. Cisneros that he would talk to Joey about being "a gentleman." Mrs. Cisneros told Buddy that Joey would get his ring back. "I just want him to sweat a little bit," she said. When Buddy got home, he told Joey, "If you are breaking up with Cristina, please be a gentleman about it. If you have done anything to offend her, please write her a note or call her to apologize. Tell her you want to be just friends." No one knows whether Joey took his father’s advice. But, according to Joey’s friends, Mrs. Cisneros continued to call him. Joey told a friend that she had offered him five hundred dollars a month to take Cristina out. Eventually, the situation reached a point where he later confided to another friend, "I have never told an adult off before, but, yeah, I told her off."

At the beginning of his senior year, Joey met Marianela Caballero, a new girl in school. Marianela had long, dark hair and an infectious laugh. Her mother, who was originally from San Luis Potosí, spoke Spanish with her daughter, and Marianela had a Mexican lilt to her voice. Joey invited Marianela to homecoming, but the relationship did not take off. "I didn’t want a commitment then," Marianela told me. But during February their flirtation intensified.

The Saturday before Joey was killed, he attended a friend’s quinceañera, the traditional coming-out party given for a Mexican-American girl’s fifteenth birthday, and became confused that Marianela paid more attention to another boy than to him. Marianela might have been unsure that Joey really cared for her. Like many of the more traditional Mexican-American girls, she did not want the sort of casual romance favored by the Anglo boys. Her mother had talked to her at great length about "reputation."

On the Monday after the quinceañera, Joey wrote her a long letter explaining his intentions: "I know how I feel, and it’s all up to you. You need to let me know. You wanted sincere, this is how I feel. I like you alot, but it’s all up to you. . . . Please let me know how you feel. I sincerely care for you."

On Tuesday–the night before he was murdered–Joey and Marianela were on the telephone for more than three hours. His friends Patrick Aziz and Erika Borrego were over at his house, as they often were, ostensibly to study calculus but really just to hang out. Before Patrick and Erika left, the three friends started kidding around with Joey’s electric razor. They held Joey down and tried to shave his legs. At one point during the evening, Joey said that he had heard that another boy was now taking Cristina Cisneros out. "Good luck," Joey said.

On another occasion, he told that boy’s cousin, "Tell him not to worry. If he wants to take Cristina out, that’s fine." He also startled Patrick and Erika. "Did you know that Mrs. Cisneros offered me money to take Cristina out?" he asked. "God. Really, God, what a nut!" Patrick recalled telling him.

Joey was serious. He told them she’d offered him five hundred dollars a month. All three were casual about this information; their minds were on other things.

Alex Perez has been the sheriff of Cameron County, in which Brownsville is situated, for twelve years. Perez, in his fifties, is husky–what Mexicans on the border call poco fuerte–with strong muscles beginning to turn soft. He habitually wears gold aviator glasses, cowboy boots, a gold tie tack in the shape of handcuffs, and a large gold ring with rhinestones in the shape of a pistol.

On March 3rd, the morning that Joey was killed, Perez was eating breakfast at the Toddle Inn, a small restaurant he owns on Central Boulevard, not far from the Sheraton. In the early-morning hours, the Toddle Inn fills with local lawyers and police seeking to hear the morning courthouse chisme–gossip. It was, Perez told me, around seven o’clock, when the call came in: "1900," the code for murder.

Immediately, he rushed to his car and, with sirens going full blast, headed for Rancho Viejo. There are twenty or so murders in Brownsville every year, but not many occur in the rich suburbs. When Perez arrived at the house, he saw Buddy Fischer standing in the driveway. Perez knew Buddy from when he was a client of Buddy’s bank. His first thought was that Buddy lived in the area and must have accidentally happened on the crime.

At the house, police found what eventually turned out to be a crucial piece of evidence–a yellow business card lying near Joey’s body. The card was from a bail-bond company in McKinney, Texas, not far from Dallas. The sheriff later theorized that Joey had tried to grab his assailant and the card had fallen from his pocket. On the card, Perez saw, was a handwritten telephone number with a 214 area code, the code for Dallas. "The four was written in a weird handwriting," he told me. "Very distinct. I was asking myself, ‘Why would a young man like this, just starting life, a brilliant student, get shot?’ Usually, it’s either drugs or love."

Perez thought it unlikely that Joey had any connection to the local drug trade, he told me, and it also seemed unlikely to him that the murder was a crime of passion. He said that in Brownsville it is unusual for someone so young to get killed over love. But Perez had been on the border long enough to know that anything was possible. He asked the family, "Did Joey ever have any problems with a girlfriend?" They told him about Cristina.

That morning, Marianela Caballero was interviewed at the sheriff’s office. "Did Cristina Cisneros ever say words to you?"

"No," Marianela said. She had no idea why detectives would ask her about Joey’s ex-girlfriend, whom she hardly knew.

Later that day, Cristina appeared at Buddy’s door to make a condolence call. "What happened?" Cristina asked Connie.

Connie was sharp with her. "What do you know about what happened? The sheriff wants to talk to you."

At first, the sheriff and the local district attorney, Luis V. Saenz, did not take the Cisneroses’ connection with Joey any more seriously than their other leads. "The family told me about the crazy calls," Perez said later, "but that didn’t mean murder to me."

The sheriff and the district attorney were also considering the idea that Joey was killed by a drug dealer, who had mistaken him for someone else. Joey’s stepfather, who worked for a Chinese-owned shrimp farm in Arroyo City, about forty miles away, had recently stopped the payment of a check for several hundred thousand dollars to another shrimping company because of a contract dispute. Joey’s stepfather immediately assumed that Joey had been murdered out of revenge. For two days, he was overwrought, weeping uncontrollably, thinking that he was in some way to blame for his stepson’s death. An early investigator on the case pushed the Chinese theory and told Buddy and Corinne that there was the possibility that their other children were in danger. "For two weeks, I would not let my baby out of the house," Connie told me. Buddy and Corinne debated sending Eric and Kathy to San Antonio to stay with their grandparents.

There is no specially trained homicide squad in Brownsville, and the investigation was rigorously pursued by Sheriff Perez’s detectives, Ernesto Flores and Abel Perez. They immediately called McKinney, where the bail-bond company was based, hoping to find a recent application for bail that had been received from South Texas. The bond company gave them a man’s name and a Dallas address and faxed a copy of the man’s bail application. The handwriting had the same florid "4" that appeared on the yellow card. The detectives immediately left for McKinney and got a warrant to rescind the man’s bond. He appeared at the bond company, unsure of what he had done wrong. He identified the yellow card. When they interviewed him, the man said that he had given the card to a friend at a motel in downtown Brownsville; the bail-bond company’s card was a form of insurance if his friend should get arrested.

The detectives knew that this particular motel was a haven for the minor border criminals of the area. Perez’s office began tracking down a few people who had stayed at the motel in the previous months and who they thought might be connected to the man in McKinney. Eventually, they came up with a man named Daniel Garza, a Mexican national who spends a lot of time in Brownsville and San Antonio, and whose nickname is El Güero (the Fair-Haired One). He told them he had a landscape business, but the authorities suspected he might be a small-time drug runner. After being questioned, Garza gave a statement acknowledging that he had arranged Joey Fischer’s killing.

Police describe Garza as a middleman who was having family trouble and had gone to a curandera. Border drug dealers often consult the local curanderas, because they believe that such witchcraft can make them invisible to the federal authorities. "These people in the Mexican culture believe too much in the curanderas," Perez told me. The curandera that Daniel Garza had sought out for his problems, María Mercedes Martínez, had no special reputation. None of the other curanderas of Brownsville had ever heard of her. She was a seventy-two-year-old woman who made a living by charging five dollars to tirar las barajas ("throw the cards"), an unusual practice for a curandera. She did not operate in one of the brightly painted yerberías that advertised special oils and candles; instead, she had a table in a dim back room of a store where secondhand clothes were sold, named La Chuparosa (the Hummingbird), downtown. But, according to the sheriff, Martínez had had a long relationship with Dora Cisneros. Dr. Cisneros’s former office was on a street a few blocks from La Chuparosa and perhaps a ten-minute walk from International Boulevard and the bridge to Mexico.

Although David Cisneros was born in Texas, he had gone to medical school in Mexico. There is a hierarchy among the doctors of the Rio Grande Valley which has to do with whether you attended medical school in the United States or "across." David and Dora Cisneros had lived in Brownsville for many years; they were considered well off but not rich. In 1974, their firstborn son, David, was killed when he was thrown from a vehicle driven by a friend during his senior year at St. Joe. It was said at the time that Dora Cisneros got pregnant again to try to overcome her grief at losing her child. However that may be, when Cristina was born, Dora’s friends called it a miracle.

In recalling Dora Cisneros, the people I talked with in Brownsville tended to describe her as "quiet." She usually wore simple clothes, and she spoke unaccented English; she certainly didn’t seem to be muy Mexicana. She belonged, a friend told me, to a mall-walkers’ club–the members took their exercise by strolling up and down the air-conditioned halls of the Sunrise Mall, across from the Sheraton. She seemed like the picture of middle-class respectability.

