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From migrants to refugees: the new plight of Central Americans

Belize is afraid

A text by Carlos Martínez
Reading this text will take you around 60 minutes. You can also listen to it:
Narrated by Javier Figueroa

1 Good cop, bad cop

He pounded the desk with his boxer's hands and stared into my eyes.

"I'm Detective Chuc!"

Then he waited for a response — as if there was some required response — with his hands on the desk and with the most intimidating look he could manage.

The presence of Detective Chuc filled that cramped office, which was stacked to the ceiling with papers and dust that seemed to have been there forever. The office is on the second floor of the border station of Benque Viejo. It is where the Belize police took us to question us after stopping us for taking photos on the banks of the Mopan River.

—Good morning, Detective, we are journalists from El Salvador, my name ....

And for the third time, we said the same thing: that we were journalists, that we were doing an investigation about Central Americans who take refuge in Belize and that we walked along the banks of that river because we knew that many undocumented immigrants pass hat riv …

"And you have permission for that?" interrupted Detective Chuc, always with his hands on the desk. "We have a visa, we're legal in Belize, and that side of the river is from Belize, so we think it's legal to walk around.”

The police badge of an agent in the border office where detective Chuc works. Almudena Toral / Univision

—For taking photos and for reporting, do you have permission? retorted Chuc.

"Belize does not require a special visa for journalists," said Victor, the photojournalist. "Who told you that?"

"The officer at the Belize embassy in El Salvador.

"Do you have a document of that?"

—How are we going to have a document that says no documents are needed?

And Detective Chuc glanced again at our passports, with a theatrical ire. Then I decided to play the card of respect for freedom of the press. I announced that this situation seemed incorrect to me and I ended up testing if this would work: "Well, if you can not tell us what crime we have committed, why have we been arrested?" Sergeant George Ayala, who had been smiling in a corner of the room, fiddling with the knife they had confiscated, put on his dark glasses before answering me with a smile: "Who told you that you are under arrest?" This is my chance, I thought, "Then we're leaving here right now." But Sergeant George Ayala stopped me with a gesture: "You are not arrested, you are detained." Detective Chuc, a man of few words, simply closed our passports and left the office with them. Sergeant George Ayala sat in his corner, fiddling with my knife, with the victor's smile on his face and trying not to get out of character as the good cop. "He has to investigate if you are spies, you guys." And we settled into our chairs feeling increasingly uncomfortable.

Without knowing it, we had been stopped out of fear. Out of a fear that we still did not understand and that we only began to sense in that office. Belize has for some time understood it is surrounded by crazy neighbors and it is terrified that hordes of desperate Central Americans will be banging on their doors seeking refuge, as happened more than three decades ago. Belize is afraid that these Central Americans carry the virus of madness and fear that sparks different chain reactions: an avalanche of bureaucracy, a mayor who electrocutes suspected gang members, or Salvadorans ranting against Salvadorans because they are too Salvadoran.

The sergeant was the first person on our tour of Belize to get to the heart of the matter. Belize, the people of Belize, he himself and the border patrol he runs are all afraid that his infected neighbors bring them gangs. Something that, he says, resembles a persistent rash that spreads furiously. "Most people coming are good. But others just want to escape things they did in their countries and come here to hide and start recruiting people,” said Ayala, although he acknowledged he does not know much about the matter and that he was not sure he had actually ever seen a gang member.

