05 Aug GUATEMALAN ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENDERS SEEK ASYLUM IN EL PASO DAYS BEFORE TERROR ATTACK AIMED AT IMMIGRANTS
By Pamela Yates
It started as a WhatsApp message and became a documentary film journey.
“I’m worried that they will kill me or harm a member of my family. I’m going underground, traveling to the United States.” It was a message from Gaspar, a protagonist from our film 500 YEARS. As an advocate for protecting his Maya-Ixil ancestral lands in Guatemala, a country that is experiencing the sharpest world-wide increase of assassinations of environmental defenders according to Global Witness, Gaspar was a prime target. People around him had been killed, a close friend beaten to death. Gaspar decided to flee, traveling to the Mexican border with a coyote (smuggler), hoping to walk across the desert into the U.S. and seek political asylum. His traveling companion, Francisco, who had been a key eyewitness testifying in the genocide trial against former Guatemalan dictator General Ríos Montt, had his house ransacked and was threatened as well.
The trip was grueling. At each stop, inside filthy stash houses where dozens of migrants were hidden waiting to embark on the next leg of their journey, Gaspar wrote long, descriptive accounts of why he left and what was happening. “It’s very hot and there’s only a small window for air. People are on top of each other. Food and water are scarce. The children have colds and many have diarrhea and are vomiting. People are crying from hunger, thirst and sickness.”
When we feel powerless to stop human rights abuses, it’s important to document them.
Gaspar and I began to collaborate on documenting his journey north and his struggle to stay alive and enter the US. I would prompt him with questions and ask him to write longer entries on his burner phone. I’d suggest he take photos inside the stash houses, which he had to sneak because photos were forbidden by the coyotes. He began to make short videos entries about the past, about the present. By the end of his journey we had more than 3,000 WhatsApp messages: texts, photos, videos and recorded phone conversations. They sent me a GPS readout of where they were.
When Gaspar got to his final stop in Mexico in Ciudad Juárez, he and Francisco were stashed inside a squalid building and told to wait in a courtyard where there was no roof, they slept on the floor, and they waited for their coyote to cross them. And waited. Many people came and left, but still Gaspar and Francisco waited. “The heat is unbearable. We go days without food. We have to beg food from other migrants here.” After several weeks I told them I thought their coyote abandoned them. But they could not leave the stash house, there were guards. Gaspar had no idea where he was. He and Francisco had to escape.
I contacted a journalist colleague in El Paso who offered to pick them up if they could leave the dangerous neighborhood where they were being held. Early one Saturday morning they slipped out of the stash house, found their way downtown, and waited in the cool, dark cathedral. They had no money and were hungry. My colleague rescued them, fed them, got them a hotel room and gave them money. And then we began frantically calling all the human and immigration rights groups on both sides of the border for help.
Through the Border Network for Human Rights, El Paso lawyer Carlos Spector heard about the case and offered to take it on pro bono. Carlos’ strategy is to choose a very few emblematic political asylum cases that will set precedents, open doors, and allow others to enter. He immediately grasped why this case of community leaders such as Gaspar and Francisco fleeing stepped up violence in Guatemala, was important. He understood why they must be kept alive and supported so that they could continue their human and environmental rights work.
I decided it was the moment to go to the border and include this story, this case in our documentary film Borderlands (working title). Gaspar and Francisco were in a shelter in Juárez, Carlos was building their political asylum case in El Paso, I was the connector getting Carlos all the documentation he needed and offering support to Gaspar and Francisco. In a gesture of real solidarity, we found a Mexican family who took Gaspar and Francisco into their home.
As we waited, the Reverend William Barber, at the invitation of the Border Network for Human Rights came to the border. Reverend Barber is the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and is a real force in addressing poverty and inequality in the U.S. He went to Juárez, he met with Gaspar and Francisco and Carlos, he knew little about Guatemala, but he learned and went on to incorporate their story and their quest for political asylum into his mainstream media interviews and into his discourse at the border. After Reverend Barber led a heated protest using civil disobedience to shut down the ICE detention center in El Paso, Carlos got a call. It was from the Customs & Border Protection Watch Commander at the border crossing. Gaspar and Francisco could cross and apply for political asylum while in the U.S.
Part of our human rights practice as documentary filmmakers is during the production itself. The making of a film becomes collaboration with a movement, documenting unforeseen challenges as well as progress and strength. That is what we strive for in our filmmaking.
Saturday’s mass shooting, an act of terror against the intertwined communities of El Paso, Juárez and migrants like Gaspar and Francisco who come from beyond, was devastating to watch unfold. There were harbingers of the depth of the hate towards the community in signs like a white nationalist militia encampment on private land belonging to the American Brick Company who have built their own small border wall as a political stunt. El Paso is a place where white nationalists feel they must take a stand.
The committed collaboration of Gaspar, Francisco, lawyer Carlos Spector, Reverend Barber and Fernando García, the Director of the Border Network for Human Rights, show that this movement is stronger than hate. The movement for human and immigration rights is giving shape to our new film Borderlands and the making of the film will testify to the strength and sustainability of those efforts, helping build the movement, creating a virtuous cycle.