Maria Mendoza-Sanchez, a Highland Hospital nurse in Oakland, and her husband this week ended their fight to remain in the U.S. after federal immigration authorities denied a last-ditch plea to stay.
Maria, her husband Eusebio Sanchez, and their 12-year-old son, Jesus, boarded a flight at San Francisco International Airport for Mexico City less than an hour before afederal deportation order expired late Wednesday for the couple — leaving behind their three daughters, two of them adults and one a teenager.
Sanchez spent her last day in the U.S. doing somewhat routine things: She took her daughter, Elizabeth, 16, to her first day of school as a sophomore and she went to the bank.
But she did some out-of-the-ordinary things, too: She granted power of attorney to her eldest daughter, Vianney, 23. She packed her belongings. And she put her nursing uniforms into a storage box.
“I’m sorry I won’t be there to serve them anymore,” she said of her patients in the oncology and cardiology unit of Highland Hospital, Alameda County’s trauma center. “But one day I will be back, that’s for sure.”
The couple came to the U.S. more than 20 years ago, settling in Oakland in 1994. Maria graduated from Holy Names University with a nursing degree while raising their children. Eusebio worked in construction and eventually became a truck driver.
The couple have no criminal records, and have been undocumented during their time in the U.S. Vianney is protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, while their three younger kids are U.S. citizens.
“Fighting an immigration case when you are a Mexican is really three times as difficult as it is other communities,” Maria said as she tried to hold back tears. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work. It doesn’t matter what you do.”
Under the Obama administration, the couple received two stays, along with legal work visas, to remain in the U.S. But when they applied for another stay in May 2017, federal immigration officials limited it to 90 days — after which they would be deported.
The family was hoping for a reprieve with the help of Sen. Dianne Feinstein. But on Tuesday afternoon, Feinstein called to tell them that federal immigration agents had denied their request for another stay, the senator’s office said.
“All possible avenues to delay their departure have been denied by the Trump administration in what I believe is an act utterly devoid of humanity,” Feinstein said in a statement. “This is a travesty, plain and simple, and evidence that Donald Trump’s immigration policy is nothing more than a hateful deportation program targeting law-abiding families. It’s shameful and stands against the very ideals upon which this country was founded.”
In a statement to KQED from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Western Region, the agency confirmed the denial. But ICE added that it gave the couple enough time “to get their personal affairs in order and make preparations for their departure.”
Sanchez said she and her husband prepared their three daughters for life without them in the U.S.: Vianney, a graduate of UC Santa Cruz, will be the legal guardian of Elizabeth as she finishes high school. Their middle daughter, Melin, 21, will stay to finish her last year at UC Santa Cruz.
In Maria’s last hours before flying to Mexico City, Elizabeth came home from her first day of school. She sat on the couch next to her mom and rested her head on her mom’s shoulder.
Max Boot, a lifelong conservative who advised three Republican Presidential candidates on foreign policy, keeps a folder labelled “Trump Stupidity File” on his computer. It’s next to his “Trump Lies” file. “Not sure which is larger at this point,” he told me this week. “It’s neck-and-neck.”
Six months into the Trump era, foreign-policy officials from eight past Administrations told me they are aghast that the President is still so witless about the world. “He seems as clueless today as he was on January 20th,” Boot, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said. Trump’s painful public gaffes, they warn, indicate that he’s not reading, retaining, or listening to his Presidential briefings. And the newbie excuse no longer flies.
“Trump has an appalling ignorance of the current world, of history, of previous American engagement, of what former Presidents thought and did,” Geoffrey Kemp, who worked at the Pentagon during the Ford Administration and at the National Security Council during the Reagan Administration, reflected. “He has an almost studious rejection of the type of in-depth knowledge that virtually all of his predecessors eventually gained or had views on.”
Criticism of Donald Trump among Democrats who served in senior national-security positions is predictable and rife. But Republicans—who are historically ambitious on foreign policy—are particularly pained by the President’s missteps and misstatements. So are former senior intelligence officials who have avoided publicly criticizing Presidents until now.
“The President has little understanding of the context”—of what’s happening in the world—“and even less interest in hearing the people who want to deliver it,” Michael Hayden, a retired four-star general and former director of both the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency, told me. “He’s impatient, decision-oriented, and prone to action. It’s all about the present tense. When he asks, ‘What the hell’s going on in Iraq?’ people around him have learned not to say, ‘Well, in 632 . . . ’ ” (That was the year when the Prophet Muhammad died, prompting the beginning of the Sunni-Shiite split.*)
“He just doesn’t have an interest in the world,” Hayden said.
I asked top Republican and intelligence officials from eight Administrations what they thought was the one thing the President needs to grasp to succeed on the world stage. Their various replies: embrace the fact that the Russians are not America’s friends. Don’t further alienate the Europeans, who are our friends. Encourage human rights—a founding principle of American identity—and don’t make priority visits to governments that curtail them, such as Poland and Saudi Arabia. Understand that North Korea’s nuclear program can’t be outsourced to China, which can’t or won’t singlehandedly fix the problem anyway, and realize that military options are limited. Pulling out of innovative trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will boost China’s economy and secure its global influence—to America’s disadvantage. Stop bullying his counterparts. And put the Russia case behind him by coöperating with the investigation rather than trying to discredit it.
Trump’s latest blunder was made during an appearance in the Rose Garden with Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, on July 25th. “Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against isis, Al Qaeda, and Hezbollah,” Trump pronounced. He got the basics really wrong. Hezbollah is actually part of the Lebanese government—and has been for a quarter century—with seats in parliament and Cabinet posts. Lebanon’s Christian President, Michel Aoun, has been allied with Hezbollah for a decade. As Trump spoke, Hezbollah’s militia and the Lebanese Army were fighting isis and an Al Qaeda affiliate occupying a chunk of eastern Lebanon along its border with Syria. They won.
The list of other Trump blunders is long. In March, he charged that Germany owed “vast sums” to the United States for nato. It doesn’t. No nato member pays the United States—and never has—so none is in arrears. In an interviewwith the Wall Street Journal, in April, Trump claimed that Korea “actually used to be part of China.” Not true. After he arrived in Israel from Saudi Arabia, in May, Trump said that he had just come from the Middle East. (Did he even look at a map?) During his trip to France, in July, the President confused Napoleon Bonaparte, the diminutive emperor who invaded Russia and Egypt, with Napoleon III, who was France’s first popularly elected President, oversaw the design of modern Paris, and is still the longest-serving head of state since the French Revolution (albeit partly as an emperor, too). And that’s before delving into his demeaning tweets about other world leaders and flashpoints.
“The sheer scale of his lack of knowledge is what has astounded me—and I had low expectations to begin with,” David Gordon, the director of the State Department’s policy-planning staff under Condoleezza Rice, during the Bush Administration, told me.
Trump’s White House has also flubbed basics. It misspelled the name of Britain’s Prime Minister three times in its official schedule of her January visit. After it dropped the “H” in Theresa May, several British papers noted that Teresa May is a soft-porn actress best known for her films “Leather Lust” and “Whitehouse: The Sex Video.” In a statement last month, the White House called Xi Jinping the President of the “Republic of China”—which is the island of Taiwan—rather than the leader of the People’s Republic, the Communist mainland. The two nations have been epic rivals in Asia for more than half a century. The White House also misidentified Shinzo Abe as the President of Japan—he’s the Prime Minister—and called the Prime Minister of Canada “Joe” instead of Justin Trudeau.
Trump’s policy mistakes, large and small, are taking a toll. “American leadership in the world—how do I phrase this, it’s so obvious, but apparently not to him—is critical to our success, and it depends eighty per cent on the credibility of the President’s word,” John McLaughlin, who worked at the C.I.A. under seven Presidents, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, and ended up as the intelligence agency’s acting director, told me. “Trump thinks having a piece of chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago bought him a relationship with Xi Jinping. He came in as the least prepared President we’ve had on foreign policy,” McLaughlin added. “Our leadership in the world is slipping away. It’s slipping through our hands.”
And a world in dramatic flux compounds the stakes. Hayden cited the meltdown in the world order that has prevailed since the Second World War; the changing nature of the state and its power; China’s growing military and economic power; and rogue nations seeking nuclear weapons, among others. “Yet the most disruptive force in the world today is the United States of America,” the former C.I.A. director said.