According to someone close to the family, Dora was a member of the Garcia family of Los Indios, a ranching community on the American side, close to the Rio Grande, near Brownsville. Los Indios was not a typical middle-class town; someone who grew up in the area told me that the children of the ranching communities close to the river were often strongly influenced by Mexican folktales and superstitions they learned from the braceros who worked on the ranches. In these communities on the border, Mexican traditions are maintained, and the belief in curanderismo is often stronger there than in town. Dora Cisneros spent her childhood in Los Indios but later moved to Brownsville and attended high school. A woman who knew the family remembers that the Garcias owned property and could afford to send Dora and her sister to Villa Maria, a private school, and their sons to St. Joe. In seeking to explain Dora’s personality, this woman said that the family had experienced "much tragedy"; Dora’s uncle is said to have committed suicide, and a brother drowned as a teen-ager. Mrs. Cisneros was ambitious, and was active in a club of local doctors’ wives. She seemed to have become imperious: a former schoolmate told me that she often snubbed her old friends when she ran into them in town. A few people now maintain that in some way she "changed" or "flipped out" after David’s death.

According to someone who knew the Cisneros family, she became more possessive of her other children. Her son Robert became a dentist, and she often called his office. Someone familiar with the office told me that once, when Mrs. Cisneros learned that he was in the middle of performing a root canal, she said, "Well, I don’t care. He knows he needs to be here." When one of Mrs. Cisneros’s sons was having problems in school, she went to talk to his teacher. The teacher told me that Mrs. Cisneros insisted that it was the teacher’s fault, not her son’s, and that her children could do no wrong. The teacher was left with the impression that Dora Cisneros was a woman who should not be crossed.

Mrs. Cisneros also became increasingly religious after David’s death and, some say, began to visit local curanderas. But in the atmosphere of Brownsville seeing curanderas isn’t all that odd–even respected professionals do it. Curanderismo and brujería have always been powerful elements in the cultural history of Mexico. Although Catholicism was well established in Mexico by the end of the eighteenth century, many of the native Mexicans never truly gave up their ancient beliefs, much to the annoyance of the local religious powers. A return to folk-based religious practices occurred during the Mexican Revolution, when the bishops and priests fled northern Mexico for the safety of South Texas. It was the fusion between the pagan beliefs and the theology of the Church that Anita Brenner described in "Idols Behind Altars": the pagan "idols" blended uneasily with the "altars" of Mexican Catholicism, she wrote. Magic continues to pervade daily life in Mexico: the marketplaces are filled with herbs and oils; a popular soap opera in the nineteen-eighties was "El Maleficio" ("The Evil One"), in which a Oaxaca businessman prayed nightly to Satan. Even in the high-tech factories in the Matamoros industrial parks, these superstitions are part of the ordinary routines of the border. Gary Cartwright, writing in Texas Monthly, reported that a maquiladora was spared being shut down because a curandero was able to "de-hex" a piece of machinery with which a worker had been injured. Pregnant women go to work daily at the maquiladoras with ribbons holding amulets and talismans, and milagros, small religious paintings, pinned to their

One morning, I went to talk with Antonio Zavaleta, the dean of liberal arts at the University of Texas at Brownsville. Zavaleta has a doctorate in anthropology, and his area of expertise is the folk medicine and witchcraft of the Mexican border. He is tall and has a rumpled look; in his office are religious retablos and baskets of the kinds of oil that the curanderas frequently use. During the Matamoros cult-killings case, Zavaleta, as the local expert on palo mayombe, the particular type of black magic employed, received national attention. At the time, he was also on the Brownsville city council, and was thinking about running for mayor. Zavaleta grew up in Brownsville and at his grandparents’ ranch in northern Mexico, and, like many other Mexican-Americans of the border, he considers folk medicine and spells part of his culture. "As I got older," Zavaleta told me, "I became so fascinated by the other side of Brownsville that I have spent my entire adult life studying it."

In rural Mexico, the curandera is the practitioner of health care, a respected healer. There are several types of curanderas, among them those who work "on the material level," giving massage, and those who work "on the mental level," using a form of visualization, like many New Age therapists. A common treatment of these curanderas is to roll an egg over the body, then crack the egg into water for some kind of divination. In Brownsville and Matamoros, there are also curanderas whose specialty is trabajos, works of "white magic and black magic." By Zavaleta’s definition, anyone who is doing trabajos is practicing brujería. Clients seek out these curanderas to affect a relationship–to bring about love, to end a marriage, to attract a husband or a boyfriend, or to harm someone. "There’s a general theme, but individual practitioners develop individual style," Zavaleta said. "If they are trying to harm someone, they use a combination of rituals. Usually, they will use a doll made of wax or rags. They may get hair, an eyelash, or clothing. Then, through a series of incantations, they try to encapsule that, along with a picture of the person, in a clay jar or some other kind of vessel. The concept of a knot is very common. So is the process of tying and enclosing their spells." Zavaleta’s research has taken him to Catemaco, in southeastern Mexico, where the great witches are based, and into the dim yerberías of Matamoros to observe the lesbian channellers of Pancho Villa. Ever since the Matamoros cult killings, Zavaleta told me, he will not cross the border without wearing a cross around his neck.

Police investigating Joey’s death speculate that the curandera, as Martínez is now known in Brownsville, made a deal with Daniel Garza when he came to see her about his family trouble. She said, according to a source close to the D.A.’s office, that she would help him if he took care of someone for her. Garza, according to the subsequent indictment, hired two men named Israel Bazaldua Cepeda and Heriberto Puentes Pizana. The indictment goes on to say that Garza gave Bazaldua Cepeda and Puentes Pizana the prom photograph of Joey so they would make no mistake about their target. There are conflicting reports of how much they were allegedly paid; it could have been as much as four thousand dollars.

On April 5th, a month after Joey was killed, the sheriff’s office arrested Martínez at her house, a small pink building in a barrio near downtown Brownsville. At La Chuparosa, detectives confiscated candles, tarot cards, and oils in the tiny room behind the shop containing racks of used clothes. Reportedly, the sheriff’s office found a piece of paper bearing the name "Cristina Cisneros." Almost immediately, Martínez, who had no prior police record, told the detectives that she had a relationship with Dora Cisneros. At seven-thirty the next morning, according to a source in the D.A.’s office, Martínez, wearing a wire provided by the sheriff’s office, met Dora Cisneros. When Cisneros handed Martínez five hundred dollars in cash, the sheriff of Cameron County moved in and arrested Cisneros for capital murder, a charge that carries the possibility of life imprisonment or death by lethal injection. Martínez was also charged with capital murder.

When news reports about the arrests of Dora Cisneros and María Mercedes Martínez first went out in Brownsville, Buddy was in the warehouse at kemet. A close friend had called Connie, and Connie immediately went out to tell Buddy. Some time before, Buddy had decided that he would not bother the D.A. or the sheriff. He had referred to the process of finding Joey’s killer as a "roller coaster" and had said that it would upset him too much when there were slowdowns in the investigation.

In the weeks before her mother was arrested, friends of Cristina Cisneros said she was having a hard time handling Joey’s death and seemed very distressed. Once, seeing Marianela in a school hallway, she hugged her. Although Cristina had started dating the other boy, a friend of hers later told me that whenever anyone mentioned Joey’s name she "started crying," and often brought out pictures of him.

On the morning Joey was killed, Dora Cisneros had gone to St. Joe to take Cristina home. According to a teacher, the assistant principal said to Mrs. Cisneros, "You, of all people, should know how a mother feels." The assistant principal meant the comment to refer sympathetically to the death of her son David, but Mrs. Cisneros just "stared and stared," the teacher told me. The assistant principal thought Mrs. Cisneros had misunderstood what she’d said, and added, "You lost a son, remember?" After learning about the charges against Mrs. Cisneros, the teacher said, the assistant principal was horrified that she had said that to her.

On the morning that Cristina’s mother was arrested, Dr. Cisneros called the school and asked that Cristina be brought into the guidance office, so that local reporters would not swarm around her. Several of the teachers were concerned about how Cristina would now be treated by the other students. Since Joey’s death, the grief counselling at the school had been intense. Several of Joey’s friends who were in Mrs. Johnson’s English class discussed "Murder in the Cathedral" and Eliot’s observation that death could come in a thousand different ways. It did not surprise Mrs. Johnson that none of the students mentioned García Márquez’s observation on Santiago Nasar’s death–"There had never been a death more foretold"–for the sexual taboos implicit in García Márquez’s chronicle had never seemed to apply to the middle-class teen-age world of St. Joseph Academy.

At St. Joe, there was a great deal of gossip about Mrs. Cisneros. It was quickly recalled that Dora Cisneros’s other daughter had had a boyfriend who had broken up with her. Soon afterward, it was rumored, someone stopped his car and stabbed him repeatedly, but he survived. Although Sheriff Perez traced the boyfriend to a distant city, he could not prove that the rumors were true. Some teachers at St. Joe who had known nothing about brujería accepted as fact the theory that Cristina and Joey had slept together and that the curandera had promised Mrs. Cisneros that if Joey was murdered Cristina would get her virginity back.

On April 6th, the Herald ran the story of the the arrests of Dora Cisneros and María Martínez at the top of the front page. That day, a woman dumped a bulky brown paper shopping bag into a resaca near downtown Brownsville. As luck would have it, park employees were working on the grounds nearby, and noticed the woman dumping the bag and then hurrying away. They went over and took the bag out of the water, moving so quickly that the paper was hardly wet.

