It was early Friday morning, October 18, 2013, in Mission, Texas, just a few minutes before dawn. Joel Escamilla, a supervisor at a local paper plant, was just about to step through the front door of the home he and his wife built together 17 years ago, the home in which they raised their two daughters, and go to work, as he has done every weekday for years. His wife, Gracie, 51, had not gotten out of bed yet.
The Escamillas’ world crashed in on them shockingly, when men dressed in black poured over their six-foot fence and into their front yard. The men converged on the front door and began pounding and demanding to be let in.
“I was in bed. I heard a loud noise, you know, somebody was breaking into my house,” Gracie says. “I came out [and stood] on my staircase, with only my underwear, no top. Afraid. I thought it was an invasion. A home invasion.”
In the border town of Mission, Texas, home invasions are all too common despite the federal government’s claims that the border is safer than ever. Mission is situated on the Texas border with Mexico just across the Rio Grande from Reynosa. Reynosa has been one of the epicenters of Mexico’s hyperviolent drug war. That drug war has spilled over into the border states, including a notorious firefight between U.S. law enforcement and cartel gunmen in Hidalgo County’s Chimney Park in 2011.
In its past, Mission was best known as legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry’s home town. In recent years, it has become more known for corruption and for being too close to the drug war on the south side of the river. Drug cartel operatives cross the border into Mission and even own homes and money laundering businesses there. Cartel muscle conducted a home invasion just over a block away from the Escamilla home a year before. Even the Hidalgo County sheriff’s federally funded Panama Unit engaged in illegal home invasions, crimes for which its members have been convicted and are now headed to federal prison on long sentences. “No one feels safe here,” Gracie says. They stay on in Mission because it is home, and because the cost of living farther north of border, in cities like Austin and San Antonio, is just too high. Mission used to be a haven for retirees on fixed incomes.
On the morning of October 18, Gracie and her family had every reason to fear the men outside.
“They jumped the gate,” Gracie says. “They all jumped. They broke our sprinkler system.” Soon they were disrupting the neighborhood quiet, pounding on the Escamillas’ front door.
“I feel that they could have called or something, you know. It was not necessary for them to jump the gate.”
The authorities had in fact interviewed Gracie twice before, across three days a few months earlier in 2013. They left a business card at her gate with a request that she call them. She did. Investigators asked her to come in for interviews, and she did. She says she was cooperative both times. Five months of silence followed those interviews.
The men outside pounded on the Escamillas’ door, said they were the police and demanded to be let into the house.
Joel’s first thought as he stood at the door was to get his handgun and defend his wife and daughter.