The closest similarity to the Trump era was the brief Warren G. Harding Administration, in the nineteen-twenties, Philip Zelikow, who worked for the Reagan and two Bush Administrations, and who was the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, told me. Harding, who died, of a heart attack, after twenty-eight months in office, was praised because he stood aside and let his Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes, lead the way. Hughes had already been governor of New York, a Supreme Court Justice, and the Republican Presidential nominee in 1916, losing narrowly to Woodrow Wilson, who preceded Harding.
Under Trump, the White House has seized control of key foreign-policy issues. The President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a real-estate developer, has been charged with brokering Middle East peace, navigating U.S.-China relations, and the Mexico portfolio. In April, Kushner travelled to Iraq to help chart policy against isis. Washington scuttlebutt is consumed with tales of how Trump has stymied his own Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, the former C.E.O. of ExxonMobil.
“The national-security system of the United States has been tested over a period of seventy years,” John Negroponte, the first director of National Intelligence and a former U.N. Ambassador, told me. “President Trump disregards the system at his peril.”
Trump’s contempt for the U.S. intelligence community has also sparked alarm. “I wish the President would rely more on, and trust more, the intelligence agencies and the work that is produced, sometimes at great risk to individuals around the world, to inform the Commander-in-Chief,” Mitchell Reiss, who was the chief of the State Department’s policy-planning team under Secretary of State Colin Powell, told me.
Republican critics are divided on whether Trump can grow into the job. “Trump is completely irredeemable,” Eliot A. Cohen, who was a counsellor to Condoleezza Rice at the State Department, told me. “He has a feral instinct for self-survival, but he’s unteachable. The ban on Muslims coming into the country and building a wall, and having the Mexicans pay for it, that was all you needed to know about this guy on foreign affairs. This is a man who is idiotic and bigoted and ignorant of the law.” Cohen was a ringleader of an open letter warning, during the campaign, that Trump’s foreign policy was “wildly inconsistent and unmoored.”
But other Republicans from earlier Administrations still hold out hope. “Whenever Trump begins to learn about an issue—the Middle East conflict or North Korea—he expresses such surprise that it could be so complicated, after saying it wasn’t that difficult,” Gordon, from the Bush Administration, said. “The good news, when he says that, is it means he has a little bit of knowledge.” So far, however, the learning curve has been pitifully—and dangerously—slow.
*This post has been updated to clarify the contextual significance of the year 632.
The comment was quickly decried by Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the Granite State, including the state’s Republican governor who endorsed Trump during the 2016 campaign.
During the call, according to the Post, Trump lashed out at Peña Nieto for the quantity of illegal drugs that come into the United States from Mexico.
“We have a massive drug problem where kids are becoming addicted to drugs because the drugs are being sold for less money than candy,” Trump said.
He later bragged that he won the Granite State because of the opioid epidemic.
“I won New Hampshire because New Hampshire is a drug-infested den,” he said.
Asked by CNN to comment on the transcript, Michael Anton, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said only that he “can’t confirm or deny the authenticity of allegedly leaked classified documents.”
Trump did, in fact, win the Republican primary in New Hampshire, more than doubling the vote total received by his nearest competitor, Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Trump, however, narrowly lost the state to Democrat Hillary Clinton in the general election.
Trump seized on the opioid epidemic while campaigning in New Hampshire throughout 2015 and 2016, promising the people of the state that he would boost local clinics, help those who are already hooked on opioids and stop the flow of drugs coming into the state.
The issue was so critical to Trump that he headlined an event in New Hampshire focused strictly on opioids days before the 2016 election.
“I just want to let the people of New Hampshire know that I’m with you 1,000%, you really taught me a lot,” he said before promising to help people who “are so seriously addicted.”
And he has made similar comments in the past about how inexpensive drugs can be.
“We’re becoming a drug-infested nation,” Trump said in February. “Drugs are becoming cheaper than candy bars.”
Republican New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu flatly said Trump’s statement was “wrong” in a statement on Thursday.
“It’s disappointing his mischaracterization of this epidemic ignores the great things this state has to offer,” he said. “We are already seeing positive signs of our efforts as overdoses and deaths are declining in key parts of the state. In spite of this crisis, New Hampshire remains the best place to live, work and raise a family.”
New Hampshire’s two Democratic senators also blasted the comments.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen tweeted that Trump needed to apologize to the state of New Hampshire and “then should follow through on his promise to Granite Staters to help end this crisis.”
“It’s absolutely unacceptable for the President to be talking about NH in this way — a gross misrepresentation of NH & the epidemic,” she wrote.
Sen. Maggie Hassan called Trump’s comments “disgusting.”
“As he knows, NH and states across America have a substance misuse crisis,” Hassan wrote. “Instead of insulting people in the throes of addiction, [Trump] needs to work across party lines to actually stem the tide of this crisis.”
And the Democratic National Committee said the comments prove that Trump “looks at the opioid epidemic as a political advantage, rather than a national crisis that demands the attention and care of our President.”
Multiple White House officials failed to respond to CNN’s questions about the President’s comments about New Hampshire.
New Hampshire is one of the states most directly impacted by the opioid crisis. According to the NH Drug Monitoring Initiative, drug overdose deaths have climbed in the state since 2012 and it expected to again hit an all-time high once data from 2016 is tabulated.
A national study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 25% of all drug overdose deaths were related to heroin in 2015. That number was just 6% in 1999.
In response to the epidemic, Trump created a White House panel tasked with looking into how the federal government should respond. The panel, which is being led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, released its interim report earlier this week and suggested that Trump declare a state of emergency to combat opioids.
“Our citizens are dying. We must act boldly to stop it,” read its report. “The first and most urgent recommendation of this Commission is direct and completely within your control. Declare a national emergency.”
The report added: “America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks,” noting the fact that 142 Americans die from drug overdoses every day.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Cassie Spodak contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON — Faith in American leadership has plunged in many nations around the world in the months since President Trump took office, according to a new survey, underscoring the challenges facing the new president as he prepares to make his second overseas trip next week.
Just 22 percent of those interviewed outside the United States expressed confidence in Mr. Trump to do the right thing, compared with 64 percent who had similar confidence in the late stages of President Barack Obama’s administration, according to the Pew Research Center. In only two of 37 countries in the survey did Mr. Trump fare better than Mr. Obama: Russia and Israel.
“Trump and many of his key policies are broadly unpopular around the globe, and ratings for the U.S. have declined
steeply in many nations,” the center said in a report released on Monday. “The sharp decline in how much global publics trust the U.S. president on the world stage is especially pronounced among some of America’s closest allies in Europe and Asia, as well as neighboring Mexico and Canada.”
The findings come despite concerted efforts by Mr. Trump to build relationships with world leaders. On Monday, he met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India at the White House and he is scheduled to host President Moon Jae-in of South Korea for a two-day visit starting on Thursday. As president, he has brought the leaders of China and Japan to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and telephoned other world leaders dozens of times.
Next week, Mr. Trump heads to Europe to visit Poland and attend a meeting of the Group of 20 world powers in Hamburg, Germany, where he may also sit down with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for the first time since taking office.
Mr. Trump’s first international trip, last month, won him praise from Arab and Israeli leaders in the Middle East but alienated America’s traditional allies in Europe over issues like trade, climate change and the role of NATO.
Shortly after returning to Washington, he drove a further wedge between himself and the international community when he announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord negotiated by Mr. Obama. Every other nation in the world belongs to the pact except Nicaragua, which argued that it did not go far enough, and Syria, which is consumed by civil war. And only after his return did Mr. Trump grudgingly affirm support for NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense provision, stating that an attack on one member was an attack on all.
It may come as little surprise that a president espousing an “America first” approach to the world would not be viewed favorably outside its borders, and many of Mr. Trump’s supporters are unlikely to be bothered by that — indeed, they may see it as proof that he is tending to their needs, not those of foreigners. One of Mr. Trump’s central themes both as a candidate and as president is that America has been treated unfairly by other countries, whether it be in economics, security arrangements or agreements like the Paris accord.
