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Slake: Los Angeles—Return to Sender—A City And Its Stories

Return to Sender

By Cindy Carcamo

A dust-covered bus emerged from the jungle and stopped in a dark and quiet Guatemalan village. The driver opened the door, letting out an earful of thumping reggaeton as a single passenger stepped off. Across the highway, a boy stood waiting.

“Chello!” the boy called out.

The man brushed off his jeans, tossed a camouflage backpack over his shoulder, and looked toward the silhouette of his ten-year-old nephew, barely visible in the glow of fireflies and brake lights as the bus roared into the night.

“Erick!” called back the man, nicknamed Chello. The boy kicked his foot in the dirt as the man approached, and then gave his favorite uncle a hasty embrace. Behind them, in a flat, open-air house that doubles as a roadside diner, the lights flickered on one by one. Melvin Eliceo Súchite Hernandez was home. Maybe this time for good.

Faces exhausted, eyes emptied of emotion, and shoulders slouched, the 117 airline passengers barely whispered as their plane lifted off the desert tarmac and headed for the lush, volcano-dotted country some thought they’d never see again.

It was a Friday morning, October 8, 2010, many hours before Súchite’s Guatemala homecoming, as his chartered flight left Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. Just as you’d see on any friendly, no-frills airline, the flight attendants wore khaki pants and blue polo shirts. But on this ride, they gave their announcements from the front of the plane, not venturing past a phalanx of security agents who stood from their seats as soon as the jet was airborne and stationed themselves along the plane’s aisle, resembling statues as they towered over their charges. Thirteen of the passengers wore shackles.

Most of the travelers to Guatemala City had been wearing the same grimy clothes for days. Some had never been inside a jetliner, and their eyes darted about the cabin with curiosity. Others stared outside the windows, already lost in the clouds and endless sky. A few anxiously rubbed their arms, as if trying to console themselves. The air was thick with the smell of humanity.

The crew—the pilots and flight attendants, the onboard nurse and security agents—were contract hires. Normally, a single officer from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would be aboard to supervise, but for this flight, with two reporters, a TV cameraperson, and a newspaper photographer along for the ride, two extra ICE agents came to assist.

Behind their stoic masks, many of the plane’s passengers were coming to terms with what they considered a failure. Some lamented the thousands of dollars still owed to the smugglers who helped them cross into the United States. But at least one of the travelers viewed the flight as something of a proc- ess—and a blessing, certainly not the worst result in a game where risks are high and death is possible.

“Who knows?” Súchite said as he shrugged his shoulders and settled in to enjoy the ride. “Perhaps a rattlesnake waited for me in the desert.” This was his third time on a U.S. deportation flight.

***

The first time Súchite tried to emigrate to the United States, in 2006, he went to a smuggler and paid the Guatemalan equivalent of $5,000 for a three-try package deal. On his first try, he didn’t even get to the U.S. border. He was caught in Mexico and deported. On Súchite’s second try, he managed to get through the dangerous Mexican traverse and made it into Arizona, but was quickly apprehended after crossing over.

On his third attempt, success. After four nights and three days walking through the Arizona desert, he evaded ICE agents and made it to a coyote-hired truck at a designated meeting spot. The driver hauled Súchite and several others to Los Angeles and then to Las Vegas, where he met up with his brother, Benjamin Jr., now thirty-two (Súchite, twenty-five, is the youngest brother of thirteen siblings). The pair hugged, gorged themselves at a $20 casino buffet, and traveled to Wyoming, where Súchite worked for a year and a half before getting caught without documents and sent home.

Paying another $5,000 for a new three-try deal was out of the question for his most recent trip north. So when Súchite decided to reclaim his job working on gas lines in the Wyoming desert, he knew he’d have only himself to rely on.

In late September, following the scraggly notes he’d written during his last coyote-led trip, Súchite set out from Buena Vista, his eastern Guatemalan hometown, which is inland from the Caribbean port town of Livingston, along the road to Peten in the department of Izabal. With Gatorade, water,of Izabal. With Gatorade, water, and cans of corn and tuna in his backpack to sustain him, he hopped aboard a series of rickety buses and trucks that snaked their way into Mexico, past the U.S. border, and up into the Arizona desert.

