Security cameras caught most of the brawl on video: the drunken punches thrown on a South Bronx corner known for fistfights and stabbings, a young man in a dark hooded sweatshirt dancing away as four men march after him, a pit bull running down the block alongside them.
One of the pursuers was Roberto Rodríguez, a Mexican immigrant known as Gordo, for his considerable girth. Another was his roommate, Lázaro Martínez.
At 11:10 p.m., the figures disappear into the gauzy haze of a floodlight. No security cameras recorded what happened next, but a cellphone captured the aftermath.
Mr. Martínez lies on the sidewalk, groaning. Dark blood runs from a wound on his right side. Two friends urge him to hold on — “Aguante, amigo.” One fashions a bandage from a T-shirt stripped off his back. An arriving police officer bends to see Mr. Martínez’s wound; another radios for an ambulance to be dispatched to the scene, on East 151st Street in the Melrose neighborhood.
“Put a rush on the bus,” he says. “One-five-one.”
Mr. Rodríguez, 30, walks calmly into the beam of an arriving officer’s flashlight, one camera shows. His thick silhouette pivots, and he raises his arm toward a green building at 367 East 151st Street into which the young man in the sweatshirt had fled. His hand is pressed hard to his right side, where he, too, has been stabbed. Still, he walks with purpose, treating his injury as an annoyance.
Nine years earlier, hoping to earn money to help build a better life for his infant son in Mexico, Mr. Rodríguez had crossed the Sonoran Desert with a smuggler and entered the United States. In New York City, he found work in kitchens and on construction sites.
That was long ago, before his wife in Hidalgo State ran off with his brother-in-law, before he started drinking heavily and using drugs, before he started associating with the Sureños 13 gang and moved into a squalid walk-up a block away, living with his pit bull and several workers like him.
Now, late on a muggy Saturday night in May, his hand still cupping his wound, Mr. Rodríguez led the police to the door that he said the young man had entered.
“Where is he?” an officer asked. “Right here,” Mr. Rodríguez said, motioning at the building.
His calm belied a fatal fact: The knife had pierced his liver; deep inside, he was bleeding. He hung his head and leaned on a wrought-iron handrail as another friend tried, in halting English, to describe the attacker.
Five minutes later, an ambulance came for Mr. Martínez. As it pulled away, Mr. Rodríguez stepped over to a car and rested his weight on the trunk.
Then he fell to his knees, and to the ground. A second ambulance was called. An officer performed chest compressions. The paramedics raced with Mr. Rodríguez to Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center, where Mr. Martínez had already been rushed into surgery.
Mr. Martínez lived.
Mr. Rodríguez — 2,500 miles from his hometown — died at 12:05 a.m.
The confusion over who was most seriously wounded was a prelude to the fog that would envelop Mr. Rodríguez’s killing, the seventh homicide logged this year in the 40th Precinct, which has since recorded several more and now has 12 for the year.
What looked at first like a brawl between strangers was in fact a fight between men who knew each other well. Fingerprints soon led detectives to a suspect, Alberto Aquino-Simon, 19, who was often seen socializing with Mr. Rodríguez. A grand jury later would later indict him on charges of murder and attempted murder.
When Mr. Aquino-Simon turned himself in 11 days after the stabbings, his lawyer said he had acted in self-defense. Then, a few days later, detectives learned that what seemed like a spontaneous episode of drunken violence might well have been an act of revenge or intimidation.
It turned out that Mr. Rodríguez had told people he had witnessed Mr. Aquino-Simon stab a rival gang member at a Bronx street fair in June 2015. Mr. Rodríguez let it be known he was willing to testify in court, and he seemed undeterred by the prospect of antagonizing the Cholos 152, a Mexican-American gang whose members he had come to know and who consider 151st Street and Courtlandt Avenue to be their territory.
That corner was a long way from the cramped cement house where Mr. Rodríguez grew up in Tulancingo, Hidalgo. He was the youngest son of a construction worker and part-time musician, living with five siblings under an improvised tin roof held down by ropes and cable cords. His family called him Beto.
His mother, Barbara Robles, said Mr. Rodríguez was a mischievous boy who liked to hike and fish but was bored at school and dropped out after the sixth grade. When he was little, he earned money by picking up bags of groceries for people at the bus station, and at age 11, he would tag along with his father to construction sites.
He took jobs in textile factories and married young. When his bride, Maribel Peralta, became pregnant, he decided to move to the United States in search of higher pay, telling his family he hoped to save enough to one day open a gymnasium in Tulancingo and buy a piece of land. “That was his only dream, to leave something to his son, for his future,” his mother said in an interview at the family home.
