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'They Should Never Die In Vain': El Paso Honors Victims On Shooting Anniversary


El Paso is remembering the 23 people killed during a mass shooting at a Walmart on this day two years ago. The alleged gunman drove 10 hours from the Dallas area to the border city, saying in a post online that he wanted to stop the, quote, "Hispanic invasion" of the state. KTEP's Angela Kocherga reports on concern that conditions in Texas are ripe for more violent hate crimes.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: Water gently cascades from two fountains at El Paso's new healing garden, where 23 Italian cypress trees represent each of the victims of the mass shooting.

RICARDO SAMANIEGO: Every tree was planted by one of the family members.

KOCHERGA: El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, the top locally elected leader, walks me through the garden. A former psychologist, Samaniego has been involved in all the painstaking details, including the shape of the garden.

SAMANIEGO: Circular, so that it would be like a hug.

KOCHERGA: He hopes this place will help visitors find the strength to move forward.

SAMANIEGO: It's a place that reminds you, you know, they should never die in vain. What is it that I can do to make things more transformational?


GREG ABBOTT: Action and results.

KOCHERGA: Texas Governor Greg Abbott promised change immediately after the 2019 mass shooting. He convened a series of roundtable meetings of the Texas Safety Commission to tackle several critical issues.


ABBOTT: They include combating threats of domestic terrorism. They include rooting out hateful ideologies. And they include keeping guns out of the hands of deranged individuals, while at the very same time, making sure that we can do so in a way that safeguards Second Amendment rights.

KOCHERGA: Since then, Texas has expanded gun rights, allowing people in the state to carry handguns without a permit. The governor's office declined an interview request, citing his busy schedule. El Paso Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, a Democrat, says the governor failed to lead following the mass shooting.

VERONICA ESCOBAR: Not only has he not done anything, but we've gone in the opposite direction, the more dangerous direction on so many fronts.

KOCHERGA: And there's messaging from Republican state leaders. At a recent news conference where Governor Abbott announced he plans to build a Texas border wall, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said this.


DAN PATRICK: We are being invaded. That term has been used in the past, but it's never been more true.

KOCHERGA: That's the exact term used by the alleged El Paso Walmart gunman. Domestic terrorism and hate-fueled violence is on the rise, according to the FBI. Congresswoman Escobar says she's seen the consequences firsthand.

ESCOBAR: In El Paso during the August 3 domestic terrorist attack and being literally inside the Capitol as terrorists surrounded us on January 6, there is absolutely a throughline there.

KOCHERGA: El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego also sees similarities in the angry mob that descended on the Capitol and the lone gunman who drove to El Paso.

SAMANIEGO: They pick up the narrative. They think they're going to defend the country in that particular way with anger and, you know, ugliness as a way to solve I don't know what.

KOCHERGA: Andrea Gonzalez (ph) survived the wrath of the Walmart gunman. She was inside the store, shopping with her mother during the attack. She fears it can happen again.

ANDREA GONZALEZ: It could be that it can be repeated. But that's why we can't forget. We can't forget that morning. We can't forget those 23 victims.

KOCHERGA: As El Paso remembers, there's a renewed call to action across the country to prevent other cities from experiencing the same heartache and hate crime violence. For NPR News, I'm Angela Kocherga in El Paso. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emmy winning multimedia journalist Angela Kocherga is news director with KTEP and Borderzine. She is also multimedia editor with ElPasoMatters.org, an independent news organization.