Sometimes equipped with only a name, and sometimes not even that, advocates are searching Guatemala for deported parents whose children are still in the U.S. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
As Juan Carlos Villatoro approached a remote village in Guatemala’s western highlands, he yelled at his driver to stop so he could hail a skinny teenager in a motorized rickshaw.
Flashing a broad smile, he asked the boy to help him on his quest.
“Pardon me, youngster,” Villatoro began. “We are trying to find and help the deported parents who have children who are still detained in the United States. Do you know of a parent who is in this situation? We’d like to reunite them.”
The teen shook his head. “There’s nobody here like that,” he said.
It was a typical encounter for Villatoro, a Guatemalan lawyer turned impromptu detective in an urgent search for deported mothers and fathers with children still in the U.S. With a name serving as his only clue sometimes, he’s traveled twisting trails in cabs, minivans and teeth-rattling old buses to search mountain hamlets where Mayan tongues and suspicion often prevail.
“We don’t have telephone numbers. We don’t have exact addresses or email addresses,” Villatoro said. “There is nothing we can do but move forward and keep fighting and searching for these deported parents.”
At left, Human Rights Watch attorney Clara Long and photographer James Rodriguez drive to a remote village in Guatemala to meet with Rene Lopez, who was separated from his son and deported. At right, Lopez and his wife, Veronica Hernandez, with their 4-year-old son Gerson Rene Lopez Hernandez meet with Long. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
This spring the U.S. government separated more than 2,500 children from their parents after the Trump administration instituted a “zero-tolerance” policy requiring anyone who crossed the border illegally to be prosecuted. The parents were taken to federal court to face misdemeanor charges.
The move ignited worldwide condemnation and was eventually stopped, but not before many adults were sent to Central America, leaving behind about 400 children — from toddlers to teens.
A federal judge has ruled that it is the U.S. government’s responsibility to reunite families, but the brunt of the work in Guatemala often has fallen on locals such as Villatoro. Even for those familiar with the region’s terrain, history and, most crucially, culture, the task is frustrating and often unsuccessful.
The searchers work with Justice in Motion, a U.S.-based group that is part of a network of U.S. and Central American nonprofits. If they’re lucky, they’ll receive a name or hometown from U.S. officials. The U.S. government only recently began releasing phone numbers for deported parents — but those often do not work.
Even when parents are found, the result isn’t always what the searchers might expect. Whereas parents of younger children yearn to be reunited, those of older children sometimes prefer they stay in the U.S. After all, they had left Guatemala for a better life, and perhaps, some parents rationalize, they are old enough to cope in the U.S.
Top, attorney Juan Carlos Villatoro talks with a woman at her home as he looks for parents who may have been deported from the U.S. without their children. Left, Catalina Godinez Aguilar and her husband, Marcelino Claudio Garcia. Their 8-year-old daughter, Mayra Claudio, shown in a cellphone photo, was separated from Garcia after they immigrated to the U.S. Garcia was deported to Guatemala and Mayra is being held in Arizona. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
On this August morning, Villatoro, 43, did not even have a name as he began his search. But he knew that a majority of the separated parents had been deported to Guatemala and that about 100 were here in the department of Huehuetenango.
It’s a remote region, at least a six-hour drive from the nation’s capital, Guatemala City, with roads that are breathtakingly steep or easily washed away in bad storms.
Finding parents here often requires finesse and charisma. Gangs and drug cartels control some communities. In some villages, residents do not trust outsiders.
After striking out with the teenager on the motorized rickshaw, Villatoro hustled across the paved street to an elementary school crafted from cinder blocks. With a folder tucked under his arm, he delivered his pitch to the principal.
“I know of one case,” the principal said. “There is one boy who didn’t show up to school. They say he’s up north, but I don’t think he’s detained. I think he’s free.”
She gestured toward where he could find the boy’s family — a formidable hill where black and white sheep grazed. The road was paved but too steep for his taxi.
“There aren’t many who go north from here,” she told him. “There are more in the next village in San Juan Atitan. Maybe Santa Isabel.”
Hopping back into his taxi, Villatoro decided he’d tackle the hill by foot another time. He headed to Santa Isabel.
The car heaved up a winding road through a dense forest of pine and cypress trees that dwarfed coffee and corn plants. The driver dodged emaciated dogs and potholes as wide as basketballs.
It was almost noon when Villatoro arrived, and clouds covered the tree line as the weekly open-air market got underway in front of the village school.
Students gazed curiously as Villatoro hopped out of the taxi and walked toward a group of men chatting in Mam, one of the 21 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala. Most of them wore the region’s traditional garb — a dark wool tunic over a purple shirt and white pants. A flat straw hat adorned with a black velvet ribbon topped off the elegant ensemble.
"We don't have telephone numbers. We don't have exact addresses or email addresses."
Attorney Juan Carlos Villatoro
Waving at the men, Villatoro called out in Spanish for “Don Mariano,” a town leader to whom he had spoken over the phone before the trip.
“At your disposal,” Mariano Hernandez, 62, replied in Spanish tinged with a Mam accent. After Villatoro explained his mission, Hernandez told him what he knew.
“I think there is a woman here who has been crying for her children,” he said. “They are up north and she can’t find them. She lives a half-hour away, walking. We’ll send someone to get her.”
