SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Angélica López takes a deep breath, then lets out a long sigh. The 36-year-old mother of three boys is desperately confused.
She cannot understand that she may be about to lose her children forever.
"As a mother, I'm completely destroyed -- emotionally and physically," said López, who lives in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
To make matters even worse, she pointed out, her own family across the border in El Paso, Texas, is to blame. She says they're a bunch of religious zealots who don’t approve of her living with a man out of wedlock.
These are just some of many accusations flying back and forth across the border in a case involving laws in two countries, an international treaty, criminal investigations by U.S. and Mexican authorities, and a lawsuit filed in federal court in San Antonio.
López said her relatives blame her for living with a drug trafficker. But she dismissed such accusations as further lies to keep the kids away from her.
Court documents in the lawsuit she filed against her relatives show that her boyfriend, Arturo Quiñonez, served three years in prison for assault in Oklahoma in the late 1990s.
"What are they going to come up with next, that I'm the wife of El Chapo?" she asked sarcastically, referring to Joaquín Guzmán Loera, one of Mexico's most notorious drug cartel kingpins.
Family members in El Paso vehemently deny her accusations and cast her as a deranged, scared mother who has been a serial liar all her life.
"She's the one that started it all," said José López, her brother. "She's the one that was desperate for us to take in the kids, because they'd be safe in the United States."
He said she told him and other relatives that she feared Quiñonez for his history of domestic abuse and involvement in drug trafficking. He said her plan was to eventually join her children in El Paso and then they would all seek asylum together.
It remains unknown who's telling the truth at this point, but what's clear is that the children ended up with relatives in El Paso and after a week their mother convinced them to bring them back to her.
But on the way to dropping them off at the international bridge, José López changed his mind -- the kids convinced him not to take them back, he said.
"They were sobbing incessantly in the car," he said. "They begged me and begged to not send them back, because they'd be in great danger."
Besides José, Angélica López has three sisters. Two of them also live in Ciudad Juárez. The other one, Isabel Hernández, lives in San Antonio. She flew to El Paso last year as part of an effort to settle the family feud. The effort was not successful, but Hernández said speaking to the boys, particularly the oldest, who's 14, was quite revelatory.
He explained to her in detail why they're so afraid of returning to their mother. They fear Quiñonez not just because of his violent nature, but because of he forced the boys into the drug trade. Court documents show Quiñonez may be involved with the Barrio Azteca gang, which has presence on both sides of the border and has branched out into drug trafficking.
"He took them with him to deliver stuff and sometimes he forced them to deliver drugs in backpacks. He’d just tell them to walk to a certain house and deliver the backpack," Hernández said her nephew told her.
She said she and her relatives considered various options of what to do with the children, since they were not going to send them back to their mother. They tried placing them with state caretakers, but Child Protective Services in El Paso turned them away because the alleged crimes took place in Mexico.
So, in desperation, they turned the kids over to U.S. immigration agents. That way would be kept safe and they could plead their case with an immigration judge to avoid deportation.
But the children don't belong with any U.S. agency -- they need to go back to their mother, according to the Mexican government. It's not just a technicality, it's international law -- the Hague Convention -- that gives Angélica López legal rights to get her children back, said Armando Ortiz Rocha, the Mexican consul in San Antonio.
"We think the judge (will) provide proper justice to this Mexican family. They express their legitimate request for the returning of their children to their home in Mexico," he said.
Given it's in the middle of litigation and its obvious sensitive diplomatic nature, Ortiz Rocha said he could not comment further on the case, including his thoughts on the children's claim of fear if they return home.
Likewise, various lawyers involved in the case did not return message for comment or declined to comment. That includes Lee Terán, director of the immigration law clinic at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, who is trying to become the children's lawyer -- the judge has to rule on the request, since the mother is opposing any legal representation, saying they're minors and it's up to her to decide, not them or anyone else.
Also not commenting are U.S. government officials, including the FBI in El Paso, which was called in to investigate early on.
The various motions Judge Xavier Rodríguez in San Antonio is considering make for an intense, messy and unique legal drama. International kidnapping cases are not uncommon, particularly in the U.S-Mexico border region, said Simon Azar-Farr, a veteran immigration lawyer in San Antonio who has argued such cases in federal court. But throw in accusations of forcing kids into the drug trade and asylum claims and the case presents rather unique circumstances.
"You have the child seeking asylum based on fear for their life of returning to the original country, well then you have an uncommon situation which is not what you see in ordinary child custody cases," said Azar-Farr, adding that he's surprised that U.S. governmental agencies seem to be sitting it out instead of getting involved in the legal process.
To Angélica López, the mother in Juárez, what’s unbelievable is that all this is taking place north of the border. She’s Mexican. Her children are Mexican. If anybody wants to call the authorities or sue her, fine, she said— but do it in Mexico.
"My kids and I have nothing to do with the United States," she said. "Come here, to Juárez, to our country, and let's resolve it here."
But for now, it’s out of her hands. The decision rests with Judge Rodríguez in San Antonio, who’s expected to rule soon.
Even then, it remains in question what will happen in the children’s separate case in immigration court, where they still face deportation, or in Texas family court, where they have an application for the state to take over their custody.
It's unclear whether those cases, already in progress, would be nullified if the judge rules in favor of the mother.