Terror raced through Teresa Gonzales as both the clarity of the message and the ambiguity of the threat hit her at once. “We have a present for you waiting outside,” read the text, which appeared on her daughter Rosa’s cellphone during Saturday worship. “Mom, they’re threatening me,” said Rosa, eyes wide.
Teresa, whose family members’ names have been changed for their protection, had gone to worship at her church in central Tegucigalpa, bringing Rosa, 16, along with her. Teresa — a short, sturdy woman with round cheeks and tightly curled, black hair — tried to attend service with her family on a daily basis. On this particularly muggy Saturday, however, her older daughter, Leti, had been busy at work when she was interrupted during prayer.
Adrenaline racing, she made a quick calculation. The gang had caught up to her — it was time to run. Gathering up Rosa, she fled straight from the crowd at the cavernous Baptist church onto a bus, and straight to a cousin’s home in a nearby town.
It wasn’t the first time Teresa had fled threats like this. The year before, Rosa had caught the attention of a local gang member. The young girl refused his advances and death threats quickly spread from Rosa to the entire family, leading them to go into hiding — hopping from one place to another, only having a moment’s peace during the short time it took for the gangs to find their location again; ultimately, they attempted to flee north toward the perceived safety of the United States. They weren’t the first to leave either. Two of her other daughters had already fled, one to Spain and the other to join her brother in the United States, where she had gained asylum.
But it was the first time that her daughter Leti had stayed behind.
Leti, 20, had always been optimistic. Even after the death threats against the family began — when her little sister refused the advances of a local gangster — she was still cracking jokes about her siblings’ clothes or mocking how they talked, just to see them laugh. No matter how tired she was, she would always come home brimming with energy to help her mom with the household chores and to take care of her 2-year-old daughter, Keyla. “She was so happy,” said Teresa. She told me that during the family’s first attempt to escape the threats, they had crossed a river on a raft. “Throw me in here!” Leti had laughed “I want to learn how to swim!”
Back in Tegucigalpa, Leti would come home from work to see her mother wracked with worry and she would insist on giving Teresa a makeover, tut-tutting any sign that she had stopped taking care of herself. “Oh, when I’m old, I’ll never let myself go like this,” she would say while carefully applying eyeliner on her mother.
Leti herself was nearly always impeccably dressed, often in a white blouse (white was her favorite color). She had her mother’s cherubic cheeks and long, brown hair that flowed over her shoulders. And although Leti had just dropped out of her final year of school to take care of her daughter, she dreamed of studying psychology at university. As a kid, however, she wanted to be a lawyer. “To defend the poor,” Teresa told me. “She loved the idea of justice.”
“She wasn’t afraid, and she was so clear-headed,” said Teresa. “She would say that we don’t owe anyone anything, so we shouldn’t be scared.”
That Saturday, on Teresa’s way to her latest hiding place, the two spoke over the phone. Attempting to reassure her terrified mother and younger sibling, Leti asked them not to leave. “Don’t worry,” she implored her mother. “That boy isn’t going to do anything to you,” she said. “You are a child of God.”
“They left [her] in the wolf’s mouth,” said a family member.
Eight days later, Teresa received a troubling phone call. Leti had gone out on a double date with a childhood friend and never returned — she had been missing since Sunday.
Leaving Rosa asleep in their hiding place, Leti’s mother rushed to Tegucigalpa. She had only just arrived in front of her first stop, the national registry, when the phone rang. It was a call from her pastor.
“Tere, we found Leti,” he said.
Teresa breathed in sharply. “How is she?”
The pastor’s response was shattering: “She’s dead.”
Live images of the crime scene had begun rolling across her neighbors’ TV screens. The two women’s bodies had been found decomposing in a stream, only recognizable by the clothing they wore.
“She was tortured,” Teresa told me.
“Asphyxia by strangulation,” read the death certificate.
