SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador >> The latest flight from Texas loaded with deportees touches down without fanfare. The eighty-seven men and 22 women are taken by bus to the Dirección de Atención al Migrante looking none too happy as immigration officials drone at intervals: “Welcome to your country.”
About three-quarters had been caught by the U.S. Border Patrol trying to cross into the country from Mexico. But about a quarter had been snared by the Trump administration’s roundup of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally — those with criminal records, who had been the primary deportation focus of the Obama administration, and anybody else in the country illegally.
“Although the number of cases we receive is falling, the profile of these people is changing … with an increase in the number of returnees who had lived for years in the U.S.,” said Ana Solórzano, the immigration official in charge of receiving the deportees from the U.S. and Mexico. “We are talking about people who arrive feeling uprooted … with the emotional shock of leaving their family behind and the culture to which they were accustomed.”
Their attachment to America and relative unfamiliarity with their homeland lead to extreme challenges in reintegration in a nation dominated by criminal gangs. Gang violence and killings led many of the deportees to leave El Salvador in the first place. They are often marked upon their return for retribution, shaken down, even kidnapped for ransom, by gang members.
“I doubt that there is any criminal structure in the world that conditions people’s daily lives as gangs do in El Salvador,” said Roberto Valencia, an investigative journalist for El Faro, an award-winning Salvadoran digital newspaper. “These are structures that are very rooted in the communities and generate a lot of violence and much pain.”
The predominant gangs in El Salvador, ironically formed in the U.S. in the 1980s, are Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. There are about 60,000 active gang members in this country of 6.5 million people, according to 2012 estimates, and another 400,000 to 500,000 associates.
The Trump administration has touted its success in rounding up immigrants with criminal records living in the U.S. illegally. A Reuters analysis of immigration data shows that the arrest of those with criminal records has increased 17 percent from January to July.
But the Reuters analysis also shows that the arrest of those without criminal records had increased more than 200 percent during the same period. The administration has also tripled the number of deportation cases it has reopened in the immigration courts against immigrants who had been granted reprieves from deportation by Obama.
A TERRIFYING PROSPECT
At the Salvadoran immigrant assistance building in San Salvador, a recent returnee named José wore blue jeans, a T-shirt and work boots without shoelaces, which were not allowed in the U.S. detention center where he had been held. Emaciated, with a bewildered gaze framed by a scraggly beard, he was waiting for his name to be called to follow the immigration registration process.
José said he was ashamed to provide his last name because he felt that being a “deportado” was a disgrace in a country where those who immigrate to America are typically revered as family saviors. He said he had lived for 12 years in the U.S. and worked construction to support his wife and three American-born children, ages 9, 6 and 9 months old.
In June, he said he was stopped for allegedly running a red light while going home from work in Maryland, setting in motion his deportation.
“I had no chance to defend myself in court, to tell (the judge) that the children depend on me, that I am clean, that the police checked my criminal record and I have never had anything in my life,” he said.
José would be returning to his old neighborhood in the capital’s most violent municipality of Soyapango, which he found a terrifying prospect.
While the country’s gangs have been around for a quarter-century, their visual codes and public behavior have been changing during the past decade in response to a government onslaught. They have significantly changed their image and modus operandi to hinder identification, according to a study by Juan Ricardo Gómez Hecht, a researcher at the College of Advanced Strategic Studies of El Salvador Armed Forces.
The stereotype of the profusely tattooed gang member is becoming a thing of the past, he said. Now, it may be a well-dressed man passing unnoticed on the street who is targeting unsuspecting deportees.
For those who return after years outside the country, the new gang codes are not familiar and could be a death sentence.
What increased during the past decade is crime. In The Economist’s list of the world’s most violent countries by homicides, El Salvador is No. 1 with a rate of 91 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016. Comparatively, the U.S. rate is below six.
Coming back as a deportee after years abroad is almost like “having a tattoo on the forehead,” said Valencia, noting how returnees feel like marked men or women, unable to blend in. They often find themselves subject to both extortion and criminal paranoia.
Valencia said the deportees are “a fresh source” from which gangs can get money through extortion, which is a primary source of funding.
A frequent gang practice is to detain deportees and strip them to search for hidden tattoos or signs that might reveal if they are related to criminal groups abroad.
El Salvadoran officials say they are establishing an inter-agency approach to provide comprehensive care for deportees to help them find jobs and academic opportunities. But migrant advocates say they have thus far seen negligible government assistance for the deportees.
“For those who have been abroad for more than five years, the situation is worst,” said César Ríos, director of the Institute of the Migrant in El Salvador. “They come as a vulnerable population because they come with the stigma of being a deportado.”
Ríos explained that “they are condemned by the society.” Those over 35, as many parent deportees are, he said, cannot find jobs.
“The government is wasting a historic opportunity by not supporting these people, because they come with American skills that could be used as human capital,” he said.
EVEN MORE DIRE IN GUATEMALA
One hundred-fifty miles northwest of San Salvador, in Guatemala City, the capital of Guatemala, recent deportees from the United States have also been victimized by gang violence. In Guatemala City, they receive even less governmental services than in El Salvador. The facilities where they were received at the Guatemalan Airforce Airport appeared dirty and unkempt. A mural on the wall of the receiving room bore a welcoming message in a Mayan language — with spelling mistakes.
As it was in El Salvador, the returnees’ profile is also changing, with many having lived for five years or more in the U.S.
“There isn’t any governmental effort to reduce the emigration because it’s actually convenient for them,” said Guatemalan lawyer Marisa Mejía, a founder of the Center for Guatemalan Migration Research, a private institution located in Guatemala City.
In a country with more than half of the population living below the poverty line, “migrants are seen as a source of remittances; and the more people in poverty leave, the less they have to care about them,” she said.
Many of the deportees had paid so-called coyotes between $7,000 and $9,000 to make the trip across the U.S. border. Most of the deals include up to three attempts.
Going back to America is what deportee Florinda Niz was considering when she was deported from the United States and received at the Guatemalan air force airport in October.
Niz had asked Gustavo Juárez, director of the Asociación de Retornados de Guatemala, an advocacy organization, for help. She said she was driving from Minnesota, where she lived, to Iowa in August for a job contract, when she was detained for speeding and later deported. Authorities found that she was previously removed from the country, she said.
“I want my children with me,” Niz said, wiping tears from her swollen eyes with a corner of her blue cardigan. Her four American-born children, from 1 to 11 years old, were left behind with her sister, who had taken care of them since the day she was detained.
Niz didn’t have money or a place to stay in Guatemala. She was hoping to find an aunt in San Marcos, where she lived before emigrating. It’s one of the most impoverished areas with the highest malnutrition and mortality in the country. It’s also one of the most penetrated by international drug cartels.
While prevalent, gang violence in Guatemala is not as bad as it is in either El Salvador or Honduras.
Poverty, environmental devastation and drug dealing also drive migration from Guatemala, said Enrique Valles Ramos, head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in the country.
Niz said she wanted to find a way to bring her American children to Guatemala. If not, she would go back to the U.S. again. “I know the trip is very risky. I can be raped, I can die, I can be put in prison if I am caught, but I don’t care,” she said. “My children are what matters because I do love them. I am the one who has always taken care of them. And they should stay with their mother.”