SAN SALVADOR — The threats from MS-13 had become incessant. There were handwritten letters, phone calls and text messages that all said the same thing: The gang was preparing to kill Ronald Acevedo.
His family pieced together a plan. They paid a smuggler to take Acevedo to the United States border. It was April 2017, three months after Donald Trump was inaugurated. The family believed that Acevedo could convince anyone, even the new president, that returning to El Salvador meant certain death. The country had the world’s highest murder rate. Acevedo had already been stabbed once.
“They already kill my friends, and they are going to do the same to me,” he said, according to his asylum application.
The plan didn’t work. After eight months in detention, Acevedo, 20, abruptly withdrew his asylum claim, reversing course and telling an immigration judge, “I don’t have any fear” of returning to El Salvador.
He was deported to El Salvador on Nov. 29, 2017. He disappeared on Dec. 5, 2017, and his body was later found in the trunk of a car, wrapped in white sheets. An autopsy showed signs of torture.
His family says that he expressed a willingness to return to El Salvador only after immigration officers told him that he had no chance of gaining asylum and could spend many more months in detention.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) did not respond to the family’s allegations that immigration officials dissuaded him from continuing his asylum case but said in a statement that it had a legal obligation to hold him in detention.
“ICE’s detention authority is based in the furtherance of an alien’s immigration proceedings, and if so ordered, their removal from the country,” the agency said.
Acevedo’s relatives spoke on the condition that his full name not be used, out of fear for their safety. (The Washington Post is using only part of his name.) In a series of interviews, they discussed his asylum application and provided letters, Facebook messages and official documents outlining what happened to him. The Post also obtained transcripts of the proceedings and asylum documents through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Acevedo’s case made its way through American immigration courts just as the White House launched attempts to reduce the number of people who are eligible for asylum, a protection that for nearly 70 years had served to shield victims of war and persecution. The Trump administration has said that asylum claims are often concocted to secure residency for the undeserving.
But some of those denied asylum are sent back to countries where their lives are put in immediate danger.
In at least a handful of cases, asylum seekers were killed in Central America after being deported during the Obama administration. The number of those facing the same fate under the Trump administration is just beginning to emerge. In addition to Acevedo, The Post has identified another asylum seeker, Miguel Panameño, who was killed this year, months after being deported to El Salvador. He is buried in the same cemetery as Acevedo.
Immigration lawyers in the United States believe many more cases exist. Some nongovernmental groups have made efforts to track the number of deaths, but there are no official mechanisms to catalogue them.
Others who are deported after failed asylum bids go into hiding, moving to unfamiliar parts of the country where they hope the gangs won’t find them.
U.S. Justice Department spokesman Steven J. Stafford said in a statement that the Trump administration is “doing exactly what we are supposed to do: executing the laws written by Congress and bringing precedents in line with those laws.”
The number of people applying for asylum in the United States has increased steadily over the past four years, as has the number of people denied asylum. Last year, 120,000 migrants made asylum claims in U.S. immigration courts, a fourfold increase from 2014. The denial rate rose from 25.9 percent in 2014 to 41.3 percent in 2018, according to figures released by the Justice Department in October. Trump’s attempts to redefine the asylum process have accelerated in recent months, and many advocates worry that the percentage of grantees could fall even further in coming years.
Here in El Salvador, where even government officials concede that the country has drifted from state control, experts worry more asylum denials could lead to more targeted killings. In a nation of 6.5 million, the government estimates that more than half a million Salvadorans are involved with gangs. They often target minors and women, killing their victims with machetes.
Between 2012 and 2017, the United States denied asylum to 12,300 Salvadorans and deported them.
“These are people who have no other option but to leave the country,” said Fátima Ortiz, the director of the Salvadoran Justice Department’s victims unit. “They can try to leave their municipalities, but, often, the gangs will find them.”
In the statement, Stafford denied that the government is deporting asylum seekers back to danger.
“Those who cannot show that they meet the legal criteria are not eligible to receive asylum,” he said. “Our asylum system is extremely generous — so generous, in fact, that it has been abused by tens of thousands of illegal aliens who have been released into the United States while their cases were pending and subsequently failed to file asylum applications or even show up for their hearings.”
Acevedo knew the men who wanted him dead — boys, really. They had gone to middle school together, where groups of friends suddenly morphed into deadly gangs. He told his mother he had worked as a lookout a few times, a 16-year-old with a cellphone, keeping an eye out for teenage rivals. He hadn’t refused the gang’s calls because he thought resistance would have posed its own threat.
“[If] I refused, they were going to kill me or kill my family members,” he said on his asylum application in June.
His family isn’t sure why gangs turned on Acevedo. According to those who have investigated the group, even a minor slight can lead to death threats in El Salvador’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods. In his asylum interviews, Acevedo said the fact that he had fled El Salvador would itself make him a target: “Because I went ahead and I took off, I’m not helping them anymore,” he explained to the asylum officer, according to the transcript.
Acevedo was open with the asylum officer and immigration judge about his time working as a lookout for MS-13. He said he had no other choice but to work as an informant, “telling them when the police agencies and the military were approaching the neighborhood.”
This became a prominent factor in his hearings in the United States. In a statement, ICE called Acevedo a “self-admitted MS-13 gang member,” but El Salvador’s national police provided a certified document stating that he did not have a criminal record in the country.
Many of those fleeing gang violence first attempt to disappear in another part of El Salvador before leaving the country. Last year, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center reported that at least 296,000 people were displaced by violence, extortion and other threats in El Salvador. But MS-13 had, at least in some cases, tracked them down.
“They have connections everywhere,” Acevedo said in his credible fear interview, the first step in establishing a legitimate asylum case in the United States. “If you go to another zone they will know.”
Those threats can pass between family members, as they did in the wake of Acevedo’s death. Someone posted a handwritten letter on the family’s front door, with the gang’s name on the top right corner: “You have 24 hours to leave the neighborhood.”
‘Authorities can’t protect me’
When Acevedo crossed the border illegally into Arizona in April 2017, he turned himself in to the first immigration officer he could find. That’s what his smuggler had instructed him to do, according to government documents signed by the Border Patrol.
His family couldn’t afford a lawyer where he was detained, at the Eloy Detention Center, south of Phoenix. The government is not required to provide lawyers to asylum seekers, and many lack legal representation. He had a brief meeting with the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project, a nonprofit that sends lawyers free of charge to meet with detainees to explain the asylum process.
“What I can say is he expressed a genuine fear of return,” said Laura St. John, the project’s legal director.
After that meeting, Acevedo got to work on his own asylum case.
“I need to explain to the judge what the situation is in the country with the gangs and that the authorities can’t protect me,” he wrote in a letter sent in June to his mother, Brenda.
His tone shifted between confidence and creeping doubt that his adolescent connections to MS-13 were going to stand in the way of his asylum claim.
“I don’t want to hear any more about my past and my mistakes,” he wrote in another letter.
“I beg your forgiveness with all of my heart,” he wrote in the same letter.
The United States has honed its asylum law since World War II, adapting its requirements to conflicts around the globe, from which those fleeing violence or persecution set out for American borders. During the Cold War, there were Soviet defectors. There were Iranians after the Iranian revolution in 1979. There were Cubans during the decades of the Castro regime.
El Salvador over the past decade has faced a growing threat from organized criminal groups. MS-13, which was born in American prisons, was exported here with deportees. The gang took over more and more ground, including Acevedo’s neighborhood in San Salvador, called Soyapango. The situation in both El Salvador and Honduras, which is also reckoning with gang violence, grew so dire that then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson warned Trump in a letter last October of what could happen to deportees.
“In the case of El Salvador and Honduras, both countries continue to have some of the world’s highest homicide rates, and weak law enforcement capabilities and inadequate government service will make it difficult for their respective governments to ensure the protection of returning citizens,” Tillerson wrote.
‘Be his woman’ or die
During Trump’s nearly two years in office, MS-13 has remained an enormous threat. Acevedo was part of a surge in asylum seekers from El Salvador who, upon being deported from the United States, landed at the San Salvador airport and tried to figure out how to stay alive.
Paola and Marina, both originally from San Salvador, crossed the border into the United States separately not long after Acevedo, in late 2017 and early 2018. Like Acevedo, they watched as their neighborhoods were overtaken by gangs, and fleeing felt like the only option.
Paola, 20, had crossed into the United States with her parents and younger siblings in August. When she turned herself in to border officials, Paola told a U.S. asylum officer in South Texas why she was afraid of the most powerful local gang.
“One time, the leader told me that I had to be his woman or they would kill me,” she said, according to the transcript of her credible fear interview, which she provided to The Post. She and Marina spoke on the condition that their last names not be used, out of fear of retribution.
After arriving in San Salvador, Paola moved in with a friend’s mother, keeping the curtains closed, refusing to walk outside. She is one semester away from finishing college but won’t take the risk of going to the school.
Marina, 33, crossed the U.S. border this April with her 7-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter.
When an officer asked Marina what she feared, she described one of the many threatening phone calls she had received.
“He said that I had to leave my home and my area altogether or they would kill my son and I,” she said in her credible fear interview. Her application was denied. Days later, she was deported.
When she arrived in El Salvador, she borrowed some money from her family and moved to a gated compound two hours outside of San Salvador, from which she never leaves. The rent is $300, and the money will soon run out.