But when the woman arrived, she told Villatoro that her children were teenage girls who made the journey by themselves. She knew where they were. She cried because she missed them.
As word got out, men and women encircled Villatoro, telling him similar stories of families journeying to the U.S. only to land in immigration detention. He listened sympathetically, but he never found who he was looking for.
Clockwise from top left; Aroldo Palacios Hernandez, a local attorney, center, travels by bus, taxi and motorized rickshaw to find deported parents in the town of Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Palacios, right, appears on a radio show hosted by Everado Cuyuch Lopez to talk about family separation. Rene Lopez displays a photo of his wife and their 10-year-old son, Jairo, who is still in the U.S. after being separated from his father. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
Early the next morning, Villatoro’s boss, Aroldo Palacios Hernandez, boarded a bus in the city of Huehuetenango, bound northwest for La Mesilla — a town steps away from the border with Mexico. This time he had the names of two fathers, two sons and two villages.
After the retired Blue Bird bus roared out of the city, it hugged craggy cliffs with deep drop-offs as Mexican singer Joan Sebastian’s sultry ballads emanated from the radio. Two hours later, in the municipality of La Democracia, Palacios met with the secretary of the local Catholic parish.
“We’re looking for Santiago Gonzalez Perez. He’s the father. He’s 50,” Palacios said. “The son is Erick Gonzalez Mejia. He’s 16. They live nearby — in La Esperancita. Do you know anyone there who could help us?”
After a flurry of phone calls, the secretary said a community leader known as Don Onofre might help. A short rickshaw ride later, Palacios greeted a stout elderly man sitting in a door stoop.
“I know everyone here and I don’t know that name,” he said. “You know, it may be that he doesn’t live in La Esperancita. He may live in Nueva Esperanza. People often confuse the two.”
After two more hours of negotiating steep hills and rural, corn-lined roads, Palacios discovered yet another village with a similar name — La Esperanza de Tajumulco. It was three hours away. On bad roads.
Defeated, Palacios decided to try the second person on his list: Erik Castillo. He supposedly lived in La Mesilla and had been separated from his 12-year-old boy.
Just after noon, Palacios arrived in La Mesilla, along the main road into and out of Mexico. Men holding walkie-talkies stood guard. Some of them — who answered to the town boss — collected wads of cash from motorists heading toward the border, less than a mile away. The toll they collected went toward road improvements, they said.
Palacios found himself inside a shop before the town boss — the cocode — a man with a lazy eye, wispy mustache and shirt unbuttoned halfway down to his belly. He sat in a chair as an older man shined his shoes.
“Why isn’t the American government here, coming to find the children?” he asked. “It’s a sin.”
He gestured to one of his assistants on a Suzuki motorcycle and handed him the name of the man Palacios was looking for. “Go find him. I’m sure it’s the same guy I’m thinking of.”
About half an hour later, a skinny woman showed up with a 5-year-old boy and introduced herself as Nuria Lanuza, the wife of Erik Castillo. With her other son still in the U.S., she said, she had cried for many weeks, had not been able to sleep and had almost no appetite.
Two hours passed, and Palacios began feeling restless because Castillo had not shown up. For his mission to be successful, he needed to talk to the man whose name he was given. He had to find out exactly how father and son were separated and send the information to attorneys in the United States.
Gradually, it became clear the family didn’t trust him and wondered what Palacios was up to. “My husband told me to come by to see what you all wanted,” Lanuza said. “You know, there are many kidnappers here. That happens here. Children are abducted.”
Palacios assured Lanuza he just wanted to help her reclaim her son. To his surprise, Palacios learned the family knew where 12-year-old Erik was and had even been speaking with him by telephone twice a week, his mother assuring him they’d see each other soon.
After some convincing, Lanuza agreed to take him to her aunt’s house to meet her husband. There, Castillo told a tale like many others of late.
Castillo and Erik were the first in the family to journey to the U.S., driven north by poverty and mounting debt. Lanuza and the two other children were supposed to join them later.
Castillo, 39, said he and Erik were caught by border authorities once they reached the U.S. in early May. After the second day in detention, his son was taken away. The boy cried, and Castillo fruitlessly tried to console him.
Castillo said immigration officials forced him to sign documents despite his objections. He can’t read or write in English or Spanish and said he doesn’t know what he signed. Eight days later, he was deported. His son is detained in a shelter in Chicago, the father said.
“They tricked me. They said they would give him back to me when I was to be deported and they didn’t,” he told Palacios. “I want my son back. They did this to punish me. Those people are awful.”
Palacios promised to forward the family’s information to U.S. attorneys, and it appeared his mission was a success.
A few weeks ago, a social worker from Chicago called the family to say Erik finally would come home, arriving in Guatemala City on Aug. 23 at 10:30 a.m.
Excited, the mother bought her son a new outfit and a few bags of his favorite treats — Sabritas potato chips. On Aug. 22, about two weeks after Palacios’ visit, the family piled into Castillo’s taxi for an eight-hour overnight trip to Guatemala City. At 3 a.m., a few hours shy of the airport, Lanuza got a phone call.
“Your son won’t be on the flight. He’s no longer coming,” she said the social worker told her.
“Why? What happened?”
“The judge has changed his mind,” the woman said. “Your son won’t arrive until September.”
“I want him with me as soon as possible,” Lanuza said. “When in September will you send him?”
“I don’t know,” the woman replied. “I don’t know.”