On a quiet afternoon in mid-April, my phone rang; I didn’t recognize the number. I answered, and it was my friend Francisco Brito Corio. I was fairly certain he had returned to Guatemala from Pittsburgh sometime in the past year, but I wasn’t sure. Our small talk didn’t last long.
“They took him,” Francisco blurted, about a minute into our call.
“They killed Manuel. They took my only son.”
Francisco's 23-year-old son had gone out the night before and never returned home. The following day, Francisco's neighbor came knocking on his door to inform him that Manuel Brito had been killed and his body was laying on the side of a road nearby.
There is a lot we don’t know about Manuel’s death. We do not know how he was killed. We don’t know why, and we don’t know who did it. According to Manuel's family and friends, he had no history of gang involvement, though it’s difficult to confirm any details about the circumstances of his death from afar.
In early 2014, I met Francisco and his roommate Bernardo Brito — men who are unrelated but both from Santa Maria Nebaj in Guatemala. They came to see me at Casa San Jose, a welcome center in Beechview for Latino immigrants where I worked as a service coordinator. As a service coordinator, it was my job help clients meet their basic needs while also advocating on their behalf. During a typical work week I would help our clients navigate the court system, find affordable health care and enroll in English as a second language classes. When I initially met Francisco and Bernardo, Manuel was still living in Guatemala.
He later traveled across the border and to Pittsburgh. He happily reunited with his father and found steady work. But it all began to unravel only about a year later as agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] were searching for a missing unaccompanied minor from Guatemala. ICE never found that minor, but agents detained Manuel, which led to his deportation. He was killed two years later.
With that, he entered what many immigration advocates and attorneys call the deportation-to-death pipeline, the killing of undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants in their home countries after they have been deported.
I tried to contact ICE’s Office of Public Affairs several times by phone and email to inquire about the events leading up to Manuel’s arrest. No one responded.
PublicSource made several attempts this month to reach ICE as well as press contacts for the White House and the Department of Homeland Security. None of the offices responded to phone calls or detailed emailed questions about ICE’s protocol for making home visits or searching for undocumented minors. Automated email responses from ICE and the White House indicated that the ongoing government shutdown meant that press contacts were unable to work.
Immigration policy researcher and organizer Beth Carson of the immigrant rights organization Grassroots Leadership told Rewire News for a September 2017 article that “the dangerous conditions that people from different countries are facing are well understood, and it’s well-documented that specific types of people are very much in danger if they are deported back to their home countries.”
Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, has been and continues to be the main perpetrator of the violence. MS-13 is Central America’s largest and most violent organized crime operation. It is notorious for extortion, robbery and murder.
According to Manuel's younger cousin Diego, Manuel wasn't involved in gangs but he did have some friends who heavily abused drugs and alcohol. Diego was skeptical about how trustworthy they were, especially when they were under the influence.
Diego and Manuel grew up together in Guatemala and were reunited for a year in Pittsburgh when Manuel arrived in 2015. Diego had come the year before, and they both lived in Francisco's Beechview apartment.
After Manuel was killed, I spoke on the phone with Diego — Manuel’s younger cousin who lived with Manuel and Francisco in Pittsburgh. Diego currently lives in Monaca where he works at a Chinese restaurant. He and Manuel were close.
“Manuel’s friends invited him to go out and drink that night,” Diego said. “Manuel trusted them but they weren’t good friends. They smoke marijuana and do cocaine and get drunk.”
Diego wasn't equating drug and alcohol use to likelihood to commit murder, but he was skeptical about whether they should be trusted.
As far as Diego knew, the men who killed Manuel weren’t involved with gangs, but he couldn’t say for sure. Sometimes people deported back home or those with relatives that remain in the States are targeted because they’re presumed to have some money. We don’t know if that made a difference in this case.
I knew Manuel, but we didn’t talk much. He was shy. The last time I saw him was Christmas Eve 2014 at the apartment he shared with his father, Diego, Bernardo and another roommate Domingo. We’d shared tamales wrapped in banana leaves and smirked at one another across the small, crowded table.
Francisco said there was no point in going to the Guatemalan police after Manuel’s murder.
“Here there is no law,” he told me.
The lack of law, order and work in impoverished Central American countries are among primary factors driving mass migration movements like the caravan north. The thousands estimated to have traveled in the caravan and border clashes as recent as New Year’s Eve have fueled the Trump administration’s push for a $5.7 billion border wall.
According to the United Nations, since 2012 there has been a fivefold increase in asylum seekers from Central America’s Northern Triangle—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—where organized gangs are dominant. In 2015, according to the El Salvador Forensics Institute, El Salvador had the world’s highest murder rate.
War and borderlands
Francisco and Manuel are from Santa Maria Nebaj, a small city in Guatemala’s western highlands occupied by the Ixil people, an indigenous group of Mayan descent. Francisco and Manuel are Ixil. In the early 1980s, the Ixil community was a target of a genocide operation led by then Guatemalan President Jose Efraín Ríos Montt. They faced systematic rape, forced displacements and hunger during the Guatemalan civil war.
According to the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, thousands of Ixil villagers were killed between 1981 and 1983, accounting for an estimated 5.5 percent of the entire Ixil population.
When Francisco was 16, he watched the Guatemalan army burn his house to the ground with his family inside. Francisco and his brother Nicolas fled with several other Ixil survivors to the Cuchumatanes mountains to hide. Francisco lived in the mountains and completely off the grid for 14 years before being captured by the Guatemalan army and forced to serve as a soldier until the war ended in 1996.
Manuel was born in 1995. There were few work opportunities in his hometown, and he saw his father leave for the United States when Manuel was just 8 years old. Growing up in extreme poverty, suffocated by trauma, Manuel believed that one of two things happened to Ixil men: they left or they died. Manuel decided to leave.
In the same way that Francisco had fled during the war into dangerous and unknown territory, Manuel made the arduous journey from Guatemala to Mexico, and then to Texas, walking for days through desert borderlands.
Manuel was able to cross the border without encountering the border patrol.
He made it to Pittsburgh in January 2015. He was 20.
Life in Pittsburgh and trouble with ICE
In early 2014, I met Francisco and his roommate Bernardo, also from Nebaj. At this point, Manuel was still back in Guatemala. They came to see me at Casa San Jose. Francisco and Bernardo were undocumented and spoke little English.
Francisco was trying to make sense of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and ICE paperwork that he needed to petition to become his nephew Diego’s legal guardian. Diego, who was 16 at the time and also undocumented, had arrived alone at the Texas border a couple of months earlier, where he was taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The Office of Refugee Resettlement is responsible for finding family members or close friends who are eligible to become guardians of unaccompanied, undocumented minors.
Getting Diego from a detention center in Texas to his uncle’s home in Pittsburgh was a complicated three-month process, but we made it happen, and Francisco was approved to be Diego’s legal guardian.
During the process of getting Francisco approved, I got to know him and Bernardo quite well. They were technically still my clients, but I came to think of them more as friends. They both had an unspoken calmness and serenity to them. It was easier for me to communicate with Bernardo than Francisco because he was fluent in Spanish. Francisco’s Spanish was OK, but he was much more comfortable speaking Ixil. Bernardo was a few years older than me in his early 30s and Francisco was in his late 40s.
About a year after I met Francisco and Bernardo, Manuel arrived in Pittsburgh. He hoped to find steady work and to escape the poor economy and increasing presence of MS-13.
The presence of MS-13 had motivated many Guatemalans, particularly women and their young children, as well as unaccompanied minors, to leave for the United States.
Manuel lived in the United States for one year and was working cleaning movie theaters alongside Francisco and Bernardo. He never had any problems with law enforcement. In spite of this, ICE took him into custody in February 2015 and deported him a few months later.
According to Bernardo, ICE started paying regular visits to his Beechview apartment, where he lived with Francisco, Diego, Manuel and another undocumented Guatemalan man, Domingo. The agents visited searching for a boy named Miguel, an unaccompanied minor from Guatemala who had missed his immigration court date.
When an unaccompanied minor misses his court date, ICE searches at the person’s last known address. Miguel’s last known address happened to be the apartment where Francisco and Bernardo were living.
By the time ICE started paying visits, Miguel and his father had moved and were long gone.
ICE visited the apartment three times before taking anyone into custody.
Bernardo continued to communicate with ICE via the phone interpreter during the ensuing visits. According to Bernardo, the first two times ICE came to the apartment, he, Francisco and Diego were the only ones home. Francisco and Bernardo showed the agents their Guatemalan passports for ICE to verify their identities and to prove Miguel wasn’t there. Diego showed his passport along with his paperwork from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which showed that he was undergoing legal proceedings in immigration court.
“The first two times ICE came they were looking for someone who wasn’t there and they asked me if I had papers,” Bernardo sad. “Both times I told them that I was illegal and they said OK, and then left.”
The third time ICE came they arrived at dawn. While working at Casa San Jose, I learned from my colleagues and clients that ICE has a history of arriving very early in the morning to question and arrest undocumented immigrants, to achieve an element of surprise.
“ICE will oftentimes spend a few weeks following the immigrants they are looking for, get to know their work schedules, and then wait for them to leave their homes in the morning,” said Monica Ruiz, director of Casa San Jose.
Bernardo recalled leaving his home at 6:30 a.m. one day. “They were outside waiting for me in the parking lot,” Bernardo said. “This time they didn’t ask for Miguel or anyone else. They just asked me my name and if I had papers.”
Once again, Bernardo told them his name, showed his passport and said he was here illegally. Four or five agents had shown up, Bernardo recalled. He told me that he recognized a few of the officers from the first two visits. This time there was a Spanish-speaking officer with whom Bernardo spoke. After talking briefly, ICE let him go.
“I don’t understand why they kept coming back and asking the same questions,” Bernardo said. “After their first visit, they knew who I was.”
The fourth and final time ICE knocked on their apartment door it was February 2015 and Bernardo, Manuel and Domingo were the only ones home. Francisco was still at work at the movie theater and Diego at Brashear High School.
Bernardo, Domingo and Manuel had just returned home from work that afternoon. The drill was the same. ICE asked if they were in the country legally and how long they had been here. Bernardo said seven years. Manuel and Domingo told the officers that they were undocumented and had been in the country for fewer than two years.
Upon hearing that Manuel and Domingo were more recent arrivals, ICE decided to take all three into custody and transport them to the ICE field office and processing center on the South Side.
That day I received an agitated call from Francisco while I was at Casa San Jose. He said Bernardo called him from ICE’s van on the way to the field office, informing him of the situation. Francisco was worried and wanted to get back to his apartment as soon as possible. He was especially concerned that ICE may have taken his passport. After we spoke, Francisco arrived at Casa San Jose. I told him that I would take him to his apartment.
Francisco muttered curse words the entire drive. Up until that day, I’d never heard him curse. When we arrived at the apartment, I went in alone and told to Francisco to stay in the car. I feared that an ICE agent might still be in the apartment waiting for someone else to come home.
I ran in and dashed up to Francisco’s second-floor apartment. The door was ajar. I found open drawers and various papers scattered all over the floor. I looked down and saw Francisco’s passport and grabbed it, along with several cell phones and chargers. I didn’t see anything else of value to take. I felt like I had walked into a crime scene.
Bernardo was released during the booking process, while Manuel and Domingo were processed and then sent to an immigration detention center in York, Pa. Bernardo was released because he did not meet any Obama-era criteria for expedited removal under the Priority Enforcement Program. Manuel and Domingo met the removal criteria because they had not resided continuously in the United States since Jan. 1, 2014.
Bernardo was ordered to appear in court several months later, but he never went. He believed the government’s ultimate goal was to deport him and that he didn’t stand a chance at being granted asylum because nobody in Guatemala had ever hurt or threatened to kill him. Bernardo eventually left the United States voluntarily and went back to Guatemala. He missed his family and the trouble with ICE had worn him down.
As my phone call with Francisco came to an end, I tried desperately to console him from thousands of miles away. I said all I could to assure him that he would be OK.
With everything Francisco has been through, he has no choice but to carry on. He never knows when the next death will happen or when the next crisis will strike. I can say with confidence, though, that whatever comes next he will be as ready as anyone possibly could be. He’s been fighting for survival his entire life.
Joanna Bernstein is a writer in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at email@example.com.