In that vein, he has been willing to advance policies that he argues reflect American interests even at the cost of complaints from abroad, including travel restrictions on selected predominantly Muslim countries that were partially restored by the Supreme Court on Monday, construction of a wall along the Mexican border, and withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement with Asia.
“My job is not to represent the world,” Mr. Trump said in an address to a joint session of Congress in February. “My job is to represent the United States of America.”
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Some of those policies generate broad criticism overseas. Sixty-two percent of those surveyed by Pew disapproved of the travel restrictions and more than 70 percent opposed the United States’ withdrawing from major trade and climate change agreements. Ninety-four percent of those interviewed in Mexico opposed Mr. Trump’s proposal for a border wall.
But it is not just his specific policy agenda that creates antipathy in other countries. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed described Mr. Trump as arrogant, 65 percent called him intolerant and 62 percent said he was dangerous. Still, in a metric that may appeal to Mr. Trump, 55 percent characterized him as a strong leader.
Despite the eroding belief in its president, the United States itself and its people and culture still retained support around the world. Majorities expressed favorable views of Americans; their music, movies and television shows; and their traditions of personal freedom, although feelings were mixed about American ideas about democracy.
The collapse in confidence in the president echoed that of the last phase of President George W. Bush’s tenure, when the Iraq war and the global financial crisis had sapped international faith in American leadership.
The falling support was most pronounced among longtime American friends. While 93 percent in Sweden had faith in Mr. Obama to do the right thing, only 10 percent had such confidence in Mr. Trump, a drop of 83 percentage points. The drop was also large in Germany and the Netherlands (75 percentage points), South Korea (71 points), France (70 points), Spain (68 points) and Britain (57 points).
In Mexico, only 5 percent expressed positive feelings about Mr. Trump, the least in any of the 37 countries. In Canada, confidence in the president fell from 83 percent to 22 percent, the lowest it has been in the 15 years that the survey has been conducted. In addition to the border wall, Mr. Trump’s threat to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement unless it is renegotiated to his liking has soured America’s closest neighbors.
The only two places where Mr. Trump bested Mr. Obama were Israel, where 56 percent expressed faith in the current president, a seven-point rise, and Russia, where 53 percent gave Mr. Trump high marks, a 42-point rise.
The global attitudes survey, which has been conducted since 2002, surveyed 40,447 respondents from Feb. 16 to May 8.
Mexico president calls for probe into alleged government spying
Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto delivers a speech during an event in Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco, in this undated handout photo released to Reuters by the Mexican Presidency on June 22, 2017. Mexico Presidency/Handout via REUTERS
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto asked the attorney general’s office on Thursday to investigate charges the government spied on private citizens, saying he wanted to get to the bottom of the accusations that he called “false.”
Activists, human rights lawyers and journalists in Mexico filed a criminal complaint on Monday following a report that their smartphones had been infected with spying software sold to the government to fight criminals and terrorists.
“Here and now I want to categorically state this is a democratic government, this is a government that respects and tolerates critical voices,” Pena Nieto said at a televised event.
The complaint presented to the attorney general’s office by nine people followed a New York Times report that some of them had been spied on with software known as Pegasus, which Israeli company NSO Group sold to Mexico’s government.
“All of the equipment and technology that the government … has acquired is used to uphold the country’s domestic security. It’s used to fight against organized crime,” said Pena Nieto.
He said there was no room for “illegal” spying on the private lives of citizens and that the investigation would focus on determining if the charges were backed by evidence and uncovering the source of the accusations.
During his speech, Pena Nieto appeared to suggest the probe would target both the allegations and the accusers, saying he would use the full force of the law “against those who have hurled these false accusations against the government.”
A presidential aide told Reuters that Pena Nieto misspoke and meant to say the charges would be investigated and that anybody found to have engaged in “illegal” spying would be prosecuted.
(Reporting by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Peter Cooney)
A story of torture, betrayal and persecution is captivating Mexicans almost 500 years after it happened.
The dramatic life and death of the Carvajal family in 16th-Century Mexico is in the spotlight after a decades-long search for a national treasure came to an unexpected happy ending.
Luis de Carvajal “The Young” came to Mexico – then known as New Spain – with his large, well-to-do family during the early colonisation of the Americas.
His family governed part of northern Mexico and soon made enemies, including a power-hungry viceroy keen to topple them from power.
The ambitious viceroy discovered that Luis de Carvajal was a practising Jew, a crime punishable by death in the times of the Spanish Inquisition
Older relatives had urged Luis de Carvajal to convert to Catholicism for his own safety, but he staunchly stuck to his faith.
When he was first arrested, the authorities let him off with a warning but kept tabs on him.
Far from giving up his religion, Luis de Carvajal became a leader in Mexico’s underground Jewish community.
When the inquisitors caught up with him again a few years later, he was sentenced to death. He was just 30 years old.
Before he was executed, he was tortured so badly that he revealed the names of 120 fellow Jewish people, historian Alicia Gojman explains.
His captors forced him to listen as those “heretics”, which included his own mother, were tortured in the cell next to him.
“He tried to commit suicide because he couldn’t cope with having told them about his family and friends, but didn’t manage it,” says Ms Gojman.
We know the excruciating details of Luis de Carvajal’s persecution because he managed to keep secret diaries.
But these were not any old notebooks. They were painstakingly crafted, miniature manuscripts with almost microscopic handwriting in Latin and Spanish.
Some pages were intricately decorated with gold leaf he scraped from pages of a Bible.
Each of the three memoirs was no larger than a present-day iPhone, most likely so he could keep them hidden away under his hat.
Luis de Carvajal wrote about being a young Jew in the New World, about exploring his heritage and practising his beliefs despite the dangers.
But much of the memoirs focus on his final tragic days before he was burned at the stake, with vivid descriptions of him falling to his knees upon hearing his mother’s tortured screams as she was pulled on the rack.
Luis de Carvajal found comfort in poetry, writing verses and prayers to reaffirm his faith in the face of so much cruelty.
Luis de Carvajal’s memoirs are treasured by Mexico’s Jewish population as chronicles of keeping faith despite the ruthlessness of the Spanish Inquisition.
“Children who go to Jewish schools study the Carvajal family history,” says Mauricio Lulka, executive director of the Central Committee for the Jewish Community in Mexico.
For centuries, the delicate manuscripts were kept in Mexico’s National Archives. They were treasured as being among the first artefacts documenting the arrival of Jews to the Americas and were studied by researchers from around the world.
But in 1932 they vanished, leading to suspicions among the small group of academics who had access to them that one of them may have stolen the precious diaries. After all, they were small enough to hide under a hat.
With no trace of the documents, the search was eventually suspended and the trail went cold.
More than 80 years after their disappearance, the London auction house Swann in 2016 listed “replicas” of the manuscript at an initial price of $1,500 (£1,150).
But a US collector of Judaica, Leonard Milberg, was suspicious.
Why would someone go to the trouble of recreating the minuscule handwriting of Luis de Carvajal’s original to create a replica?
Intrigued, he contacted the Mexican consulate which confirmed that the originals were still missing and sent experts to check the “replicas” out.
Baltazar Brito is the director of the National Library of Anthropology and History in Mexico and one of the experts sent to assess the documents.
“When I got there, something told me they were originals, I knew it in my heart,” he says.
For Mr Brito, the documents have relevance beyond their time.
“They tell the story of religious intolerance that we shouldn’t let happen again in the world,” he says. “Despite that, it still happens.”
Leonard Milberg felt the manuscripts belonged in Mexico, so the collector made it his mission to deal with all the international agencies involved and covered the costs of sending them back.
Their safe return was welcome news for Mexico’s now thriving Jewish community of about 50,000 people, many of whom were drawn to the country by its modern-day commitment to religious freedom.
After they were briefly exhibited in Mexico City they are now safely stored in a special climate-controlled vault in the National Library of Anthropology and History in Mexico, as no one wants to risk the miniature manuscripts disappearing for another eight decades.
Mexican authorities find 112 migrants huddled in back of truck
Mexican authorities discovered 112 migrants, including four babies, huddled alive in the back of a truck as it traveled along a highway in the country’s south, the attorney general’s office said on Sunday.
