The teen whose arms had been severed was still in shock, but he managed to muster a smile and embrace visitors with his bandaged stumps. Evilio Gonzalez had fallen off and then under a train he was riding on — a vain attempt to leave Honduras, cross through Mexico and get into the United States.
I met Evilio 10 years ago, while I was a reporter based in Latin America for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Cox Newspapers chain. Catholic nuns at the eight-bed Rosa de Tepeyac Hospital in Mexico City were caring for the youth’s wounds and shattered spiritual health. Among others in the clinic was Edgar Suniga, 14, whose left leg had been severed.
“Compared to what Jesus Christ suffered, this is nothing,” Evilio told me, demonstrating how the nuns were helping him learn to draw with his toes.
That same year, in Guatemala City, I also met Drik Borgan Godoy de Leon, a teen who spoke of his struggle to extricate himself from a gang. The 18-year-old was shot dead, just two months after our interview. I also met in Sandra Zayas, a beleaguered special prosecutor of crimes against women and children. One of her cases involved the murder of two Guatemalan sisters, 11 and 14, who were chopped to pieces because the elder sister spurned a gangster’s advances.
Since I reported those stories, the grip that organized crime has on Central American countries has tightened further. Justice systems remain notoriously incapable of handing the crisis.The region has a long history of stark inequality, dictatorships and brutal civil wars that led to massacres of many poor inhabitants, including mass killings of Guatamala's Maya native people in the 1980s. The United States invested billions in military spending during that time to support select regimes in the area and is now financing drug war efforts there.
Many of the minors who are now turning themselves in at the U.S.-Mexico border speak of joining parents in “El Norte,” or talk of how they dream of finding a job. But more and more are now speaking of the horror at seeing friends and relatives killed, raped, extorted and the pressure they receive to serve gangs — or else.
Here is some illuminating information about deteriorating conditions in Central America, long in the making, and the U.S. debate over how to deal with the influx of minors showing up at the border.
A Syracuse University project known as TRAC released a report this week analyzing more than 100,000 juvenile cases filed in the nation’s immigration courts over the last 10 years. Only 43 percent of kids in these cases were or are currently represented by lawyers who help plead for asylum or another form of legal status, according to TRAC, the acronym for the university’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Immigration courts are clogged with backlogs, but juvenile cases only represent about 11 percent of all cases currently pending.
Kids, like adults, do not have the right to the appointment of attorney in immigration proceedings.
But TRAC found that having a lawyer increased the odds that kids would win their claims against deportation: In cases that have been resolved, nearly half the children who had attorneys — 47 percent — were allowed to remain in the United States. When children did not have legal representation, courts allowed only one in 10 to remain here.
A group of civil rights advocates filed suit this month arguing that it is an unconstitutional violation of due process not to provide minors with legal representation in immigration hearings, as the Center for Public Integrity reported.