A Human Rights Watch investigation has found that more than 100 people were killed after deportation from the United States to El Salvador, affirming media and immigration watchdog claims that Central American deportees have met violent deaths.
Using press reports, court documents, as well as interviews with victims’ families and authorities, researchers with Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented 138 people killed between 2013 and 2019 after being deported. Of these, 81 were killed within a year of their return to El Salvador, 15 others killed within two years, and the rest within five years, according to a 117-page report titled “Deported to Danger" published in February 2020.
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In the report, HRW documented patterns in the cases, including that several had been threatened by El Salvador’s violent street gangs prior to their removal from the United States. A man identified only as Jose Miguel C. told HRW investigators that his nephew Joaquín fled to the United States after being threatened by MS13 gang members. Joaquín was killed in 2017, the same year he was deported, his uncle told investigators, adding that “Joaquín always said the [MS13 members] would try to kill him again.”
Also in 2017, a 25-year-old man was killed the same day he was deported from El Salvador. Gang members had tried to kill him two years earlier, police told HRW.
Long-term US residents who were deported faced particular dangers because they were more likely to refuse to pay extortion demands, or to report gang threats to authorities, according to the report. Gang members were extorting 43-year-old Carlos Alberto Garay when he was shot dead by gunmen who stopped his pickup in 2015, according to the report and an article by La Prensa Gráfica.
Another man, identified as Jacinto K., returned to El Salvador with his wife and 15-year-old son after he received a removal order from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Shortly after Jacinto’s return, MS13 gang members began to extort a small business he opened, he told HRW investigators in 2014. Though he worried he wouldn’t be able to keep paying the “renta,” he said he felt relatively safe. Two weeks after investigators interviewed him, he was gunned down in broad daylight.
Former police officials were targeted after being deported. For example, a local female police officer was killed after she sought asylum in the United States, according to her cousin who spoke with HRW investigators. Her cousin said US officials had rejected her credible fear interview, the first step to asylum. In 2017, she was found dead, with gunshot wounds to her stomach and skull.
Six deportees were also allegedly killed by local police or death squads, according to the report.
The human rights group criticized US authorities for turning a “blind eye to the reality that people deported by the United States to El Salvador had lost their lives.” Many deportees had sought safety in the United States only to be “returned directly back to the violence they originally feared,” the report states.
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The HRW report makes starkly clear the immediate consequences of the United States rejecting asylum claims and deporting migrants without fully considering the dangers they face back home - the same dangers they were seeking to escape from.
The trouble, as the report points out, is that it’s nearly impossible to understand the full scope of the problem.
“We know it’s an undercount,” Alison Parker, the US managing director for Human Rights Watch, told InSight Crime.
Authorities in El Salvador also often fail to denote whether a murder victim was deported. Police and prosecutors have limited resources, making it nearly impossible to properly investigate each case in a small country that ranks as one of the deadliest in Latin America. Also, victims’ family members are often reluctant to tell authorities that their loved one was deported, because of a stigma that only criminals are returned, Parker said.
Meanwhile, no US agency tracks murdered deportees, Parker said. In the HRW report, there are few details about the reasons for deportation in each case, though some people were removed for committing crimes in the United States or for alleged gang ties. The report also does not detail whether all the deportees had applied for asylum.
“Nobody is watching this situation,” Parker said.
Since 2014, tens of thousands of migrants from the Northern Triangle Countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have arrived at the United States’ southwestern border each year, according to US Customs and Border Protection figures. Many are families and unaccompanied children fleeing poverty and violence, or looking to be reunited with loved ones. Many have also sought US asylum, based on threats from street gang members, police officers, or their husbands or partners.
US immigration law, however, limits who is eligible for asylum. To be eligible, asylum seekers must belong to a particular social group and be persecuted because of their identity, race, religion or political beliefs. For this reason, it has always been a legal challenge for people fleeing gangs or domestic violence to receive asylum.
In the past, however, immigration judges were given latitude to take into account the particulars of a case, including if the asylum seekers were teenage boys who had resisted gang recruitment and witnessed crimes, or if they were teenage girls who had been threatened with rape by gang members. And immigration law had opened up slightly to claims that domestic violence victims had a basis to claim asylum.
That has all come to an end with the administration of President Donald Trump, which has tightened asylum rules to make it harder to gain entry to the United States by citing fear of gangs or domestic violence, according to the HRW report. The administration has also forced asylum seekers to wait out their court proceedings in dangerous Mexico border towns and signed a “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala, meaning that migrants traveling through the Central American country would first have to pursue asylum there. The US has sought similar asylum deals with El Salvador and Honduras.
On their journey to the United States, Central American migrants are frequent targets of criminal gangs. While waiting out their asylum claims in Mexico, they have continued to be threatened with violence, and subject to kidnapping and extortion.
Whether El Salvador’s deportees faced greater dangers when they were returned is hard to assess, Parker said, but it is possible.
“They may well be at a heightened risk, because they have already been targeted,” she said. “If you fled and go back, you will come to the attention of the gang very quickly, and any attempt to relocate will create a whole new set of risks.”