The truck, which officials said had ventilation and water for the passengers, was intercepted on a highway that connects the southern states of Chiapas and neighboring Tabasco and the driver was arrested.
Every year, thousands of migrants, mostly Central Americans, escaping from poverty and violence, make their way north through Mexico in hopes of reaching the United States.
The attorney general’s office said in a statement that 23 minors were among the immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Ecuador, found in the back of the truck.
The migrants were awaiting medical checkups.
(Reporting by Noe Torres and Anthony Esposito; Editing by Peter Cooney)
It had only been a few weeks, maybe a month, since Jose Camacho had been relieved of his prison shackles and stepped off a U.S. immigration bus into the dusty streets of Ciudad Juárez to set about building a new life south of the border. That’s when an old friend showed up. Not a friend, really — someone he knew. A guy he’d met on the inside. “Let’s get a beer,” he suggested. Camacho didn’t drink anymore, and he told the guy so. But the guy was persistent. Squinting over the guy’s shoulder, Camacho could see someone else in the car, a man he didn’t know, but he recognized the tattoos. This wasn’t an invitation.
“Entra,” the stranger said. Get in. Then Camacho made yet another mistake in a life that had no shortage of them.
“I should’ve never got in the car,” Camacho tells me, recalling the story several years later between drags on an off-brand cigarette, a poor man’s substitute for the Marlboro Reds he can no longer afford.
It’s a hot afternoon in late April, and Camacho and I are at the home of Jose Francisco Lopez, a 73-year-old U.S. Army veteran, who is tending to a wok full of taco meat while a handful of men — mostly ex-military, plus a reservist from El Paso — swap stories about their time in uniform. Spools of concertina wire run along the wrought iron bars that flank the small, square courtyard. All of the houses in this part of Juárez are like this. Every street looks like a row of jail cells. But Camacho isn’t referring to the local architecture when he describes Juárez as being “like prison.” He’s talking about the gang culture, which is deeply rooted on both sides of the border. Here, there’s no escaping your past.
The friend was working for a drug cartel, and he was approaching Camacho with a proposition. Work with us. Camacho, a former Army cavalry scout, had a skill set that was very much in demand. “They knew I had been in the Army because of what I had to do in prison to survive,” he continues, explaining that he had also done a stint behind bars in California for home invasions. He gestures toward the rest of the guests. “Ask any of these guys. If you’ve been in prison over there and you live in Juárez, you’ll get approached.”
At 61, Camacho would be a top contender for the World’s Scariest Grandpa award. He resembles a Danny Trejo character, but with a longer rap sheet and more prison tattoos. Like many career criminals, his resume is inscribed in permanent ink on his body, in a constellation of words and symbols that people who’ve lived the sort of life Camacho has can readily interpret. There are a lot of those people in Juárez. At least one tattoo identifies him as having once been affiliated with a Mexican-American gang aligned with La Linea, the armed wing of the Juárez cartel. On his forearm, there’s an image of an American GI accompanied by the words Vietnam Veteran Recondo.
Camacho didn’t fight in Vietnam, but he did serve in the U.S. military between 1974 and 1980, first in the Army and then the Navy, and was honorably discharged from both. His DD214 lists his military occupational specialty in the Army as armor reconnaissance specialist (hence the tattoo). He never got a chance to put his combat skills to work in the jungles of Southeast Asia, but he’s spent most of his life after the service applying those skills elsewhere. “Military experience is money in Mexico,” he says.
Camacho kept his mouth shut as the car left the city limits. “I had to agree right away,” he says, “because if you don’t, they’re going to beat you up or probably kill you. Period.” Eventually, the men dropped him off at a compound in the middle of the desert. There, he says, he was paid to teach members of one well-known cartel the weapons skills and small-unit tactics he’d learned in the Army. He tells me he wasn’t the only U.S. military veteran who worked on the compound. (Although Task & Purpose was unable to confirm this claim, more than one source described it as an open secret.)
“Over there, we were wetbacks. Here, we’re gringos.”
Camacho eventually fled the compound and made his way “across the goddamn sierra” back to Juárez. Last year, he heard about a safe house for deported U.S. military veterans in Tijuana called The Bunker and contacted the group that runs it to see if they could help him secure his military benefits, and possibly get him back over the border, where he hopes to spend the remainder of his days in peace. They put him in touch with Lopez, whose house will soon double as the official Bunker in Juárez. Not long ago, the house was, more or less, an actual bunker. Lopez recalls waking up many nights to pitched gun battles being fought in the neighborhood. Sometimes he’d think he was back in Vietnam.
“I wanted to move to Tijuana, but then I heard the Gulf Cartel is there,” Camacho says. “They’d just kill me on the spot if they saw my tattoos.”
Camacho graciously accepts a plate of tacos from our host and then sets it aside, noting that he’s trying to eat healthy. He doesn’t strike me as the clean-living type, but staying physically fit, he explains, is important when you’re a debt collector in Juárez. That’s what Camacho does for work now — he’s a strongman for local businessmen in a city with a notoriously corrupt police force. It’s not a complete departure from his former life, but it’s certainly an upgrade. He lifts up his shirt to reveal a back brace and sighs. “My bones are getting dry,” he says. “There will come a time when I can no longer make money.” It’s hard to rough people up when you have dry bones. It’s also hard to run.
“I stay in one house for three or four months, and then I move. If I see something I don’t like, I boogie,” Camacho says, explaining that he’s biding his time, waiting for the people who still know him from his prison days to die off. “Eventually, they will. I just have to survive that long.”
That evening, Camacho and several other deported veterans gather around a table to discuss their predicament — the first of many such meetings that will happen here. The conversation eventually turns to President Donald Trump’s stance on immigration and his calls to seal up the border. Everyone agrees it’s the right thing to do.
“What if you invited me into your house, and I start fucking your wife, and spit in your food, and rob you?” one guys asks. “What are you going to tell me? You’re going to say, ‘Fuck you, homey. Get the fuck out of my house.’” But by virtue of their service, he adds, veterans merit a different sort of treatment. He compares the military to a street gang that works together to defend its turf from rivals. “Then I fuck up and you tell me I’m no longer welcome on this turf? Hold on, ese, I fought for this turf. My mom lives on this turf.”
I bring up The Wall. Will the migration stop if it gets built? The question is met with laughter. Camacho answers first: “Can they build it miles underground? Can they build it into the sea? Nothing can stop people from getting over. Nothing.” Behind us, Lopez and a few other deportees have begun arranging legal documents on a table for the men to fill out. There’s not a single person in this group who hasn’t broken the law. Some have committed crimes much worse than crossing the border illegally. But they’ve come to The Bunker to try a new approach, and, in many ways, it’s the path of most resistance. Nobody in their situation has ever been allowed to return to the United States.
There are currently three ways for an immigrant veteran who’s been deported following a conviction for an aggravated felony to return to the United States legally.
One option is to appeal the case, but it has to be done quickly. “From a practical point of view, if someone has already been deported and is now in their home country, this is no longer an option,”says Sophia Gregg, an immigration attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia.
Another option is for the deported veteran to secure a pardon, either from the president or the governor of the state they were convicted in. This doesn’t guarantee re-entry into the United States, but it is a necessary step before one reapplies for legal resident status. Only three deported veterans have received such pardons. So far, none have returned to the States.
The other option, statistically more feasible, is to die; all veterans discharged under conditions other than dishonorable, even if they’ve been deported, are entitled to a military funeral and burial with full honors.
In that scenario, the VA will pay $300 toward the cost of returning the body to the United States. Federal law mandates that the ceremony must be performed by an honor guard detail consisting of no fewer than two active members of the armed forces. The casket remains draped in the American flag until “Taps” is played (by a bugler if one is available), and then the flag is meticulously folded into a triangle and presented to the deceased’s next of kin.
Under Trump, those are likely to remain the only options. After all, guys like Camacho are exactly the type of immigrants to whom the president was referring when he said, “We have some bad hombres and we’re going to get them out.” Why would he want them back? Still, Camacho and a growing cadre of deported veterans living Mexico believe they can find sympathy among even the staunchest conservatives in Washington. Because it was also Trump who vowed to “take care of our veterans like they’ve never been taken care of before.”