The bag’s contents frightened them: a full collection of the paraphernalia of brujería required for the most evil of spells, illness and death. There was a garland consisting of three heads of garlic with pins stuck in them and wrapped in yellow cloth; a vial of Embrujo de Sevilla perfume; horseshoes wrapped with red ribbons; an aloe-vera plant, also wrapped in ribbons; two doll-size figures that looked like miniature corpses made of black wax and covered with many pins; and a deck of Mexican tarot cards. The park workers reported the discovery to the Brownsville police, and the police called Antonio Zavaleta.

By now, almost everyone in South Texas knows that Zavaleta is the person to call about anything having to do with brujería and the local curanderas. Zavaleta photographed and documented all the items in the bag. Whoever its owner may have been, this was "very secret stuff," Zavaleta told me. "A practitioner would not have kept these sorts of things in her shop. She wouldn’t have it out for people to see. The pins are there, of course, to inflict pain. The aloe-vera plant wrapped with the ribbon would represent the person asking for the trabajo." Although Zavaleta emphasized that, despite the "amazing coincidence," there was no evidence linking the bag to María Mercedes Martínez, the tarot cards made him wonder, since she was one of the few curanderas who used them.

After less than a week in Brownsville, I learned to walk in and out of offices without bothering to make appointments; the telephone and standard office procedures clearly meant little on the border. Sheriff Perez could often be found at the Toddle Inn. District Attorney Saenz was either at his office or in one of the many courtrooms of Brownsville’s modern limestone courthouse; local jurisprudence appeared to depend almost exclusively on his administrative abilities.

Saenz is a former Brownsville school-teacher who decided at the age of twenty-nine to go to law school. He now has the cautious mien of a man who is always thinking about the possibility that his convictions might be reversed by a higher court. Although the sheriff’s office arrested Dora Cisneros on April 6th and it was the middle of June when I arrived in Brownsville, Saenz had yet to present the case to the grand jury of Cameron County. Saenz has been told repeatedly that this case could make his career or ruin it. As reporters have telephoned him from around the state, he has burrowed in, refusing to return most calls. Some local reporters faulted Saenz for his slowness in seeking an indictment, but his seeming inactivity has camouflaged an obsession with the case. He told me, "I’d rather delay the indictment six months than be forced to trial with a sloppy case."

For Saenz to obtain convictions on capital-murder charges, he will have to successfully navigate the state’s accomplice-testimony rule. In Texas, a conviction cannot be sustained with only the testimony of an accomplice. Saenz explained to me, "If A gets on the stand and implicates B, we, the state, must corroborate the evidence." Prosecutors would need to be able to tie the defendant to the crime with other evidence.

In the view of Rey Cantu, a former district attorney of Cameron County, prosecuting Dora Cisneros and María Mercedes Martínez will be a challenge for Luis Saenz. Cantu was the prosecutor in a similar case in Brownsville, in which a well-known doctor, Victor Leal, was accused of hiring a killer to murder his brother-in-law, an elderly landowner, with whom he was having a property dispute. Just before they were to go to court to settle the land matters, the brother-in-law was murdered. "So we tracked it down, and it took us two years," Cantu said. "We caught the shooter and we caught the finger man and we caught the driver. The driver flipped, and gave us the shooter and the finger man. Then we went to trial on the shooter. He flipped, and then we went to trial on Leal, who’s a doctor and very generous and a very prominent member of the community. He was convicted, and then the conviction was on appeal for five years. It was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, but the Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court, reversed it, because of the
accomplice-testimony rule."

Cantu, however, is optimistic about Saenz’s potential for success with the Fischer case. Besides the testimony of Martínez, Saenz has Daniel Garza’s "possession of knowledge"–the knowledge being that Joey had worn a tuxedo in the photograph. "He knows something, and the only way he would have known that is from the conduit, but it had to have come through one of the Cisneroses," Cantu says. "It is crucial evidence in front of the jury. Who the hell is going to have a picture of this kid in a prom outfit? And, of course, we have the tape. It is enough."

In the pathology of criminal cases, there is often behavior that is inexplicable. Still, several questions occurred to me about the strength of the D.A.’s case as I talked with Luis Saenz. Why would Martínez enter into a conspiracy for murder? And, if she did, what debt was she paying off to Dora Cisneros? Was it a question of money? Will Martínez testify that Dora Cisneros somehow suspected that her daughter was no longer a virgin? Saenz, who is the father of a teen-age son, believes that "if they had sex the fact that they had sex is within the range of normal teen-age behavior."

However repressive the culture, nothing justifies a murder–except, possibly, self-defense. "There are shootings in Brownsville every day of the week," Saenz went on. "But this one is so senseless. You go full circle with this thing and you keep coming back to the same fact: This killing is sick. Pointless. Such a waste. I am obsessed with this case. Buddy is my neighbor. You know, I can’t get over how controlled Buddy and Corinne are when they come into this office. If it were my teen-age son, I would be hysterical. I don’t mean to sound racist, but what is it with you gringos? How can you be so calm over the death of a child?"

In late July, a week before Saenz finally obtained the indictments of Dora Cisneros, María Mercedes Martínez ("a/k/a la curandera," the original indictment noted), and Daniel Garza ("el güero"), authorities in Mexico detained one of the alleged hit men, Israel Bazaldua Cepeda, for questioning on a separate homicide charge. Bazaldua Cepeda can’t have been surprised by the appearance of the Mexican police; he was reportedly carrying an amparo, a restraining order signed by a Mexican federal judge. An amparo is a guarantee of protection of civil rights. Although the case has been widely publicized, the Matamoros police released Bazaldua Cepeda before he could be questioned by the sheriff’s office. "It’s Brownsville" was the explanation I was given for how Bazaldua Cepeda could have eluded the D.A.

Extradition of Mexican citizens is a difficult if not virtually impossible process. Mexico operates under a form of Roman law: if a Mexican citizen commits a capital offense in another country he can be tried only in a Mexican court. (Mexico does not allow capital punishment.) I was surprised when Oscar Ponce, the lead prosecutor on the Fischer case, told me that the sealed indictment for the hit men was for capital murder, a fact that made their extradition impossible. "That’s part of our charging strategy," he told me. Even if he had indicted the hit men on a lesser charge, he said, he doubted that the Mexican government would have released them. Additionally, the prosecutor didn’t want to weaken the case against Cisneros and the others. "The extradition process is an incredible scandal," David Berg, a prominent Houston trial lawyer, says. "I don’t know of a single instance in which the Mexican government has extradited a Mexican citizen for a major crime committed in the United States."

Despite the growing number of connections between the two countries brought about by the maquiladoras and by nafta, the Mexican government hasn’t changed its practices. On the border, most extradition requests have to do with drug crimes, and the local dealers efficiently pay off the politicians in the neighboring state of Tamaulipas. (In one famous case, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent pulled a suspect through a hole in a fence on the border to prosecute him.) Joey’s murder is an exception for the border: no drugs are involved, and his family has influence in the area. On the face of it, nothing should have prevented the Mexican government from giving up Bazaldua Cepeda and Puentes Pizana, the other hit man, on a lesser charge. "We cannot go over and kidnap them," Alex Perez told me. "But, sooner or later, they will cross the border, and then we’ll get them."

There was some surprise in the area when Dora Cisneros engaged J. A. (Tony) Canales to represent her. Canales, a former United States Attorney for the Southern District of Texas, has made a big reputation in South Texas by representing the area drug dealers. As a trial lawyer, Canales, according to Rey Cantu, "is not your usual flash-bang criminal-defense lawyer." He is the son of a prominent South Texas family of judges and lawyers; his mother is a doctor. He prides himself on his understanding of the arcana of Texas criminal law.

Canales’s strategy will probably be to rely on the potential difficulty of proving capital murder given the state’s accomplice-testimony rule. Several weeks ago, all three defendants pleaded not guilty, but Canales has to be concerned about the amount of evidence that Saenz has: the statements that María Martínez, the curandera, and Daniel Garza, the middleman, have given to the sheriff’s department, including a statement by Garza that he was given Joey’s prom photograph by the curandera; the wire; and statements to the D.A.’s office by Joey’s friends about Joey and Cristina’s putative sexual adventure. Saenz is expected to attempt to prove that Dora Cisneros’s motive for having Joey murdered was that he had told his friends of that adventure. The conflict over the ring may play a role as well.

One afternoon, I drove to the Cisneros home, a brick ranch house. The neighborhood was quiet, middle-class, and respectable, but not quite as affluent as Rancho Viejo. Across the street, some children were playing basketball in a driveway. I walked up the sidewalk and rang the bell. I was surprised to hear laughter inside, as if a family gathering were going on. Dora Cisneros came to the door, smiling. She was shorter than I had expected and rather frail. She had dark hair cut so that thick bangs framed her face. When I told her I was a reporter, she said, "Call my lawyer," and shut the door. There was no particular hostility in her tone; she sounded polite.

There aren’t many people in Brownsville who are willing to discuss the possibility that Dora Cisneros might be innocent–even though she might be.