Just before his son was born, Mr. Rodríguez made his first attempt to cross the border. Agents with the United States Border Patrol caught him after his trek through the Sonoran Desert, detained him for 10 days and sent him back. He still had spines and burs in his feet when he stumbled into his family’s living room, his mother said.
That summer, Ms. Peralta gave birth. Her father, living in New York City, paid a smuggler $3,500 to take Mr. Rodríguez across the border again. This time, Mr. Rodríguez made it. He found work in restaurants and on construction sites. His relatives said he called home twice each week to ask about his son, Alan, and to request pictures.
Then, a year into his stay, things fell apart: Ms. Peralta had an affair and left him, leaving their son with his parents. The breakup left Mr. Rodríguez with no emotional anchor in Mexico, and as the years wore on, his family noticed changes. He started calling home drunk, got tattoos and developed a taste for marijuana, his sister Griselda Rodríguez said.
His descent into depression and alcohol abuse mirrors a pattern that researchers have identified among some male illegal immigrants who are severed from their families and unable to go home, said Alyshia Gálvez, a professor of anthropology and Latin American studies at the City University of New York. “There is a priest in Puebla who calls it the ‘broken heart syndrome,’” she said.
Three years ago, Mr. Rodríguez’s calls stopped altogether, his family said.
“I think that’s when we lost him,” his sister said in an interview, sitting in the family’s living room in an unfinished house near a highway in Tulancingo. “Before leaving for the U.S., he didn’t like tattoos, or have any vices. He just changed.”
Signs that Mr. Rodríguez was drifting appeared on his Facebook page: Sureños gang symbols on his apartment walls, photos of him posing with a pistol and with a bowie knife.
About three years ago, he landed a job as a taco cook at El Bravo on Melrose Avenue, where he told his employers that other gang members drove him from Queens with death threats, an owner said. It was there, during idle moments around El Bravo’s pool table, that he befriended members of the Cholos 152, two former gang members said.
Mr. Rodríguez did not last long as a cook. He was fired after six months for selling drugs out of the kitchen, taking loans he did not repay and getting into fistfights with patrons, the owner said. For the last few months, he had been doing demolition work in Yonkers.
The apartment where he lived with several roommates, at 298 East 151st Street, became known for rowdy parties. Mr. Rodríguez did not pay rent, his landlord said, but charged friends $200 a month to sleep on his floor.
Members of the Cholos drank and smoked marijuana in the building’s dingy stairwell, as well as in Mr. Rodríguez’s apartment, neighbors said.
While drinking, Mr. Rodríguez would express bitterness over his low pay, his status as an illegal immigrant and his station in life. He was quick to start fights or use his pit bull, Duchess, to intimidate people.
“He was a violent person when he drank,” said Wanda Rodríguez, a neighbor who considered Mr. Rodríguez a friend. “He used to bully people.”
Still, neighbors said he could be jovial and bighearted when he was sober. He held barbecues in a small concrete yard in front of his building, grilling chicken he had bought wholesale from a friend and providing coolers of cold beer.
He also longed for female companionship, friends said. Two years ago, he started an online relationship with a divorced woman in Mexico and began sending her money to help support her two children, the woman, Ana Martínez, said. On his days off, he would sit at the same table near the beer cooler in the Huaxcuaxtla Restaurant on Courtlandt Avenue, looking at the altar for the Virgin of Guadalupe and listening to norteño music on the jukebox. He always ordered a steak with green chilaquiles and a Modelo beer. “Life for him was his bottle of Modelo,” his regular waitress, Veronica Gutierrez, said with a smile.
At first, detectives thought Mr. Rodríguez’s drinking may have been at the root of the stabbing.
Fights arise frequently at 151st Street and Courtlandt Avenue, the police and residents said, usually over petty grievances, drunken insults or romantic triangles. Over five years, there have been at least 11 stabbings and shootings within two blocks. Sometimes, the combatants are immigrant men like Mr. Rodríguez, who are drawn to the area’s low-priced rooms and are sometimes seen staggering from corner to corner as night falls.
But the street is also home to children of the Mexican migrants who began arriving in large numbers in the mid-1990s. In total, there are at least 600,000 Mexican immigrants and their children in New York City and the surrounding counties. The teenagers and young adults, whose parents are mostly from rural towns in Puebla, Guerrero and Oaxaca, are now graduating from high school and college. A few, like Mr. Aquino-Simon, have dropped out of school to join street gangs like the Cholos and the Vatos Locos.
The block presents a microcosm of the Mexican diaspora in the South Bronx, with immigrants at different stages of their American experience. The halls of nearby apartment buildings are filled in the afternoons with the smell of spiced meats and the sounds of ranchera accordion music. Men come and go covered with the dust of work sites or dressed in the orange vests and ball caps favored by the army of food deliverymen in Manhattan. Women tow children home after school and work.