As a country, we go to great lengths to ensure that military veterans are cared for. We shower them with praise and free meals at Applebee’s. We pay for their college and give them access to free health care. When they get in trouble for minor crimes, we send them to special courts that take into account the hardships they endured in the service. We even spare them the death penalty when they’ve massacred innocent civilians. But for veterans who are non-U.S. citizens, the support stops the moment they’re convicted of an aggravated felony.
The biggest challenge for deported veterans wanting to return to the United States legally is persuading people — specifically, American policymakers — to view them as former U.S. service members who made mistakes (and paid for them), rather than run-of-the-mill undocumented criminals.
It doesn’t help that many have settled in the dangerous border towns of Mexico, where jobs are scarce and crime pays. They have done so not because they enjoy the scenery but because many have family just across the border, and their occasional trips south represent the veterans’ only remaining connection to the lives they once lived. To leave the border towns would mean to give up on the dream of return.
Ironically, however, their proximity to the border has placed them in the crosshairs — at risk not only of being killed in one of the most dangerous places on earth, but of being pressed into service by the cartels, forced into a criminal lifestyle they have long since left behind. Nearly all of the veterans I met in Juárez told me they’d been approached by the cartels. Left to build new lives among the drug traffickers and sicarios that Trump’s wall is meant to keep out, many must rely on skills they acquired in the military and behind bars to survive.
Lopez is the director of the recently established Juárez chapter of Deported Veterans Support House, a Tijuana-based nonprofit founded in 2013 by Hector Barajas, a former Army paratrooper, who was deported to Mexico in 2004 and is now the leading advocate for deported U.S. military veterans worldwide. The Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for tracking deportations, has no idea how many veterans of the U.S. military have been deported. Some estimates put the number in the thousands. Barajas says his organization has helped 300 deported veterans scattered across 36 different countries.
Through grassroots activism and social media, Deported Veterans Support House has managed to bring together a small network of nonprofit groups, veterans organizations, and individual volunteers to help deported veterans secure military pensions and benefits, and perhaps one day return to the United States. To date, their efforts have yielded only one notable success story: In 2016, an Iraq War veteran named Daniel Torres was allowed to return to the United States five years after he was deported to Mexico from France. (After the Marine Corps had discharged Torres upon discovering that he had used a fake birth certificate to enlist, he’d tried to join the French Foreign Legion.) But his situation was unique: he had never been convicted of an aggravated felony.
Aggravated felony is a term of art used in U.S. immigration law to describe a broad category of criminal offenses, from violent crimes like murder and sexual assault, to drug possession and theft. A host of petty offenses — filing false tax returns, for example — can also be labeled an aggravated felony if immigration authorities deem the circumstances around it to be evidence of “bad moral character.”
“Sometimes it is simply a misdemeanor plus another petty charge,” Gregg explains. “For example, it can be a petty drug charge plus a petty trafficking charge. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you were moving cocaine in from Guatemala to sell it in Texas. It can be as simple as, you got caught taking a joint of marijuana from one county to another. That could be called ‘trafficking.’”
Meet The Men Of Deported Veterans Support House
Deported Veterans Support House is a nonprofit founded in 2013 by Hector Barajas, a former Army paratrooper, who was deported to Mexico in 2004 and is now the leading advocate for deported U.S. military veterans worldwide. The Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for tracking deportations, has no idea how many veterans of the U.S. military have been deported. Some estimates put the number in the thousands. Barajas says his organization has helped 300 deported veterans scattered across 36 different countries. Task & Purpose’s Adam Linehan went to Juarez to hear their stories in person.
The deported veterans who have banded together in Juárez include criminals of all stripes. But they rarely discuss their pasts. Their focus now is on the future — “getting back home” — and helping each other survive in the meantime. The mission binds them like soldiers at war. A brotherhood with few allies on either side of the border, they are men without a country.
“Over there, we were wetbacks,” one tells me. “Here, we’re gringos.”
On March 16, 1966, a U.S. Army reconnaissance platoon was moving down a narrow jungle trail in Vietnam’s Long Khánh Province to reinforce a battalion of paratroopers engaged in a massive firefight, when it inadvertently walked into the rear of an attacking North Vietnamese Army formation. The pointman spotted the enemy first and motioned for a grenadier to come forward and initiate a hasty ambush. He didn’t have time to get off a single shot before a barrage of enemy grenades and machine-gun fire began pummeling the platoon from all directions. They were pinned down.
The platoon medic was a man named Spc. Alfred Rascon. Over the course of the engagement, which lasted between 10 and 20 minutes, he was wounded four separate times, beginning with a bullet that entered his hip, rode up his spine, and exited through his shoulder. But that’s not why there’s a school for Army combat medics named after him.
“You have this man who served his country, who went to the Middle East, and now he sleeps on a couch in a house that didn’t even have running water when he showed up.”
Rascon earned the Medal of Honor that day. His medal citation is one of the more exhaustive on record, owing to the fact that Rascon used his own body to shield his comrades from enemy grenades — not once, but a total of three times. One explosion Rascon absorbed was so close it blew his helmet off. But he never stopped fighting. In fact, he refused to be airlifted out of the jungle until he had treated everyone else in the platoon who’d been wounded. He barely survived.
Lengthy as it is, Rascon’s citation does not mention that he had immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was a child. Nor does it mention that he didn’t become a naturalized citizen until after he returned home from Vietnam. And why would it? Those details aren’t relevant to the story. “The men I served with did not even know that I was not a citizen, nor did they care,” he later recalled in an interview. “They just called me ‘Doc.’”
Rascon’s actions in Vietnam won him a spot in America’s pantheon of war heroes, but they also place him among a long overlooked subclass of warriors that has been vital to the military since its inception. Like millions of immigrants before him, Rascon chose to enlist in the Army; however, many others were drafted during Vietnam, as they had been during all of the major wars before that (approximately 18% of GIs who served in World War I were foreign-born). Which is to say, countless immigrants — whether enlistees or conscripts — have bled and died fighting on behalf of the United States.
Even in the all-volunteer era, immigrants have continued to serve in high numbers. In fact, one of the first U.S. service members killed in action in the Iraq War was Marine Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, an orphan from Guatemala who smuggled himself into the United States and was only naturalized after his death. He was one of approximately 3,000 non-citizens who participated in the invasion of Iraq, and one of 10 who were killed within the first month of the war. To some extent, those numbers were by design.
By 2002, with the war in Afghanistan underway and the march to Baghdad on the horizon, it became clear in Washington that special measures would be required to fill the ranks of an all-volunteer military tasked with a massive mission. On July 3 of that year, President W. Bush signed an executive order to provide expedited naturalization for “aliens and non-citizen nationals serving in an active-duty status.”
Previously, non-citizens serving in peacetime were required either to have lived legally in the United States for five years or to have served three years on active duty before they were eligible to apply for citizenship. Bush’s order cut the wait time for post-9/11 immigrant service members down to one day.
Bush was doing what presidents before him have done during virtually every major conflict since the Civil War: Entice immigrants into the military by dangling the promise of U.S. citizenship. Of course, not all immigrants enlist for citizenship. Many are drawn to service for the same reasons citizens are — money and other benefits, job stability, a sense of patriotism, the desire to fight for a cause greater than themselves. Still, the executive order appears to have had an impact. Between December 2000 and February 2003, the number of non-citizens on active duty jumped from 23,000 to 37,000, with thousands more in the reserves.
In the years that followed, a series of additional laws and programs, including one that made it possible for foreign-born recruits to take the Oath of United States Allegiance upon graduating basic training, were implemented. Between September 2001 and 2015, roughly 102,000 immigrant service members and veterans from all generations were sworn in as U.S. citizens.
Given the unprecedented access to citizenship through military service, why have so many veterans been deported? That question was the focus of a July 2016 report by the American Civil Liberties Union. Entitled “Discharged, Then Discarded,” it blamed the issue on “bureaucratic bungling” and “government indifference.”
“The federal government’s failure to help naturalize immigrants serving in the U.S. military has led to the deportation of untold numbers of veterans, all of whom were entitled to become citizens because of their service,” read a statement from the ACLU that accompanied the report.