Leti’s family was devastated. But her death wasn’t a surprise for those who lived in turbulent neighborhoods like hers in Tegucigalpa. Honduras is beleaguered by warring gangs and police — unofficial armies in the unofficial, indiscriminate war that plagues the Northern Triangle of Central America, catching innocent civilians in the crossfire.
It also would not have surprised Hondurans that Leti was a deportee, detained and turned away after a final, defiant attempt four months prior to escape the death threats against her family. However, Leti was deported not from the United States, but from Monterrey, Mexico. And although the Gonzales women had a valid claim for asylum under Mexican law, and despite their repeated requests to immigration agents, they were never given the chance to apply for it before being put on a bus back to Honduras and Leti’s death.
According to a Migration Policy Institute analysis of both U.S. and Mexican deportations, from 2015 to 2017, Mexico had already deported roughly 409,000 Central American migrants, nearly double the number of its northern neighbor. This was no accident. Much political pressure and direct funding from the United States has focused on Mexico’s immigration enforcement. And, according to Maureen Meyer, director of Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America, Mexico has accepted its role as a barrier for those looking to reach the U.S. border.
“It’s shocking,” said Meyer, “knowing … the infrastructure in Mexico, the widespread abuses that happen against migrants in Mexico, and the very weak asylum system Mexico has, that we were still asking Mexico to do what they were doing.”
The United States has domestic and international obligations not to deport asylum-seekers to their deaths, but by expecting Mexico to do this work for them, the Trump administration can turn a blind eye to what happens next. Effectively, Trump’s wall has already been built — but on Mexican soil.
“It doesn’t always seem that their main interest at all is what happens to people in Mexico, as much as making sure people don’t get to our border,” said Meyer.
A year before Teresa’s family was sent back to Honduras, the Trump administration centered its 2016 campaign around the promise of building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and making Mexico pay for it. After Trump took office, his administration continued funding projects begun under the Obama administration such as the $3 billion Mérida Initiative, which includes four pillars, the third of which is the creation of a Mexican “21st Century Border.” According to a Congressional Research Service report, this involves “support for securing Mexico’s porous and insecure southern borders,” including “$24 million in equipment and training assistance”; in addition, the U.S. government has obligated “$75 million more in that area.” According to the same report, these appropriations enable the U.S. government to “shape Mexico’s policies.” One such policy is Mexico’s Southern Border Plan, aimed at stopping migrants as they cross into Mexican territory from Guatemala. As reported by the New York Times, under the direction of the Trump administration, the U.S. State Department additionally funneled $20 million toward deportation flights from Mexico.
Then, entire caravans of asylum-seekers began flowing once again through Mexico toward the United States. “Would be very SMART if Mexico would stop the Caravans long before they get to our Southern Border,” Trump tweeted on November 25. Trump also began to pressure Mexico to become a “safe third country,” which would mean migrants would be legally obligated to request asylum in Mexico before doing so in the United States. Mexico resisted. But soon thereafter, at the end of 2018, the “remain in Mexico,” or “Migrant Protection Protocols,” plan was introduced. It would leave thousands of asylum-seekers sitting just south of the U.S. border, effectively leaving Mexico’s buckling immigration institutions to simultaneously take on both its own and the United States’s asylum-seekers.
Meanwhile, Mexico elected a new president as well. Andrés Manuel López Obrador called migration “a human right we will defend,” proposing a new politics of immigration in Mexico. Such a statement was a sharp contrast to the rhetoric and policies of the past administration — perhaps the most recent, glaring example of which was the militarized closing of the Mexico-Guatemala border, where tear gas was used as the first migrant caravans attempted to enter Mexico last year. Since taking office in 2019, López Obrador promised to clean up the practices of the National Migration Institute, known by its Spanish initials INM; invest in Central America; and bolster his asylum offices while also giving migrants the opportunity to stay and work in Mexico. But to this day, say many, he has not addressed the core of Mexico’s biggest problem — the deep rift between Mexico’s broken asylum system and the better-funded but deeply corrupt immigration forces.
