Photo Credit: David Peinado Romero/Shutterstock

I met Francisco Chávez and Gaspar Cobo through a colleague and advocate for migrants’ and refugees’ human rights who works in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The two of them had fled Guatemala in June 2019. Travelling with a larger group of Central Americans going north, it took them twenty days to traverse Mexico. En route, they were robbed and threatened by local police and criminal gang members. Crossing the border at El Paso, Texas, they surrendered to US authorities in order to file a claim for asylum, based on persecution in their home country.

The two men had arrived at a time when the United States, at the direction of President Trump, was trying to eviscerate the US asylum system through the implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, which had virtually stopped the flow of asylum seekers from Central America. This policy, instituted in January 2019, allowed US border officers to return non-Mexican asylum seekers to dangerous locations in Mexico while they waited for the court hearing.

After processing Francisco and Gaspar in America, U.S. authorities returned them to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. There they were told to wait until their case could be heard. They were two of the roughly 70,000 people forced to return to Mexico to await court hearings as part of the MPP. Ciudad Juarez was a risky place to wait. In November 2020, they again became the target of a Mexican cartel who extorted them, threatening their lives, demanding money. According to Human Rights First, as of May 13, 2020, there had been at least 1,114 publicly reported cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults against asylum seekers and migrants forced to return to Mexican border towns.

At the time, both Francisco and Gaspar were internationally recognized Maya-Ixil human rights leaders. Each had suffered persecution at the hands of the Guatemalan military and survived a thirty-six year armed conflict that had pitted left wing guerillas against government forces. This civil war, which had lasted from 1960 until a peace accord in 1996, left more than 200,000 people dead, most of them Guatemalans of Mayan descent.

In 1982, when Francisco was six years old, he survived the massacre of thirty-two Maya-Ixils during an army raid in his village. Francisco recalled joining his father to pick up the bodies and bury them. After that, he and his family realized they could not stay there: “We left my community, but all surroundings were already occupied by the military. When my father took us to the mountains, we were captured, and it was then that the Guatemalan army killed my father.”

Francisco and his three-year-old sister were taken to a military base, where he witnessed the torture and murder of his people: “There were around seventy children just like me that survived the same way I did. Many of them were put up for adoption.” Francisco and his sister were rescued by a group of priests and nuns who opened an orphanage. It was six years before their mother was able to find them.

When Francisco returned to his community, he encountered other people who were also survivors. “We were talking about our needs, in the sense that we almost had nothing at that point,” he said. Francisco joined with others in five neighboring communities to found an organization called Committee of Orphans for the Internal Armed Conflict. Later, aided by the Center for Forensic Analysis and Applied Sciences in Guatemala, they started a process to exhume the bodies of family members who were murdered by the army. This allowed them to bury their relatives according to their traditions and to achieve emotional closure.

Francisco and his organization were part of a broader movement for human rights in search of transitional justice in Guatemala. After many years of organizing, this movement led to the 2013 trial of former General Efrain Rios Montt, who was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity following a 1982 military coup that resulted in the persecution of many Mayan communities. Francisco testified alongside other human rights activists in this historic trial.

Rios Montt was convicted and sentenced to eighty years in prison. While a landmark in human rights law, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala quickly overturned the conviction. (Montt would die of a heart attack in 2018 at the age of 91, a free man to the end.)

Gaspar represents a younger generation of Mayan environmental and human rights activists. “I belong to the Maya Ixil indigenous people, one of the populations that were almost exterminated during the Guatemalan armed conflict,” he told me. Gaspar reported that there had been 114 massacres registered around his and neighboring communitiesbetween 1979 and 1985. The Guatemala Memory of Silence, a report by the Commission for Historical Clarification, counted at least 344 massacres in the El Quiché department (region), where Gaspar’s and Francisco’s communities are located.

Gaspar feels grateful to be one of the young people in his community who have had an opportunity to study. “Not at such a high academic level because as indigenous peoples, we have been historically marginalized,” he clarifies. From an early age he was taught the value of respect for the environment and indigenous traditions: “As I was growing up, I was really understanding the value of nature and the value of human life. So this is how I started to get involved in the fight to defend the territory, and also in the fight to defend human rights.”

