Edgar Chocoy knew what awaited him if he were deported to Guatemala.
Chocoy, 16, begged an immigration judge in Denver to let him stay in the United States, saying he would be killed by his former gang if he were sent home.
He was deported anyway on March 10 and was shot dead 17 days later, say family members in Villanueva, a rough town on Guatemala City’s outskirts. They blame the U.S. government.
The youth “was sent to die by our immigration system, which condemned him for his past and failed him in every way possible,” said Kim Salinas, the Denver lawyer who represented Edgar.
“He said, ‘I will be killed if I return.’ He said all he wanted was another chance.”
The U.S. government denies responsibility. It said the real tragedy was that Edgar decided to join a gang and take part in crimes in both Guatemala and the United States.
“There is a real likelihood that the same fate would have befallen him if he was allowed to stay here,” said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Edgar’s story isn’t all that unusual among the poor of Central America. During a hearing Jan. 5, this is how he recounted it for immigration Judge James P. Vandello:
His mother left him with relatives as a baby so that she could work in Los Angeles. He grew up with his grandfather and met his father only once.
Edgar didn’t start school until he was 9 or 10, and -- like many other poor children in Guatemala these days -- he fell into a gang because all his classmates belonged.
By the time he turned 14, he wanted out. He had met kids who weren’t in a gang and preferred playing video games and soccer with them to stealing and beating people.
But his fellow gang members demanded nearly $400 in return for his retirement, warning that they would kill him if he didn’t pay. He had no money, and went into hiding at his aunt’s house.
Growing fearful for her own life, his aunt asked Edgar to leave. His mother sent money for a bus trip through Mexico, and he crossed illegally into the United States to join her in a rough neighborhood of Los Angeles.
He started school, only to find that his new classmates also were in gangs. He soon quarreled with his mother, whom he barely knew, and she kicked him out. On his own and speaking no English, he lived with older gang members who required him to work as an armed lookout during drug transactions.
Police eventually caught Edgar and turned him over to immigration authorities in Denver. He spent more than a year locked up in a detention facility, where he concentrated on classes and started laser treatments to remove his gang tattoos in an attempt to turn his life around.
An aunt who lives legally in Virginia offered to take custody of him, but her request was turned down by court officials.
The judge said Edgar had shown signs of improvement, but the “steps are very late and I find that his past speaks ... more loudly than his present attempt at rehabilitation.”
“The United States has many programs to help youths from other countries learn English, get jobs, stay out of gangs. But he chose to get into another gang,” Vandello said in rejecting Edgar’s asylum request.
His lawyer, Salinas, says the decision was a blow. Edgar began acting up at the detention center, became depressed and decided not to appeal deportation because he couldn’t stand to be locked up anymore, she says.
“He probably felt like he had done his part, and that somehow the system had not done its part,” she said.
After returning to Guatemala, Edgar rarely left the home of his aunt, Hortencia Guzman, darting out only to buy food at a nearby store. But after several days playing video games and watching television, he decided to try the streets.
He went out to watch a Roman Catholic procession carrying statues of saints through the streets. He never came back.
His relatives called police and local hospitals, but found no clue as to what had happened to him. Four days later, a funeral home representative came by to say the body of a boy fitting Edgar’s description had been at the morgue and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Relatives were shown pictures of the body, and they identified Edgar in part by his faded tattoos, including his mother’s name, Margarita, on his right arm.
He had been shot four times while watching the procession. Police say they have no leads.