EL PASO, Texas -- Residents of the Southwest who are victims of crimes committed in Mexico may find help in an unlikely place: Their state government.
Texas, Arizona and California have programs known as victims' compensation funds. It's money set aside to cover costs incurred by victims of crime including hospital bills, travel expenses and counseling. The financial aid has been particularly helpful to frequent border crossers during the past four years when drug-related violence exploded south of the border.
Cliff Williams, a former dairy plant worker in El Paso, was one of the beneficiaries of the program in Texas.
The 32-year-old met his wife, Rosa, 11 years ago near his parent's home in Olathe, Kansas. They were at a neighborhood swimming pool and he remembers she was wearing a blue and yellow bikini.
“I just seen her and I talked to her and we just took it from there,” Williams said. “And ever since that first day, it was love at first site.”
Williams' voice breaks off as he tells the story and his eyes well up with tears. Three months ago, his wife and stepson were killed in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Rosa's family lived there.
On September 30th, Rosa and her 19-year-old son, Paulo, went to the Mexican border city to pick up her brother who had just been released from jail. On the drive back, they were attacked by gunmen, who battered their car with bullets.
“Everybody died in the car,” Williams said. “My wife and my son in the two front seats, my wife's brother and his girlfriend died in the backseat. They were shot and killed.”
Williams' world turned upside down.
To this day he doesn't know why his family was targeted and police have made no arrests in the case. He and Rosa had two young daughters who will grow up without a mother. The deaths also produced a mountain of bills, including the transportation of both bodies back to El Paso, two funerals and airline tickets for Williams’ parents.
Then a coworker told him about the Texas Victims' Compensation Fund. The program, managed by the attorney general’s office, provides money to Texas residents who are victims of crime, including crimes that happen in Mexico.
Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the Texas attorney general's office, said the program was started by the legislature in 1979 with the aim of providing financial relief to crime victims.
The program has been particularly beneficial in El Paso. Starting in 2008, the local district attorney’s office has received a flood of cases involving Texans who were crime victims in Juárez. Most were innocent victims caught in the crossfire of two warring drug cartels.
There was the teenage softball player who was shot and killed at a family baptism. Then there was the elementary school boy slain in his relative's front yard.
Jorge Giorgetti, with the DA’s office, has handled the majority of these cases.
“The cases are so sad, they are real victims,” Giorgetti said. “You are the first contact they have to help them on this bad or crazy situation.”
According to the Texas attorney general's office, the number of applications from state residents who were crime victims in Mexico tripled in recent years from 29 in 2008 to nearly 90 in 2010 and 2011. About 200 applications were approved and a little more than $1 million paid out to those families. It's a small amount considering the fund dispenses an average of $70 million annually to crime victims across the state.
In Texas, the program only requires that applicants reside in the state. U.S. citizenship is not required.
The money for the fund comes primarily from court fees imposed on convicted criminals. Each state has different laws about who is eligible for the fund. Along the Southwest border, only New Mexico requires that the crime occur in the state for residents to be accepted.
For Cliff Williams, the fund was an unexpected resource after losing his wife and stepson.
“If they tell you to go to the appointment, just go do it,” he said. “I mean, I know it may be tough at the time because all this stuff happens. Just go, because they will help you, because they helped us.”
For Williams, it was one less thing to worry about in a time of turmoil. After such a powerful loss, he can now focus on healing.