Being dubbed “Donkey” might not seem flattering. Unless you consider the context.
Efren Diaz and Alonso Hurtado were so close, so inseparable, that friends and family referred to them as Shrek and Donkey.
And it fit.
Diaz was the older, wiser and slightly thicker one. Hurtado was the funny, talks-too-much, little-brother type nipping at Diaz's heels.
“They lived together, worked together, played soccer together, drank beer together,” said Natasha Reyes, Diaz's girlfriend. “They were always together.”
But these best friends would have no screenplay sunset. Hurtado is dead — and part of Diaz is, too.
Diaz, 23, has been beside himself since Hurtado, 21, was gunned down Sept. 2, 2011, in what a judge described as another senseless Omaha street shooting.
“For no reason at all — that's how it always is with these shootings,” Reyes said. “We've talked about this a lot. I've told (Diaz), 'It's not your fault.' It's something he's had to work through.”
Meanwhile, the person authorities allege is at fault — Cesar Mercado — is on the loose. A warrant against him for second-degree murder has been issued, and authorities wonder whether he has fled to Mexico.
Diaz's and Hurtado's story began in Mexico, where the two grew up in the central Mexican village of La Yerbabuena.
The cousins — Diaz's mom and Hurtado's father are siblings — lived on the same street in the town of about 150 homes.
The only thing that separated them was a neighbor's house. And that was little obstacle. The two spent seemingly every waking minute at each other's homes.
“We were like brothers,” Diaz said.
In time, Diaz decided to leave the village for the American dream. Factory jobs near La Yerbabuena — many of the village workers labor in clothing mills — pay about $80 a week. A construction job in America can pay $600 or more a week.
Diaz came to the U.S. and eventually to Omaha. He began working for a contractor six days a week, laying concrete.
The 1,500 miles — and border — did little to separate the two. They spoke at least once a week. Even when Diaz called his own home, he said, Hurtado often picked up the phone.
Soon, Hurtado began to talk about following Diaz to America.
“I didn't want him to come,” Diaz said. “I thought he was too young.”
Hurtado wouldn't be deterred. Just before his 18th birthday, he left his family in La Yerbabuena, sneaked into the United States and reunited with Diaz in Omaha.
Again, the cousins were inseparable. For three years, they shared a home and a common goal: to send money back to their families.
So the two worked — six days a week, 10 to 14 hours a shift — laying concrete for sidewalks, driveways, parking lots, foundations.
Hurtado took classes to learn English. And he and Diaz played, kicking around a soccer ball in a Sunday league on the fields near Zorinsky Lake. Diaz was the team captain. Hurtado? Well, his play fit his number — 13.
“He was,” Diaz said, pausing, “well, he was OK.”
He was better on the dance floor. Hurtado loved to dance, whether it was at street festivals, dance halls or nightclubs.
“He was outgoing — especially with the ladies,” Reyes said. “He'd talk about whatever you wanted to talk about. Just a funny guy. Always in a good mood. Always willing to go along for a ride ...”
Which brings us to Sept. 2.
Hurtado was hanging out, drinking a couple of beers with two friends after work. The trio hopped in a Jeep Cherokee and decided to drive past Tquila Night Club, 3050 L St., to see if any friends were there.
Meanwhile, Mercado, 38, was with two young men and two women in a GMC Yukon.
Mercado's group had been “out looking for trouble,” prosecutor Shawn Hagerty said.
Authorities allege that the men in the Yukon — some of whom were associates of the Rebels 13 gang — had jumped a rival gang member at a gas station earlier that evening. Police were called, but the men had taken off and the victim refused to cooperate, Hagerty said.
A couple of hours later, Mercado's Yukon crossed paths with the Cherokee in the parking lot of Tquila. One of the women in Mercado's vehicle exchanged words with one of Hurtado's friends. One of Mercado's accomplices later claimed that a bottle flew from the SUV that Hurtado was in, a contention investigators couldn't confirm.
Whatever the case, Hagerty alleges, Mercado pulled out a revolver, pushed a woman out of the back seat and hopped out of the vehicle. Authorities say he fired four or five bullets into the Cherokee as it drove away near 32nd and K Streets.
Glass shattered. One bullet pierced Hurtado's skull. Horrified, his friends rushed him to a fire station at 25th and L Streets. He died two days later at a hospital.
Prosecutors say the shooting was chilling.
Hurtado and his friends “had nothing to do with anything,” Hagerty said. “They weren't in a gang. Just some guys here working and going out on a Friday night.”
A few days later, Omaha police arrested the driver and passenger in the Yukon — Rudy Gil, then 27, and Kriss Flores, then 17 — and initially charged them with murder.
However, Hagerty said, there was no evidence that Gil and Flores knew that anyone would open fire. In turn, their charges were reduced to accessory charges. Douglas County District Judge Timothy Burns sentenced Gil to a year in prison. Flores was sentenced this week to four years of probation.
Meanwhile, Mercado remains on the lam.
“There are zero words to describe how frustrating it is,” Reyes said.
“I feel impotent for not being able to do anything,” Diaz said through a translator.
Diaz said he still speaks with Hurtado's family in Mexico. Hurtado's parents, Sylvia and Martin, gave permission for doctors to harvest his organs. His heart now beats in a 50-year-old American man, Reyes said.
While that gives Diaz and Reyes some comfort, it's little consolation to Hurtado's family. His parents and siblings — older sister Analila, 27, and two little brothers, Adrian, 18, and Cesar, 15 — are crushed.
“Inconsolable,” Reyes said. “I just can't imagine your son leaving you for three years and the next time you see him, he's in a box.”
At that, Diaz scrolls through his phone, eventually pulling up a picture of “El Burro,” wearing sunglasses and a mischievous smile.
His thoughts then turn to another photo — one from long ago. In it, he and Alonso are hand-in-hand as toddlers.
His tears need no translation.
“He was saving money to buy land and build a house for his parents,” Diaz said softly. “He just wanted his mom and dad to be proud of him.”
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