At first, after trekking safely across the U.S. border, it looked as if he’d have no trouble reaching Wyoming. But nearly three and a half hours into the Sonoran Desert, on September 28, 2010, a U.S. Border Patrol agent nabbed Súchite in Ajo, Arizona. ICE records showed that Súchite had been caught previously at the border and had signed a voluntary deportation order. Súchite was arrested and taken to a cell at the Arizona Removal Operations Coordination Center, the deportation hub at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport that ICE opened in March 2010 to send Central Americans, most of them Guatemalan, back to their home countries on regularly scheduled flights.

As of September 18 in fiscal year 2010, ICE centers around the country deported 158,964 people on flights to destinations worldwide on what some call ICE Air. Nearly 18 percent of those people—28,204—were sent to Guatemala City, most of them on flights from Mesa-Phoenix Gateway. After Mexicans, according to ICE data, Guatemalans make up the second-highest number of deportees from the United States. Deportations from Mesa took a sharp rise during the Bush administration, as the Arizona Republic reported, from about 6,150 in fiscal year 2003 to nearly 16,000 in 2006. The numbers have continued to grow under the Obama administration. And the flights aren’t cheap—for each one-way trip to Latin America, the federal government spends an average of $560 per deportee, according to 2010 ICE data. Little of this cost goes to passenger amenities. The in-flight meal on Súchite’s plane was a sack lunch that contained a cheese sandwich and a juice box. Juan Sebastian Chavez, a few rows up from Súchite, was a first-time flier from Mesa-Phoenix Gateway. A forty-two-year-old from a community inhabited by a handful of mostly indigenous families, Chavez resembled most of the plane’s passengers—high cheekbones, ashen complexion, small frame. And like many of the deportees, he was worried about money.

Chavez left his wife and children in Colcoquitz, an isolated village near Mexico in western Guatemala, where the people speak Mam, one of the country’s twenty-three recognized Amerindian languages. There are no roads in or out of Colcoquitz—it’s a three-hour mountain trek to Ixchiguan, the nearest town. In 2005, Hurricane Stan shattered the hamlet and carried away the village’s topsoil, making it impossible for residents to grow corn, a Guatemalan staple.

“There are no fields to work,” Chavez explained in Spanish.

Desperate to feed his family, Chavez borrowed the equivalent of about $1,250 in quetzales at 15 percent interest to fund a trip to visit his friend in the U.S. who promised to help him get a job in Minnesota. Chavez was caught on his way north, and is now deep in debt. He doesn’t know whether he’ll try the trip again.

Immigrant-rights activists paint those who cross the border illegally as the poorest, most vulnerable in society—the exploited backbone of the American economy. Anti–illegal immigration activists describe them as job stealers, invaders, and leeches who are contributing to the eventual downfall of an overly generous United States.

Súchite doesn’t consider himself part of either group. Unlike Chavez and many of the others on the plane, his reasons for venturing north have little to do with surviving. It’s about thriving, he explained.

“Sometimes you have to take risks,” he said, “or else you’ll never achieve anything.”

Most Guatemalan men are married with children by the time they are in their early twenties. But Súchite, who is Ladino, a mix of Spanish and indigenous blood, had none of the usual attachments when he decided to set out on his own.

“In Guatemala you have two alternatives to make something of a good life,” he said, holding up two fingers. “You join the narcos or you leave for the United States.”

In his stylish, well-fitting jeans and Puma-like shoes, Súchite stood out on the planeful of men, who mostly wore dusty work boots and oversize pants and shirts. Savvier and more educated than the typical deportee, he showed off his ruby-encrusted gold ring from his 2004 high school graduation—an achievement in a country with a 30 percent illiteracy rate.

Three brown beaded bracelets Súchite bought on his way through Mexico decorated his arm. But he had hopes for a better souvenir from his trip, an iPhone 4.

Súchite said the temptation of joining the narcotics trade is a lure for young men like him, who carry ambition and want more in a country where social class follows a family for generations. But many who join the narco trade end up dead. Migrating north, he said, is a less-dangerous alternative.

“Over there you can make a pretty good life and you can save something,” he said. “Over there you can treat yourself to nice things.”

During the four-and-a-half-hour flight, many of Súchite’s fellow passengers slept, awakened only by the announcements of two escorted bathroom breaks and lunch. As the plane neared Guatemala City, a few pulled yellowed family photos from their pockets while everyone buckled their seat belts and braced themselves for what U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement considered the end of the journey. For the deportees, though, the real journey was just beginning.

Photo by Dan Peterka

This is an excerpt of an article originally published in Slake No. 2. To read the entire story, purchase or subscribe at shop.slake.la.

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