Canales has declined to comment, but the Cisneros family lawyer and co-counsel, A. C. Nelson, told the Dallas Morning News, "This whole thing is illogical. This is a very traditional woman who built her life around her husband, her kids and her family. This has devastated her. I’ve known Dora Cisneros for more than twenty years, and she would never even dream of doing the things they say she did. . . . There was no animosity toward Joey. It was traumatic for the entire family when Joey died. They grieved for him. Nothing about these charges makes sense." Nelson told the Houston Chronicle, "I can’t help but think it was a case of mistaken identity." He said that Dora Cisneros and Martínez knew each other only because Dora was in the habit of giving used clothes to Martínez. "My client has known this woman for fifteen years. As far as I know, she never read any cards for my client. What the woman had was a business where she sold old and used clothes." Since he gave these interviews, Nelson has stopped talking to the press.

"I think public opinion in Brownsville has crucified her already," a local priest told me. Dora Cisneros has been seen eating with her family at Luby’s cafeteria in the Sunrise Mall. When they appeared, no one greeted them. One woman told me, "There was a conscious effort made not to look in their direction."

Cristina left St. Joe in the late spring. Apparently, she entered another school under an assumed name. "But everyone knew exactly who she was," one student told me. She appears to have become a pariah in Brownsville. It seems clear that both Joey and Cristina are victims.

After I left the Cisneros house, I drove down to Eleventh Street, where the curandera had her store. The scale of Brownsville is such that it is possible to drive from one point to almost any other in ten minutes or so; Cristina’s house is ten minutes from Joey’s house, north of the city; the Mexican part of town, close to the border, is ten minutes farther south of Joey’s house, but it is a part of town where the cultures haven’t melded. On Eleventh Street, the curanderas tiny shop was now chained shut, but next door was the Yerbería Indio Azteca, a storefront filled with the candles, oils, and herbs used by the curanderas. I bought two candles–Pancho Villa votives, which the text written on the glass promised would bring me "strength and luck."

The shop was dusty, and was filled with memorabilia such as a portrait of Robert Kennedy that was at least twenty-five years old, and pictures of many Mexican children–the grandchildren of the woman at the register. At first, she appeared not to understand my Spanish, but after a while she grew more comfortable with me. When I asked her about the curandera, she hugged herself dramatically and said, "It gives me the chills when I read about it." She told me that the curandera "is deeply religious," always asking about the children whose pictures are all over the shop. Then she said, "I don’t really know her." Later, I was told that the curandera had for years bought her supplies from the Yerbería Indio Azteca.

In South Texas, I was haunted by a remark my Aunt Anita once made: "Being an American brought up in Mexico gives one an obsession to try to reconcile two ways of life, two almost opposed points of view, two sets of emotions and interests. . . . It seems to me that if enough Americans know the story, the conflict would resolve on a plane of human friendliness and decency." I wondered how Anita, long dead, would have interpreted Joey’s murder. Although the border towns have several generations of Mexican-Americans that seem assimilated–particularly the children–the contradiction of the society is that vestiges of the traditional shibboleths and the prejudices of both cultures remain. A private-school girl like Cristina may have seemed so assimilated that Joey, a normal American teen-age boy, had no reason to suspect that her family’s values may have differed in any way from his. If Joey had "known the story," as my Aunt Anita put it, would he be alive today?

In brochures distributed to families of murdered children, it is stated that the actual life of the dead child can be lost in the complexities of the legal process. The implication is that a son or a daughter who has been murdered becomes a noun, "the victim," a phantom who begins to exist only as a name in the pages of an indictment or in the memory of family and friends, in black-and-white photographs in high-school yearbooks, in hasty letters written home. New occupations have arisen to protect the rights of murdered children. So many are killed each year that there are now "victimologists," "victim advocates," and "victim support groups" who will appear to "court-watch"; that is, to pack a courtroom, to remind a jury that the victim was once a person, surrounded by friends and family who could not imagine that they would ever have to get through their life without him.

The families of these children do not grieve in the predictable stages outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in "On Death and Dying." A homicide leaves too many unanswered questions. Parents will torture themselves: What should we have seen that we didn’t see? For months after Joey was killed, Buddy asked himself, "If I had known that Dora Cisneros was such a possessive mother, would I have stopped Joey from seeing Cristina?" Anne Seymour, a spokeswoman of the National Victim Center, in Arlington, told me, "I don’t use Kübler-Ross’s word ‘acceptance’ when I counsel families of murdered children. There is never ‘acceptance’ when a child is killed." Seymour, whose organization tries to change laws and attitudes about all victims, campaigns against "the societal bias against murder victims." In many violent deaths, people blame the victim. "Friends will think, and may even say out loud, ‘Didn’t you know something like this would happen? Why didn’t you see this?’ The intensity of the sorrow and the frustration over the child’s death is so acute that parents do not get over this kind of grief."

On my last night in Brownsville, Connie, Buddy, and I debated going to see "Like Water for Chocolate," a Mexican movie about thwarted love and magic spells that takes place during the Mexican Revolution. I was curious about it because of our family history. Buddy, understandably, was not interested in our family history.

Instead, he wanted to show me a video that Corinne had just been given by a relative, who had discovered footage of Joey at around eight years old playing with his grandfather and then, last spring, reading the Scriptures at his aunt’s wedding. Connie and I sat on the sofa as Buddy calmly inserted the video in the VCR. Suddenly, Joey appeared, smiling and sitting on his grandfather’s lap. His grandfather obviously had a way with children; Joey could hardly stop laughing. "What did the oil say to the vinegar?" Louis Lapeyre asked his grandson. "Close the door, I am dressing!" Then Joey yelled into the camera. Kathy and Eric and Joey sang a song with their grandfather: "If you get to Heaven before I do, just bore a hole and pull me through!" They let out the famous Texas rebel yell–"Yay-hah!" Buddy was stoic watching his child, but Connie cried. The video became scratchy for a moment and filled with static. Buddy got up to fix it. "I want to see Joey at the wedding taken last spring."

He played with the tracking on the VCR, and suddenly Joey, a handsome teen-ager, was standing at a podium. The sunlight streamed through the stained-glass windows in the church and made it difficult for me to see Joey clearly. His voice was commanding: "I want to show you the way. . . . Without love it would do me no good. Love is always patient and kind. It is never jealous. Love is never boastful or conceited. It is never rude or selfish." Buddy tried to bring the picture into better focus, but Joey faded in and out.



United States Court of Appeals
For the Fifth Circuit

United States v. Cisneros

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Dora Garcia CISNEROS, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 98-40955.

October 28, 1999

Before POLITZ, JOLLY and DUHÉ, Circuit Judges.

James Lee Turner (argued), Paula Camille Offenhauser, Assistant U.S. Attorney, Houston, TX, for Plaintiff-Appellee.David L. Botsford (argued), Austin, TX, J.A. Canales, Jo Ellen Hewins, Canales & Simonson, Corpus Christi, TX, for Defendant-Appellant.

Joey Fischer, a high school student, was murdered in cold blood by a hired killer-a killer hired by the mother of an erstwhile girlfriend.

Fischer and Christina Cisneros (“Christina”), were in high school in Brownsville, a Texas border town.   They began dating in the spring of 1992.   But Fischer ended the courtship after only several weeks to the bitter disappointment of the Cisneros family.

Dora Cisneros (“Cisneros”), Christina's mother, first tried to persuade Fischer to change his mind.   Fischer was not interested.   When this did not work, Cisneros went to a fortune teller named Maria Martinez to find out whether Fischer was destined to marry Christina.   The tarot cards did not hold the answer she wanted, so Cisneros told Martinez to put a curse on the young man.

Near the end of October, Cisneros turned to a more mundane solution:  she asked Martinez to find someone to beat up Fischer.   By winter, Cisneros had decided to have him murdered instead.

Now enter Daniel Garza.   Garza had also been unlucky at love.   He and his wife separated in the spring of 1992.   Soon afterwards, he came to Martinez, asking what he might do to rekindle the fire of romance with his wife.   During one of their meetings in October 1992, Martinez's thoughts reverted to the lost romance of the scorned Christina.   She asked Garza about finding someone to rough up Fischer.   In late January or early February, however, Martinez upped the ante with Garza:  she relayed that “the client” wanted the boy killed.

Though Garza assured Martinez that he would find someone for the job, he was more immediately concerned with rejuvenating his own fast-fading love life.   In the ensuing weeks, he frequently called Martinez to discuss schemes to get his wife to return.   In the meantime, however, Martinez, was under almost daily pressure from Cisneros for news on the planned retribution against Fischer.   Feeling the pressure, Martinez would interrupt Garza during their conversations to find out if he had found someone to kill Fischer.   Garza lied several times and said he had found someone to commit the crime.   The two would then discuss the murder before returning to the subject of a plan to plant the stirrings of love in the heart of Garza's wife.

There is an important-a highly important-question about where Garza placed these calls.   At trial, he testified that he made at least four calls from two Mexican towns, San Fernando and Matamoros.   He said that he had placed them in “casetas,” booths where a caller pays for the call after making it.   During cross-examination, however, defense counsel asked him why an FBI report from his interview with an agent said that he had made the calls collect.   Garza testified that the agent was mistaken.   Garza went on to explain that collect calls from Mexico were difficult, though he may have made one of them to Martinez.   In its case-in-chief, the defense tried to show that no calls were made from Mexico.   FBI Agent David Church was called as a defense witness.   He testified that while Garza had told him that all the calls were collect, Martinez's phone records did not show any such calls.

