Monday, May 16, 2011

Special report: Salvadoran girl survives abuse, bureaucracy on journey north (El Paso Times)

Special report: Salvadoran girl survives abuse, bureaucracy on journey north
by Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera \ El Paso Times
Posted: 05/15/2011 12:00:00 AM MDT

CHIHUAHUA CITY -- Relatives told Verónica that her trip to the United States to meet up with her parents was going to be difficult.

No one really knew how dangerous it would turn out for the 8-year-old, who set out for Los Angeles. They just told her she would have to be strong, and no matter what, keep pushing forward.

Her trip began in Mojones in El Salvador -- a town with its own brand of danger.

If she stayed, she faced problems with a vicious street gang that was terrorizing people.

The decision was made that it would be safer for Verónica to go to the U.S. Smugglers were hired so she could be taken from El Salvador through Guatemala and Mexico, and then into the loving arms of her parents.

The cost was $7,000, a high price to pay.

Yet that price seemed small.

What she went through would make even a grownup shudder.

Somewhere between the Mexican states of Veracruz and Chihuahua, she was sexually abused.

"This shouldn't have happened. The girl didn't owe anything to anyone," said Ana Alicia Girón, 63, Verónica's paternal grandmother. "She has suffered so much along the way. There are no words to describe it all."

Then Verónica faced deportation from Mexico.

But Girón fought hard against an unbending bureaucracy and won a rare humanitarian permit for Verónica so she could continue her journey north.

Verónica's ordeal illustrates the hardships thousands of Central and South American immigrants face each year when trying -- and often failing -- to make the journey through Mexico and into the United States.

According to Mexico's National Commission for Human Rights, or CNDH, between 150,000 and 400,000 undocumented immigrants, mostly from Central America, cross through Mexico every year. In 2010, Mexico's National Immigration Institute reported having deported 63,342 immigrants from Central America.

On their way, immigrants are often at risk of being robbed, assaulted, extorted, kidnapped, raped or killed at the hands of their smugglers, organized crime members or corrupt Mexican officials.

Last month, the bodies of 72 people, mostly Central American immigrants, were found in mass graves in the northern state of Tamaulipas. Authorities believed they were killed by the drug organization Los Zetas.

The dangers

It's well known that the trip is dangerous, but Verónica's parents felt they had no other choice.

Her mother left for the United States when Verónica was 3 to provide a better life for her daughter in El Salvador. Soon afterward, Verónica's father followed.

In Mojones, Verónica grew up to be a pretty girl with tan skin, honey-colored eyes, dirty blond hair and a quick mind for math. She and her grandparents lived in humble conditions, but her parents, now in Los Angeles, regularly sent money.

Their plan was to eventually have Verónica join them. However, the situation became urgent when members of the notorious gang Mara Salvatrucha came by Verónica's house asking for extortion money -- a monthly quota for protection from them. Verónica's grandparents told her mother, who panicked.

"The Maras came and threatened the girl's grandparents," Girón said. Verónica's mother "was afraid that the girl would be kidnapped. For that simple reason, she became fixed on the idea of bringing the girl to Los Angeles."

Escaping from the violence generated by gangs like Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 is one of the main reasons Salvadorans leave their country, said National Commission for Human Rights ombudsman Fernando Batista.

"There are many cases in which they open a small business that later has to be abandoned because the Maras charge them fees that are impossible to pay," he said. "In the case of migrant children and teenagers, there are many that live under the constant threat of being recruited or kidnapped by the juvenile gangs. In some cases, the only way out is to flee."

Last year, Mexican authorities found and sheltered 4,038 underage immigrants, of whom 174 were unaccompanied minors 11 or younger.

Batista said many of the children leave their countries because there are no opportunities to escape violence.

In the past six years, the civil- rights commission has documented human-rights violations against 394 minors. The complaints include being asked for money to avoid being beaten up or deported, and not receiving food or medical attention.

Verónica's parents paid a smuggler $7,000.

One day in April, Verónica's mother gave Girón the news that she would soon see her granddaughter. Girón was startled and was worried, but the decision had already been made. Now they could only wait and hope for the best.

Journey across Mexico

Only Verónica and her attackers know what happened in the time before she arrived in Chihuahua City, where she was rescued. From her testimony and medical examinations, said María del Socorro Roacho, head of social work at the public safety department of Chihuahua City, this was the story they reconstructed:

It took about a week for Verónica to make it from El Salvador to the Mexican state of Veracruz. There, Verónica, who had left El Salvador with a smuggler the family knew and trusted, was handed over to someone else.

"They were people we knew, but in El Salvador, it was one person, and from El Salvador to here, it was another. I don't know what happened, but people changed," she said.

Leticia Calderón, a professor at the Doctor José María Luís Mora Research Institute and an expert on immigration, said smugglers -- also known as coyotes or polleros -- used to be more trustworthy because they belonged to communities where everybody knew them. But that has changed.