Francisco and his family had once owned a piece of land, but it was lost in the Civil War of the 1980s. Gaspar’s family suffered a similar fate. “My dad lost a lot of his land during that time,” he told me. During the Civil War in the late Seventies and early Eighties, an important part of the Guatemalan government counterinsurgency program was the creation of “development pole” settlements in which people displaced by violence from different communities came to live together. In these concentrated villages they could be controlled and supervised by Armed Civilian Patrols and the military forces; therefore, the state could avoid guerrilla incursions. Gaspar was born in one of the “development poles” villages that were established in the Ixil region.

For these communities, the signature of the Peace Accords on December 29, 1996 did not mean the end of persecution and dispossession. The militarization of the Ixil region during the conflict continued through the surveillance of the development poles by the Armed Civilian Patrols, and it supported the deployment of climate-destructive industries financed by international capital (such as mining and extractives industries and the construction of dams and hydroelectric facilities).

Starting in 2010, Gaspar and other community organizers embarked on a campaign of direct action, blocking roads and filing law suits against the transnational companies threatening to despoil indigenous lands. These attempts to help indigenous communities defend their ancestral land were increasingly met with violence. In 2018, the year before Gaspar and Francisco fled Guatemala, eighteen indigenous land activists were assassinated, according to the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala.

The ongoing militarization of the Maya-Ixil region by the army and paramilitary forces has served to protect the interest of transnational corporations, which are able to work with total impunity. A report by the international human rights organization Global Witness, entitled “Defending Tomorrow: The Climate Crisis and Threats against Land and Environmental Defenders”, states that Latin America is the most dangerous region in the world for environmental activists and land defenders.

Global Witness notes that industries such as mining, carbon-intensive oil, gas and coal projects, production of palm oil and sugar, large-scale agriculture, and dam construction are connected to more than two-thirds of the 148 murders of environmental activists took place in Latin America in 2019 (with 12 in Guatemala). The report also found that indigenous people are at a disproportionate risk of reprisal. (In Guatemala, indigenous people constitute around 40% of the country’s population.)

Gaspar became frightened, and ultimately decided to leave the country, when his brother was mistaken for him and was nearly beaten to death. Gaspar is aware that “with the economic power [that companies] have, they buy mercenaries (ex-military agents) and use them to harass and investigate our movements. [T]he most complicated thing is that those mercenaries, those former paramilitaries, organize groups of young people from our own communities. They train them to follow us, to investigate us; mainly to harass us. That is the method they have used.”

Francisco describes another episode in which one of his colleagues was shot in the head. “He survived – but I do not want to be left out in a coma,” he told me.

The dangers to activists were confirmed shortly after they fled from Guatemala, when their close friend Benito María – an environmental activist, land, and human rights defender – was murdered in the summer of 2020 by armed men who ambushed his vehicle in the highlands.

When I started speaking to Francisco and Gaspar, they were asylum seekers stranded at the US-Mexico border. Their stories of political persecution at the hands of the Guatemalan military and other economic forces are the result of their environmental and human rights activism to defend their land, their territory, their traditions, and their communities from historic mechanisms of exclusion and dispossession.

Their testimonies showcase the current global forces of accumulation by dispossession coupled with a history of persecution that did not end with the signature of the Peace Accords in 1996.

In November 2020, after 17 months in Ciudad Juárez, Francisco and Gaspar succeeded in entering the United States. They then spent more than two months in a detention center. But in February 2021 they were finally released in February 2021. They are now living in El Paso, Texas, where they wait for their asylum cases to be adjudicated.

For many asylum seekers stranded in Mexico, there was a sense of relief when in February 2021 the Biden Administration announced an end to the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

But while Francisco and Gaspar are now able pursue their asylum cases in the United States, many asylum seekers aren’t as lucky. In 2021, approximately 25,000 asylum seekers are still in Mexico, waiting for admission to the U.S.

Note on Sources:

I conducted in-depth interviews with Gaspar and Francisco as part of the Student Award for Excellence in Climate, Environmental Justice or Sustainability 2020 granted by the Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School. I use their names because part of Francisco’s and Gaspar’s strategy has been to make their cases visible which can help in their asylum case in the US and can also help protect their communities back home.

For more information about Francisco and Gaspar as asylum seekers strained at the border, listen to EPISODE THREE: TRUMP’S WAR ON ASYLUM, a podcast co-hosted by Alex Aleinikoff and Deb Amos and produced by the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at The New School.

You can also contribute and learn more of Francisco and Gaspar and their struggle via GoFundMe.

Mónica Salmón Gómez is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Sociology at the New School for Social Research and is a Research Assistant at the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility.