GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — Where’s the line between political terror and the savagery of the cartels and gangs in Central America? For those who hope and pray for asylum in the United States, that’s a life-and-death question, because the U.S. deports thousands of migrants each year to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, three of the most dangerous countries in the world outside of “war zones.”
“Please halt my deportation because I’m scared to return to my country,” a man we’ll call Eduardo, because he’s still terrified of the consequences if he’s identified too closely, wrote to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) staff at the Port Isabel, Texas, detention center in August 2014. After several deportation hearings and months of incarceration, he was sent back to Guatemala in May 2015.
“I can’t be here,” Eduardo told The Daily Beast in Guatemala City. “I’m putting my family in danger.”
Why was he so scared?
One night in June 2013, while walking home, Eduardo saw a man with a gun extend his arm to shoot a neighbor. The man, who committed the crime, and a group of armed accomplices realized Eduardo had seen them. So they shot him 16 times and left him for dead. Miraculously, Eduardo survived. Then threats against Eduardo and his family continued. Both his mother and cousin were shot while the criminals pursued Eduardo.
Finally he fled the country to protect himself and his relatives. And then he got sent back.
“It wasn’t fair,” Eduardo said of his deportation. He opened a folder with his hospital records and police reports. “I showed them everything, but they deported me. How is all of this a lie?”
The operation left a large scar that stretches across Eduardo’s throat and he now speaks in a raspy voice he says he himself barely recognizes.
Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—known as the Northern Triangle—are experiencing “endemic levels of violence,” according to Adriana Beltran, a security expert at the Washington Office for Latin America. High levels of gang violence, organized crime, and sexual assault.
Since the 1980s, when Central American refugees from guerrilla wars first encountered the gang culture in the U.S., then got run through its prisons and sent back to their home countries as hardened criminals, the security situation has deteriorated drastically. Eventually the region’s political wars ended, but its criminal wars go on and on, often linked to the activities of the massive drug cartels of South America and Mexico.
“We [see] a lot of cases of extortion and death threats for deportees and migrants’ families,” said Clara Gordillo de Reyes of the Guatemalan immigration agency CONAMIGUA. “We encourage them not to risk their lives by making the journey through Mexico, but sometimes they choose to leave because there is such a risk of staying in Guatemala.”
Eighty-three deportees were murdered in the Northern Triangle from January 2014 to September 2015, according to a forthcoming report by researcher Elizabeth Kennedy. Guatemala’s Public Ministry has investigated at least six recent cases of deportees murdered upon return, according to Rootman Perez, secretary of criminal policy at the Public Ministry.
These ongoing investigations have not found any direct link between the homicides and reasons for migration. But in countries where 95 percent of murders go unpunished, Perez recognizes the potential for underreporting during these investigations.
“You are dealing with countries that have extremely weak institutions,” said Beltran of WOLA. “That means victims of violence pretty much have nowhere to turn. In some of these communities they fear the police as much as criminals.”
Eduardo never filed a police report for the crime he witnessed or the threats he received. Indeed, members of the same police forces that supposedly protect him were the ones he believes committed the crime in June 2013.
So, Eduardo made the perilous journey to the U.S. and asked for asylum. But a previous deportation order in 2010 made Eduardo ineligible. Instead, he could apply for a different legal protection known as withholding of removal, which has a higher burden of proof, according to Steven Schulman, pro bono partner at the law firm of Akin Gump. Schulman has represented asylum-seekers both in and out of detention centers.
Fear for one’s life is not enough to gain legal protection, according to Schulman. Migrants are often sent back to dangerous situations for failing to fit strict legal and evidentiary requirements. Without a good lawyer, winning an asylum case is even more difficult.
“It’s dysfunctional,” said Schulman. “Some are put through hearings very quickly and others are waiting until 2019. It’s chaotic. It’s very inconsistent. Unfortunately the law is unevenly applied depending on the location.”
Just last year 75,000 migrants were deported back to the Northern Triangle. ICE raids early this year indicated that the deportations will continue and even increase. On Jan. 4, 121 migrants in Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina were targeted for deportation, the first wide-scale effort to deport Central American migrants who arrived in a border surge in summer 2014.
“As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in Jan. 4 statement. “If you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values.”
ICE declined to answer specific questions about the raids or internal policy shifts in response to Central American migration, but instead deferred to Johnson’s statement.
The raids targeted migrants with final orders of removal who crossed after May 1, 2014, and are considered “enforcement priorities.” More than 50,000 unaccompanied minors and 70,000 women and children from the Northern Triangle were apprehended at the U.S. border in 2014. A deportation crackdown in Mexico led to a 40 percent decrease in apprehensions in 2015. But migrant crossings have surged again in the beginning of 2016.
“Central American clients have been scrutinized in part because there is so much violence in the country that it’s viewed as just a violent place,” Schulman said. “Being in a violent place is not enough to gain asylum.”
So Eduardo remains in his home country, having exhausted his legal options for protection in the U.S. He still fears for his safety and that of his wife and three daughters. He plans to migrate, possibly to Mexico, Canada, or Costa Rica.
“All I want to do is to live somewhere else so I can have a calm life,” Eduardo said. “I just want a bit of peace because I have been suffering for a long time.”