Guatemalan activists freed from ICE detention

Immigration

Genocide survivor and tribal lands defender to continue advocacy for Maya Ixil people while waiting for asylum hearings in El Paso

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The saga of two Guatemalan activists victimized in two countries and denied lawful entry into the United States has taken an unexpected turn.

Gaspar Cobo, 32, and Francisco Chavez, 45, were recently released from a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility and allowed to continue asylum claims safe in El Paso, their lawyer said.

The two returned to the U.S. in November, literally running from a drug cartel in Juarez, Mexico. They had been sent to Mexico in 2019 after filing asylum claims and being placed in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program. Their claim is based on death threats received in Guatemala stemming from Chavez’s testimony of an army massacre in an Indian village in 1982 and Cobo’s activism against the ongoing exploitation of Maya Ixil lands in Guatemala.

The law office of Carlos Spector and various nonprofits in El Paso and Juarez assisted Cobo and Chavez during their wait. However, like many asylum-seekers staying in dangerous Mexican border cities, the pair became the target of Mexican gangs.

In November, “they became the target of a Mexican cartel who extorted them, threatening their lives, demanding money. The cartel even texted them a map pinpointing where the two were living. Again, they were forced to flee, changing residences and leaving their jobs,” Spector’s office said.

The pair in June 2019 had already allegedly been robbed by police in Parral, Mexico, abandoned by smugglers in a Juarez stash house and threatened by police for “slandering” their colleagues.

Like he did in 2019, Spector said he took them to a U.S. port of entry where they passed a credible fear interview. This time, they were not returned to Mexico, but were placed in an ICE detention facility for more than two months.

“This is as significant a case as I’ve ever had in my long career as an immigration attorney. It is an honor to provide these incredibly brave human rights activists legal representation as a means to advance their efforts to seek justice for the Maya Ixil people,” Spector said.

El Paso immigration attorney Carlos Spector (left) and Giovanni Batz, affiliate faculty member at New Mexico State University, discuss the case of Gaspar Cobo and Francisco Chavez. (photo from Zoom)

Appearing on a Zoom video call, the pair said they’re ready to resume their activism, albeit remotely.

“I came here not to seek a better life for myself, but to save my own life and call attention to what is happening in Guatemala,” Cobo said. “There is impunity. Yes, we have a justice system, but it’s sold out to national and international companies bent on exploiting us and our lands.”

Cobo, who in addition to his environmental activism took it upon himself to protect people like Chavez — survivors of army massacres in the 1980s — left after receiving a direct death threat following the murder of a fellow activist. The threat, he said, came from those trying to erase all traces of army abuses in Mayan communities in the 1980s.

Chavez was 6 when the army killed many of the men in his village and took him and his little sister captive. In a previous interview, he described how he clung to his sister to prevent soldiers giving her up for adoption at a camp. His testimony of the massacre was part of the evidence that convicted former Guatemalan President Efrain Rios Mont of war crimes.

“Friends of Rios Mont and the state want to deny there was genocide. I left to save my life but I will continue fighting for justice from exile,” he said on the Zoom call.

The pair are starring in online meetings of Indigenous groups fighting for human rights and the environment in Maya Ixil lands.

Chavez and Cobo describe their detention as “painful” and “psychological torture.”

“The treatment is humiliating. They don’t want your here. They wish you had never crossed their path,” Chavez said. “You have no choice but to endure that until you are free.”

Giovanni Batz, Presidential Post-Doctoral Fellow at UC-Davis and affiliate faculty member at New Mexico State University, said the government of Guatemala has a history of corruption and acquiescence to domestic and foreign commercial interests.

“With the Biden administration we are at another crucial political junction in terms of American policy in Central America,” Batz said. “Biden is talking about a $4 billion investment in Central America to curb migration. But while drug-traffickers and gang-bangers exist in Central America, we also have to look at state-sponsored violence, at the persecution of Indigenous leaders. It’s very dangerous for anyone to stand up against impunity and corruption in the government.”

He said that instead of funding further militarization in Guatemala to prevent migration, Biden should empower local communities and organizations.

“There should be no criminalization of migrants, no militarization of the region,” he said. “The U.S. government pressures Mexico into repressing migrants from Central America, then presses Guatemala into repressing carvans from Honduras and El Salvador.”

Spector agrees that sending money to Central American regimes with a questionable track record isn’t enough to quell the surge in migration.

“The best way to stop migration is not to send money to the government but to support civil organizations in Guatemala who are fighting for the future of their country, to let them know they have our support,” Spector said.

He also urged better communication with grassroots communities.

“There’s a lot of confusion as to who qualifies for asylum. Having economic or violence problems doesn’t mean you will get in or qualify for asylum,” he said. “You must talk to a lawyer before coming so as to not be incarcerated by ICE and then expelled to Mexico, which can be just as bad.”

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