The broken life of Joel López, the man who saw ‘La Mataviejitas’ at his last crime scene

She liked to play pillows. She pampered him with orange juice and some beans from the pot. They enjoyed smoking and talking together. How can we forget the day she ran for her swimsuit and got into the tub to keep her company with a cigarette and a glass of wine. That night, she had to run out and put on a robe to pretend that she was bathing because one of her daughters, Verónica, called her on the phone. She was five minutes away. When she arrived, she asked her mother “what were you doing?” “I was taking a bath,” she replied. But the complicity between Ana María de los Reyes and Joel López ended suddenly on January 25, 2006, the day Juana Barraza left Ana María’s body in the television room of the house at number 21 José Street. J. Jasso, in the Moctezuma neighborhood (Mexico City), after strangling her.

Joel López (Mexico City, 47 years old) tears up like a torrent when he remembers the events of 18 years ago. His sadness arose one Wednesday when he returned from work. It was daytime, but later than usual because his boss asked him to receive a last-minute order at the hostel where he worked, in the Historic Center. There was no orange juice or beans for lunch that day. He faced a chilling scene that would mark him for life. Seeing Ana María, 81, inert on the floor of the television room was like being left without the person who cuddled him the most. Losing a life partner who made him go up to the roof to sunbathe while she prepared lemon water for him, with whom he went to the movies to eat cakes or pambazos that they sneaked in. It was being left without the friend who wrote messages to her on pieces of paper.

Joel López, a chef by profession, is the true hero of a tragic story of murders of elderly women that devastated the Mexican capital since the late nineties and ended with the arrest of a serial killer, Juana Barraza, known as The Mataviejitas, thanks to the fact that, despite the shock, he decided to follow in her footsteps after finding himself only three meters from her inside the house, when the woman had just committed the crime of Ana María. “The first thing I saw were Ana’s feet and I looked up. I already knew that she was not there […] Many things went through my head. Something moved me. When I saw Juana we never said anything to each other, she just looked at me very, very strongly. I interpret that the look she gave me was as if she were saying ‘be still or the same thing will happen to you,” says Joel López in an interview with EL PAÍS.

Joel López in a photo session in Mexico City.
Joel López in a photo session in Mexico City.Nayeli Cruz

The murderer began to walk to leave the crime scene with slow steps. Joel hesitated about what to do but made a crucial decision: follow her and not lose sight of her. While he advanced two meters away from her, already on José J. Jasso Street, he shouted the names of Celina and Magaly, two acquaintances who ran a beauty salon where Ana María painted her hair and had her nails done. “They came out. I never looked back, my gaze was towards her, but I did hear Magaly and Celina telling me ‘what happened? Why are you running?’, and I told them ‘this woman hurt Ana.’ Help me, please,” says Joel. Juana Barraza headed to a small adjacent street and at one point she tripped over what Joel remembers as a bush. “That gave me the opportunity to take her by the arm. She tried to pull herself and when she pulled she opened her bag like a long cloth. At that moment a police officer was already behind.”

In the bag that Juana Barraza was carrying, the police found voter credentials, food support cards for the elderly, business cards of wrestlers—she worked in the wrestling environment—and Ana María’s house. de los Reyes had stolen shampoo, some old coins and even a light bulb, Joel remembers. The police were in the area because they were doing tours as part of an operation called Serpentín, with which the Mexico City Police were looking for the culprit of the murders of women after analyzing the modus operandi behind the crimes.

Joel, however, does not believe he is a hero. For him, the heroic thing would have been to prevent the murder of his life partner. “I don’t consider myself a hero, I consider myself an instrument for the capture of this lady Juana. I might have considered myself a hero if I could have arrived earlier. For a long time I lived blaming myself.”

