It looked like Francisco (not his real name) was going to be one of the lucky ones. The twenty-five-year-old Guatemalan had fled his own country after members of a drug cartel threatened him. He arrived at the Mexico-U.S. border in April 2019, a time when the Trump administration was pushing hard to deny asylum to Central Americans. Despite this, he surrendered to Border Patrol agents, requested asylum, and had three interviews in the United States so that his claim could be assessed. He was scheduled for a fourth and final interview, which would have determined whether he’d be granted asylum. “I put all my possessions in my backpack,” he said. He left the church where he was staying in Nuevo Laredo and prepared to cross the border for the interview. “Everything looked good.” And then everything fell apart.
In Guatemala, Francisco was a “Promoter of Culture,” traveling to the 110 communities in Alta Verapaz, a mountainous region in northern Guatemala. “I was a teacher of indigenous culture,” he said. “I talked to them about tourism, we played sports in the afternoons.” The locals came to trust him. And then they started telling him about the murders.
The Zetas, a brutally violent Mexican cartel, moved into Alta Verapaz in 2007. They took over the production and distribution of drugs, began controlling prostitution, kidnapped and extorted businesses, and murdered members of other cartels. As they solidified their hold on the region, they also wanted land. “They wanted it for cocaine, for marijuana, for airstrips,” Francisco said. He showed me a short video about a man who refused to give up his land: he was found hacked to death.
Francisco had a friend in the police, someone he trusted. So when local residents told Francisco the names of some of the murderers in the cartel, he shared those names with his friend. Arrests were made. Soon other policemen found out it was Francisco who had provided the information, and at least one of these policemen was working for the Zetas. The first indication that the cartel knew about Francisco was a phone call. “They threatened to kill me,” he said. Soon after that they delivered a stronger warning. “They drove by and shot at my house. Two or three bullets shattered a window.” Four days later, on February 21, 2018, Francisco left his pregnant wife and small child. “I was afraid for them but the problem was with me,” he continued. “I left alone because we did not have enough money.”
At least 400,000 Central Americans, the vast majority from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, enter Mexico each year. Most enter irregularly, crossing the Río Suchiate (the border between Guatemala and Mexico) on rafts. Francisco entered Mexico at an immigration checkpoint, using his student ID and telling the immigration agents he was entering so he could finish his thesis. “I told them it was about immigration,” he said.
The journey through Mexico can be extremely dangerous. Central American refugees have been robbed, kidnapped, and raped with impunity by the cartels, gangs, local thugs, and sometimes even the police. Making his way by bus and on foot, Francisco was able to avoid the worst of these dangers, but not all them. “In Palenque, the Municipal Police stole my phone,” he said, “and in Villahermosa the Federales robbed me of 700 pesos. The police are worse than thieves.”
Francisco arrived in Mexico City in May 2018, and stayed in a shelter for four months. He briefly worked as a hospital janitor before being hired as a guard in the shelter. The following spring he decided to head north to the U.S. border and request asylum.