“Deported veterans were in the United States legally and sustained physical wounds and emotional trauma in conflicts as far back as the war in Vietnam,” the statement continued. “Once they returned from service, however, they were subject to draconian immigration laws that reclassified many minor offenses as deportable crimes, and were effectively banished from the country.”
The “draconian immigration laws” the ACLU was referring to are the result of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, which among other things greatly expanded the definition of “aggravated felonies” to encompass a range of offenses, including some misdemeanors that previously would not have led to deportation.
Life as an immigrant in the United States only got more precarious from there. By 2013, Obama had deported more people than any other U.S. president in history, at a rate of about 400,000 a year, and so far under Trump, ICE arrests are up nearly 40 percent. Still, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement insists that it takes military service into account when determining whether or not an immigrant’s crimes should qualify as a deportable offense.
ICE “respects the service and sacrifice of those in military service,” agency spokesman Thomas Byrd said in a statement to Task & Purpose, adding that such cases are “authorized by the senior leadership in a field office, following an evaluation by local counsel.”
He also noted that ICE views military service as “a positive factor that should be considered … when deciding whether or not prosecutorial discretion should be exercised.” Nonetheless, he said, “applicable law requires ICE to mandatorily detain and process for removal individuals who have been convicted of aggravated felonies.”
“They knew I had been in the Army because of what I had to do in prison to survive. … Ask any of these guys. If you’ve been in prison over there and you live in Juárez, you’ll get approached.”
The ACLU report sparked widespread media interest in deported veterans. Soon, American journalists were flocking to Tijuana. Veteran motorcycle clubs arrived from the States with food and supplies to stock The Bunker. Volunteers, including off-duty employees from the Department of Veterans Affairs, began caravanning in on the weekends to help the veterans file for pensions and other benefits remotely. The ACLU even agreed to provide free legal assistance to deported vets who it thought stood a fighting chance of securing appeals or government pardons.
Meanwhile, in March of this year, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona introduced a bill, The Veterans Visa and Protection Act of 2017, that would prevent noncitizen service members and veterans from being removed from the United States unless they were convicted of a violent crime. The bill would also require the Department of Homeland Security to establish a program to permit eligible deported veterans (ones who have not been convicted of violent crimes) to return to the United States.
“They made a mistake, and many citizen veterans have made those same mistakes upon their return,” Grijalva tells Task & Purpose. “Are we setting up a special status for a group of deportees that no other deportee has? Yes, because they do have that special status. Serving in the military is special.”
To date, the bill has been co-sponsored by 48 members of the House, all Democrats.
“The majority of these guys were deported because of crimes related to addiction,” says Alexander Heaton, director of the Veteran Action Coordination Committee, which is lobbying members of Congress to sign the bill. “So, really, this is a veterans health issue. Many got in trouble while self-medicating because of things that had happened to them in the service. But getting that through to Congress has been really difficult, because a lot of them just see it as another immigration issue.”
All of the congressmen Heaton approaches want to know why the deported veterans didn’t get their citizenship in the military. It’s a perfectly reasonable question, and one that Heaton is uniquely qualified to answer. Born in the United Kingdom, Heaton became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008 while serving the Marine Corps.
“I only found out that I could be naturalized through the military by my interpreter in Iraq,” he says.“It’s not something that is mentioned to you, because once you get to the fleet, everyone assumes you’re American. You have to initiate it yourself and you have to follow up on it yourself. You know how military paperwork is — if you want it done right once, you have to submit it three times.”
Efforts on both sides of the border to draw attention to deported veterans appear to be paying off, albeit slowly. Last month, Barajas and two other veterans living in Mexico received full pardons from California Gov. Jerry Brown, making it possible for them to re-apply for legal resident status.
Several days after he received word of his pardon, Barajas flew to Juárez for the official opening of a second Bunker — the one at Lopez’s house. Additional Bunkers are planned for Monterey and Jamaica. Barajas has every intention of returning to the States if he’s allowed to — he was raised in Los Angeles, and his daughter still lives there — and the decision could be made within the next several months. Still, he says, he won’t stop “fighting for his brothers” until all of them come home.
Once a week, Ivan Ocon, a 39-year-old U.S. Army veteran, takes a bus ride into downtown Juárez to buy sheets of cured leather from the only shop in town that will sell them to him. He’s not sure why the others won’t. Maybe it’s his gringo accent, or the prison tattoos, or the baggy plaid shirts he likes to wear buttoned all the way up to the top.
Ocon grew up just north of the border, in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He has broad shoulders and a slight paunch, the sort of physique men develop when they lift a lot of weights in prison.
Ocon became a craftsman during his time behind bars: Nine consecutive years in federal penitentiaries in Colorado and Texas, followed by a 10-month stint in an immigration detention center on the outskirts of Houston. He specializes in handmade leather wallets and belts, which he adorns with intricate designs. Leatherwork is how Ocon made his commissary money in prison. He honed his skills as an illustrator by drawing pictures for his daughter, whom he hasn’t seen since she was 3 years old. She’s 15 now.
“The cartels are waiting for you. They know you’re desperate. They know you’ve spent time in prison. … if they pick you up, there’s three ways it can go. They’ll either kill you, recruit you, or kidnap you and hold you for ransom.”
These days, Ocon’s workshop is a converted storage closet in his grandmother’s house, a tiny, one-bedroom concrete dwelling behind a spike-tipped wrought-iron gate on a sun-bleached street in Juárez. Ocon moved in a year ago, after he was deported from the United States. The neighborhood is safe, he says — “There have only been a few killings.” At night, he sleeps on the couch.
But he doesn’t sleep much — not since he began receiving threatening Facebook messages. They came from an account he thought belonged to a woman interested in hooking up, but that later turned out to be a fake profile run by gang members. They had seen Ocon on the local news talking about the plight of deported veterans, and pegged him as a rich man. The messages demanded money — a lot more than Ocon could afford — and included photos of his family. He deleted his Facebook account and tried not to think about it.
“All I can do is try to be more careful,” Ocon says. “But at the end of the day, I’m a soldier, and I’m going to have to do what I have to do.”
How Mexican Cartels Target Deported Veterans
Living in Juárez, Mexico, places deported veterans in the crosshairs — at risk not only of being killed in one of the most dangerous places on earth, but of being pressed into service by the cartels, forced into a criminal lifestyle they have long since left behind. Nearly all of the veterans Task & Purpose met in Juárez said they’d been approached by the cartels. Left to build new lives among the drug traffickers and sicarios that Trump’s wall is meant to keep out, many must rely on skills they acquired in the military and behind bars to survive.
Between 1997 and December 2003, Ocon was, in fact, a soldier. He served as a generator mechanic in the U.S. Army. His workshop is crowded with mementos of his time in uniform: A wooden box he bought in Japan filled with regimental coins, pictures from his deployment to Jordan in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a plaque mounted with a pair of crossed tomahawks that was given to him at the end of his tour in Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division.
“For a job well done,” it reads. “We wish you well in pursuing your future. Hope you can make it without your soju. Good luck from the motorpool.”
Also on the wall is a framed photograph of Ocon’s cousin, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Cruces in the early 90s. He was 15, a gangbanger. His killers belonged to a rival crew. Ocon turns somber telling the story. They were best friends, he explains — just a couple of Mexican kids growing up poor in a small American town.
Like many kids from crime-infested neighborhoods, Ocon didn’t need to join the Army to learn how to shoot a gun, and he didn’t need to go to war to see combat. But the military offered a noble departure from the streets. And there was another bonus, as the recruiter pointed out: Serving his adopted country could be a fast track to citizenship. Although it didn’t quite work out that way, Ocon knows he’s partly to blame.
“I started asking about citizenship after I got back from Korea,” he says. “I went to JAG and they were like, ‘We don’t know nothing about that.’ They couldn’t even tell me where I needed to go, or what I needed to do. So I just went back to doing my job, just being a soldier, not really thinking about it.”
