The mayor of a Mexican town who welcomed a gift of emergency vehicles from Pierce County donors was fatally shot this week, according to media reports.
Manuel Gomez Torres, mayor of Ayutla, was killed Sunday while returning to his farm, the BBC reported. Some residents believe he was killed in retaliation for reporting a methamphetamine lab to police, Mexican media said.
Ayutla is a town of about 25,000 people in Jalisco state in west-central Mexico. Until 2007, it had only one ambulance. That year, a Gig Harbor man who was a Jalisco native organized a caravan that eventually brought the town four refurbished police cars, another ambulance and a fire truck.
Jose Lopez said he was appalled by a horrific accident in his hometown in which five people died before they could be taken to a hospital. He approached local firefighters and law enforcement, who organized the aid caravan and several trips that followed..
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Gomez Torres “was truly one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met in my life,” said Phil Michelsen, a retired firefighter who lives in Gig Harbor and helped coordinate the trips to Mexico. “All he was trying to do was make Ayutla a better place for the people. He was a super, super man.”
Mexican news agencies reported that Gomez Torres was doing survey work in preparation for building a road when he stumbled across methamphetamine labs. He reported them to the federal government. Some believe Gomez Torres was killed in retaliation.
Mexican police said they suspect a criminal gang is responsible for the killing, which reportedly was one of 50 unsolved homicides of local leaders over the last seven years. No arrests have been made.
Jalisco state is the stronghold of the Jalisco New Generation cartel, which authorities say is behind most of the drug trafficking along Mexico’s Pacific Coast.
Photos of the shooting scene on Facebook showed what appeared to be the former Pierce County fire engine in the background, Lopez said Wednesday. It is likely the ambulance was there, too, he said.
Mayor of Ayutla from 2006 to 2010 and again since 2012, Gomez Torres was known as a generous, thoughtful man among the South Sound volunteers who first met him when they drove 3,000 miles to deliver emergency vehicles and school supplies. . About 2,000 people attended a memorial for the 72-year-old mayor, Mexican media reported.
In a town of mostly impoverished residents, Gomez Torres lived fairly well.
He had a large ranch with a swimming pool and European show horses that pranced on command. He drove a large, shiny pickup truck, bought Ayutla a garbage truck and donated his mayoral salary back to the town.
“He was a guy who made sure everybody in town was taken care of,” said Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer, who organized the Mission to Mexico trips. “He was really there to make the town better.”
Gomez Torres went to the United States as a teenager, working in restaurants until he opened his own, and eventually returned to help his hometown, milenio.com reported. He made his money in real estate, and by owning a Southern California company that made lingerie for Victoria Secret, friends said.
He brought a branch of his company, and with it jobs, to Ayutla, said Lopez.
When he found support in Pierce County to get emergency supplies to Ayutla, Lopez called Gomez Torres, who he said was immediately supportive.
Education, infrastructure and safety were priorities of the mayor, who Lopez said he had a good feeling about from the start.
The Mission to Mexico humanitarian effort traveled the 3,000 miles to Ayula at least three times to help start a fire department that could respond to medical emergencies in the rural area.
“(Gomez Torres) was really excited to have all these,” vehicles, Lopez said. “He gave a really warm welcome. He invited the whole town to town square. Just nothing but smiles.”
Troyer and Michelsen said they were saddened that a man who went out of his way to help others was killed for continuing to improve life in his small town.
During the first Mission to Mexico trip, Gomez Torres put up the team of 20 or so volunteers from South Sound in his hotel.
They weren’t fancy digs – 8-by-8-foot rooms with only a bed – but Gomez Torres had the crew to his home, prepared huge spreads of food and invited them to ride his horses.
Michelsen said he grew so close to Gomez Torres that he called him papa and saw him as a second father.
Since the missions, Lopez said, Gomez Torres grew his town’s fire department to four firefighters, a paramedic, and about five volunteers.
“He was quite a legacy for the town,” Lopez said. “No one has seen any other mayor come in and do what he did in two terms.”