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Immigration Lawyer Carlos Spector Declares Asylum Case of Maya-Ixil Human Rights Defenders “The Most Significant I’ve Ever Had”

On March 19th Carlos Spector Law Offices held a virtual international press conference featuring human rights and environmental defenders Gaspar Cobo and Francisco Chávez telling the story of their harrowing flight from Guatemala amidst death threats, and the pursuit of their asylum case in the United States. They were joined by eminent El Paso Immigration lawyer Carlos Spector who has taken on their case pro bono, and Dr. Giovanni B’atz’, Maya scholar who has traveled in and written extensively about the Maya-Ixil region. Media outlets in Guatemala, Mexico and the US covered the story, providing a platform to protest continuing attacks against defenders in Guatemala, as well as a way to address immigration rights in the United States. Gaspar and Francisco had recently been released after two months in ICE detention amidst the COVID pandemic. We have been following their journey from Guatemala to the US as part of our film Borderland.

Francisco, as a survivor of an Army massacre in 1982, was a key eyewitness in the 2013 genocide case against General Efraín Ríos Montt that roiled Guatemala. General Ríos Montt is the only perpetrator to have been convicted of genocide against indigenous people anywhere in the Americas*. 

Gaspar accompanied eyewitnesses and survivors to the genocide trial. More recently, he was a technical advisor to the Maya-Ixil local Indigenous Authorities (Autoridades Indígenas) that were resisting a Guatemalan government license granting an American company Double Crown Resources, Inc., the rights to mine large reserves of barite under their ancestral lands. Barite is a mineral used internationally in the fracking extraction process for natural gas. 

Francisco’s and Gaspar’s participation in the trials attracted attention to their work. We first met Gaspar when researching our film 500 YEARS and asked him if he would collaborate with us in telling the story of his community’s struggle against a mine. And Francisco was the principal protagonist in The Good Christian (Izabel Acevedo, 2016). Both films featured the genocide trial of General Ríos Montt and were shown internationally as well as throughout Guatemala. The attention also attracted attacks against them, often by vestiges of Ríos Montt’s government and former military leaders. 

A still from the film THE GOOD CHRISTIAN. Francisco Chávez describes to his sister the massacre that they survived. He was 6 years old at the time, she was just 3 and has no memory of the events.

In June of 2019, after an especially violent confrontation in the streets of Nebaj, the town located at the center of the Maya-Ixil region, Gaspar decided to leave the country and Francisco decided to join him after also suffering death threats. Their goal was to reach the United States where they would seek political asylum. 

In their journey across México, the two faced what so many other asylum seekers have similarly reported experiencing—robbery by the Mexican police in Parral, Chihuahua, and abandonment in a Juárez stash house by their coyotes. Upon arriving in Juárez, they filed a formal criminal complaint with the municipal police who subsequently threatened them with criminal prosecution for slandering police officers. Consequently, the Juárez based human right group DHIA (Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción) filed a formal complaint with the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission.

Along with their attorney Carlos Spector, they twice presented themselves at the Paso del Norte international bridge attempting to enter the U.S. legally, but they were returned to Juárez under what was known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) where they waited 17 months. The El Paso based Hope Border Institute made sure that the two men were given refuge and housing while in Juárez. But in November of 2020 they became the target of a Mexican cartel who extorted them, threatening their lives, demanding money. The cartel even texted them a map pinpointing where the two were currently living. Again they were forced to flee, changing residences and leaving their jobs.

It was at this point that Spector, fearing for their lives, was able to get them admitted to the United States and get a positive result on their reasonable fear interview with the US Citizen and Immigration Service (USCIS). They were then placed in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention in El Paso. After two months in detention, Spector was able to have them freed, and is working together with Francisco and Gaspar preparing for their asylum hearing to determine their legal residence in the United States. 

Spector has said about this work:

“The case of Gaspar Cobo and Francisco Chávez is as significant a case as I’ve ever had in my long career of immigration lawyering. It is an honor to provide these incredibly brave human rights activists political asylum legal representation as a means of helping them advance their efforts to continue seeking justice for the Maya-Ixil people. They do not see themselves as permanent victims but rather as activist leaders who will continue to fight for the democratization of Guatemala and its indigenous communities, as well as for the rights of immigrant communities here in the U.S.”

Twenty-six human rights defenders were killed in Guatemala in 2018, the year leading up to Gaspar and Francisco’s death threats and flight to the U.S. UDEFEGUA (Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos en Guatemala) a Guatemalan NGO, reported that 651 human rights defenders were subject to various types of attacks or harassment in from January 2019, through the first four months of 2020. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) said that at least eight human rights defenders had been murdered between June and August, 2020 in Guatemala. On August 10, Benoit María, a French national and a representative of the NGO Agronomists and Veterinarians without Borders (AVSF), who had worked closely with Gaspar, was assassinated by unknown individuals. His car was shot at least 17 times in what is believed to be a premeditated attack. His case remains unsolved. As of November 2020, UDEFEGUA registered 14 killings of human rights defenders and 22 assassination attempts.  

But constant, deadly violence is only the most visible of the myriad threats that defenders face. 

The Guatemalan government and companies are also using the country’s courts and legal systems as instruments of oppression against those who threaten their power and interests. One case that Amnesty International has taken on as a prisoner of conscience is Bernardo Caal Xol, a Maya-Q’eqchi’ indigenous leader and Guatemalan human rights defender, wrongfully imprisoned for years for defending the rights of the communities of Santa María Cahabón, who have been affected by the construction of the OXEC hydroelectric plant on the Oxec and Cahabón rivers in the northern department of Alta Verapaz. Mr. Caal is part of the movement in Guatemala that opposes extractive industries as is Gaspar. 

Francisco Chávez and Gaspar Cobo participate in the online press conference. Lawyer Carlos Spector appears in the background.

At the press conference, Francisco and Gaspar discussed their plans to continue denouncing the Guatemalan government’s historically gross persecution of the Mayan people as well as other indigenous and non-indigenous people; human rights and environmental defenders. Of special concern in is the Guatemalan government’s persistent denial of genocide. Additionally, they seek the release of several environmental defenders who they consider to be political prisoners, as well as the recognition of at least 70 surviving elderly witnesses of the genocide trial who should be celebrated rather than forgotten.

*10 days after the guilty verdict of genocide and crimes against humanity was rendered, the verdict was vacated on procedural grounds by the Constitutional Court and the trial was set to begin anew. General Ríos Montt died before the second trial was completed.

Featured image: Francisco Chávez stands in front of a mural by Diné muralist Saba, depicting the 2013 genocide trial of General Ríos Montt, painted in Las Cruces, NM, February 2021. Photo: Skylight

Pamela Yates

Pamela Yates is a an award-winning filmmaker and co-founder/Creative Director of Skylight Pictures, a company dedicated to creating feature length documentary films and digital media tools that advance awareness of human rights and the quest for justice by implementing multi-year outreach campaigns designed to engage, educate and activate social change.

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