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Death of an unlikely Mexican hero Illegal immigrant beat U.S. murder charge, dies in traffic crash

MEXICO CITY — MEXICO CITY -- He was a death-row inmate who became a soap opera star. An illegal Mexican immigrant who came home to cheering crowds. A folk hero to millions of Mexicans who feel they don't get a break in the United States.

Ricardo Aldape had lived a fairy tale in recent months, since his murder conviction was overturned after he spent 14 years on Texas' death row. He played himself on Mexican television; he was deluged with book and movie offers.

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But the fairy tale ended Thursday night, as the 35-year-old

crashed his speeding Volkswagen into a tractor-trailer in northern Mexico.

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It was a tragic finish to a tragic life that had turned him into a symbol as potent as Rodney King, whose beating by Los Angeles police was captured on videotape.

"Aldape symbolizes the situation of Mexicans who go there [to the United States], thinking they're going to be equals in the system and become rich but instead confront difficult conditions," said Julia Flores, a Mexico City sociologist.

"He is seen as a small person who won a great victory against a powerful country."

Aldape had been this summer's biggest TV sensation here, starring in a hit series about migrants struggling at the hands of U.S. authorities.

Buck-toothed and tattooed, Aldape was an unlikely leading man. He mumbled; he showed no emotional range.

But Mexicans responded with fascination. Aldape's heavily promoted appearances on "Al Norte del Corazon" ("North of the Heart") sent ratings jumping.

Clad in jailhouse denim, the former inmate acted out his own story, displaying everything from the edgy violence of U.S. prisons to his triumphant return to the northern city of Monterrey in April, after his conviction was overturned.

Aldape's tale began like those of thousands of other Mexican migrants. Frustrated at not being able to support his parents and three siblings on his meager salary at a cardboard-box factory, he slipped across the border in May 1982.

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On a warm night two months later, a Houston police officer approached Aldape's car for a possible traffic violation.

Aldape says his passenger, Roberto Carrasco, opened fire, killing the officer. Carrasco was slain later that night in a shootout with police.

But it was Aldape who was arrested and sentenced to death by lethal injection.

Twice, the terrified inmate faced execution dates; in May 1992, ,, the order was stayed just hours before he was to die.

Aldape consistently maintained his innocence, and over the years much of Mexico came to agree.

Political leaders, Catholic church officials and others urged clemency. Books and ballads were written about his case.

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In 1994, after a three-year legal battle, Aldape's attorneys succeeded in having his conviction overturned.

A U.S. district judge said Houston police, seeking revenge for the death of their colleague, were "merchants of chaos" who had intimidated witnesses in the case.

After a long appeals process, Aldape finally walked out of jail in April.

Ruben Galindo, co-producer of the TV show, immediately saw his chance. His new soap opera was scheduled to deal with the U.S. death penalty, a source of outrage in Mexico, which doesn't have capital punishment. Thirty-five Mexicans are on death row in the United States and many Mexicans fear they won't get a fair break.

The TV role was just one sign of Aldape's new hero status.

Upon his return to Mexico in April, he was greeted by cheering crowds and invited to dine with the local governor. Recently, a ballad was released celebrating his victory over U.S. officials.

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Texas prosecutors watched dumbfounded as their former prisoner became a pop icon.

"I think it's amazing anyone would consider him a folk hero. Regardless of whether he fired the gun, he was involved in the offense," said Roe Wilson, an assistant district attorney for Texas' Harris County, shortly before Aldape's death.

Pub Date: 8/24/97


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