In early February 1993, Garza found the men to kill Fischer:  Israel Olivarez and Heriberto “Eddie” Pizana.   He met them in Brownsville, at the home of Olivarez's uncle.   Like Garza, they worked for Rudy Cuellar in a drug smuggling and auto theft operation stretching from Mexico to Chicago.   Olivarez and Pizana were car thieves and hit men for the organization.   Garza met with the two again in Dallas on February 14 to explain what he wanted.   Olivarez said that they would commit the crime the next time they were in Brownsville.   Garza gave them a photo of Fischer and a map to his house.

On the afternoon of March 2, Garza was returning from San Fernando, Mexico, to San Antonio, Texas.   He stopped at the La Quinta Inn in Brownsville, where he happened to find Olivarez.   Olivarez told him that “he was ready to do the job.”

We now turn to a development of uncertain connection to the hired killers, but one that we must mention.   At 6:39 that evening, a car crossed into the United States from Mexico at the Brownsville point of entry.   Border authorities recorded its Mexican license plate number as “821 THE7.” A vehicle with that plate had crossed the border eighteen times between August 1992 and March 1993.   At 8:26 p.m., Pizana and Ramon Palomares, another Cuellar hit man, checked into the La Quinta Inn. The receptionist registered their car as a white Grand Marquis with Mexican plates.   Her handwriting made it hard to decipher whether the plate number was “821 TWEX” or “821 THE7.”

We now come to the implementation of this insane and tragic scheme.   A little after 7:00 a.m. on March 3, Fischer was shot and killed in his driveway.   The physical evidence consisted of a bail bondsman's business card found next to the body and a tennis shoeprint on the outside air conditioning unit.   The only other clue to the killer's identity was a witness who remembered passing a four-door white car with Mexican plates driving in the vicinity of Fischer's house near the time of the murder.   The witness described the man in the car as Hispanic, twenty-three to twenty-five years old, with a short beard.

Then the conspirators spread the news that the deed was done.   Between 7:00 and 8:00 the morning of the murder, Olivarez called Garza to tell him that Fischer was dead.   Garza immediately relayed this news to Martinez, who said that she could not get the money from her client without proof of the murder.   Garza then discussed the situation with Olivarez at the La Quinta Inn. Pizana was also in the room, but not Palomares.   After the discussion, Pizana and Garza visited Martinez, who gave them the money.   When the two returned to the La Quinta, Garza tried to give Pizana the money, but he declined and told Garza to give it directly to Olivarez.   Garza did that and noticed before leaving that Olivarez and Pizana had two white vehicles:  a white pickup truck with a black stripe and a white Ford.

Fortunately, the bondsman's business card had handwriting on the back, and it matched Cuellar's handwritten bond application.   They also began pursuing information on Cuellar's associates, Pizana, Olivarez, and Ramiro Moya. They learned about Garza through Moya, Garza's brother.

Garza became the key that opened the gate through which other conspirators were herded.   He agreed to set up a meeting with Martinez and to wear a wire.   He called her twice to tell her that the gunmen wanted more money, and each time she gave it to him.   The police then arrested Martinez and had her wear a wire for a meeting with Cisneros.   They arrested Cisneros in her car as she was giving Martinez $500.

At trial, testimony by a person working for Cuellar, Victor Moreno, helped establish the link between Cuellar and the murder.   Moreno testified that he heard about the Fischer murder within the Cuellar organization.   He had also been with Cuellar when Palomares phoned Cuellar to report the murder of “a boy” in Brownsville.

Cisneros and her accomplices were convicted in state court for capital murder.   The Texas appellate court overturned the conviction, however, for insufficiency of evidence linking her to the murder.   The state then turned the case over to federal prosecutors, who charged Cisneros under the federal murder-for-hire statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1958.   She was convicted in May 1998.   The district court then denied her motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial.   Cisneros has now appealed, citing seven different instances of insufficient evidence and error.



The first, and most complex, issue that this case presents is whether there is sufficient evidence to show that Cisneros met the interstate/foreign commerce requirement for a federal murder-for-hire conviction.   In 1993,1 the relevant parts of the statute read:

(a) Whoever travels in or causes another (including the intended victim) to travel in interstate or foreign commerce, or uses or causes another (including the intended victim) to use the mail or any facility in interstate or foreign commerce, with intent that a murder be committed in violation of the laws of any State or the United States as consideration for the receipt of, or as consideration for a promise or agreement to pay, anything of pecuniary value, shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned for not more than ten years, or both;  and if personal injury results, shall be fined not more than $20,000 and imprisoned for not more than twenty years, or both;  and if death results, shall be subject to imprisonment for any term of years or for life, or shall be fined not more than $50,000, or both.

(b) As used in this section and section 1959 ․

(2) “facility of interstate commerce ” includes means of transportation and communication.

18 U.S.C. § 1958 (emphasis added).   The government asserts that it proved this interstate/foreign commerce requirement in two ways, either of which was sufficient.   First, Garza's phone calls from Mexico to Martinez in Brownsville qualify as use of a “facility in interstate or foreign commerce” caused by Cisneros.   Second, the matching license plate numbers from the vehicle that crossed into the United States from Mexico and was later registered at the La Quinta Inn to Pizana and Palomares, combined with the sighting of a white vehicle near the scene of the crime, demonstrates that Cisneros caused another to travel in foreign commerce.


To determine whether the government presented evidence sufficient to satisfy this element, we first need to determine what the statute requires.   Section (a), in setting out the crime, uses the term “facility in interstate or foreign commerce.”   Section (b), however, confusingly defines “facility of interstate commerce” for sections 1958 and 1959 and includes “means of transportation and communication” in that definition.  18 U.S.C. § 1958.   Since neither section uses the term “facility of interstate commerce,” the question is whether the broad definition in (b) should apply to “facility in interstate or foreign commerce” in (a).2

This distinction is important.3  In this context, “of” means “[b]elonging or connected to,” while “in” means “[d]uring the act or process of.”   Webster's II New College Dictionary 557, 759 (Houghton Mifflin Co.1995).   Under the term in (a), the use of the facility must have been in the process of interstate or foreign commerce.   That would require us to undertake a fact-intensive inquiry to establish the interstate or foreign character of the instant use.   If the definition in (b) applies, however, the statute would encompass even intrastate use of telephones or vehicles, since those are items connected to interstate commerce.4  Both theories that the government presented to show how Cisneros's murder-for-hire satisfied the foreign commerce requirement, therefore, would easily qualify under the statute.   Cisneros's plan obviously caused people to use both telephones and automobiles.

We begin statutory construction with an examination of the statute's language.  United States v. Alvarez-Sanchez, 511 U.S. 350, 356, 114 S.Ct. 1599, 128 L.Ed.2d 319 (1994).   There are two parts to 18 U.S.C. § 1958, the substantive portion setting out the criminal act, (a);  and (b), the portion providing definitions for the terms used in (a).   Oddly, part (b) defines a term that is not found in subpart (a).   Reading the statute literally, almost mathematically, we would disregard the “irrelevant” definition and apply the substantive portion, (a), alone.

But this rigid approach glosses over the ambiguity that does exist, the seemingly superfluous definition.   The canons of construction do not help.   We recognize that in reading a statute, every word should be given significance.   United States v. Nordic Village, Inc., 503 U.S. 30, 36, 112 S.Ct. 1011, 117 L.Ed.2d 181 (1992).   But this gets us nowhere.   The canon obviously counsels against ignoring the definition in (b).   If we use (b)'s broad definition to interpret “facility in interstate commerce,” however, then the portion of (a) dealing with interstate and foreign travel would be rendered superfluous.   Use of a “means of transportation” would cover any type of travel as well.   The application of this canon, therefore, does not resolve our statutory quandary.

Another potential guide for us is case law interpreting the Travel Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1952.   We have previously held that reviewing section 1958 in the light of section 1952 is appropriate, since section 1958 follows section 1952's format and was intended as its supplement.  United States v. Edelman, 873 F.2d 791, 794 (5th Cir.1989).   It is, therefore, potentially relevant that our circuit construed the Travel Act to include intrastate mailing.   See United States v. Heacock, 31 F.3d 249, 254-55 (5th Cir.1994)(construing the Travel Act to include intrastate mailing).

We conclude, however, that our interpretation of the Travel Act in Heacock is inapplicable here.  Heacock concerned an interpretation of the Travel Act as it read in 1988.   At that time, the relevant portion read:  “Whoever ․ uses any facility in interstate or foreign commerce, including the mail.”  Id. at 254.

A circuit split had developed between the Sixth and Second Circuits concerning whether purely intrastate use of the mails qualified under this portion of the statute.   See United States v. Barry, 888 F.2d 1092, 1095 (6th Cir.1989)(requiring interstate use of mail);  United States v. Riccardelli, 794 F.2d 829, 831-33 (2d Cir.1986)(intrastate use of the mail would qualify).   The Sixth Circuit had held in Barry that the statute applied to facilities, including the mail, that were being used in interstate or foreign commerce.   Barry, 888 F.2d at 1095.   Thus, intrastate use of the mail would not fall within the statute's domain.   In Riccardelli, on the other hand, the Second Circuit had held that “mail” in “including the mail” referred to the entire preceding clause, “facilit[ies] in interstate or foreign commerce.”   In other words, according to that court, the statute made clear that the mail was to be treated as distinct from all other facilities;  that is, as a facility inherently “in interstate or foreign commerce.”

