A village prepares to bury 3 children

TENENEXPAN, Mexico - The parents of Lucero, Ricardo and Alexis Quezada wanted their children to understand the simple life of their hometown, so in March, they sent them from Baltimore to this small farming village near the country's eastern coast, known mostly for its tall, abundant mango trees.

They spent several weeks here in the state of Veracruz, riding mules, chasing chickens with dozens of their cousins and cooling off in the Tenenexpan River, just as their parents did when they were younger. Two months later, the children, ages 9 and 10, were found dead in their Northeast Baltimore home, one beheaded and two partially decapitated.

Baltimore police have arrested two suspects who live in Baltimore County - a cousin and uncle of the children - but they know of no motive for the grisly killings that have stunned this quiet village.

From house to house in Tenenexpan, where the Quezada family has lived for generations and now numbers about 300 people, the same word is on everyone's lips: feo, meaning ugly.

"Who would do something like this to little, innocent, defenseless babies?" asked Pasqual Quezada, 55, one of the children's cousins. "Maybe a drug addict? Or someone who was sick in the head? It is very ugly. The idea of it just hurts us. It is so ugly."

The family members in Tenenexpan do not know the suspects, each charged with three counts of murder - Policarpio Espinoza, 22, and Adan Espinoza Canela, 17 - because the villagers are from the children's maternal side, and the suspects are from the paternal side.

They were arrested after detectives saw them hanging around the crime scene. Bloody clothes were later found in their Baltimore County home.

Waiting for caskets

Pasqual Quezada said there has never been a murder in Tenenexpan, let alone one involving a child. "I hope the assassins suffer," he said.

Now, the relatives who remember their American cousins as well-mannered and quick with a smile, are waiting for their caskets to arrive so they can give them a proper burial.

They might arrive today or tomorrow, but it might not be for another two weeks. The Mexican Embassy is working out how to bring the bodies home, and figuring out whether their parents, who are undocumented immigrants, can come to the funeral.

Because they might be in the country illegally, the parents might not be able to come home and return again to the United States, where they run a mobile food stand.

Lucero Solis Quezada, 9, and Ricardo Solis Quezada, 9, brother and sister, were born in Tenenexpan. Their cousin, Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10, was born in Mexico City.

The spellings of the children's names were given by relatives here, who said versions released by Baltimore police were incorrect.

Their mothers, Noemi Quezada, 47, and Andrea Espejo Quezada, 34, were also born in the village. Noemi Quezada is Andrea Quezada's aunt.

Noemi Quezada and her husband, who lived in an Art Deco-style apartment complex on Park Heights Avenue, discovered the bodies.

Although she has lived in the United States for about seven years, she does not speak English. When she discovered the bodies of her children, she ran out of her apartment screaming in Spanish, and a neighbor called 911.

It is common for family members to move away to Mexico City or the United States, but many come back, and all are buried in the village, explained the children's cousin, Luz Maria Quezada, as she stood in the town cemetery yesterday.

It is her job to find a plot for the children. "Two can go here, and one can go here," she said, pointing to empty patches of dirt. "We can put them right near my father."

Cemeteries in Mexico do not have traditional headstones as in the United States. Instead, they have large, colorful concrete vaults called bovedas adorned with crosses and flowers. Luz Maria Quezada said she hopes to raise the money for the three children to have a beautiful boveda.

She expects a few thousand people will come to her house for the funerals. Once the caskets arrive, they will stay in her house for 24 hours. People will come by to see them and bring flowers, votive candles and food.

Tenenexpan lies about 45 minute's drive from the seaside resort city of Veracruz, but they have few similarities. While Veracruz has luxury hotels with Internet access and cable television, Tenenexpan has dirt roads, tiny homes with corrugated metal roofs and a handful of telephones.

"We're poor, but we live a tranquil life," said Pasqual Quezada.

There are two churches in town, and the equivalent of an elementary school, a middle school and a high school. The sun is intense, and the humidity is a constant presence.

Visitors are treated with hospitality. Villagers will bring out a folding chair, offer a seat in the shade, and a plate of fresh mango and watermelon.

The men work in the fields cutting sugar cane, picking mangoes and minding crops such as tomato and corn. The women stay at home and care for the children, or sometimes go into town to work cleaning houses.

Still, the lure of this quiet, rural life - where fruit is picked off a tree instead of bought at a store and every neighbor is a family member for a half-mile stretch - was enough to make Alexis Quezada tell his cousin in March that he didn't want to return to Baltimore.

"He said he liked our ranch and didn't want to go back home," said Pasqual Quezada's wife, Tomasa Rincon Tejeda, 54.

Seeking a better life

Luz Maria Quezada remembers when her cousin, Noemi - known as Mimi - was married in the early 1990s to Ricardo Espinoza, her children's father. Shortly after, the couple took their children to the United States because they wanted better schooling for them.

Noemi Quezada had been cleaning homes in Veracruz for $10 apiece, and also was looking for a better life for herself.

"She is a very hard worker," Luz Maria Quezada said. "And she was very affectionate with her children. She was always talking to them and hugging them."

Shortly after Noemi Quezada went to the United States, her niece Andrea followed. Andrea Quezada had been living in Mexico City with her family.

The Quezadas in Tenenexpan learned that their family members had been killed by watching the television news Friday.

"My daughter came to me and said, 'Mama, you'll never believe it, someone killed Noemi's kids,'" recalled Luz Maria Quezada. "I said, 'No, it can't be.'"

The home where the children and their mother were all born is a brick ranch-style house that is now boarded. Chickens run free around the home, and a pile of trash burns nearby.

The children's grandmother, Andrea Quezada, had 11 children in that house and raised them there. She moved out when she relocated to Mexico City after her husband died. But she will be returning shortly to see her grandchildren buried at home, next to her husband, Raymundo Quezada Gutierrez.

"Now, we're hurting a lot," said Luz Maria Quezada. "But our pain is nothing compared to what the mothers are going through. I think it will become easier once the bodies come here and we can see them. We want to bury the babies as soon as we can."