Last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein called for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Department of Homeland Security’s detention practices. In December, two children who were detained for attempting to cross the US border died while in government custody. As the department overseeing the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection, the DHS has faced intense scrutiny for its role in these deaths, as well as for the practice of child detention in general. In particular, United Nations human rights experts are investigating whether the children were being held in a type of cell known as a hielera, or “ice box.” These cells are notorious for poor conditions that reportedly include low temperatures, overcrowding, and little access to food or water. The following are accounts from other individuals who have been detained while seeking asylum, as told to attorney Jennie Stepanian.
Juan Pedro Vasquez
Juan Pedro Vasquez worked as a farmer in El Salvador. A notorious gang began coming to his house and demanding an extortion fee. Every two weeks the gang would come to his house and ask for money and threaten Vasquez. For the past two years Vasquez has been paying the gang to protect his family. However, in the fall of 2018 work was scarce and Vasquez could not afford to pay the extortion fee.
Two gang members came to Vasquez’s house and told him directly that if he did not pay the money they would kill him and take away his son. The gang told him he had ten days to get the money. Relocating within El Salvador was not an option because this gang has ties everywhere. Corrupt police officers work in unison with this specific gang and if Vasquez reported the extortion and threats, his life would be in greater danger. With no other options but to flee the country, Vasquez came to the United States and is currently asking for asylum.
Cederic Esteban Camacho
Cederic Esteban Camacho is from a small municipal village in El Salvador. One day in 2017, while he was riding his motorcycle, a hitchhiker flagged him down. Camacho gave the hitchhiker a ride and drove him to his destination, a large ranch. An ex-military rancher that worked for the drug cartel was waiting for them. The rancher put a gun into Camacho’s mouth and told him that he needed to start working for the cartel, ordering him to learn how to operate automatic weapons to kill people as directed. The rancher ripped the inside of his mouth with the gun and ordered him to walk outside the house. He followed the rancher outside, where the rancher wanted to show Camacho how to shoot AK-47s and pistols. When he refused to use the guns, the rancher took him as a prisoner, keeping him captive in a single room.
Eventually Camacho managed to escape, and went into hiding as best he could. He relocated to the capital city, but there was so much violence there as well that he decided to move back to his original house in 2018. However, when he returned, the cartel was waiting for him.
The cartel has threatened Camacho and his family over 70 times in the past year and a half, telling him that they will kill him and his family if he tells the police about the threats. In 2018, while Camacho was in a detention center in the United States, six men riding three motorcycles came to the house and threatened to kill the family when he returned. Mrs. Camacho moved out of the house because her husband was gone and she feared for her life.
Not long after, Camacho was deported back to El Salvador. As soon as he returned home, members of the cartel were waiting for him: They have been terrorizing his family at home, calling his phone and texting him threats. The entire Camacho family lives in fear every hour of every day. Again Camacho traveled to the United States, where he now seeks asylum.
Sergio Garcia and his wife worked for ten years in the same town in Guatemala. His wife was offered a scholarship at the university, and the family decided to take advantage of the scholarship and relocate to El Salvador. While living in El Salvador, Mrs. Garcia graduated from school. When she could not find a job elsewhere, she decided to get involved in politics. The Garcias both joined a political party and started working hard at campaigning. Mr. Garcia was given a high-ranking job within the party.
In November 2018, Mr. Garcia was campaigning for an upcoming election. A member of the opposition party asked him to provide inside information about the voting polls and a job within the party in exchange for money. Mr. Garcia refused to allow a member of the opposition to infiltrate his party or to provide inside information to the opposition. Then the death threats began. The man who wanted to purchase the political position told him, “If you don’t sell me a position as an active deputy, you will die.”
After the election, members of the opposition chased Mr. Garcia on motorcycles and started killing off members of his own political party. One day, Mr. Garcia was home with a friend and they left together to ride their motorcycles into town. As soon as the two friends got on the road, they both observed they were being followed by two men on motorcycles. Mr. Garcia tried to go faster and weave through traffic to lose them, but as he looked behind his shoulder, he got into a traffic accident. As a result, he is now partially disabled.
The police are very corrupt in El Salvador and will not assist Mr. Garcia: They are in favor with the same political party that is currently hunting down Mr. Garcia. Although Mr. Garcia tried to relocate to a small town, the political opposition has ties everywhere. Since Mr. Garcia was chased and injured, he has received continuous news of other friends that were part of the same political party that have been killed by the opposition party. Mr. Garcia came to the United States with his son and now asks for political asylum.