"You wouldn't entrust yourself or your children to a stranger; you trusted these people. That's all over now because they've become criminals as they've joined human-trafficking networks," she said.

With the new smuggler and two other immigrants, Verónica hopped on a bus headed to Juárez, where they would cross into the U.S. At some point during the 1,200-mile trip to Chihuahua City, the smuggler and a 17-year-old immigrant in the group abused Verónica.

On April 18, when the bus stopped at the city's central station, Roacho said Verónica followed a woman who had bought her food during the trip into the restroom and told her everything. The woman called the police, who detained everyone in Verónica's group, except the smuggler, who managed to escape. Her 17-year-old attacker is being held in Chihuahua. Another immigrant, who was not involved in the abuse, was deported to El Salvador.

A doctor with the public safety department examined Verónica, Roacho said.

"The doctor said she had marks on her. They weren't bruises; they were stings made with a needle to force her to open her little legs," Roacho said. "This case stood out because of the hell the girl had to live through."

Roacho had her first chance to talk to Verónica at the police station. She had no money on her, but she carried a small denim backpack with clean clothes and black-and-white pictures of princesses, which she colored with Roacho. Verónica told her she was the princess in the pictures.

Verónica also told her she didn't know her mother and was excited she was going to meet her. At the time, she was at risk of being deported. Her journey was on the verge of coming to an end at the very same place where she started.

Meeting halfway

Girón, who became a U.S. citizen during the immigration amnesty of 1986 and now lives in Los Angeles, wanted to prevent that.

Being the only one in the family capable of legally moving back and forth between the United States and El Salvador, she had visited Verónica three times while she was growing up.

Immigration law does not permit U.S. citizens to petition for their grandchildren. There is a way, though.

As Girón learned, the legal process could have worked if Verónica's mother had given her legal custody of the child. After talking with Verónica's parents and consulting with a lawyer in Los Angeles, Girón obtained Verónica's custody and traveled with a close friend to take the girl back with her.

But nine days after Girón arrived in Chihuahua, she had barely seen Verónica.

During that time, officials with the state's Agency for Family Development, or DIF, which includes child protective services among its responsibilities, allowed Girón to see Verónica only twice, for periods of less than 20 minutes.

Eventually, Girón ran out of her medicine to treat her diabetes, was hospitalized for a day, and had to be moved on a wheelchair from there on. She carried a suitcase with clothes and shoes for Verónica the entire time.

"What we couldn't understand is the state government's insensibility for not allowing this girl to be with her grandmother while the immigration process concluded," said Lucha Castro, a Chihuahua City attorney and human-rights activist helping Girón with the case.

Theoretically, Girón should have obtained custody of the girl after she had proved she was Verónica's legal guardian and investigators no longer needed to interview Verónica.

But a week after she had arrived in Chihuahua, she had not seen the police file on Verónica's case and did not know if the alleged attackers had been detained or being charged.

She didn't even know whether Verónica had been given a medical checkup.

Her case seemed to jump from one agency to another. It remains unclear which agency now possesses the complete file documenting Verónica's case.

Regardless, the confusion about what agency should take the lead created a bureaucratic knot -- not uncommon in Mexico -- that delayed for weeks a decision as to what would happen to Verónica.

"Immigration authorities are dehumanized. They don't understand they are not working with files but with people with a history and in deep pain. There are rules they must follow, but they cannot be implemented to the point where it becomes absurd, like in this case, where what the girl needed was a hug from her grandmother," Calderón said.

On Wednesday, immigration authorities said Verónica was no longer needed for the investigation and would be repatriated unless a competent relative filed a formal petition asking for the child's custody. Girón said she had done so and had been ignored.

Castro said that only after mounting sit-ins in front of the state government palace and raising the case's profile in the local media were they able to gain the attention of state, immigration and Salvadoran officials.

On Thursday, after meeting with representatives of the national immigration authority, Chihuahua's state government, the Salvadoran Consulate and human-rights activists, it was agreed that the girl would receive a humanitarian visa and be released that same day.

After finishing the legal paperwork at the immigration headquarters in Chihuahua, Castro said, Verónica was reunited with her grandmother.

"It was very emotional. Verónica ran to her grandmother and told her, 'Grandma, you didn't leave me.' Everyone, including the immigration officials and the police officers there, were holding back their tears," she said.

But Girón and Verónica's journey hasn't ended. The two are now waiting to hear the response from U.S. immigration authorities about their request for a humanitarian visa.

Given what Verónica has gone through, their attorney in Los Angeles believes she has a strong argument for her case.

As of Saturday, they remained in Chihuahua. It is uncertain how much longer they will have to stay in Mexico.

At some point, Verónica's family will have to consider therapy and psychological attention. At some time, they will have to discuss what happened with her.

But for now, just happy to be together, Girón said that conversation can wait.

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