JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) — El Paso immigration lawyer Carlos Spector thought he had a textbook asylum case when he came across two Mayan Indians who fled persecution in Guatemala for their political and environmental activism.
On their way to the United States, the two were robbed by a Mexican policeman who allegedly hurled racial insults at them; they were later threatened with jail by other officers when they tried to file a complaint in Juarez, according to affidavits filed with the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission.
Spector thought that documenting persecution in Mexico would shore up an already strong case in U.S. asylum court. However, in an El Paso, Texas district where nine out of 10 asylum cases are rejected, that assertion proved too optimistic.
On July 31, Francisco Chavez Raymundo, 43, and Gaspar Cobo Coria, 31 were placed in the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) program and returned to Mexico by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The two now sit in an undisclosed location in Juarez while their lawyer decries the Trump administration’s hard-line on asylum seekers and lobbies for them to wait out their case in the United States, not Mexico.
“The U.S. is rejecting them under a system that instead of giving them protection and a quick asylum hearing sends them to a dangerous country —- where they already were victimized and singled out for their race,” Spector said. “By placing people on MPP, they’re discouraging them from following through with their petition; what MPP has effectively become is an expansion of accelerated removal from the United States.”
Still, he hopes his two Maya-Ixil clients will eventually get their day in immigration court and buck the odds of denial based on what he calls an “extraordinary tale of courage.”
The memory of war divides a nation
Francisco Chavez was 6 years old when civil war came to his village in the Quiche region of Guatemala. It was corn harvest season (September through October) in 1982 when the soldiers came and torched the fields.
“They shoved people to the ground tied like animals, they tied them up and kicked them. Some they tied to the trees and left them unprotected from sun or the rain and without food. Some they burned alive in the fields,” Chavez said in an interview at a safe house in Juarez.
“I was captured with my mom but we were separated. Me and my sister, who was (3 years old) were taken to a camp. … We were there six months and they started giving the children for adoption. My sister and I were not taken because we protected each other when they came for us,” he said.
Chavez said he remembers becoming ill and malnourished at the camp. When his clothes turned to rags, the soldiers gave him a military shirt and his sister used toddler’s clothes. “We didn’t know where our mom was. They said she was a guerrilla rebel. Every time they brought in a group of captured rebels, they would take us to see if we recognized any relatives. They told us that if we identified them, they would spare them. I didn’t believe them, and I knew they had already killed my father.”
Civil war plagued Guatemala for almost four decades (1960-1996). The war entered a “scorched earth” campaign when Gen. Efrain Rios Montt assumed power in 1982, and the military then focused on Maya Ixil regions where leftist guerrillas operated. The International Center for Human Rights Research links at least 18,000 killings in 1982 to the Guatemalan military.
Chavez and his sister were rescued by a delegation of Catholic nuns six months after arriving at the military camp. They spent the next six years in an orphanage before being reunited with their mother, who survived her own ordeal. “I felt a big emotional void those years. I feel the same emotional void now, being away from my family, from my land, but I have no choice,” he said.
Chavez six years ago finally had a chance to tell his tale during the genocide trial of Rios Montt. His testimony and that of others led to the conviction of the former Guatemalan strong man and a sentence of 80 years in prison. The sentence, however, was thrown out by an appellate court that same year. The case was again brought to trial in 2018, and that’s when Chavez said he was targeted and persecuted.
Rios Montt died in April 2018 while awaiting retrial.
‘Why do you slander our heroes?’
Chavez said he was called to testify in the genocide trials on three occasions, and that he made it a point to take young Maya-Ixil Indians to the hearings, so they would know what happened in the civil war so that when they grow up they don’t let it happen again.
“I was very young when things happened, but other witnesses were getting old and I helped take care of them and made sure they went to the hearings. That’s when the paramilitares (former soldiers and young sympathizers) started calling us troublemakers, guerrillas, peace mongers,” he said. “An ex-soldier who is now a teacher came up to me in court and told me, ‘why do you tell children something that happened 30 years ago? Why do you slander our heroes? Stop or this will have consequences.’ He wanted things to go away because he was involved. I felt threatened.”