While those are the stable families, the strivers, Mr. Rodríguez’s building housed people who had fallen off the rails. Outside Hessen Deli at 151st and Courtlandt, bleary-eyed men loiter throughout the afternoon and night. When they have cash, they buy beer, usually drinking it a block away on 152nd Street, the neighborhood’s skid row.
“There are many Mexicans over there who are now practically homeless,” said Pedro Ortega, a native of Puebla who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years and owns a nearby grocery and restaurant.
The afternoon of May 7 began with Mr. Rodríguez and his roommates partying early, around 4 p.m., according to Mr. Martínez. The seven men were off that day. They watched television, listened to music and roasted a pork loin, he said. Then the beer ran out.
Mr. Martínez said he went out with Miguel Martínez (no relation) and Mr. Rodríguez at 11 p.m. to buy more beer and sandwiches at the corner bodega. There, he said, they encountered about six Cholos in the street, among them Mr. Aquino-Simon. “They were already there, and they were looking for trouble,” he said. Mr. Aquino-Simon yelled something in English to Mr. Rodríguez, and the fight ignited, Lázaro Martínez said.
But another immigrant living at the house, Silvano Castañeda, told the police that it was he who had been dispatched to buy the beer and got into a fight at the bodega. He said several of his roommates, including Mr. Rodríguez, had come to his aid.
Others said the fight might have been about money. Two witnesses said in interviews that they had heard Mr. Rodríguez telling his friends just before the brawl that he had been robbed and urging them to find the person who had taken his money. He also told the first police officers who responded that Mr. Aquino-Simon had taken something from him.
Security camera videos from a nonprofit on the corner do little to clarify things. They show Mr. Rodríguez march up to a group of three people and, without breaking stride, punch a woman, knocking her and one of her companions to the ground. Those people were never found by detectives.
Then Mr. Aquino-Simon and at least three other reputed Cholos can be seen sprinting up the block from 367 East 151st Street, where neighbors said they used a second-floor apartment as a “trap house,” to smoke marijuana and host parties. Mr. Aquino-Simon joins the fray.
Thirty-five seconds later, Mr. Aquino-Simon is seen on security camera video backing down the sidewalk toward the building that holds the gang’s hangout, with Lázaro Martínez and Miguel Martínez following him. He hits Lázaro Martínez twice before retreating again, with an unidentified man at his side. Mr. Rodríguez and Mr. Castañeda arrive, and the four friends move in a group toward Mr. Aquino-Simon.
One witness said Mr. Aquino-Simon ran into the building, vowing to his companion that he would kill someone, then returning to the sidewalk a minute later with a knife. A second witness saw Mr. Rodríguez and Lázaro Martínez struggling to open the door of the building. Neither witness saw the stabbing itself. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals from the Cholos.
Lázaro Martínez said he remembered standing on the sidewalk, fighting with Mr. Aquino-Simon and a second man, who had a cane, when Mr. Aquino-Simon’s knife entered his side with a sickening thump. Then he blacked out, he said. Mr. Castañeda, who declined to be interviewed, told detectives that he saw Mr. Aquino-Simon open the door of the building and thrust with a knife toward both Mr. Martínez and Mr. Rodríguez as they stood on the landing. Blood was found inside the vestibule and just outside the door.
“Everyone remembers it differently; that’s just the way it goes,” said Rick Simplicio, the lead detective on the case. “But if they all put the same person in same area, we’re good with that.”
Mr. Aquino-Simon’s lawyer, Todd A. Spodek, said his client was trapped between two doors in the vestibule, as Mr. Rodríguez and Lázaro Martínez threatened him from outside, and Mr. Rodríguez waved a knife. He said Mr. Aquino-Simon opened the outer door to try to talk to Mr. Rodríguez, but the big man tried to push his way in, Mr. Spodek said. Fearing for his life, Mr. Aquino-Simon used a knife to defend himself, Mr. Spodek said.
“It was a ‘kill or be killed’ situation,” Mr. Spodek said.
Detectives first thought the brawl had been prompted by a trivial insult at the bodega, when one of Mr. Rodríguez’s friends was buying beer. “And it just escalated,” Sgt. Michael J. LoPuzzo, the commander of the 40th Precinct detective squad, said on May 20, a couple of weeks after the killing. “Nobody had to die here.”
Then came a twist. Detective Simplicio received a tip that Mr. Rodríguez had been feuding with the Cholos over his plans to testify in court that Mr. Aquino-Simon was responsible for the stabbing of a rival gang member in June 2015 at the Bronx Terminal Market. Mr. Rodríguez had made his decision to testify known in the neighborhood, giving Mr. Aquino-Simon a motive to silence him, said a defense lawyer for Baraquiel Castelan, the man charged in that case.