In 2006, Ocon was involved in a kidnapping in El Paso. The details are hazy, but somehow the 16-year-old nephew of a certain drug dealer wound up on the other side of the border, and the kid’s family got a series of calls requesting money. One of those calls was traced to Ocon’s phone. While he denies playing a role in the abduction, a jury convicted Ocon of aiding and abetting in a kidnapping — “because I didn’t report my brother” — and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
A decade later, in early 2016, Ocon stepped off a U.S. immigration bus in the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo, with $80 to his name. His skin was paler than it had ever been. His muscles were soft. For the previous 10 months, he had been confined to a cell in an ICE detention center 23 hours a day. Sometimes weeks would go by before the guards would let him outside. It was worse than prison, he says. Much worse. He arrived in Mexico with shoes but no shoelaces, which worried him because he knew that his first few minutes on the ground were crucial, and that he’d have to act fast.
Ocon isn’t the only deported veteran who told me that stepping off the immigration bus was one of the most terrifying moments of his life.
“The cartels are waiting for you,” one told me. “They know you’re desperate. They know you’ve spent time in prison. So you’ve got a small window of time to get out of town and get where you’re going. Because if they pick you up, there’s three ways it can go. They’ll either kill you, recruit you, or kidnap you and hold you for ransom.”
Ocon managed to squeeze on to the first bus bound for Juárez. Not all of the deportees were so lucky.
On the morning before the official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of The Bunker in Juárez, three rows of neatly stacked papers sit atop a plastic table in Lopez’s backyard. These are the first of many forms that will need to be filled out as the deported veterans begin the process of trying to secure medical benefits, pensions, and, ultimately, permission to return to the United States. For now, Lopez’s home is serving as the local headquarters for the operation. Lopez settled here in 2004 after serving nine years in a Texas prison for the crime of possessing “five hundred grams or more” of cocaine, according to court documents.
“We need to be together and be a group,” he says as he folds pamphlets that will be given to guests at tomorrow’s ceremony. His hands move slowly, as if underwater. “We need to fight for our rights. That’s the only way we’re going to get it done.”
Lopez’s family immigrated to Wichita Falls, a small town in north Texas, when he was a teenager, and he was drafted into the U.S. military in 1967 at the age of 23. According to his military records, Lopez served with the Army’s 15th Transportation Battalion for a year in Vietnam, from 1968 to 1969. He hardly spoke English. “I done everything,” he says. “Sometimes I did rescue missions in the helicopters. Sometimes I was a driver. Sometimes I went with the infantry. Whatever they tell me to do.” He thought his honorable discharge from the Army made him a U.S. citizen until he found out he was being deported back to Mexico. Because he didn’t have money to fight his case, ICE agents took Lopez straight from prison to Juárez, the nearest border town.
Lopez left behind five children in Texas, all U.S. citizens. Some of them he hasn’t seen in more than 20 years, and he doesn’t know how many grandchildren he has. “I want to get back so I can find my family,” he says. “I want to see them and hug them.” The walls of his house are decorated with pictures he’s painted, of birds, of desert landscapes, of the Virgin Mary. He’s talented enough to make a meager living as a painter, but art is also his therapy. There’s no VA facility in Mexico; no monthly disability checks in the mail. He tells me he’s still haunted by his experiences in Vietnam.
One of the two bedrooms in Lopez’s house has been converted into a shelter with bunk beds and cots for vets down on their luck. Before The Bunker in Tijuana was moved to a building donated by the city, Barajas ran a similar shelter out of his apartment. This is one of the more vital services the organization provides. Few deported veterans are able to find jobs when they arrive in Mexico. Some, like Marine Corps veteran Mike Evans, didn’t even speak Spanish when they stepped off the immigration bus.
Which helps explain why I confuse Evans for a volunteer from the States when he strolls into the Bunker. “What’s up, man,” he says, pulling me in for a bro hug. “Mike.”
Ocon introduces Evans as his neighbor. They first met several days ago on the street, by chance. Evans was stunned to discover that there were other U.S. military veterans living in Juárez. For the past eight years, he thought it was just him. “You guys have plans tonight?” he says. “I’m DJing at La Bodeguita. Come by. It’s gonna be sick.”
Sporting a shirt too small for his musclebound torso and a generous amount of hair gel, Evans, 39, looks, acts, and sounds like a cast member on the “Jersey Shore,” albeit with a slight Southern accent. There’s an explanation for this: He was adopted by an American university professor and spent his childhood in Columbia, South Carolina. Which makes him a citizen, right? Nope. Not in 1984. Instead, Evans, who had the rare privilege of choosing his own first name when he was 6 years old, was granted resident status through amnesty. “Later, when I applied for citizenship,” he says, “it fucked me.”
Evans served four years in the Marine Corps and was discharged honorably in 2000 without citizenship. “I just got so frustrated with the process, I stopped trying,” he says. In 2005, after a period “of fucking off and getting into trouble in El Paso,” he completed and filed all the naturalization paperwork and was approved. Two weeks before he was scheduled to take the Oath of United States Allegiance, Evans was named as an accomplice by a drug dealer who’d been arrested for selling ecstasy several years before. There was evidence. Evans was sent to prison for four years. In 2009, while in the midst of fighting his case, he was abruptly deported. His sister rushed to the immigration detention center and arrived just in time to give him an English-Spanish dictionary before he got on the bus.
At the height of the turf wars between the Sinaloa and Juárez drug cartels, Juárez was just as kinetic as anything American troops have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. The battles waged daily in the city’s streets featured all of the familiar tools of carnage: sniper rifles, grenades, car bombs, machine-gun fire. Gunmen would slice through weddings and birthday parties just to send a message or mark turf. Many mornings revealed headless and mutilated bodies strung from bridges and light posts. Twenty-six hundred people were murdered in the city the year Evans arrived, barely enough money in his pockets for a tiny room downtown, which he furnished with an air mattress and two milk crates (one for a chair, the other for a table). In 2010, Juárez ranked as the murder capital of the world. That same year, El Paso, which sits just beyond a narrow sliver of the Rio Grande — walking distance, if you have an American passport or a visa — boasted the lowest crime rate of all major cities in the United States. Evans could see El Paso from his window.
The turf wars have subsided, but the cartels still exert varying degrees of control over nearly every facet of the city. Extortion is rampant. People are still wary of hanging out in groups. Most of the bars and clubs remain off-limits to “civilians” after dark. There’s still no shortage of violence — Mexico is currently second only to Syria on the list of world’s deadliest conflict zones — but the killings in Juárez have become more focused, less indiscriminate. One former cartel member, a U.S. Army veteran, tells me the war now is over what drugs are being sold. The Sinaloa cartel recently introduced crystal meth into the local market, triggering retaliation from the more “old school” factions that see the highly addictive drug as disruptive.
“Meth is not a good business model,” says the veteran, whom I’ll call John (he asked not to be named). “If you get someone hooked on coke, you’ll have a customer for life. But with meth, they’ll probably be dead in five years. So now they’re going after the meth heads, shooting up the places they hang out to send a message.”
“I had to agree right away, because if you don’t, they’re going to beat you up or probably kill you. Period.”
John had served with the 3rd Infantry Division in Ramadi with a colleague of mine, who put us in touch. We meet for dinner in Juárez one night. When I ask him if he’s ever seen other U.S. military veterans working for the cartels, he tells me the same thing Camacho did: He had, and that some of them — “White guys, black guys, Mexicans” — commuted in from the other side of the border. John, a U.S. citizen, used to be one of those guys. He lives in El Paso. “After I got out of the Army, I started coming to Juárez on the weekends to party, do coke,” he says. “And I just got sucked into that life. It was dark.” He recalls an internal feud that nearly resulted in his execution, late night convoys through the desert, and the brutal beating he was forced to undergo before being allowed to leave the cartel. I ask him how long it’s been since he quit. He pauses to do the math. “Six months,” he says. “November.”
Most of the deported veterans I meet in Juárez refuse to speak on the record about the cartels for fear of being labeled a “snitch,” but many have stories that go something like this: Someone they had met in prison or in an immigration detention center looked them up after they’d arrived in Juárez and asked if they’d like to put their military experience to work for a cartel. A few, like Camacho, weren’t given a choice. Interestingly, their specific military backgrounds — whether they had been, say, an infantryman or an admin clerk — were irrelevant. It was the fact that they had been trained by the U.S. military that made them appealing as potential recruits. That and the assumption that they were desperate.
