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'Mom, it's happening again!' Two mass shootings leave El Paso residents wondering if anywhere is safe

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Arlene Enriques, 13, told her mother that she was now scared to go to school after a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, happened just hours after she was visiting her grandmother in El Paso during the mass shooting there.

Posted: Aug 5, 2019 5:01 PM
Updated: Aug 5, 2019 5:01 PM

The Walmart massacre had shattered the sense of peace and security that typically surrounds this border town. Now the shock and fear was being magnified by another unexplained massacre 1,600 miles away.

Just hours earlier the police had told the family to stay inside. There'd been a shooting at the Walmart a block away. Thirteen-year-old Arlene Enriques was frightened.

Arlene had heard some of the shots, but she thought they were fireworks. She and her brother, 10-year-old Dilan, sat at their grandparents' El Paso home, afraid to go outside, waiting for their mother to arrive amid a cascade of misinformation, including bogus reports of more gunmen on the loose.

Her mother couldn't get there. The area surrounding the Walmart and Arlene's grandparents' apartment was shut down by police roadblocks.

Arlene's grandfather turned on the news. She couldn't understand what she was seeing on TV: Reports on the El Paso shooting were being interrupted by news of another deadly mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio.

The girl picked up the phone and made a call: "Mom, it's happening again."

Arlene's mom, Denise Aguilera, 31, safely reunited with her children later that night, but the shootings left indelible doubts in her mind. Her mother visits the Walmart every day. She worries her new reality is constantly looking over her shoulder and monitoring her six children's every move.

"We're not secure anymore, anywhere. ... It's happening here. It's happening in other states," she said. "More crazy people."

'What is wrong with the world?'

Forget El Paso. Residents are wondering, is anyone, anywhere safe? Is hate permeating the country? Will they have to keep their heads on swivels, forever vigilant?

"The nature of El Paso, we don't hear stuff like that," said El Paso native Eddie Nicolas, 55, as he sat smoking at a bus stop down the street from a growing candle-and-flower memorial beneath the Walmart sign.

"We see it on TV. We see it in other cities. We never do imagine it's going to happen to our city."

El Paso is a place where people leave their cars unlocked and lean their bikes against walls downtown, unsecured.

Aaron Tinoco, 27, moved here only three years ago, but he said "it feels like home." El Paso has a different set of values, he said. God and family come first, and hate is rarely on display.

He was driving near the Walmart when it happened. He saw a swarm of law enforcement -- local, state, federal, undercover -- fly past him, which was "highly unusual." He stopped at a McDonald's and was horrified when he checked Facebook.

At first he was angry and felt helpless. As a volunteer for the Texas Rescue Patrol, a nonprofit paramedic outfit, he wanted to help but couldn't. Then came a flood of questions. Why El Paso? Why innocents? Later, he'd ask, "Why was it toward a specific group?"

He was knocking back a few brews with buddies Saturday evening and talking about the shooting when he checked Facebook again and was stunned to see what was happening across the country in Dayton.

"Same thing, I see it again? I'm like, 'Are you serious? Is this for real? Is this actually happening? What is wrong with the world?'" he asked. "We just had this in my hometown."

Despite his dismay and confusion, he was at church the next day and everyone seemed in agreement. They can't let this change their hometown, change how they feel about and act toward each other, he said.

"Evil will not prevail," he said. "We're going to put it back down."

'Are they going to come shoot us, too?'

At a splash park in San Jacinto Plaza in downtown El Paso, Kevin Garzon and his fianceé, Racquel Lopez, snacked on chocolate cake and sipped sodas while watching their three kids play in the fountains at the edge of the park.

As the 4-, 6- and 7-year-olds frolicked, the couple explained they live about six blocks from the Walmart. They go there all the time. They'd been planning to go there Saturday.

"I feel sad because I'm Hispanic," said Lopez, 24, who moved to El Paso from Juarez, Mexico, about 10 months ago. "It could've been me and my family."

Back home, mass killings were not extraordinary, she said. When she left for El Paso, her family was worried about her, but they were normal family concerns -- about health and kids, "not like worry about my safety because they know it's going to be OK."

That changed Saturday when she began receiving the kind of calls she's used to making. Her family wanted to know if she and the kids were all right. Her kids had asked her the same question.

The next day, after news emerged that the Walmart shooter had targeted Latinos, it left her children concerned. Hearing police sirens in the distance as they played in a downtown park near San Jacinto Plaza, one of her sons asked, "Are they going to come shoot us, too?"

When Garzon saw news of the Dayton shooting late Saturday, he said, it reinforced something he already knew was becoming a sad reality.

"We basically have got to be more aware of our surroundings," Garzon said. "Anything can happen."

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