On March 13, 2013, 75 members of the Ponce family had to flee for their lives from Estación Conchos, a small town in Chihuahua (northern Mexico), a few days after Sigifredo Ponce was murdered. Ponce’s two nephews, Gerardo and Jonathan, had already lost their lives several years earlier. However, a decade later, the Ponce family found themselves face-to-face once more with that same unimaginable brutality.
Víctor Manuel Ponce had to abandon his ranch after his brother Sigifredo and four workers were murdered by hitmen, who shot up his supermarket and set it on fire. The family that established the little desert town in the 1930s left that night in a caravan. A few months later, they were scattered across Mexico. Víctor moved to Huejúcar, Jalisco (western Mexico) after trying to make a go of it in Aguascalientes (west-central Mexico). He established a successful ranch and ventured into the cattle business. His namesake son, Víctor Manuel, returned from the United States to help out on the ranch and his daughter, Dinorah, married a local man. The family gradually began to recover from their troubles. He had chosen Huejúcar because he thought it was “a good place after escaping such terrible violence.” He had heard reports of organized crime infiltrating the cattle business, but these rumors became reality in August 2022. A local armed group known as the “maña” told ranchers that they were taking over their businesses. They demanded half the income from every cow exported to the United States, and only a select few, including Ponce, would be allowed to sell cattle outside of Jalisco.
“They demanded two million pesos [$117,000] and said they would kill him if he didn’t pay,’ said his daughter, Anais Ponce. Víctor Manuel paid the extortion fee to save his life, but later reported it to the authorities. He also went to Mexico’s Executive Commission for Victim Assistance (CEAV) because he feared for his life and the safety of his family. He began thinking of selling everything and moving away again.
“My uncle took a risk when he reported the extortion to the local prosecutors,” said Paola Delgado, Dora Ponce’s daughter. Delgado is a lawyer who has handled all the family’s legal matters, and had requested protection for her uncle. “He wasn’t worried about getting killed. He thought the worst that could happen is they’ll just come and empty out the ranch, maybe even burn it down.”
The last time Víctor Manuel Ponce and his employee, Luis Fernando García, were seen was at his stockyard. The family searched the ranch and found his empty truck. Two hats were lying on the ground, as well as a few shirt buttons: there were signs of a struggle. Security footage from a nearby hardware store shows two trucks coming and going at high speed, just five minutes apart.
“We thought that maybe they were going to bring my dad back, that they were just going to give him a scare and tell him to pay up or else. But after a few hours I lost hope,” said Anais Ponce. The family says the “maña” colluded with local authorities and went to the ranch the same day Víctor Ponce disappeared. They took around 150 head of cattle and held Dinorah for hours while they threatened and warned her not to search for her missing father.
On June 14, Anais Ponce posted a video about her father’s disappearance and said she just wanted to get his body back. “They took what they wanted but never gave him back to us. I really need this video to go viral and reach the highest authorities, all the news channels, and most importantly the big boss of the person who’s got my dad. Please give us my dad and Luis Fernando.” The following morning, their bodies were discovered in Zacatecas (central Mexico).
The violence against the Ponce family started in 2010 when Víctor Manuel’s oldest son, known as Gordo, was abducted. The family was living in Estación Conchos and had a thriving cattle ranch and export business to the United States. They opened nine supermarkets and cultivated extensive walnut orchards. Gathering for a weekly beef barbecue was a cherished family tradition. But Estación Conchos was a drug route to the United States, and the nearby hills hid large marijuana plantations. The Ponces and other families were slowly engulfed by crime over two decades ago.
In a 2018 interview, Víctor Manuel Ponce said that he thought the violence stemmed from his association with a corrupt rancher who borrowed $50,000 from him. The rancher promised to repay him with 200 head of cattle, but all Ponce ever received was a stolen cattle pen. When Ponce protested, a hitman threatened him with a gun. The Ponces spent the next year and a half in constant fear, always keeping an eye on their rearview mirrors. In 2013, Víctor’s cousin Jonathan was killed during another attempt to kidnap Gordo. Víctor began sharing information with the authorities about known drug sites, and decided to leave town for the safety of his family. Three weeks later, his brother Sigifredo was killed before they had a chance to pack up and leave.
Ten years later, Ponce found himself in a similar situation, but in a different state. Another criminal gang was threatening his dwindling family. Ponce was exhausted, worn out from seeking justice that never arrived. He shared his frustration regarding impunity, the lack of enforcement of the Victims Law, and the investigators’ failure to identify the culprits, despite all the evidence he provided. “I do believe in divine justice, but human justice doesn’t really exist here in Mexico,” he said in the 2018 interview.
Justice continues to elude the Ponce family. The Mexican Commission for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (CMPDPH) denounced the death of Víctor Manuel Ponce and stated, “The government bears responsibility for its inaction in these events that originated a decade ago.” According to CMPDH lawyers, the Ponce family figures in six ongoing preliminary investigations in Chihuahua, three in Jalisco and one in Zacatecas. However, none of these investigations have been resolved yet. They have also initiated numerous lawsuits, obtained a National Human Rights recommendation and protective orders, and filed complaints before the CEAV.
“Why my dad? I mean, he wasn’t some kind of murderer, kidnapper, drug dealer or anything like that. Sure, he had that rough, country manner, he was tough and ornery. But seriously, why?” Anais wondered.
In the wake of her father’s death, memories flood back to her of the family road trips. Along the way, they would belt out Víctor Manuel Ponce’s favorite songs, like Dust in the Air by Little Venice, and Kenny Rogers’ timeless hit, Coward of the County. Anais believes that the lyrics of the Kenny Rogers song expressed her own father’s advice about life in Mexico: “Promise me, son, not to do the things I’ve done/Walk away from trouble if you can/Now it won’t mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek/I hope you’re old enough to understand/Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man.”
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