The Case of the Wily Coyote

For Margarita Parada, a 19-year-old from a village deep in Mexico, the adventure of a lifetime is about to start. It is April 11, 2005, and Margarita has stuffed a suitcase and her backpack with favorite clothes and personal mementos.

Margarita is the second youngest of Maria and Pablo Parada's eight children. She's always been one of the family favorites because of her sweet, almost naive disposition, and her puckish sense of humor.

Though the Paradas are poor -- Pablo Parada toils in the fields -- they aren't starving. Some of the siblings have worked illegally in the U.S. for years, and always send a chunk of their earnings back home.

Margarita lives in Santa María Zoquitlán, a mountain town of 2,000 inhabitants about 45 miles from the capital city of Oaxaca. Recently, she's been tending to the needs of older sister Paula, who's recovering from a serious illness.

The young woman also has a 3-year-old daughter, Esmeralda. Esmeralda's father, Aurelio Espina, now lives in Atlanta, where he works in construction.

Though separated by distance, the young couple wants more than anything to be together. Now, Aurelio can afford to pay a coyote -- the Mexican word for a human smuggler -- to sneak Margarita into the States and provide her passage to Atlanta.

The fee is $1,200, half up front and half when she gets there.

The coyote is Abelardo Jarquin-Lopez, who also comes from the state of Oaxaca. He's promised Aurelio and the Paradas that he'll personally see to it that Margarita makes it to Georgia safely.

Everyone is comfortable putting Margarita in Abelardo's hands because, as her sister Paula says later, he's practically family.

Abelardo, who's 26, has been dating another of Margarita's older sisters, Eugenia. Eugenia usually refers to him as her husband.

The plan is for Abelardo to smuggle Margarita across the border from Nogales, Sonora. If all goes well, it will be her first time in the U.S.

Abelardo and his older brother Alfonso have access in Phoenix to so-called "drop houses" -- way stations for the dozens of Mexicans who enter Arizona illegally every day.

After taking a few days to regroup in the Valley, Abelardo will drive Margarita to Atlanta. The entire trek will be about 3,100 miles.

Margarita's mother and sisters will take care of little Esmeralda until the couple figures out their next step. That makes sense to the Paradas, who know the dangers inherent in crossing the border illegally -- least of which may be getting caught by authorities.

A U.S. Border Patrol spokesman says there have been reported criminal "incidents" involving 330 illegal aliens on the Arizona-Mexico border since last October 1, including assaults, robberies and rapes.

It's unknown how many crimes against the migrants occur on the Mexican side of the border. And immigration experts say that, for obvious reasons, aliens rarely report crimes committed against them on either side of the border.

Border Patrol agents have detained Abelardo Jarquin-Lopez six times since 2003. On each occasion, they fingerprinted him and sent him back to Mexico, to start the cycle again.

Margarita kisses Esmeralda goodbye before boarding a first-class bus in Oaxaca for the first part of her journey north.

Joining her on the bus is her common-law brother-in-law Abelardo.

It's just after noon on April 20 in Phoenix.

A housekeeper at La Quinta Inn on Thomas Road and Interstate 17 knocks on the ground-floor door of Room 121 to see if the tenants have checked out.

Getting no response, she unlocks the door and sees a room in disarray. Men's and women's clothes are strewn on the floor and bed. Empty Bud Light bottles are everywhere, and garbage pails are overflowing. The television is on, tuned to a Spanish-speaking station.

The housekeeper steps slowly into the room and asks loudly if anyone's there. No one answers. She walks past the twin beds to look in the bathroom.

What she sees is the stuff of nightmares:

A dark-haired woman is lying face-down in the bathtub, in about four inches of standing water, with her submerged face over the drain.

The woman is wearing a black-and-turquoise tank top, and is naked from the waist down.

She isn't moving.

The housekeeper runs out of the room and across a walkway to inform her manager, who calls 911 at 12:36 p.m.

Two Phoenix police cars and a fire truck arrive a few minutes later. Paramedics soon confirm that the woman in the tub is dead.

Three detectives show up about 1 p.m.

Detective Cliff Jewell enters Room 121 and takes a look around.

On the nightstand between the beds, he sees a pillow case with what appear to be blood stains on it. And the mattress on the bed closest to the bathroom is off kilter for some reason.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin