CORTÉS DEPARTMENT, Honduras — Yovani has a strategy for staying alive: He will not let anyone know he is back in Honduras, he will move homes every couple of weeks and he will stay indoors.
This is how much he fears the gang member who killed his brother, who forced two other close relatives into exile and who, he says, is trying to murder him next.
Yovani, 23, had hoped to apply for asylum in the United States. But when he and his family arrived at the border late last month, American officials diverted them to Guatemala instead.
The action is permitted under a new accord between the Trump administration and the Guatemalan authorities but it has left Yovani with no good options. Fearing for his safety in Guatemala, he and his family returned to Honduras. And then they looked for a place to hide.
“We can’t stay in one place,” Yovani said from northern Honduras, where he, his wife and two daughters have lived since earlier this month. He asked that he only be partly identified, and that his precise location be kept secret, because of the threats to his life.
Getting killed in Honduras, he explained, “is super-easy.”
Trump administration officials last year created the policy, which allows them to send asylum seekers to Guatemala to apply for sanctuary there. Their hope is that it would reduce the number of migrants reaching the United States.
But critics say the deal may be a death sentence for migrants, because Guatemala has high crime rates, a nascent asylum process and few protections for those fleeing threats and violence.
Since the transfers began last November, more than 900 Central Americans have been sent to Guatemala. But only 20 — about two percent — have formally applied for sanctuary there.
The rest have opted instead to face the risks of either returning to their home countries or heading north once again, hoping to find sanctuary in Mexico or try their luck, one more time, at the American border.
Supporters of the Guatemala-United States deal point to the large number of transferees who have left Guatemala as evidence that their asylum cases likely had little merit. Migrants and their advocates, however, say it instead reflects the dangers vulnerable people face because of Guatemala’s weak rule of law.
“To be here is almost the same as being in Honduras,” said Carlos Eduardo Woltke Martínez, a migrants’ advocate in the human rights section of Guatemala’s public prosecutor’s office. “You’re in the same neighborhood of the criminal groups. The conditions here are not a guarantee of your safety.”
Migrants who have chosen to return to their home countries say that even though they may still be in harm’s way, at least they can enjoy the protection and support offered by close family members and friends, something Guatemala cannot provide.
“The fact that they are not applying for asylum here does not mean they are not at risk,” said Rebeca Cenalmor-Rejas, head of the Guatemala office for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Going back to their countries doesn’t mean the threat never existed.”
The agreement between the United States and Guatemala was reached last July. American officials brokered similar deals with the governments of Honduras and El Salvador, though neither of those have been put into effect.
Those three Central American countries were the source of the majority of immigrants arrested trying to cross the southwest border of the United States in fiscal year 2019, and the Trump administration has credited the Guatemala accord with helping to lower migration flows.
In January, however, a coalition of groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the Trump administration saying that the agreements violated American and international law by failing to protect asylum seekers from exposure to harm in Central America. A union representing asylum officers in the United States filed a brief in the case earlier this month in support of the coalition’s argument.
Also this month, Democratic lawmakers in the United States House of Representatives opened an inquiry into the agreements, calling them “illegal, dangerous and antithetical to American values.”
On Tuesday, Guatemalan officials said that owing to the coronavirus pandemic, flights carrying transferees under the accord would be suspended temporarily.
Yovani and his wife were circumspect about the details of the events that drove them from Honduras earlier this year. They said only that a gang member, for reasons they would not detail, began menacing Yovani’s family, killing his brother and forcing his mother and an aunt to seek asylum in the United States.
When the gang member started to threaten Yovani directly, he said, he fled to the United States with his wife and children. They crossed the Rio Grande illegally in late February and presented themselves to border agents, but said they were never given a chance to make their case for asylum. Instead, within days, they were loaded onto a flight bound for Guatemala.
Upon arrival at the airport in Guatemala City, they were told they could apply for asylum there. If they did not, however, they would have 72 hours to leave the country.
Fearful that the Guatemalan authorities would not be able to protect them from the gang member’s long reach, Yovani and his wife elected to seek safe harbor with trusted relatives in Honduras instead.
“I wanted to ask for asylum — not because of lies but because of something verifiable,” Yovani said the day after his arrival in Guatemala City, as he and his family waited for an overnight bus to Honduras.
Several other Honduran asylum seekers who were recently deported to Guatemala said they had made similar calculations.
“I said, ‘Guatemala?’ It’s the same as Honduras!” recalled Jackeline, 29, a former office worker who was prevented from applying for asylum in the United States with her 10-year-old son. “The difference is that in Guatemala I don’t have relatives.”
Even though a Honduran criminal gang had been trying to forcibly recruit her son, Jackeline said, she decided to return and hide out with her mother until she could gather enough money to fly to Spain and seek asylum there. (That escape route now may be impossible, at least for several months, because of the coronavirus outbreak.)
Only her mother and brother knew she was back in Honduras, she said.
Alicia, 41, a former street vendor, said she and her 17-year-old son were fleeing death threats from a gang member in their town, and hoped to apply for asylum in the United States. But they, too, were given no chance to make their case and were diverted to Guatemala.
“Guatemala is the first place that they would look for me,” she said of the criminal gang in an interview this month in northern Honduras. “They don’t think I’m here.”
She has told only a few close family members that she is back, and she has sent her son to live with distant relatives on the other side of the country.
Yovani and his family are living temporarily with a close relative, and spending most of each day indoors.
It’s an unsustainable way to live, they acknowledged, but it is the only way they know to avoid danger for now. Yovani thinks his next option may be to stash his wife and daughters with a trustworthy relative somewhere in Honduras and head alone to the United States. This time, however, he will try to sneak in rather than present himself to the border authorities.
In the meantime, the family has been left feeling disposable to countries that, they say, should be offering them protection.
“If something happens to us, the United States continues to be the same country,” Yovani’s wife said. “Honduras, too. Guatemala? The same.”