The Second Circuit's treatment of the mails as distinct from all other facilities under the Travel Act was based on a thorough analysis of the statute and the history of the postal service.   As the court explained, the U.S. Constitution specifically granted Congress the power to establish the postal service.   U.S. Const. art.   I § 8 cl. 7. From the presidency of James Monroe until the 1970 reorganization under President Nixon, the postal service was its own executive department, after which it became a government-owned corporation.  Riccardelli, 794 F.2d at 831.

In Heacock, we examined this split and sided with the Second Circuit.   The special character of the mail automatically made it a “facility in interstate commerce.”  Heacock, 31 F.3d at 255.

In 1990, Congress amended the Travel Act in a manner consistent with this interpretation.   The heading to the relevant section read “CLARIFICATION OF APPLICABILITY OF 18 U.S.C.1952 TO ALL MAILINGS IN FURTHERANCE OF UNLAWFUL ACTIVITY.”   Act of Nov. 29, 1990, Pub.L. No. 101-647, § 1604, 1990 U.S.C.C.A.N. (104 Stat. 4843)(to be codified at 18 U.S.C. § 1952).   The new language read:  “Whoever ․ uses the mail or any facility in interstate or foreign commerce.”  18 U.S.C. § 1952 (emphasis added).   This was the version of the Travel Act that the federal murder-for-hire statute was to supplement and from which the drafters of 18 U.S.C. § 1958 drew their language.

Thus, it is clear that our Heacock analysis is limited to use of the mail, especially after Congress' 1990 amendment, because the mail is unique.   It is plainly and unmistakenly treated separately from all other “facilities.”

Ultimately, Heacock and other cases interpreting the Travel Act are not helpful to our inquiry because they do not face the same contradictory statutory language that we do today in the murder-for-hire statute.   In construing the Travel Act, one need not wrestle with the distinctions and differing implications between “of” and “in.”   But we cannot avoid confronting them.   Each term leads to a different result;  the telephone used in making an in-state call is not one actually engaged in interstate or foreign commerce with respect to the particular use at issue, even though the telephone is itself a facility of interstate or foreign commerce.

We next turn to the legislative history of 18 U.S.C. § 1958, which finally provides some helpful guidance.   The Senate Judiciary Committee's report on the bill supports a narrow reading of the statute in the interest of comity:

The committee is aware of the concerns of local prosecutors with respect to the creation of concurrent federal jurisdiction in an area, namely murder cases, which has heretofore been the almost exclusive responsibility of state and local authorities․  This does not mean, nor does the committee intend, that all or even most such offenses should become matters of federal responsibility.

S.Rep. No. 225, 98th Cong., 1st Sess.1983, 1984 U.S.C.C.A.N. 3182, 3484.

This legislative history plainly suggests that we should eschew the broader reading of the statute.   Using the definition in (b) to interpret “facility in interstate commerce” would extend the reach of the federal murder-for-hire statute to new realms of traditionally-exclusive state jurisdiction.   It is difficult to imagine a murder-for-hire scheme that would not involve the use of a telephone or an automobile.   This definition, therefore, would markedly increase criminal liability in this area.   The narrower interpretation of the statute, which applies the substantive part of the statute in (a), appears to be the appropriate one to use.

Because we are reluctant to rely solely on legislative history to eliminate ambiguity, however, we also look to the quasi-constitutional rule of lenity, which counsels us to resolve ambiguity in criminal statutes by construing them narrowly.   The rule of lenity fosters the fundamental principle of due process:

This practice [of resolving questions of the ambit of criminal statutes in favor of lenity] reflects not merely a convenient maxim of statutory construction.   Rather, it is rooted in fundamental principles of due process which mandate that no individual be forced to speculate, at peril of indictment, whether his conduct is prohibited.

Dunn v. United States, 442 U.S. 100, 112, 99 S.Ct. 2190, 60 L.Ed.2d 743, (1979).   Its propriety was recently reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in United States v. Granderson, 511 U.S. 39, 54, 114 S.Ct. 1259, 127 L.Ed.2d 611 (1994).   The rule of lenity also supports a narrow interpretation of this statute rather than the imposition of potentially-unanticipated federal criminal liability.

Finally, this narrow interpretation accords with the Sixth Circuit's decision in United States v. Weathers, 169 F.3d 336, 342 (6th Cir.1999).   That court ignored the definition in (b) because “the key prohibition creating the criminal offense is found in subsection (a).”   We agree.


In reviewing its sufficiency, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict and affirm if a rational trier of fact could find that the government proved all essential elements beyond a reasonable doubt.   United States v. Grossman, 117 F.3d 255, 258 (5th Cir.1997).   The government's proof need not exclude every reasonable hypothesis of innocence.   United States v. Haas, 171 F.3d 259, 265 (5th Cir.1999).

Though the interstate/foreign commerce requirement in 18 U.S.C. § 1958 is jurisdictional, United States v. Edelman, 873 F.2d 791, 794-95 (5th Cir.1989), it is also an element of the offense.  United States v. Feola, 420 U.S. 671, 677 n. 9, 95 S.Ct. 1255, 43 L.Ed.2d 541 (1975).   This circuit does require proof beyond a reasonable doubt of interstate/foreign commerce.   See, e.g., United States v. Thompson, 130 F.3d 676, (5th Cir.1997), cert. denied, 524 U.S. 920, 118 S.Ct. 2307, 141 L.Ed.2d 166 (1998)(using beyond reasonable doubt standard);  United States v. Thompson, 130 F.3d 676, 688 (5th Cir.1997)(same).

Labeling this requirement “jurisdictional,” however, does eliminate the need to prove scienter of that element.  United States v. Razo-Leora, 961 F.2d 1140, 1148 (5th Cir.1992).   It is enough that the proof showed interstate or foreign commerce in the commission of the offense and that Cisneros had knowledge of the nature of the offense that she promoted.  Edelman, 873 F.2d at 795.   The government did not need to establish that Cisneros intended to cause interstate/foreign commerce or even that she knew it occurred.  Id.


The government did present sufficient evidence for a rational juror to conclude that Garza made international calls in arranging the murder-for-hire for Cisneros.   Garza testified that from late 1992 until early 1993, he called Martinez four times from Mexico, twice from San Fernando, and twice from Matamoros.   He explained that he made the calls from casetas and paid for them immediately afterwards because collect calls from Mexico were difficult to make.

During the calls, Garza would attempt to discuss his marital problems, but Martinez would interrupt and ask whether he had found someone to kill “the boy” for “her client.”   Although Garza initially lied to her about finding “men to do the job,” the urgency of Martinez's demands did not diminish.   During each of Garza's calls, Martinez continued to press him to find assassins for “her client.”

Cisneros makes two arguments in response.   First, she contends that Garza's testimony about the Mexico calls lacks corroboration and contradicts Church's FBI report and testimony.   It is true that Church's report and testimony indicate that he believed Garza told him the calls from Mexico to Martinez were collect, and that Martinez's phone records did not show any such calls.   Garza, furthermore lacked any receipts proving they occurred.

The government's evidence, however, was nevertheless sufficient to prove the international phone calls.   Credibility determinations are the exclusive province of the jury, United States v. Ruiz, 987 F.2d 243, 250 (5th Cir.1993), and the jury is entitled to choose among reasonable constructions of the evidence.  United States v. Thompson, 130 F.3d 676, 685-86 (5th Cir.1997).   As already explained, we read that evidence in the light most favorable to the jury verdict.  Grossman, 117 F.3d at 258.5  Here, Garza provided a reasonable explanation for why the calls were not collect.   Given his language difficulties, some confusion during the interview with Church would be expected.   Finally, Garza's lack of a receipt for these calls five years, or even five minutes, after they were made is not surprising.   The conclusion that the calls were made, therefore, is legally supportable.   It is not our province to become embroiled in a credibility debate between Church and Garza.

Second, Cisneros contends that the evidence did not establish that she caused the telephone to be used “in furtherance” of the murder-for-hire.   With respect to causation, Edelman requires simple “but for” causation rather than foreseeability:  “It is enough, therefore, that the proof showed the mails were in fact used in the commission of that offense and that Edelman had knowledge of the nature of the substantive offense which he promoted.”  873 F.2d at 794.   Martinez would not have discussed the murder-for-hire with Garza over the telephone but for Cisneros's request that Martinez find someone to kill Fischer.

The “in furtherance” requirement is not the law in this circuit.   Instead, Edelman governs, and it requires that the use of the facility be “in the commission of the offense.”  873 F.2d at 795.   Even though Garza initiated the calls for an entirely different purpose, Martinez nevertheless used a facility in foreign commerce, the telephone, to discuss the murder.   Cisneros's contention that Garza's lie-that he had already found someone-actually hindered the murder is not persuasive.   Without Martinez's incessant reminders during those calls, it is reasonable for a jury to have believed that Garza would not have made as serious an effort to find a hit man.

Because these telephone calls satisfy the interstate nexus requirement, we need not address the more complicated issue, the car travel between Mexico and Texas.


Cisneros raises several other arguments on appeal, none of which require reversal of her conviction.


Cisneros asks for a new trial based upon two instances of the government eliciting testimony about state court proceedings related to the murder.   The trial court had issued an order that prohibited eliciting testimony that Cisneros had been tried for the offense in state court.

First, it is true that the government improperly elicited testimony in violation of the order:

Q: Do you remember what you charged him [Garza] with?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: What was that?

A: Capital Murder.

Q: The same charge that you had charged Maria Martinez and Dora Cisneros with?