Photograph of Ana María de los Reyes Alfaro with Joel López's mother.
Photograph of Ana María de los Reyes Alfaro with Joel López’s mother. Nayeli Cruz

‘Juana Barraza lies’

Except for his testimony in the documentary The Lady of Silence: the case of La Mataviejitas (Netflix, 2023), directed by María José Cuevas, Joel López has avoided talking to the media, however, he has now decided to do so to tell his life story with Ana María de los Reyes, but also to refute the claims that Juana Barraza did in a recent interview with the Channel 14 of public television in Mexico. In that conversation, Barraza pleads innocent of the murders of women for which she was sentenced to 759 years in prison, despite the expert evidence against her and her own description – recorded by the authorities – of how she hanged her victims. .

“I want to tell people that they cannot believe a woman who is telling pure lies. Her lie continues to cause a lot of damage, not just to me. “I start thinking about the relatives (of the victims) who see her,” says Joel López, who also criticizes the approach of Channel 14. “If it is a Government channel, or one that is sponsored through the Government, for what purpose do they do it? Do they really want to help her? Do they want to reverse all these years of research? Because they would really cause tremendous damage. If people are going to look at something, let them look at it based on research, let them see that there are fingerprints [que muestran su culpabilidad], let them see it from the entire process. “You can’t say ‘poor old lady’ when you don’t know everything about the background.”

A new message to Juana Barraza

Joel López had a brief dialogue with Juana Barraza in a confrontation after the arrest. She showed him an image of Santa Muerte and told him: “Do you know who my God is? Do you know who protects me?… This is my God.” He responded: “I’ll tell you something. You didn’t hurt me, or Ana. Ana is already on another plane. Do you know who you hurt with everything you did? To your childs”. Juana Barraza turned around and left.

If Joel López were in front of Juana Barraza again, he would tell her something different: “That I feel happy to have participated in her capture and to see her pay a sentence for the murder of Ana and the 16 other victims.”

under the beds

Joel has a bitter memory of his maternal grandmother, who was severe and spoke badly of his own mother. That’s why, for a time, he felt a rejection of being close to older people. Even though there was no lack in his house, his grandmother restricted their food and kept sweet bread under the bed. “He took out the stale bread. You had to ask. If you wanted a banana, you had to ask for it. If it was good, he would give it to you, if not, you would be left with the craving,” explains Joel.

Years later he met Ana María in a church in the Jardín Balbuena neighborhood (Mexico City), when he was a seminarian of the order of San Felipe Neri. They coincided at events and for some reason they were seated together. But he avoided her when she looked for him, until things changed one day when Ana María asked him for a hug. “What do you have?” she asked. “Just give me a hug,” she said. “I hugged her and she cried, she cried a lot. We must have stayed there for about three minutes hugging. Obviously I also cried because I felt that she needed something, I don’t know what, and from then on it was different,” says Joel.

Some time later, one Saturday they met by chance in the Center of Mexico City. Joel had already left the order of San Felipe Neri and since then they had not seen each other. He told Ana María that he was looking for a place to live and she offered to rent him a two-bedroom bungalow that was at the back of his house in the Moctezuma neighborhood. He agreed and thus began the story of a bond that is difficult to describe in a single word. “We were very devils,” says Joel. On one occasion, Daniel, Ana María’s youngest son—of four in total—came home. They heard the lock and, to prevent him from seeing them together, Ana María told him to hide under the bed. “Ana took Daniel to the kitchen, ‘here, I’ll buy you a coffee,’ but I couldn’t get out of there anymore because she said it would be worse if they caught me leaving. Do you know what he did? She told Daniel ‘come on, let’s go to my bedroom and talk’, and she sat on the bed where I was hiding. He did it with every intention of playing.” It was no longer the sweet bread that was hidden. Now it was Joel López playing with Ana María de los Reyes.

They both used to listen to music together. One of the songs they enjoyed was A hundred years, by Pedro Infante. The one that at the end says: And yet you remain / united to my existence / and if I live a hundred years / a hundred years I think of you.

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