Article 21 of Mexico’s refugee law states that that if a representative of the government becomes aware of a foreigner requesting asylum, they must tell the Ministry of the Interior or be sanctioned. Yet both a 2018 report from Amnesty International and the Mexican immigration authority’s own internal review in 2017 revealed many irregularities in INM’s handling of asylum-seekers. Rather than caring properly for asylum-seekers in detention, the INM has been actively seeking to forcibly deport migrants — no matter how well-founded their fear of return.
“The Mexican government is routinely failing in its obligations under international law to protect those who are in need of international protection,” said the Amnesty International report, “as well as repeatedly violating the non-refoulement principle, a binding pillar of international law that prohibits the return of people to a real risk of persecution or other serious human rights violations. These failures by the Mexican government in many cases can cost the lives of those returned to the country from which they fled.”
Mexico’s asylum and refugee agency, the Commission for Refugee Aid, known by its Spanish acronym COMAR, currently operates with minimal personnel and an even lower budget than it did under the Peña Nieto administration. In 2019, the Mexican government approved an operating budget of roughly $1 million, about $250,000 less than in 2018. Meanwhile, the INM is still receiving over $70 million in support from the Mexican government, despite also its own budget also being cut.
According to Ruth Wasem, former congressional researcher and professor of public policy at the University of Texas, Mexico has the asylum laws, but not the institutions to implement them. “We have the laws and the institutions,” she says. “But we’re lacking the political will.”
Meanwhile, lives like Leti’s may continue to fall through the cracks.
Four months before Leti’s death on June 4, 2017, Teresa’s family and dozens of other migrants barreled north in the back of a suffocatingly hot shipping container.
“We were in the trailer for thirty hours without food or water,” Teresa told me in October from her hiding place in Honduras. “We were stacked in between each other’s legs.”
Once the train was well inside Mexico and they had escaped the inferno of the container, Leti and her family members, two of whom were now sick and covered in mosquito bites, were put on a bus going north. The Gonzales women had nearly arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border north of Monterrey when the bus lurched to a halt.
“Immigration had stopped it, and we hadn’t even realized,” said Teresa.
Teresa was delirious from stress and dehydration. However, when INM agents stopped her bus, Leti’s mother still managed to do what she had long ago decided: turn herself into the authorities and tell them that her family was fleeing for their lives. But when she presented her family’s papers, it was Mexican immigration agents she was facing, not the U.S. Border Patrol.
Quickly, all four of them were thrown into detention in Nuevo León.
According to Gabriela Zamora, an immigration researcher at Colegio de la Frontera Norte who is a co-founder of Casa Monarca, one of Monterrey’s most prominent migrant shelters, “they would have sent them forcibly … to a migration detention center, which Monterrey still lacks.” Zamora’s best guess for what would have been a likely location is Piedras Negras, in Coahuila, at the facility where members of the 2019 Honduran caravan would later be detained in February.
“I was so nervous after everything that had happened,” said Teresa. She again told the agents of the threats, of her fear for the lives of her children. According to Mexican law, Leti’s family had the right to hire legal counsel and to medical care and medication. In 2016, the INM had also signed a non-mandatory “alternatives to detention” agreement with COMAR and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, allowing asylum-seekers to be released from detention. But the INM agent speaking to Teresa pushed back. “They told me that we were already scheduled for deportation,” she said.
Teresa was scared. “I didn’t want to go back,” she said. But Leti, as usual, was worried for her mother — and for good reason. Teresa’s mind and health were quickly deteriorating. Her blood sugar levels had risen to be dangerously high. “Mommy, we don’t have issues with anyone,” she said, panicked that they were trapped in the center without medicine.
Teresa held tight, praying for the chance to at least stay in the relative safety of Mexico, despite her deteriorating health. She took solace in the biblical story of Noah. “He saved himself and his entire family, after floating for many years,” she said. “Sometimes I think, ‘If they suffered, why can’t we?’ That story gives me a lot of strength.”
