Between February in June were four agonizing months for one Apalachicola family, beginning with the surprise arrest by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers of a popular grocer, and ending with his deportation on war crimes back to his native El Salvador.
The blood of a brutal civil war in Latin America more than three decades ago spilled into the heart of Apalachicola with the deportation of Jose Francisco “Pancho” Grijalva Monroy, 50, back to his home country.
Customs officials said very little following his arrest in February, and he was incarcerated without bail in a detention facility in Wakulla County.
His arrest triggered an outpouring of support from locals, who took up the cause of the 20-year resident of Apalachicola, a manager at the Piggly-Wiggly.
Six weeks after his arrest, a rally was held in front of the State Capitol in Tallahassee, with chants and signs railing against the excesses of immigration policy being championed by the Trump administration.
“Our neighbor, free Pancho,” and “We are all Pancho” read the signs..
The protestors reached out to Florida Sen. Bill Nelson to aid in Grijalva’s release. A gofundme campaign helped with expenses for Pancho’s family.
When the time came for Grijalva’s deportation, ICE issued a news release that provided scathing but scant details on what he is alleged to have done in the mid 1980s, while a teenaged conscript into the Salvadorian Army.
The release said that according to court documents, Grijalva testified that as a Salvadorian soldier, he tortured leftist guerrillas by hanging them by their hands from trees and slapping their chests with his bare hands. The release said he also admitted that he tied suspected guerrillas to the back of an army Jeep and dragged them on the road until their skin came off.
The news of Grijalva’s alleged human rights violations stunned the community, especially those who have come to love and respect him, his wife and their two school-aged sons. The congregation at First United Methodist Church, where the older son is active in the youth group, prayed for Grijalva as part of the service Sunday morning, no doubt echoing the tangle of emotions shared by those at the Catholic Church and other places of worship.
“I have known Pancho for the last seven years and see nothing but a good man, with a great heart to help others, especially the children, teaching soccer and coaching them,” said Luis Ramon Valenzuela, a Mexican immigrant, now a U.S. citizen, who has experience with outreach to bridge understanding between both sides of the border.
“There are many folks making conclusions of a man that has given his life, more than 20 years, doing the right thing in this country and county,” he said.
Those of his co-workers attested to Grijalva’s dedication and compassion for others. One fellow worker said he lent her money in a pinch, as he did others, and that she now better understands what he meant by a comment he made to her at the time.
“You’re a good man, Pancho,” she told him.
“I haven’t always been a good man,” he replied.