Yes, sir.

Defense counsel immediately moved for a mistrial, which the trial court denied.

We will not reverse the court's denial because it was not an abuse of discretion.  United States v. Krout, 56 F.3d 643, 647 (5th Cir.1995).  “A new trial is required only if there is a ‘significant possibility’ that the prejudicial evidence had a ‘significant impact’ upon the jury verdict, viewed in light of the entire record.”  United States v. Layne, 43 F.3d 127, 134 (5th Cir.1995).   Simply stated, in a trial lasting seven days, any prejudicial effect from this interchange is not enough to justify a mistrial.   The government spent almost five-and-a-half days presenting a thorough case-in-chief.   The defense, on the other hand, used half a day to present its case.6  With such a gross imbalance of evidence in favor of the government, it is hard to believe that the brief interchange above had any impact on the jury's decision.   Denial of a mistrial was not an abuse of discretion.

Second, the government elicited testimony six days after this interchange that Garza had been convicted of capital murder in the Fischer homicide.   Defense counsel objected, and the trial court overruled the objection.   Cisneros now charges that the government tried to get the jury to infer that since Garza and Cisneros were both charged, and since Garza was convicted, that Cisneros was also tried in state court.

The admission of this testimony was not an abuse of discretion, since there was no chance of any “significant impact” on the jury verdict.  United States v. Morgan, 117 F.3d 849, 861 (5th Cir.1997);  Layne, 43 F.3d at 134.   By itself, this testimony did not violate the district court's order.   The defense can only take issue with the testimony by tying it to the earlier testimony about charges against Cisneros.   There is no reason to believe that the jury drew such a connection to conclude that Cisneros had also been convicted.   The government had good reason, moreover, to ask Garza about his conviction.   The prosecutors wanted to minimize the effectiveness of any cross-examination about the deal they had given him.


Cisneros next objects to denial of five of her proposed jury instructions.   We review refusal to include requested instructions for an abuse of discretion.  United States v. Storm, 36 F.3d 1289, 1294 (5th Cir.1994).   Defendants are entitled to an instruction as to any recognized defense for which there exists evidence sufficient for a reasonable jury to find in their favor, Mathews v. United States, 485 U.S. 58, 63, 108 S.Ct. 883, 99 L.Ed.2d 54 (1988).   But refusal to include a requested instruction is reversible error only if the requested instruction is substantially correct, the actual charge given the jury did not substantially cover the content of the proposed instruction, and the omission of the proposed instruction would seriously impair the defendant's ability to present a defense.  United States v. Pettigrew, 77 F.3d 1500, 1510 (5th Cir.1996).

Cisneros first sought to instruct the jury that the interstate/foreign commerce connection had to have been “in furtherance” of the murder-for-hire.   Because this instruction is taken from the First Circuit's decision in United States v. Houlihan, 92 F.3d 1271, 1292 (1st Cir.1996), rather than our decision in Edelman, it is neither the law in this circuit nor substantially correct.   The court's refusal was appropriate.

The court instead explained to the jurors that to find Cisneros guilty, they had to determine:  “Number one, that [Cisneros] caused another to travel in foreign or interstate commerce or caused another to use a facility in foreign commerce” to find Cisneros guilty.   By setting out the causation requirement this clearly, the court established that use of such a facility would have to be the result of Cisneros's actions, and therefore in the commission of the offense charged.

Cisneros's second proposal was a “theory of the defense” instruction.   What she requested was essentially an extended instruction on the government's burden of proof.   Since the district court repeatedly emphasized that the government carried that burden, its instruction covered Cisneros' desired instruction.   Moreover, the court's refusal did not hinder Cisneros' presentation of a defense in any way.

Part of Cisneros's “theory of the defense” instruction did go beyond restatement of the burden of proof.   It set forth Cisneros's position that any of Pizana's travel in foreign commerce on March 2 was related to the stolen vehicle or drug businesses, not the murder-for-hire.   It also explained that Cisneros believed any of Garza's calls to Martinez were made for the purpose of discussing his marital difficulties.   Since these represent mere “judicially narrated accounts” of Cisneros's facts, their submission to the jury was unnecessary.   See Pettigrew, 77 F.3d at 1514.

Cisneros's third proposed instruction sought to limit the jury's consideration of tape-recorded conversations between Garza and Martinez and between Martinez and Cisneros.7  When the government offered those tapes into evidence, however, Cisneros's counsel failed to object properly:

THE COURT:  Any objection to the admission of the tapes?


MR. CANALES:  Multiple purposes of impeachment, I understand.

MR. MOSBACKER:  No, Your Honor.   They are being offered for purposes of rehabilitation of the witness and also for completeness of the conversations.

THE COURT:  There being no objections, all [the tapes] are admitted into evidence.

Assuming that some portion of the tapes included hearsay, Cisneros did not raise a timely objection to its admission.   She is required to do so under Fed.R.Evid. 103(a)(1).  United States v. Wake, 948 F.2d 1422, 1435 (5th Cir.1991).   Without such an objection, we review for plain error.   Id. The admission of this evidence, to the extent it was erroneous, did not seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings, especially since it was the defendant who first alluded to portions of the tapes.   See United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 731-36, 113 S.Ct. 1770, 123 L.Ed.2d 508 (1993).

Cisneros's fourth desired instruction was an explanation of “causation” that she took from what we require for federal mail fraud.   This instruction charged that causation existed when the defendant knew that the travel in or use of facilities in interstate/foreign commerce would result, or that such a result was reasonably foreseeable.   Because this is not the law in the circuit for 18 U.S.C. § 1958 under Edelman, the court's refusal to issue this instruction was justified.

Cisneros's fifth instruction concerned the five-year statute of limitations.   Its omission did not impair Cisneros's ability to present a defense because there was no defense under the statute of limitations.   It is well-recognized that the time period begins to run when the crime is complete.  Toussie v. United States, 397 U.S. 112, 115, 90 S.Ct. 858, 25 L.Ed.2d 156 (1970).   And we have previously held that one of the elements of the federal murder-for-hire offense is receipt of pecuniary value or a promise or agreement to pay.  United States v. Thompson, 130 F.3d 676, 688 (5th Cir.1997).

In this case, Cisneros's indictment charged her with “caus[ing] another to ․ use a facility in foreign commerce ․ with the intent that the murder of Alebert Joseph (Joey) Fischer, Jr. be committed ․ as consideration for a promise and agreement to pay, and the receipt of, $3,000.”   The crime, as charged and tried by the government, was complete upon the receipt of the $3,000.00 payment.   The government presented uncontroverted testimony that Martinez paid Garza $3,000 on the day of the murder, March 3, 1993.   Cisneros was indicted less than five years later, on February 23, 1998.   The statute of limitations, therefore, was not a defense available to Cisneros.


Cisneros's next argument, that the district court erred in admitting the evidence of Fischer's murder under Fed.R.Evid. 403, is foreclosed by United States v. Hall, 152 F.3d 381, 400-403 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 526 U.S. 1117, 119 S.Ct. 1767, 143 L.Ed.2d 797 (1999).   Contrary to Cisneros's assertion, her offer to stipulate to the shooting of Fischer did not reduce the probative value of evidence of how Fischer's parents found their son, the pathologist's testimony about Fischer's autopsy, or the photographs of Fischer's corpse.   This testimony and these pictures were not more gruesome or more disturbing than those admitted in Hall or the cases cited therein.   See Hall, 152 F.3d at 401 (citations omitted).   The probative value of the challenged evidence, therefore, was not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.   See id. (citations omitted).8


We also reject Cisneros's argument that the conviction should be reversed because the district court failed to maintain an appearance of impartiality in its questioning of witnesses and comments made during the trial.   First, Cisneros contends that in questioning Garza, the district court made the government's case instead of merely clarifying the evidence.   Second, Cisneros maintains that the district court unfairly assisted the government in overcoming objections.   One was a hearsay objection to a police officer's testimony about Ramiro Moya's involvement in Fischer's murder, and the other was an objection to the form of the question asking Moreno about Cuellar's state of mind after Palomares telephoned to report the murder.   Third, Cisneros argues that the court's treatment of defense counsel exhibited favoritism in front of the jury.

After reviewing the transcript, we cannot conclude that the district court's behavior was so “prejudicial that it denied the defendant a fair, as opposed to a perfect trial.”  United States v. Bermea, 30 F.3d 1539, 1569 (5th Cir.1994) (citations omitted).   The questions to the witnesses, periodic assistance to government counsel, and occasional chastisement of defense counsel did not make the trial unfair.

The first issue is the court's questioning of witnesses.   During trial, Garza explained that he had called Martinez from San Fernando, 100 miles south of the Rio Grande.   The district court interjected and asked Garza if San Fernando was located in Mexico and whether he had talked to Martinez from Mexico.   Garza answered both questions affirmatively.   The court also asked Garza whether he and Martinez had discussed “something else” beyond his marital problems when he called her from Mexico.   Garza replied that the two had discussed whether he had found the “guys [that] she [Martinez] wanted to cause harm to this boy.”

Garza later testified that he met Olivarez in Dallas to tell him about “a lady in Brownsville who had ․ $3000.00 to beat up or kill this person.”   Garza then said he provided a picture and address to help Olivarez identify Fischer.   The district court immediately asked Garza whether he had the picture during his initial conversation with Olivarez in Dallas.   The court also asked Garza whether Olivarez agreed during the meeting to commit the murder.   Garza answered “whenever they would go to Brownsville.”

