McALLEN — The bodies of two men whose names and legacies will forever be linked together through sorrow and tragedy parted ways for the last time Thursday afternoon here at the McAllen Convention Center.
Edelmiro “Eddie” Garza Jr. was taken to be laid to rest in the Rio Grande Veterans Cemetery in Mission. Ismael “Smiley” Chavez Jr. also went to Mission, to Valley Memorial Gardens Cemetery. He’s buried just 9 miles and two turns away from the man who fell by his side five days ago.
The burials of the two officers Thursday, along with the eulogies and prayers that preceded them, mark the end of the first stage in mourning the two men who were shot and killed in an ambush-style attack on July 11.
Mourning police officers is something the residents of the Rio Grande Valley have grown grimly familiar with. Over the span of a year, four lawmen in the area have been shot and killed.
Mission Police Department Cpl. Jose “Speedy” Espericueta was shot and killed on June 6, 2019.
Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Moises Sanchez died a little over two months after Espericueta as a result of gunshot wounds he sustained in a McAllen shootout earlier that year.
So far, law enforcement officers in Hidalgo County who have died in intentional shootings since the beginning of 2019 make up over a third of the state’s total — four out of 11.
The Valley has done its best to shower those men with honor and give them a hero’s farewell.
Thursday was no exception.
There were hundreds of law enforcement officers from around the country at the funeral, over a hundred flower arrangements, dozens of police cars with flashing lights in the procession, renditions of taps, the firing of guns, the singing of songs, the praying of prayers and many heartfelt remarks.
There was a contingent of men in kilts and bonnets, U.S. Border Patrol agents and San Antonio police officers, who started Chavez and Garza’s funeral with the wailing of bagpipes and the pounding of drums.
They appeared resplendent, although somewhat out of place in South Texas — the sort of funeral procession that would suit a Scottish Highland warrior.
“Officer Garza and officer Chavez were wise to the world, and they used that wisdom, they used that experience, they used that knowledge to serve all of us,” McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez said during the officers’ eulogy. “And that, my friends, is what I think makes them heroes. We are in the presence of two heroes today.”
Rodriguez has been talking about Chavez and Garza for the past five days to an audience that’s gradually dwindled.
On the day they were killed, his words were printed in newspapers as far away as England. He spoke to national media about the loss of the two men on Tuesday, and to local media about it on Wednesday. On Thursday morning he addressed hundreds at the McAllen Convention Center, singling out the families of Chavez and Garza in the crowd.
“I shook officer Garza’s hand when I welcomed him to the McAllen Police Department. I shook officer Chavez’s hand when I welcomed him to the McAllen Police Department. I held them as they left us,” he said. “The only comfort that I can find is knowing now that God has some help upstairs and they’re wearing McAllen Police Department uniforms.”
Thursday’s funeral surely won’t be the last memorial for Chavez and Garza, and the Valley will likely see their names again many times over the next year.
Espericueta and Sanchez were both posthumously honored with streets named after them. There’s a memorial run that bears Espericueta’s name. Sanchez’s son was called on last year to give a Veteran’s Day address.
Chavez and Garza’s names will probably be attached to many of the same tributes in the immediate future, and their families will bear the distinction of having sacrificed immensely for the community.
There were tears Thursday, but it seemed like there were less than there had been at the visitation the day before. Maybe Chavez and Garza’s fellow officers had used up all of their tears. Maybe they had just had the chance to collect themselves and steel their nerves.
The McAllen police officers who had gathered to mourn their comrades Thursday simply wore an expression of loss. A vacant, distracted expression that spoke to profound grief and hurt.
Chief Rodriguez wore that expression as he stood by Chavez’s grave that afternoon. He made the rounds after the service, thanking people for coming and accepting condolences from them. He paused between groups, taking a moment to collect himself and adjusting an ill-fitting facemask before speaking with the next mourner.
Rodriguez had referenced that emotion, the emotion of faith-shaking sorrow, in his eulogy a couple of hours earlier.
“When we close something like this, we always say, ‘May God bless you and may God get you home,’” he said. “The pain and all those things that we’ve mentioned today are difficult to comprehend, difficult to grasp, and can never be imagined, but I tell you this: It is difficult to say ‘May God get you home tonight,’ when that’s failed us twice in the last few days.”
By Thursday afternoon, Rodriguez’s audience had shrunk once more, to just a couple of dozen people: Chavez’s family, who were huddled under a white tent in front of his casket at Valley Memorial Gardens Cemetery. It was likely the first time he had spoken about the shooting publicly without being filmed by a television crew or recorded by a newspaper reporter. He was brief, somber and soft-spoken.
“Policemen and women are also a family,” he told them. “I cannot even equate it with your loss, but we lost family too.”
Many parallels between the two fallen officers have emerged since their death. Both dreamed of serving as law enforcement officers, and both worked hard to achieve that goal. They were both religious men. Friends remember both of them as unceasingly positive, as true bringers of joy and consummate jokesters.
They were, undoubtedly, the kind of men their friends and family would depend on to get them through a day like Thursday.