- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

MOUNT HOLLY, N.J. (AP) - Alex Aguilar left his family and farm hand job in Honduras seven years ago to pursue a better life, eventually finding work cleaning stables and feeding thoroughbreds six days a week at a New Jersey horse farm. His mother worried for him.

“It was a tremendous sadness for us all, but it was especially hard for her to say goodbye,” Alex’s brother, Jose Aguilar, said in Spanish. “It’s hard for any mother, or brother to say goodbye, not knowing when, or if, you’ll ever see someone again.”

But no one imagined that fellow Honduran immigrant workers, also in the U.S. seeking a better life, might be his biggest threat.

Last month, Alex Aguilar, 29, and a co-worker, Marcial Morales-Maldonado, 48, were found hacked to death with a machete at the Sterling Chase Horse Farm in Springfield, a 118-acre thoroughbred horse breeding farm south of Trenton where they worked and lived.

Two other workers, also Hondurans who shared living quarters at the farm, are charged in their deaths. Carlos Reyes faces two counts of murder, and his brother, Cesar Reyes, is accused of being a material witness. The suspects were arrested after fleeing to Houston, and are now in a Texas jail awaiting extradition to New Jersey.

“We are mystified by this, all of us _ here and in Honduras,” Edis Morales, Maldonado’s nephew, said in Spanish during an interview along with Jose Aguilar at a community center in Mount Holly. “We’ve talked about it for hours and hours: how could this have happened?”

The victims’ mutilated bodies were discovered face down in front of the living quarters the workers shared. The men were hacked with a machete used for farm work, according to police.

Morales and Jose Aguilar said they knew Carlos Reyes through the small but growing community of Hondurans in New Jersey. He was known for having a short temper that flared up over small things, they said, but they never imagined a minor spat could lead to two brutal deaths.

Police say both the victims and the accused were in the U.S. illegally, and immigration officials have not said if they plan to bring charges against the farm owners who hired them. Messages left for the owners at the horse farm were not returned.

Alex Aquilar, one of eight children, left school in the fourth grade to work alongside his parents in the vegetable fields of Honduras. Since coming to New Jersey, he had been the main provider for his family in the small rural village of Varsovia, near Tegucigalpa, Honduras, his brother said.

He earned $300 to $350 each week at Sterling Farm, where he had worked for the past five years.

Jose Aguilar remembered his brother as a laid-back, humorous man whose scant free time was spent playing soccer, wiring money home, or buying clothing, shoes and other basic necessities to send to his family.

Maldonado had a wife and six children, ages 8 to 24, back home in the central Honduras city of Comayagua, Morales said. His uncle was a humble, hardworking man devoted to helping his family, he said.

“He was very popular,” Morales said. “He was so helpful, always doing favors for people.”

It’s not uncommon to find low-wage, undocumented workers from Central America and Mexico among the ranks of the estimated 10,000 farm workers in New Jersey, said Nelson Carrasquillo of the Glassboro-based Farm Workers Support Committee.

“The requirement is to be willing to work, to know how to deal with backbreaking labor and to be efficient,” Carrasquillo said. “Historically, migrants have been the ones to do those kind of jobs, ever since slaves were brought from Africa.”

Horse farming is a big business in New Jersey. A 2007 study by Rutgers University found 7,200 equine operations across all 21 counties and on 142,000 acres _ about one-fifth of New Jersey farmland.

Rutgers found the state’s horse industry generates about 13,000 jobs and $1.1 billion a year in total economic impact, with assets totaling $4 billion.

In the days following the killings, Morales and Jose Aguilar said they struggled to cobble together hundreds of small loans from other farm workers to raise $7,000 needed to send the bodies to Honduras for burial.

They went from farm to farm from day to night collecting small donations. It was a challenge, Morales said, “asking money from the same kind of people as us _ poor workers.”

Morales said both men’s families in Honduras are struggling to come to grips, emotionally, and financially, with their sudden loss.

“Separating from loved ones to come here is never easy, but you do it with the illusion that you’ll return home triumphant from the gains you made in this country,” Morales said. “Sometimes, you are lucky, other times, you are met with an unimaginable end.”

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