The district court's questions did not deny Cisneros a fair trial.   A trial court has the discretion to clarify testimony, even if that elicits facts harmful to the defendant.  United States v. Saenz, 134 F.3d 697, 708 (5th Cir.1998) (citations omitted).   The district court may also bring out new facts through its questioning.  United States v. Cantu, 167 F.3d 198, 202 (5th Cir.1999), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 818, 120 S.Ct. 58, 145 L.Ed.2d 50 (1999) (citations omitted).   The trial court stayed within these limits.   Garza was a difficult witness to understand because of problems with English.   The court's questions were designed to clarify his vague, confusing, and often incomplete statements.

The record further establishes that the court's assistance in overcoming Cisneros's objections did not exhibit bias in the government's favor.   In both instances, the district court merely instructed prosecutors to rephrase their questions.   The district court properly controlled the tempo of the trial so as to avoid repetitious objections and to keep the proceeding moving forward.   See Bermea, 30 F.3d at 1570-71.

Finally, Cisneros points to several instances where the court treated defense counsel with less than perfect courtesy.   Having examined the transcript, these do not go beyond acceptable courtroom behavior, especially in the face of some of defense counsel's antics.

In sum, we find that the district court's intervention in the trial hardly rises to the level we found objectionable in Saenz, 134 F.3d at 713-14.   Indeed, nothing in the district court's questions or comments “could have led the jury to a predisposition of guilt by improperly confusing the functions of the judge and the prosecutor.”  Bermea, 30 F.3d at 1569 (citing United States v. Samak, 7 F.3d 1196, 1197-98 (5th Cir.1993)).

The district court, moreover, twice instructed the jury regarding the court's participation in the trial.   We have previously held that curative instructions such as this one ameliorate potential prejudicial effect of a district court's comments or questions.   See Bermea, 30 F.3d at 1571-72 (citations omitted).   At the beginning of the trial as well as at the close of the evidence, the district court explained to the jury that it did not have an opinion about the case, and to disregard any statements that might indicate otherwise.   The court then charged the jury not to give the court's question more or less weight than those of the lawyers.


Finally, the district court did not abuse its discretion in admitting Moreno's testimony under the co-conspirator exception to the hearsay rule, Fed.R.Evid. 801(d)(2)(E).   Cisneros argues that assuming arguendo there existed a conspiracy to kill Fischer, the admission of Moreno's testimony under the co-conspirator exception was in error because Moreno had no involvement in the murder.   We find this argument frivolous.

Moreno testified that he and Garza were both employed in Cuellar's organization and that Palomares and Olivarez acted as hit men for the organization.   Moreno also acknowledged that because he was a member of Cuellar's crime family,9 Cuellar told him about conversations with Garza concerning the “Brownsville murder.”   In early February 1993, Moreno accompanied Garza to a Dallas gun shop where Garza bought a .38 Super-the same type of pistol as the one used to shoot Fischer.   The record further shows that Moreno gave Garza the purchase money, which had been supplied by Cuellar.   Immediately after the sale, Moreno took possession of the weapon and delivered it to Cuellar that same day.   Moreno later overheard a conversation between Palomares and Cuellar, during which Palomares stated that he had killed a person in Brownsville.   Finally, Moreno stated that Palomares, Pizana, and Olivarez were involved in the “Brownsville murder” and that the murder was committed because of a contract Garza made with “a certain person.”

The government met its burden of proving the co-conspirator exception to the hearsay rule by a preponderance of the evidence.   See United States v. Narviz-Guerra, 148 F.3d 530, 536 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1046, 119 S.Ct. 601, 142 L.Ed.2d 543 (1998);  United States v. Ruiz, 987 F.2d 243, 247 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 855, 114 S.Ct. 163, 126 L.Ed.2d 123 (1993).   Moreno was integrally involved in the operations of Cuellar's organization, the one that planned and executed Fischer's murder.


For the reasons stated herein, Cisneros's conviction is in all respects



1.   The murder occurred in 1993.   In 1994, the statute was amended to allow for capital punishment when death resulted from a murder-for-hire.  Pub.L. 103-322, § 60003(a)(11), 108 Stat.1969, 2033 (1994).

2.   We observe that (b) does not include foreign commerce in its definition.   We treat this as an oversight, inasmuch as there is no discernible reason for its omission, if (b) is intended to explain the substantive provisions in (a).It also appears obvious that Congress made a mistake in mixing the terms “of” and “in,” but it is not obvious which term reflects congressional intent.

3.   We disagree with the approach taken in United States v. Coates, 949 F.2d 104, 105 (4th Cir.1991), which ignored the difference in the statute's language between (a) and (b).   The breadth of this statute and its sister statute, § 1952, is the subject of an ongoing debate among the circuit and district courts.   See, e.g., United States v. Heacock, 31 F.3d 249, 254-55 (5th Cir.1994)(any use of the mails qualifies);  United States v. Barry, 888 F.2d 1092, 1095-97 (6th Cir.1989)(requiring interstate use of the mail);  United States v. Riccardelli, 794 F.2d 829, 830-34 (2d Cir.1986)(any use of the mails qualifies);  Krantz v. United States, 1999 WL 557524 at *3-7 (E.D.N.Y.1999)(any use of mails qualifies);  United States v. Paredes, 950 F.Supp. 584, 585-90 (S.D.N.Y.1996)(requiring interstate use of pagers).

4.   Existing case law establishes that telephones and automobiles are instrumentalities of interstate commerce even when used solely for intrastate purposes.   See United States v. Hickman, 179 F.3d 230, 232 (5th Cir.1999)(holding that a car is an instrumentality of interstate commerce);  Dupuy v. Dupuy, 511 F.2d 641, 644 (5th Cir.1975)(holding that intrastate use of phones qualifies as use of an instrumentality of interstate commerce);  United States v. Gilbert, 181 F.3d 152, 157-58 (1st Cir.1999)(holding that a telephone is an instrumentality of interstate commerce, regardless of whether it is used in an interstate manner);  United States v. Weathers, 169 F.3d 336, 341 (6th Cir.1999)(intrastate telephone calls qualify as use of instrumentality of interstate commerce);  United States v. Cobb, 144 F.3d 319, 322 (4th Cir.1998)(automobiles qualify as instrumentalities of interstate commerce);  United States v. Randolph, 93 F.3d 656, 660 (9th Cir.1996)( “[C]ars are themselves instrumentalities of interstate commerce.”).Of course, these cases all refer to “instrumentalities,” not “facilities.”   The case law is less clear when dealing with statutes referring to “facilities of interstate commerce.”   Some cases seem to find that any use of a phone or car is enough without discussing its intrastate or interstate character.   See, e.g., Mountaire Feeds, Inc. v. Agro Impex, S.A., 677 F.2d 651, 655 (8th Cir.1982)(seemingly including any use of telephone);  United States v. Goldfarb, 643 F.2d 422, 426 (6th Cir.1981)(interpreting the Travel Act).   Others seem to require interstate or foreign use of such a facility.   See, e.g., Menendez v. United States, 393 F.2d 312, 314 (5th Cir.1968)(emphasizing that use of phone was “long distance”);  United States v. Markiewicz, 978 F.2d 786, 814 (2d Cir.1992)(emphasizing that the phone call was international);  United States v. Smith, 789 F.2d 196, 203 (3d Cir.1986)(requiring interstate travel).We believe, however, that the important distinction is between the use of “of” and “in,” not between “instrumentality” and “facility.”   The Sixth Circuit analyzed this statute and reached the same conclusion.  United States v. Weathers, 169 F.3d 336, 341-42 (6th Cir.1999).   Our own circuit has not been bereft of discussions on the subject.   See United States v. Miles, 122 F.3d 235, 246 (5th Cir.1997)(DeMoss, J., concurring) (distinguishing between “of” and “in” interstate commerce).   A “facility of interstate commerce” is one by which interstate commerce is typically accomplished, regardless of its use in a particular instance.   Use of a “facility in interstate commerce,” on the other hand, indicates that the facility is “in” interstate commerce when it is being used in the particular instance;  in other words, a facility “in” interstate commerce has a temporal element or requirement that a facility “of” interstate commerce lacks.

5.   This is true even when the jury reaches a general verdict based on two alternative theories.   See Griffin v. United States, 502 U.S. 46, 49-51, 112 S.Ct. 466, 116 L.Ed.2d 371 (1991)(holding the jury verdict valid in this situation);  United States v. Powers, 168 F.3d 741, 746 (5th Cir.1999)(evaluating sufficiency of the evidence with deference).

6.   The seventh day was spent on closing argument and jury instruction.

7.   These conversations related to the purpose behind money transfers between Garza, Martinez, and Cisneros.

8.   Cisneros's reliance on Old Chief v. United States, 519 U.S. 172, 183 n. 7, 117 S.Ct. 644, 136 L.Ed.2d 574 (1997) is misplaced.   The Supreme Court expressly noted that its holding was limited to cases involving proof of felon status.  Old Chief, 519 U.S. at 183 n. 7, 117 S.Ct. 644.

9.   Moreno was an enforcer for Cuellar.   He picked up drug money and delivered drugs to Cuellar's stash houses.

E. GRADY JOLLY, Circuit Judge.



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