Deported Guatemalans Face Threats Of Violence At Home

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Luis Echeverria / Reuters

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Community members wearing protective masks patrol the village of Pasajoc, Guatemala, amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Days after recovering from the coronavirus, Bryan sneaked into his village in the middle of the night, behind an ambulance, praying that no one in the surrounding community who feared his infection would kill him.

Bryan, who refused to give his full name or where he lived to protect his family, traveled hours from Guatemala City, where he was quarantined in a temporary hospital inside a convention center. It was the end of a nightmare and months of travel that took him from his rural community to ICE detention in the United States and finally back to Guatemala, where he was seen as an outcast who brings a disease that has already killed thousands. Members of the extended family and people from neighboring communities went to social media to issue threats.

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"They wrote that they didn't want me here and that they were going to kill me," Bryan said in Spanish to BuzzFeed News. "They ruined my life and that of my family."

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The 30-year-old man is not the only one who was threatened with violence after being deported from the United States to Guatemala and accused, sometimes incorrectly, of bringing COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, from abroad. Of the 585 confirmed cases in Guatemala, at least 99 of them were recently deported from the USA.

Luis Echeverria / Reuters

Community members wearing protective masks patrol the village of Pasajoc, Guatemala, amid the coronavirus outbreak.

In Quetzaltenango, a town on the western highlands of Guatemala, residents threatened to burn a temporary shelter that was housing recent deportees. In Palopó, Santa Catarina, a lakeside community in Guatemala, residents tried to attack the mayor and a man who was deported, despite having papers stating he had tested negative for COVID-19.

Bryan tested positive for COVID-19 about a week after returning home. He was in quarantine when government health officials arrived to test him, and shortly afterwards they gave him his results. He was taken to a temporary hospital in Guatemala City that was described by patients as having few resources; patients said one person had escaped and at least one fight broke out at the facility.

The Guatemalan Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance did not respond to requests for comment on the conditions described by patients.

Somehow, news of his positive COVID-19 test spread by word of mouth and then on social media. People said Bryan threw a big party right after he was deported and infected those around him. Others claimed he was seen outside his home distributing food donations.

"Everything they said was fake," said Bryan. "The only thing they got right was that I had been deported twice."

Luis Echeverria / Reuters

Guatemalan migrants line up to enter a hotel in Guatemala City after being deported from the United States.

But as threats flew online, Bryan was trapped in the makeshift hospital in Guatemala City waiting to be released by hospital staff, and his wife feared that people who posted threats would attack her.

"She's been through a lot," said Bryan. "She couldn't sleep and has constant headaches now."

Even though some of the threats came from his own family, his friends in the U.S. called and texted him to offer support after hearing about the threats.

Dr. Justo Solórzano, a child protection specialist at UNICEF in Guatemala, said that many recent deportees, including children, were rejected from their communities, forcing lawyers and government officials to try to find alternative housing for them.

"Many communities are rejecting returnees because they fear being infected," Solórzano told BuzzFeed News.

It is important that the Guatemalan Minister of Health carry out adequate monitoring to prevent infection, but it also gives the community a sense of security that the pandemic is being controlled to suppress some of the responses motivated by fear, Solórzano said.

Luis Echeverria / Reuters

The number of positive cases among U.S. deportees has resulted in criticism of the Trump administration for taking insufficient precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in ICE detention centers and then export the virus to other countries.

Bryan said ICE detainees were not given enough masks or soap and that the new arrivals were placed with people in custody, potentially exposing them to the virus. He was detained and deported from Texas in December and, at the time, there was no talk of the coronavirus, he said. He tried to enter the United States without authorization again in February, near Nogales, Arizona, before being caught and deported to Guatemala in late March.

Now he is back with his family, but he hides inside his home, hoping that there will be enough time and that the threats will calm down.

"I wanted to go to the US to fight to make my family better," said Bryan. "I didn't expect to go through all of this."

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