Both Marina and Paola were flown back to San Salvador on commercial flights and were quickly processed by a team of government officials. The women each carried a folder full of documents, including the piece of paper that closed the door on their asylum aspirations: “Credible fear of persecution NOT established.”
Acevedo was detained for eight months at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona while his asylum case was processed.
“They are telling me I have to wait another six months for my day in court,” he wrote to his mother in July.
He called his father once a week.
“He said he was going to do whatever he could to get asylum, so that he could stay safe,” said his father, Valentin, who lives in the United States illegally.
Increasingly, asylum seekers are forced to spend months, or years, in detention centers while they wait for their cases to be heard, mostly because they are denied bail. The backlog in asylum cases is huge, and experts say the detention can be used as leverage to persuade migrants to stop pursuing their cases.
“Immigration detention is inherently coercive. It’s indistinguishable from being detained in a criminal facility. The jumpsuits, bars, the limitations on visits — that whole system is going to have a deterrent effect on asylum,” said Cori Alonso-Yoder, a practitioner-in-residence at the American University Washington College of Law.
The Justice Department disputed the assertion that detention deters asylum claims.
“The idea that lengthy court proceedings discourage asylum claims is wrong; just the opposite is the case,” department spokesman Stafford said.
It was clear during his early hearings that Acevedo’s gang involvement could be an impediment.
In a bond hearing on Aug. 22, Judge Richard Phelps said, “We conclude the respondent did not meet his burden of establishing that he will not be a danger to others if he is released on bond.”
Acevedo appealed the bond decision, saying, “I was running away from gang members in my country, not at all involved with them,” according to court documents.
Phelps responded: “As a member of such a gang, it is highly likely that the respondent participated in activities that were violent and dangerous and put others at risk, despite his assertion that he was only a lookout.”
In a Sept. 14 written statement, a DHS attorney said Acevedo had “not met his burden to demonstrate he was not a danger to the community.”
The attorney continued that he was “not a low-level soldier” and that his position as a lookout “might have enabled his gang to escape justice.”
On Sept. 16, Acevedo applied for an extension so he could better prepare his legal brief or get a lawyer.
Then, one day in November, Acevedo’s father’s phone rang. Acevedo had already been detained for seven months.
“He told me, ‘They’re saying I could be detained for another six months, and that I have no chance of getting asylum,’ ” Acevedo’s father said.
According to his father, Acevedo then continued: “They are telling me it’s better if I agree to go back to El Salvador.”
Acevedo’s father pushed back, he recalls, telling his son to pursue the case until he was either granted asylum or deported.
But on Nov. 13, immigration officials handed Acevedo a paper, and he signed it. A box is checked next to the line: “Asylum application withdrawn.”
At a hearing that day, Judge Irene C. Feldman told him, “The only way I can send you back [to El Salvador] is if you no longer have a fear of return.”
Then she asked, “Is anyone forcing you to return to El Salvador?”
“No. No, nobody. This is all on my own,” Acevedo said.
Body almost unrecognizable
In the days after he returned to San Salvador, Acevedo crept around the house, refusing to leave. He spent a lot of time sleeping or sitting alone in his room, his mother and brother said.
“It was like he had seen a ghost,” his mother said.
The gang had eyes everywhere, Acevedo had told her. Maybe they had already seen him.
Five days after returning, he received a call from a friend, telling him to meet nearby. First, he asked his mom to come with him, worrying that he could be targeted if he was alone. But while she got ready, he left alone.
“He told me, ‘Mom, I’m afraid,’ ” his mother recalled.
He didn’t come back that night.
The family chose not to report that Acevedo was missing, hoping that he would return, and hoping to avoid inciting the gangs by involving the police. But after five days, they decided to start looking, going to coroners’ offices and police stations.
When they finally found his body at a coroner’s office, it was almost unrecognizable.
“Imagine a mother having to see her son like that,” his mom said.
A few days later, they buried Acevedo’s body at the public cemetery in San Salvador, his name in big blue letters above the words: “Beloved son and brother.” His brother and friends helped carry the white-and-blue coffin, with a picture on top of him in a button-down shirt.
Not long after the funeral, the family started receiving threats. Then the handwritten letter was posted on their door:
“We are going to kill you one by one,” it said.
“Look at the example we made of your garbage of a son.”
They found a pro-bono lawyer, Kathia Lopez, at the Institute for Human Rights, who has developed something of a specialty: finding asylum options for those who have already been rejected by the United States.
In mid-November, the family started packing their bags for their new lives in Ecuador. Acevedo’s mother put a framed picture of her son in a suitcase.
“I wish he could have gotten out, too,” she said.
Nick Miroff and Maria Sacchetti in Washington, Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City and Anna-Catherine Brigida in San Salvador contributed to this report.
About this story
Design and development by Joanne Lee. Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof.
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