EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — A genocide survivor and an environmental activist, both from Guatemala, will get a chance to seek political asylum in the United States, their attorney said.
Francisco Chavez Raymundo, 43, and Gaspar Cobo Corio, 31, were taken into custody by officers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Monday night at the Paso del Norte Bridge, El Paso immigration lawyer Carlos Spector said. On Tuesday, both awaited the results of credible fear interviews to avoid being returned to Mexico.
What makes their entry into the United States remarkable, Spector said, is that CBP hasn’t been receiving asylum seekers in the El Paso Sector since last week because of lack of space at detention centers.
“Normally they would take a number and wait to be called. Their number was 17,000-something and right now they’re on 12,000. They would have to wait six to 12 months for the initial audience. We decided to bring them straight to the bridge saying they don’t need to be part of MPP because it’s not that they’re afraid of crime in Mexico; they’ve already been victims of crime in Mexico,” Spector said.
MPP refers to Migrant Protection Protocols, which means a migrant who shows up at the U.S. border seeking political asylum is made to wait for a hearing in Mexico.
“Nowadays it’s a victory for a lawyer to get their client arrested and jailed. At least now they’re in the system and we’ll have the opportunity to ask for their release here in El Paso,” Spector said, referring to the backlog in pending cases that made CBP suspend calling new asylum seekers here.
Persecuted in Guatemala, victimized in Mexico
According to the letter Spector gave CBP officials on Monday night, Chavez and Cobo are internationally recognized human rights activists and Maya-Ixil Indians who suffered persecution at the hands of the Guatemalan military.
Chavez in 1982 survived the massacre of 32 Maya-Ixils — including his father — during an army raid of his village. Chavez, 6 years old at the time, and his 3-year-old sister were taken to a military camp where they spent the next six years of their lives.
According to the letter, Chavez later testified in the genocide and crimes-against-humanity trial of Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, who led a military coup in Guatemala in 1982 that resulted in the persecution of the Mayas.
Spector says Chavez has remained active in denouncing crimes against the Maya-Ixils and fled Guatemala after receiving threats from people close to that country’s military.
Cobo, on the other hand, is an environmental activist who had been trying to stop the expansion of mining operations in Indian lands when he, too was threatened.
“Gaspar became afraid when a friend of his, a student, was beaten to death and then he himself was threatened,” Spector said. “The political environment in Guatemala is terrible.”
Pamela Yates, a filmmaker who has spent 35 years in Guatemala, said 26 activists have been killed in the past year, including 12 since January. Yates wrote a letter in support of the activists’ asylum claim.
“(They) are survivors of the genocide and Francisco was one of the key eye-witnesses in the Rios Montt genocide case. His testimony as a survivor of the genocide was really critical. And Gaspar had family members killed during the genocide. Both of these men have been very active in seeking justice on behalf of their families and they were very successful … they remained active as human rights and environmental defenders and because of all of their successes they are being targeted now,” Yates said. “Many times when you fight impunity and you are very successful, impunity fights back.”
But the road to political asylum in the United States leads through Mexico, and there the two activists were victimized by the police and smugglers, according to the letter.
On June 13, while they were being transported in a van to the U.S.-Mexico border, a police officer in Parral, Chihuahua, stopped, robbed and threatened them with further harm if they discussed the incident. In Juarez, they spent more than a month locked in a safe house run by migrant smugglers, hardly being fed or given water, according to Spector.
“They told them not to try to leave because they didn’t know the city and they would be found right away and then harmed. They escaped anyway and, thank God, found a migrant shelter,” the lawyer explained.
The letter to CBP says Chavez and Cobo tried to file a formal complaint with Juarez police over the robbery that occurred in Parral, Mexico. However, Spector said Juarez police refused to take down the report, told them “it was impossible” that a fellow cop would try to extort them and threatened to arrest them for confessing to trying to bribe a police officer. The two ended up filing a complaint with the State Human Rights Commission in Juarez on July 19.
Police corruption and cartel presence
The complaint states that on June 13 the van carrying Chavez, Cobo, four other Guatemalan men and three women was stopped by police in a Parral gas station and that the officer demanded money from the migrants under the threat of calling the Mexican immigration agency. The officer used racial slurs against the group of men and women with indigenous features, took some money from them and only left when the driver called for backup and men with guns arrived to “make arrangements” with the officer.
The migrants were placed in a “safe house” — in this case, an abandoned property with no roof and told not to leave. They weren’t fed and drank water from a tap. When they asked for food, one of their keepers told them to stop complaining of they would “disappear,” according to the complaint with the Human Rights office.
Chavez and Cobo decided to escape after several weeks, hiding in a Juarez church and being directed to a migrant shelter, where they sought a way to present their asylum claim. The complaint further states that the pair went to a police station to document the robbery suffered in Parral, but that a female officer said she didn’t believe them and a male officer who was beating a handcuffed suspect told them to either leave or face charges. The pair left.
“They were assaulted by police in Mexico and insulted for their Indian ethnicity. They were also called f—– Indians by the smugglers. So that’s persecution based on who you are,” Spector said. “And who are these men? These men are who I consider superheroes who were run out of their country for being activists in support of the protection of their environment, their homelands and human rights.'”