Yet within 10 days, the bus arrived to deport their family back to Honduras. “They told me that the consul hadn’t come, so we had to go back to our country,” said Teresa. The agent told her that if she were to apply for asylum, she would have to wait for three months in detention. “My sugar had risen a lot,” she said. So she acquiesced to her daughter.
“Maybe if I had just stayed, Leti would be alive,” Teresa later told me, her voice shaking.
“It’s unfortunately all too common that potential asylum-seekers apprehended in Mexico are … not informed of the right to seek protection,” said Meyer. “And I think the overall consensus is that most immigration officers … are much more focused on the apprehension, detention, deportation side of things.”
Madeleine Penman, author of the 2018 Amnesty International report titled “Overlooked, Under-Protected: Mexico’s Deadly Refoulement of Central Americans Seeking Asylum,” conducted two years of research and more than 100 interviews with migrants and immigration officials alike. “What we saw was that on a routine basis, people were being returned to Honduras and El Salvador that had a clearly well-founded fear of danger. This is a clear violation of international law and Mexican law that we saw happening on a common basis.”
The INM did not respond to requests for comment.
Since the report’s publication, Penman said she has been personally involved in stopping deportations while visiting detention centers in Mexico. “Because the systems of the INM and COMAR are so poor and coordination is so poor, it’s not clear who’s on a deportation list and who’s actually an asylum-seeker.”
If Leti and her family had been allowed to file a claim for asylum, there was still no assurance that it would have gone smoothly. INM agents have gone beyond just dissuading migrants from claiming asylum in the detention centers. Documents obtained by The Intercept show that COMAR has received fabricated letters from the INM that claim to be from migrants they have detained. These letters, claiming the migrant is renouncing asylum claims and requesting deportation, are later faxed to COMAR offices, effectively canceling any future chance at asylum in the country.
“This kind of situation is very common,” a source inside COMAR confirmed. “They present us with a handwritten note saying, ‘Thank you COMAR but I cannot continue with the process,’” said the source, who requested anonymity due to fears of professional retaliation. “It’s not the applicant, because they fill out their form, and when comparing the handwriting, it isn’t the same, the signature is not the same, and then that same person will come back requesting to continue with their claim, saying ‘I never signed this!’”
Pamela Lopez, a former asylum adjudication officer at Mexico’s COMAR in Tapachula, agrees. “Sometimes, because of capacity, they try to get rid of people, just to not have them there,” she said. In her experience, “[The INM] has falsified applicants’ writing many times.” She, too, has had applicants return past the border to check on their application, only to find that it had been withdrawn.
The Mexican interior secretary, Olga Sánchez Cordero, has estimated that there will be 48,000 asylum applicants in 2019. And according to new data from Mexico’s office of the UNHCR, January and February of this year saw an 185 percent increase in asylum applications in Mexico compared to the same months last year. But for those who listened to López Obrador’s rhetoric during the campaign, it came as a shock when his government cut COMAR’s already-minuscule budget for 2019.
On February 28, 2019, at a forum run by the Migration Policy Institute, Sánchez Cordero said that the answer to this gap in funding will be support from the UNHCR itself. “Traditionally, our country has been a friendly, hospitable country,” she said. “And we would like to continue to be one when it comes to asylum and refugees. We can strengthen COMAR, and with the support of the UNHCR, we can start to strengthen our agency … in order to expedite the requests we’ve received.”
But the last time UNHCR helped COMAR with hiring, Mexico’s corruption still got in the way. When the first migrant caravan began forming in October 2018, COMAR was pressured to aggressively pursue asylum applications for the migrants in the caravan before they reached the United States. At the time, Tapachula’s COMAR outpost only had a staff of about 30. The UNHCR stepped in to help Mexico hire 22 new employees for six months to support the intake of the caravan’s migrants. According to documents obtained by The Intercept and as reported in Mexico’s newspaper La Reforma, however, at least one of the jobs was taken by Roberto José Pacheco Alegría, the husband of COMAR’s head delegate in Chiapas, who was contracted as a registry assistant and listed as working on the intake of migrants seeking asylum. According to COMAR, the delegate was verbally reprimanded by the López Obrador administration. “Whilst there should be zero tolerance with respect to nepotistic practices,” wrote spokesperson Carmen Soriano in an e-mail, “the enormous workload, the caravan, and the overall excellent and committed job on the part of the delegate and COMAR’s weak operation capacity, we considered to keep the delegate in her job provided that such practice will not be tolerated in the future.”
