By Daina Beth Solomon
Aug 4 (Reuters) - Juan de Dios Velazquez had only moved to El Paso, Texas, with his wife Estela Nicolasa from Ciudad Juarez, just across the border in Mexico, six months before they were caught in Saturday's mass shooting at a Walmart store.
Juan de Dios, 77, and Estela, 65, were about to enter the store to buy groceries, just like any normal day, when shots rang out, according to their niece Norma Ramos.
He threw himself in front of his wife.
"He was arriving at the store when he was shot at close range and the bullet passed through him and hit my aunt Estela," Ramos told Reuters in a phone interview from Ciudad Juarez, where she lives.
"Because he protected her, he took shots in his back," said Ramos, who said she had heard the account of the shooting from other family members who were able to speak with the couple.
Juan de Dios has already had several surgeries at the Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso but still may need more because the bullet punctured his organs, Ramos said.
Estela, who hit in the stomach, was also operated on and is now stable. The medical center did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott said Saturday's rampage - which killed 20 people, including seven Mexicans - appeared to be a hate crime. Police have cited a manifesto they attributed to the suspect, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, as evidence that the bloodshed was racially motivated.
El Paso is a heavily Latino city on the U.S.-Mexico border that has a long history of attracting Mexicans to settle with their families a short distance from their home towns, or simply to visit for weekend shopping sprees.
Officials in Mexico City have released the names of the seven Mexicans who were killed in the attack, most of whom were from border states.
The rampage has sparked outrage in Mexico, where officials are contemplating litigation alleging that the incident was terrorism against Mexicans living in the United States. That could open the door to an eventual extradition request for the gunman.
A U.S. state prosecutor has said they would seek the death penalty for Crusius if he is found guilty.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the shooting appeared to have been motivated by hate and fear. Another five Mexicans were wounded, he said.
However, Lopez Obrador emphasized the long shared history of Ciudad Juarez - in the northern Mexican border state of Chihuahua - and El Paso, which was once part of Mexico.
"There's a relationship of friendship and brotherhood with Ciudad Juarez," he said. "Most of the people who lost their lives are our countrymen from Chihuahua, because most lead daily lives in El Paso, Texas, especially those who live in Ciudad Juarez."
Among the wounded were a husband and wife from Chihuahua and their 10-year-old daughter, according to Facebook posts by their family members.
Mario de Alba Montes, 45, was shot in the back, while his wife Olivia Mariscal Rodriguez, 44, was hit in the chest and back, Mexico's foreign minister said. Their daughter was hit in the leg.
Ramos said the attack seemed typical of the mass shootings in the United States in recent years that have killed hundreds of innocent people.
Mexico is also suffering a wave of homicides but she said many of those were different because they were tied to gang violence.
"Yes, in Mexico there are killings, but they kill people who are up to no good, who are involved in drugs," she said. "In the United States, they kill people who are innocent, good people."
Ramos, who works at a factory near the border, said she had never applied for a visa to visit the United States.
Now she wishes that she were able to race across the narrow barrier to be with her family.
"Today, I'd like to be there," she said. (Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Dan Flynn and Paul Tait)