“I was approached one time by a guy, since he knew that I’d been in the military, to purchase weapons for the mafia,” Juan Salazar, a 50-year-old former Army medic, tells me, volunteering that he had been deported in the 90s after getting busted with 50 pounds of marijuana in Texas. “I definitely denied, because once I had made a mistake and got deported, I realized that I had failed to protect the country from all enemies foreign and domestic. I still feel that is my duty even if I’m here. Because all of my friends and family are still over there. It’s still my duty to defend them.”
Cesar Orihuela, 33, echoes a similar sentiment in his truck as we drive through downtown Juárez en route to La Bodeguita for Evans’ DJ show. “Yeah, I’ve been approached,” he says, his eyes fixed on the road. There’s a giant tattoo of an American flag on his forearm. He continues: “But doing that is like turning your back on your country. Nobody put a gun to your head and told you to join the military. Then after you make a mistake and you get sent to Mexico, once you get here, doing something like that is like siding with the enemy. It’s just something you don’t do. Personally, I don’t like it here.”
Orihuela’s family moved to El Paso from Juárez when he was 8. He was an all-star pitcher in high school — with a 96 mph fastball — but he put aside his dreams of going pro to join the Air Force in 2002, “because of what happened on 9/11.” He deployed to Pakistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom early on in the war. Later, I come across a 2004 story about Orihuela published in Airman Magazine, which compares him to a “juggler in a circus,” juggling military service, college, and baseball. The article explains that Orihuela had made it to the last round of tryouts for the Chicago White Sox the year before. It also notes that he had just applied for U.S. citizenship.
Orihuela was deported three years ago. “I got an assault charge,” he says. “My brother had just been killed by a gang on this side of the border, and I had anger issues. The police over here wouldn’t help us. It destroyed my whole family. That’s when my sister got in trouble, too.” He tells me he was arrested for beating up a member of the gang outside a bar in El Paso; however, Task & Purpose found court documents listing the aggravated felony conviction that resulted in his deportation as a sexual assault. Orihuela served three years in prison, and was still fighting his case when they put him on an immigration bus and drove him to Juárez. In 2014, his appeal of the sexual assault conviction was denied by the U.S. Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit in Texas.
Now, Orihuela works as a barber. A few of the guys he served with in the Air Force occasionally visit from Texas for a haircut, but otherwise he’s on his own. The barbershop is located downtown, on gang turf. He says he hands over 30% of his wages in extortion payments, and that he has to cover up his American flag tattoo when he works — not because he’s afraid of being targeted as a tourist, but because stars are the symbol of a rival crew. “The older people in the neighborhood know it’s a U.S. flag, and assume I’m probably just visiting from Texas or whatever,” he says. “But the younger kids, man, that’s who you’ve got be worried about. They don’t think like that. They just react.”
Close your eyes and imagine a bar in Juárez. Now, imagine the opposite: this is La Bodeguita. Tucked into a shopping center on the edge of one of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods, the bar draws a decidedly hipster crowd. It’s packed when we arrive just before sundown. Evans is manning the turntables — tongue out, one hand on his headphones, the other tinkering with a techno version of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You.” His eyes light up when we walk through the door, a group of U.S. military veterans. Just a few days ago he thought he was the only one. Barajas is sporting his old red beret from the 82nd Airborne. A Vietnam War service ribbon sits front and center on Lopez’s hat. Everyone, including Ocon, is wearing the Deported Veterans Support House t-shirt, which is emblazoned with a small American flag. It’s clear the other patrons don’t know what to make of this strange militia.
Evans selects his last song and jogs over to the bar. There are bro hugs all around. Beers and tequila shots are ordered. Everyone seems to dig the music. It’s a house mashup of Edwin Starr’s “War.” The chorus lands like a karate chop: War, huh, yeah / What is it good for / Absolutely nothing. I seem to be the only person who notices the irony. “I told you this place was sick,” Evans says, throwing an arm over my shoulder. It dawns on me that I’d never even bothered to ask him if he even wanted to return to the States, so I do now. “When I first got here, it felt like a life sentence. But this” — he nods towards the crowd — “this is my home. I had to fight really, really hard to be happy here. You just don’t let that kind of happiness go.”
On the morning of April 22, the Bunker is a hive of activity. The ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled to begin at noon. Local reporters make their rounds, pulling the deported veterans aside one at a time for interviews. A pack of bikers in black leather jackets covered in military patches roll in from New Mexico. Three volunteers, all veterans and employees of a VA facility in Arizona, pull up with a carload of bottled water, hygiene kits, and sleeping bags, which they unload into the living room. Several women tend to a spread of chicken and rice. Ice-cold Fantas are distributed. Everyone is intensely focused on their tasks, as if worried that the months of preparation that went into this day could be completely undone by one wrong move.
By this point, I’ve come to realize that the members of this group are bound not just by their military service but also by a desire to prove to themselves, their families, and the country they served that they’ve learned from their mistakes. That’s the point of this whole operation. Until jobs and security are restored to Mexico, nothing, not even a giant wall, will keep droves of Mexicans from crossing the border illegally. That option has always been available to these men, too. But they’re done breaking the law. If and when they return to the States, it will be not as criminals, but as U.S. military veterans who embody the qualities, good and bad, implied by that distinction. Or at least that’s the hope. “I’ll wait eight years, nine years, 10 years,” Ocon tells me.
Ocon’s mother, nephew, and sister arrive from Las Cruces just before the ceremony begins. His daughter refused to come. It’s been 12 years since he’s seen her.
“They keep in contact a lot, but she has a really negative opinion of Mexico,” says Ocon’s sister, Claudia Ocon. “She’s afraid that she’d come down here and not make it out alive.”
Claudia, a behavioral health treatment coordinator for children in foster care, gets emotional talking about her brother’s situation. She talks about growing up poor, one of five siblings raised by a single mother, and describes Ocon’s decision to join the Army as an attempt to make a better life for himself. It’s clear that she looks up to her older brother. “It’s heartbreaking to see him living in these conditions,” she says, her eyes glassing over. “You have this man who served his country, who went to the Middle East, and now he sleeps on a couch in a house that didn’t even have running water when he showed up.”
A row of news cameras focus on Barajas, adorned in his signature red beret and old dress blues, as he addresses the small crowd that’s gathered in the courtyard. He points to a folded American flag that he brought from Tijuana for the ceremony. “Until the last man comes home, this flag will not leave this place,” he says, pausing to fight back tears. “Thank you for being here.” To his side, Ocon and Lopez stand rigid like soldiers in formation. A table behind them displays photos of the guys from their days in uniform. There’s also a shrine to all of the deported veterans who have died or gone missing “in exile.” Barajas’ wife says a prayer, in both Spanish and English. Then Barajas presents the folded flag to Lopez and Ocon and the men exchange slow salutes, just as they would if they were conducting a military funeral.
When I got out of the Army, I promised myself that I wouldn’t be one of those veterans who always talks about their military service like it was the best time of their life. Which meant that whatever I did next had to be an upgrade. The day I left Fort Campbell for good, I packed all of my old uniforms, medals, and souvenirs from overseas into a box and haven’t opened it since.
In the back of my mind, I’ve always known that being able to do that was a luxury. Not everyone can just do a few years in the military and then ride their honorable discharge to a more comfortable life. Not everyone comes home to a safe and loving community, as I did. Sometimes they go home to the opposite, or nothing. Old habits resume. Bad influences resurface. Brothers get arrested. Brothers die. Citizenship paperwork gets neglected. I finished my bachelor’s degree on the Post-9/11 GI Bill and it’s been more than a decade since I’ve been in handcuffs, but I’m no more of a veteran than those guys. All of us served the same nation, one that proudly supports the people who defend it with their lives. But as a society we also recognize that those people aren’t perfect. They fuck up. And when they do, they go to prison like everyone else. Unless they have a green card. In that case, we’ve decided prison isn’t enough. Why?
Orihuela takes his lunch break and the three of us walk to the edge of the Rio Grande. Barajas and several other deported veterans are there waiting for us. Each of us pays four pesos to get through the turnstiles and onto the bridge, which arcs high over the empty river. At the top, we pause for a minute to take photos at the line separating Mexico and the United States, and then proceed down toward Texas. The bridge terminates at a set of doors that only I c
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