Chavez said his house was burglarized while he was away, but that the thieves only took documents, photographs and the seal from his nonprofit organization. Later, hooded men put a gun to his head, took his mobile phone and notebook. He said he went to the regional authorities and that they offered to protect him. The protection turned out to be surveillance, he said, as they constantly asked him where he had gone and to whom he had spoken during the week.
On May 30 of this year, Chavez and another activist (Cobo) organized a political forum involving candidates for regional government. His companion received a death threat, and that’s when they decided to leave Guatemala. “The electoral campaigns were starting, and we knew things would only get worse,” said Chavez, noting that he learned some activists in the region had been murdered in the previous months.
Standing up to greed
Gaspar Cobo was barely a toddler when the civil war in Guatemala ended, but his parents weren’t spared the consequences. The Cobos were displaced from their land by the army — forced to flee to the mountains — and came back to learn their land had been taken over by the army.
“My father says the houses used to be far apart, but then they came back to a planned subdivision,” Cobo said. He remembers how soldiers continuously harassed the Ixil population, driving by their homes and yelling racial slurs while drinking.
Nowadays, he said, the government isn’t after guerrillas, but it covets Indian land. “Since 2000, there are big multinational companies that have been given exploration and mining licenses in Ixil land, which we oppose,” Cobo said. “In our region, Pemex of Mexico began hydraulic fracturing operations. We got together and opposed them, so they sold their rights to a Guatemalan company.”
Four years ago, the fracking operations resumed and clashes with activists ensued. “We organized resistance. We got some of their people and made them sign papers saying they would stop operations. Then they called me to a meeting and told me ‘what do you want? We’ll give it to you.’ I told them to go ask my people what they wanted, and to give it to them,” he said, saying he interpreted the offer as a bribe.
The company offered “a few” scholarships, which according to Cobo, the tribe quickly declined. And while his environmental activism didn’t bring him death threats, his involvement in the war crimes trials did, he said.
“Things got very difficult starting in 2018. Francisco (Chavez) was one of the youngest witnesses, but the older witnesses needed protection from us younger people because they are harassed by former soldiers, who are violent people. We had to be present at court hearings so they wouldn’t intimidate the witnesses,” Cobo said.
One of his fellow “protectors,” Jacinto David Mendoza was abducted and beaten to death last year. The wife of an activist, an older woman, was gunned down in front of their office. And his brother’s partner, a nurse, was beaten to death in a field, he said.
“She and my brother worked in the same communities as activists. She had a meeting in a town on a Friday and told her father she would be coming home late. She didn’t come. He went to work on his fields the next morning and saw a burlap sack. He thought someone had thrown trash and kept working. Then other people came and gathered around the sack. Inside was his daughter. They beat her with sticks and strangled her with a rope,” Cobo said.
Fear began to run rampant in the activist community, but Cobo and a few others pressed on. On May 30 of this year, they organized a political debate with candidates for public office.
“I asked one of the main candidates about the genocide because he had been saying that it never took place. The other candidate was a relative of Rios Montt. I insisted they addressed the genocide,” Cobo said.
After the forum, Cobo stayed to clean up and when he left, an audience member followed him through several streets. “He caught me and put his hand on my shoulder. I recognized him as a paramilitary sympathizer. He said the soldiers are heroes, so I shouldn’t insult them,” Cobo said. The man then told him he and his family were under surveillance, as were all the members of his group. “He took my hand and placed it on his hip. He had a (metallic) object which may have been a gun. He said that was my last warning.”
Cobo said he feared for his life. He went home, locked himself up for a few days and went to the Human Rights Office. There they told him it’d be difficult to pursue a case in the Guatemalan courts, where the political climate favors right-wing governments now. He said he conferred with fellow activist Chavez and both decided to seek political asylum in the United States.
“We left on the 8th of June. It’s hard to leave our activism and our organization, but we decided to stay alive,” he said.
Spector, their El Paso attorney, said support is growing for the environmental activist and the genocide survivor as people become familiar with what they have endured. Both have received an invitation to be guest speakers at Avila University in Kansas City, Mo., which is run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.