“He couldn’t keep a secret,” the lawyer, Telesforo Del Valle Jr., said. “He was so upset about it.”
In an interview at the Rikers Island jail complex, Mr. Castelan asserted his innocence, just as he said his friend Mr. Rodríguez would have. “Honestly, I didn’t do it,” he said.
Mr. Castelan denied being a gang leader, saying the Cholos were “more like friends than a gang.” But the police said he took over as the leader of the Cholos in late 2013 after Miguel Castelan — a distant relative — was paralyzed in a shooting related to a long-running feud between the Cholos and the Vatos Locos.
The twist had a complicated back story. Anthony Velazquez, now 25, a reputed Vatos Locos member, was attacked by at least eight men at the fair in the Bronx Terminal Market, according to a criminal complaint. Mr. Velazquez has a child with Baraquiel Castelan’s sister. He told the police that Mr. Castelan had stabbed him after an argument over custody of the baby.
Mr. Castelan said that he did not join in the attack and that Mr. Rodríguez would have exonerated him. Mr. Rodríguez had seen the fight because he had borrowed Mr. Castelan’s car that day and brought several Cholos to the fair, including Mr. Aquino-Simon, he said. “We were all friends,” Mr. Castelan said. “We know each other very well.”
Mr. Rodríguez showed up at the courthouse along with other defense witnesses the day the grand jury met, several of Mr. Castelan’s relatives said. He was discouraged from testifying after being informed he might open himself up to prosecution, but he intended to appear at Mr. Castelan’s trial this fall, Mr. Del Valle said.
The Bronx district attorney’s office said it had no record that Mr. Rodríguez offered his testimony to the grand jury. Patrice O’Shaughnessy, a spokeswoman for the office, said prosecutors had the testimony of the victim and a second witness, both of whom knew Mr. Castelan well enough to identify him as the assailant.
Mr. Spodek said his client had nothing to do with the stabbing of Mr. Velazquez.
Detective Simplicio and Sergeant LoPuzzo said time might reveal the motive for Mr. Rodríguez’s murder. But for now, they have witnesses who say Mr. Aquino-Simon stabbed Mr. Rodríguez, and that is enough. “I’m satisfied with that,” Sergeant LoPuzzo said.
Mr. Castelan said he had once been close to Mr. Aquino-Simon, a son of Mexican immigrants who was raised by a single mother in the Wagner Houses in East Harlem. Mr. Aquino-Simon had shown up in Cholos territory around 2013 and befriended several members of the gang, hanging around at El Bravo, where Mr. Rodriguez worked, Mr. Castelan said.
Though Mr. Aquino-Simon had good grades and ran track, he dropped out of high school his sophomore year, when his girlfriend became pregnant, his sister Miriam Aquino said. Intent on supporting his child, he delivered food for an Italian restaurant on East 86th Street. Later, he got a job working for a wholesale grocer in Hunts Point.
Eric Chevere, a club manager and a lifelong resident of 151st Street, said Mr. Aquino-Simon had confided to him that he joined the Cholos for fear of other gangs. “He did it because he needed protection,” Mr. Chevere said.
But he also adopted the name Diablito, meaning “little devil.” He started tagging lampposts and buildings along 151st Street with the letters CLS, for Cholos, people who knew him said. He was arrested three times over two years on felony charges, including robbery and assault, but the records of those proceedings are sealed because of his age, the police said.
“If he sees you getting beat up,” one former gang member said of Mr. Aquino-Simon, he is “going to help you. That’s the kind of friend he was.”
Since Mr. Rodríguez’s death, the men who live in his apartment have avoided the street, shuttering themselves inside and declining interviews. Several said they were afraid of reprisals from the Cholos for speaking to the police. “This place is dangerous — it’s hell out here,” Miguel Martínez said as he declined a request for an interview.
The men who took part in the fight have moved away, and the remainder are facing eviction, the landlord said. Detective Simplicio acknowledged that it would be hard to track them down when the case comes to trial.
In Mexico, Mr. Rodríguez’s family buried him in a churchyard near his house, after raising money to transport his remains. His body was too wide for the standard coffin provided by the Mexican government.
His sister Griselda wept in the family kitchen as she spoke about the sweet, rambunctious Mr. Rodríguez she knew. Nearby was a shrine she had built to her brother: four candles, a photograph of him wearing the Mexican flag as a bandanna, and two bunches of red and white roses. A doughnut and a cup of coffee sat next to the photo. “Because he liked them so much,” she said.
She recalled her brother’s last phone call home in 2013, when he spoke to the son he hardly knew.
“Alan asked him, ‘Daddy, when are you coming back?’” she said. “Beto responded: ‘Any day now. Any day.’”
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