Others who were contracted were young and inexperienced, and immediately went to work deciding the fate of migrants asking for asylum. COMAR told The Intercept that each and every staff member was trained by UNHCR staff and knowledgeable COMAR colleagues on basic refugee protection issues. Lopez, however, differs in her account. “They were never trained,” said Lopez. “Just sit at the desk, look it over, and here are your cases.” In Mexico, asylum decisions, which can mean the difference between safety and possible harm or death, are made largely by the one asylum officer you are assigned.
A Parting of the Seas
After Leti’s murder, Teresa was determined to keep her last daughter in Honduras alive. First, they moved towns again to hide from Rosa’s pursuers, spending their days inside. After being cooped up for multiple weeks, Teresa finally took pity on her daughter and let her out to find work. Quickly thereafter, the threats flooded in yet again. “They sent me pictures and videos of her,” said Teresa.
In February, Teresa’s blood sugar levels spiked to 400, but the idea of losing another daughter was unbearable. So they traveled north, where they were caught once again by the INM and detained, this time in Tenosique. There, Teresa saw a doctor, but was given no medication.
According to an email from COMAR, the INM and COMAR have recently signed a cooperation agreement aiming at ending refoulement practices. But these changes, again, didn’t reach Teresa’s family.
“Better you go back to your country and try again,” the agent told her.
After their deportation, Rosa and Teresa hid in a friend’s hallway in Tegucigalpa. A neighbor, knowing the danger they faced, mortgaged her house and lent them the money to flee again.
This time — just as the Trump administration was preparing to send back the first asylum-seekers under the “remain in Mexico” program — Teresa and Rosa reached the United States. As their raft ran aground in the Rio Grande, on the shores of McAllen, Texas, they were immediately apprehended. The first and only thing Teresa said to Border Patrol: “We want asylum.”
One week after they were released from immigration detention, Teresa asked me to join her at church. “Miracles happen here!” proclaimed a giant LED sign on the wall. Red and blue spotlights crisscrossed the huge megachurch, and Teresa swayed to the Christian rock band playing at the pulpit. She hugged her granddaughter and Rosa, her feet firmly together and her hands raised up at the elbows. “Eternal, limitless. Borderless, I am,” sang the family, hundreds of voices in unison. Tears rolled town Teresa’s cheeks, and she frantically tried to fix her mascara, trading quick glances with her daughter.
At church now, she told me, Teresa asks God to give her strength —“that he protects my children.”
After leaving all their worldly possessions behind in Tegucigalpa and changing phones numerous times to shake their pursuers, Teresa and her family have lost most physical reminders of Leti. When she can bear it, Teresa returns to the memories that are still inscribed in her social media accounts. They are mostly family memories: trips to the river with Keyla, birthday parties. These moments now haunt Teresa, who still can barely speak of her lost daughter.
Later that afternoon, Teresa leaned back on her family’s bed in the United States, and I asked what her hopes are now. She looked out the window, her black curls falling around her face, her lips pressed together. “I often think about the Red Sea,” said Teresa, surrounded by the six family members that share her small studio apartment. “The U.S. is parting the seas so we can pass, giving us an opportunity.”
The family is now in deportation proceedings, with a court date set for March 2020. Without a way to legally work, they are uncertain how they will afford a lawyer or apply for asylum. But they are hopeful.
After their arrival, Rosa was busy with the basics of registering for high school: vaccinations, setting up English immersion classes. She told her mother, who is illiterate, that she wants to study and succeed for Leti and for her niece. “She told me, Keyla no longer has her mother, but I can give her a better life.”
This story was produced in partnership with the Global Migration Project at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.