A Mexican mother fleeing domestic violence sent her children to California. She died trying to follow them

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A few months ago, after her husband had left for work, Carolina Ramírez Pérez called her brother in California and told him she needed to escape her home with her children.

Pérez, an indigenous woman living in Mexico’s state of Oaxaca, could no longer put up with her husband, who had physically abused her for years and would not let her freely leave the house, receive visitors, or talk to her family, her brother said.

But the journey to find freedom would end with the 32-year-old mother’s death. On March 2, after breaching a section of the U.S.-Mexico border fence, an SUV carrying Pérez and 24 others was struck by a big rig in Imperial County. Thirteen people — including Pérez — were killed.

She left behind children on both sides of the border. In the U.S., a 10-year-old boy, 5-year-old girl, and 2-year-old boy that she had sent across shortly before she made the attempt herself. In Mexico, a 14-year-old girl living with Pérez’s mother. Both traveled to Tijuana and were granted humanitarian parole to attend a memorial service in Los Angeles.

“In the middle of the violence, the only thing she wanted to do was to try to find a way to get her children out,” said Ramírez, Pérez’s brother, who asked to be identified only by his last name for fear of retaliation from her husband. “She was completely devoted to her children.”

The crash in Imperial County killed 13 people.

(Paul Duginski)

Pérez, who spoke Spanish and Mixtec, an indigenous language, grew up in Coicoyán de las Flores, a municipality in Oaxaca with about 10,000 people, according to government figures. About 80% of the population lives in extreme poverty.

At around age 15, Pérez was married to Martín López Ruíz, 8 years older than she, in an arrangement approved by her grandmother, her brother said. She dropped out of high school after being bullied by students for being married.

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Several years into her marriage, Pérez and Ruíz crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in search of better economic opportunities. They left behind a 2-year-old daughter in the care of Pérez’s mother.

They settled in Santa Barbara County, and Pérez gave birth to a boy. Ramírez said that Ruíz had been abusive toward her in Mexico, but that the violence worsened in California and one day Pérez reported him to the police. The Times was unable to reach Ruíz for comment.

According to the Santa Maria police department, in December 2012, officials received a call about a domestic fight. The victim told officials she had been preparing a meal when Ruíz walked in and that she could tell he had been drinking. He became angry and kicked her, causing her to fall to the floor, and threatened to kill her if she called the police, she said.

Ruíz was arrested and charged with battery, making criminal threats, and dissuading a witness by threat. A few days later, a judge issued a restraining order against him.

Ruíz was convicted in February 2013 of dissuading a witness, and the next month, he was granted voluntary return to Mexico, according to Alexx Pons, a spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Pérez stayed in California with family, undergoing counseling, Ramírez said. Her husband frequently called her, insisting that she return to Mexico. He began threatening to take her daughter from Pérez’s mother and to also hurt his mother-in-law, Ramírez said.

“Carolina knew that he was very violent and she was scared that this would be real, that he would really do it,” he said.

Pérez returned with her U.S.-born son, and the two lived with Ruíz and their daughter. But the abuse continued, her brother said.

Ruíz would hit his daughter and lock her up at home, and would not let Pérez leave to go to the store, Ramírez said. The brother would see her from time to time, and Pérez would show him places where she said Ruíz had hit her.

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She had two other children with Ruíz. At one point, the oldest daughter went back to live with her grandmother.

Finally, at the end of last January, Pérez and her three children living with her and Ruíz traveled to the border. The children crossed first, then Pérez prepared for the trip.

She communicated by WhatsApp with her brother in the hours before the crash. She last wrote to him at almost 1 a.m. March 2, when she said that she thought she was about to get into a car to cross.

“I sent her a message – cuídate mucho,” Ramírez said, Spanish for “take care of yourself.”

He thinks she had turned her phone off because he can tell that she never opened that text.

Ramírez had expected to know soon whether his sister had managed to cross, but he heard nothing. He contacted a person that had been helping her and was ultimately told that the car had crashed.

Ramírez began scouring the internet for news. He called the Mexican consulate, and later that evening, officials confirmed his sister had died.

Hugo Castro, an activist with the Coalition for Human Immigration Rights, places crosses at the crash scene.

Hugo Castro, an activist with the Coalition for Human Immigration Rights, places crosses at the crash scene.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Cynthia Santiago, an attorney representing the family, holds that the children’s father is a threat to them. The family has been receiving help from CIELO, an indigenous organization in Los Angeles, to arrange funeral services. A GoFundMe has raised more than $8,000.

“We deal with these stories every day but not all make it to the news,” said CIELO co-founder Odilia Romero. “I think what people need to understand is that we don’t migrate by choice.”

Santiago said it’s not clear yet who had custody of the children, but stories of mothers who cross the U.S.-Mexico border with their children to flee domestic violence are common.

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Jeffrey Edleson, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare who has studied such cases, said Mexican mothers who bring their children to the U.S. against the other parent’s wishes often allege domestic violence against them or their children, and feel they weren’t protected by the police.

The parent who remains in the home country can file a petition under the Hague Abduction Convention — an international treaty — to have their child returned. A court may deny the child’s return for certain reasons, including if there is a grave risk that their return would expose them to physical or psychological harm or place them in an intolerable situation.

But it’s rare for these cases to come to court. Many parents don’t know they can take legal action or lack the resources. Those who have a record of abuse might not want legal scrutiny.

“It seems unlikely if someone is already violating the law through threats or abuse, that they would want to go to court and prove that they are good custodians for the kids,” said Hollie Webb, a staff attorney at Al Otro Lado, an immigrant legal aid group.

Pérez’s mother, Juliana Pérez López, and Pérez’s 14-year-old daughter, Michel, flew to Tijuana after the crash and stayed in a house that’s a 10-minute drive from the border. Sitting in the kitchen in front of a plate of tamales that López had prepared, the daughter and grandmother spoke about Pérez’s life.

With Michel trying through tears to translate her grandmother’s words from Mixtec to Spanish, López recounted how Pérez and her children had stopped by their home in Coicoyán de las Flores on their way to the border. López said her daughter told her that she also wanted to come to the U.S. to seek a better education for her children and to make enough money to buy López a bigger house where they could one day live together.

But now, the family has been left grieving.

“I try not to think about the accident,” López said quietly.

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