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Woman admits to setting fire to monument built after migrant tragedy, officials say

Saldana says the monument 'was very personal' to the City of San Antonio.

SAN ANTONIO — One woman has been arrested after a monument dedicated to migrant deaths was set on fire Tuesday morning on the far southwest-side, according to San Antonio Arson Bureau Lieutenant Noe Saldana. 

The woman has been identified by officials as 44-year-old, Estela Banda. 

Saldana says firefighters were called to the scene at the 9500 block of Quintana Road for an unauthorized burn around 6 a.m.

The fire was extinguished and arson investigators were called out to the scene. 

Officials say during the investigation an arrest warrant was obtained for Banda and brought in for a statement where she admitted to setting fire and destroying the monument. 

Banda told arson investigators that she was 'compelled by the Holy Spirit' and that her reasoning for the fire was doing God's work, according to Saldana. 

Credit: KENS
Burned crosses at migrant memorial off Quintana Road.

Saldana says the monument 'was very personal' to the City of San Antonio.

"This is a very important arrest for our city, and for our division and fire department because of the nature of the heinous crime that was committed earlier this year," Saldana says.

Banda was arrested and charged with arson which is a felony.

As investigators announced Banda's arrest, Good Samaritans were hard at work rebuilding the memorial.

"We got there early, and found out someone set the memorial on fire," said Diego Armando Patraca Rueda, who's visiting San Antonio from Mexico.

Rueda came to the memorial off Quintana Road Wednesday morning with his cousin who visits the site frequently to leave water, ice and fruit for visitors.

"It's a way for us to lay these souls to rest, of those who died," explained Rueda. "So they can have eternal rest and people can come and pay their respects."

When Rueda and his cousin arrived at the memorial, they found the pulpit and several crosses burned. Rueda's cousin began making calls.

"My cousin called people he knows who work at Home Depot to get the wood," said Rueda. "Then he called a friend who works at a construction site to bring the other tools needed to build the crosses."

When asked if Rueda and his cousin knew any of the victims, he said no. They wanted to help, he said, because it was the right thing to do.

"In Mexico, it's a custom for us to support others. We don't have much, but what we do have, we give to others," he explained. "At the end of the day, we're all the same. We're all human."

By 4 p.m. Wednesday, the new crosses were complete.

"It speaks volumes to this effort that's been grassroots since the very beginning," said Sandragrace Martinez, curator and organizer for the memorial.

Martinez burst into tears when she got her first view of the damage up-close.

She believes the suspect threw mementos from the memorial into the pulpit before setting it on fire.

Martinez called migrants families to share the heartbreaking news.

Credit: KENS
Burned pulpit filled with mementos at migrant memorial site off Quintana Road.

"It is unfortunately, for all of us, something that maybe had to happen. It's really hard for me to say those words," said Martinez. "So we can get more support from the city out here."

Since the memorial's creation, Martinez says funding for rosaries, birthday celebrations and supplies has come from national organizations. Donors, like Rueda's cousin, will also drop off food and water.

District 4 Councilwoman, Dr. Adriana Rocha Garcia, says she'd like to focus on getting a permanent memorial for the 53 migrants. The next step, she says, is raising funds to build it.

Credit: KENS
Man fixes flowers at the base of a cross at the migrant memorial off Quintana Road.

In the meantime, to protect the makeshift memorial and the people who visit, Rocha Garcia is open to providing security.

"I think this is a good opportunity to say we need some additional reinforcements, so I definitely think this is important to consider," she said.

Wednesday afternoon, several art pieces which lined the fence of the memorial were taken off the site. Martinez says the paintings had several holes, which began appearing a couple of weeks ago.

The paintings were moved to Casa Azul off Buena Vista to join a larger art installation about immigration.

Credit: KENS
Man packing up art pieces at migrant memorial, transporting them to Casa Azul off Buena Vista on San Antonio's west side.

The monument was created after 53 migrants died in a tractor-trailer back in June 2022 and is considered the deadliest migrant smuggling event in U.S. history. 

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