Jose Pedro Ramirez
Jose Pedro Ramirez is 29 years old and is from Guatemala City. Ramirez purchased his home in 2014 from a man named Manuel, who is a wealthy landowner. Manuel’s son is politically connected and his family is very influential in the community. In 2018 a new and very corrupt political party took over the country. Ramirez protested the election: he disagreed with the goals of the political party, and believed that the election was false due to rigged voting ballots. The protest he attended was peaceful, but Manuel saw Ramirez protesting and became upset. Manuel supported the new political group, and wanted to punish Ramirez and make an example out of him. Manuel began to harass Ramirez by breaking the glass windows of the Ramirez family's home and hiring a local gang to threaten violence against them.
Ramirez' wife left the family home because she feared for her life after being threatened by Manuel’s hired thugs multiple times. In March of 2018, Manuel told Ramirez that he cannot tell the police about the men who threatened him with a gun because his son works with the police and Ramirez will be “disappeared” if he tells the police about Manuel’s violence toward him and his family.
Soon after, Ramirez moved out of his house and into a new house in a different part of town. However, gangsters lived in the houses that surrounded the new home. Now the family was far away from Manuel, but the heavy gang presence soon became just as much of a threat. The gangs started to harass and pressure Ramirez’s son into joining their gang. Ramirez raised his son to be religious and his son spoke to him about how nervous the gang was making him feel. He spoke to one of the gang members and asked him to stop pressuring his son into joining the gang, but the gang continued to pursue his son.
Ramirez decided that he would have to leave the area because the gang situation was so bad, but everywhere in Guatemala was facing the same gang violence, extortion, and crime. In September, Ramirez was traveling to his home to pick up a piece of mail when two men riding a motorcycle chased him and started shooting a gun at him. The bullet hit his left arm. The men tried to shoot him again, but Ramirez was able to wrestle the gun out of the hands of the shooter. He went to the police, but the police did nothing to help him because he did not know the shooter’s name.
After the September 2018 attack and shooting, Ramirez and his son decided to leave Guatemala for a place where they would be safe. They now seek asylum in the US.
Arturo Mendez lived in a suburb of Guatemala City. Mendez worked and raised his son in a house that was located next to a bus station where gang members would sell drugs and weapons. He would have to travel into the center of the city to purchase clothes and groceries for his family. The gangsters at the bus station would tell Mendez that they wanted him to work for them and sell illegal contraband for the gang. He refused to join the gang and, as a result, was consistently threatened by gang violence towards him, his young son, and his family.
In April 2018, a gang member came up to Mendez in a restaurant and said that if he did not join the gang they would rob his house. He refused to join the gang. The gang told Mendez that since he “did not care about his house getting robbed, maybe he would care about his son getting hurt.” The gang said that Mendez would have two weeks to make his decision.
Despite this pressure, he still refused to join the gang. One day, a gang member walked up to Mendez in the city and said “your son looks healthy now, but what would your son look like with a finger missing?” The gang member went on to explain that Mendez's son would be dismembered if he did not join the gang. For months, he did not go into the city to buy groceries, or even leave his house, because he was scared for his family’s safety.
In October, Mendez was in a park in the city when a gangster came up to him and said “this is your last warning, either you work for us or your whole family will die.” He took his son and fled the country. Mendez and his son now seek asylum in the US.
Alejandro Jimenez worked in a leather shop owned by his family in a gang infested suburb of a large city in Honduras. Jimenez has been extorted by a notorious gang for the past six years. Gang members would come by the leather shop early in the morning and late at night and ask for money to buy marijuana and demand free gasoline. Additionally, the gang expected la renta (extortion money, 20% of the weekly earnings) from Jimenez’s business. Jimenez diligently paid la renta every week, but the one time he did not pay the extortion fee, he was violently assaulted. In the summer of 2018, Jimenez witnessed a murder of a women in front of his leather shop. The murderers were the same gang that extorted him – after killing the woman, they yelled their gang name and threatened everyone that saw the murder that they would be killed too if they told anyone what they saw. The victim’s three sons were killed months later.
In November, Jimenez could not pay the fee, and, in retaliation, the gang has attacked him in his shop and threatened his life. Jimenez cannot relocate to another part of Honduras because the gang will be upset that he is not paying the extortion fee. Working with corrupt police, they will find him in his new location and threaten him or physically abuse him until he pays the fee they expect. Jimenez left Honduras with his young son and asks for asylum in the US.