GUATEMALA CITY—In March, Guatemala closed its borders and airports to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But there was one special set of flights still allowed in – and it was for immigration enforcement. Asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador were being deported to Guatemala, with the planes lifting off from Texas. A few days ago, Guatemala temporarily suspended acceptance of these flights. But many detainees have already landed there and claim they were misled about where they were going in the first place.
The fights were conducted under a Trump administration policy that is under challenge in U.S. federal court. Opponents claim U.S. law and international treaty obligations are being violated by sending people to countries where they face certain danger.
Blanca Díaz is a 26-year-old from Usulután, El Salvador where she operated a one-person unisex hair salon from home. She says she received extortion threats from pandilleros, criminals who are soldiers for organized crime. Pandilleros are akin to parallel states in Central America’s Northern Triangle – a security-challenged region comprising El Savador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Maria Isabel Delario, bent and crying, prays at the tomb of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez at Catedral Metropolitana de San Salvador. (Lorne Matalon)
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—María Isabel Delario is crying. Her body is bent, her face buried in her arms, her hands rest on the metal cast depicting the face of a murdered archbishop, a man nominated for sainthood by Pope Francis.
Delario is at the tomb of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez in the basement of the Catedral Metropolitana de San Salvador. Some people around her wear shirts emblazoned with the words, “San Romero de América.” “For me he’s still alive” she says. Another worshiper, Carlos Martínez, adds, “Romero’s message was that the Church must work to end inequality. And that was a message that people in power did not want hear.”
Worshipers kneel before Romero’s tomb. The purse in the foreground reads, “May my blood be the seed of liberty, my death is for the liberation of my people and a testimony of hope in the future.” These words are attributed to Romero though it is unclear he actually he said them. (Lorne Matalon)
Reverence for Romero is evident when you land in San Salvador. A massive sign facing the tarmac announces that you’re arriving at an airport named for Romero. As you enter the country, his image is stamped into your passport. This story is about how Romero’s image continues to be manipulated 36 years after his murder.
Visitors to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Juárez place votive candles with the image of Virgen de Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, on a platform below the pulpit. Juárez residents interviewed for this story say the Pope’s use of his position to promote social change resonates here. (Lorne Matalon)
JUAREZ, Chihuahua — The upcoming visit of Pope Francis to Mexico marks the sixth Latin American country Pope Francis will have visited since his pontificate began in 2013. Francis will be visiting the border city of Juárez, a city recreating itself after years of bloodshed. That’s something Francis witnessed as a young priest during Argentina’s “Dirty War.”
His experience in Latin America, being the first Latin American leader of the Catholic Church, his decision to echo some of the precepts of the movement founded in Latin America within the church founded in Latin America known as Liberation Theology and his decision to beatify a murdered Salvadoran archbishop are all elements in the Pope’s focus on Latin America.
Two members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS-13) stand in a prison in El Salvador. MS-13 was founded by Salvadoran immigrants in California in the 1980s. Recent intelligence gathered by US federal agents shared with the House Judiciary Committee in Washington, DC show that many Salvadorans cite gang violence as a prime motive for leaving Central America. (Lorne Matalon)
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — The line of the hopeful forms every weekday morning at the American Embassy in San Salvador.
The scene is both intense and poignant. A line of several dozen families snakes its way along a sidewalk across the street. Infants are wailing in their parents’ arms as clouds of black diesel spewed by passing trucks envelop the crowd. A few feet away, heavily-armed Salvadoran police patrol the embassy perimeter.
The would-be migrants are waiting for their turn to launch a formal application to enter the United States.