Slideshow
Belize, the land without promises
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Belize has 22,966 sq. Kms of land, 2,000 sq km bigger than El Salvador but with a population 20 times smaller. Its territory is mostly jungle. After El Salvador's civil war ended, refugee camps were turned into villages and Salvadorans received Belize citizenship. Since 2015, authorities are again registering numbers of Salvadoran and Honduran arrivals, mostly fleeing the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs. Víctor Peña / El Faro
Central Americans slip across the border every day. A wooden bridge marks the border, an imaginary line across a muddy path that connects the village of Jalacte in southern Belize with the village of Santa Cruz in Guatemala's Peten region. It is a border crossing monitored by a Belize army unit that turns a blind eye to the constant flow of undocumented migrants. There are no official estimates of how many arrive each day. Víctor Peña / El Faro
Arenal Village is another border crossing, and its soccer field straddles the frontier. One goal is on the Belize side and the other is on the Guatemalan side. To play on this field is to constantly break immigration laws. The village has 300 families, an old wooden school and a police station where four policemen sleep, long accustomed to the constant transit to and from Guatemala. Víctor Peña / El Faro
Ezequiel Hernández and José León fled El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s. They were among the first Salvadoran arrivals at the refugee camp hacked out of the jungle and later turned into a village named Valley of Peace. They are now subsistence farmers. Although they have Belize citizenship, they consider themselves to be Salvadorans. They have not been back to their home country for 20 years, and are afraid to do so now because of the daily news reports of violence. Víctor Peña / El Faro
The banana industry is booming in the Stann Creek and Toledo districts of southern Belize. The Bella Vista village was created to house the field workers, most of them Salvadorans. Life in the village is closely tied to the banana farms, where Central American earn 30 Belize dollars (about $15USD) for a day's work of up to 12 hours. The banana farms can obtain work permits for undocumented migrants, but only to work in those farms. The farms usually hold on the workers' passports until they pay back the cost of the permits. Bella Vista Mayor Juan Martinez called the arrangement a form of modern-day slavery. Víctor Peña / El Faro
In the village of Bella Vista, the biggest in southern Belize, the mayor boasts that only two dark-skinned families live there – his way of referring to Afro-descendant natives of Belize. The rest are all “latinos.” Its 7,000 people, including descendents of Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans, fear that the new influx of Central Americans will overrun the village and bring the gang phenomenon to Belize. Víctor Peña / El Faro
Bella Vista Mayor Juan Martinez has imposed a curfew on his community. The disappearance of some bicycles and the arrival of a young man with many tattoos led him to take strong measures. A hood over the man's face, a beating and electric shocks were not enough to confirm the rumors that accompanied the arrival: That he planned to assassinate the mayor. The man was later turned over to police. Víctor Peña / El Faro
Children play after classes in Belize City. The massive arrival of Central Americans since 1980 cut into the majority Criollo or local population and increased the number of people called “Spaniards,” “latinos” or “mestizos” who are now the country's majority. Afro-descendents are now only 40 percent of the population. Maya, Garifuna, Koreans, Chinese and Mennonites round out the complex rainbow of ethnicity and culture in Belize. Víctor Peña / El Faro
The Mopán river marks the border between Melchor de Mencos in Guatemala and Benque Viejo in Belize. Central Americans cross the river every day to enter Belize. The Guatemalan side has a thriving market of coyotes who charge $100 to $300 to show migrants where it's safe to cross. The coyotes openly tout their business in Melchor de Mencos. One of them said he's usually hired by families trying to flee the violence. Víctor Peña / El Faro
La Cabaña is the entertainment center for Salvadorans in Belmopan, the capital of Belize. It's owned by a Salvadoran couple that fled the violence in their native department of La Libertad. The couple was involved in the only shootout with Belize police in Belmopan within memory. Police accused them of drug trafficking, but could not prove it in court. La Cabaña draws customers from the Salvapan, Las Florez and San Martin neighborhoods of Belmopan. Some young people in those neighborhoods have adopted gang symbols. But Belize authorities say they are just copy-cats. Víctor Peña / El Faro
On the shores of the Mopan River, behind the bus terminal in Benque Viejo, someone painted graffiti announcing the presence of the Barrio 18 gang. This kind of graffiti is common in gang-controlled parts of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. But what's important about this one is that it's signed by a supposed gang cell named “Benqueños.” That would indicate the gang has managed to establish some sort of structure in Benque Viejo. Residents say the graffiti is a childcare’s pranks and assume that the local police has them under control. Víctor Peña / El Faro
Rafael – not his real name – is a 30-year-old Salvadoran. The Barrio 18 murdered his brother and a cousin in El Salvador in 2014, accusing them of belonging to the rival MS-13 gang. Fearing for his life, he moved twice within El Salvador, but was found and threatened. He fled to Belize in 2017 with this wife and a five year old son. His wife gave birth to a girl in February. He now raises pigs in the Orange Walk district in northern Belize. Víctor Peña / El Faro
“There are young people who come to Valle de Paz and don't report to authorities because they are gang members, because they are running, because they did something in their country,” said Mayor Juan Arias. The village was originally a refugee camp, founded in 1984 for Salvadoran families fleeing the civil war at home. After the war, the camp became a village and its residents became citizens. Even though they consider themselves Salvadorans and speak Spanish, residents fear the more recent arrivals and refer to them dismissively as “the Salvadorans.” In the photo, a group of boys, children of former Salvadoran refugees, wait to buy pupusas in Valle de Paz. Víctor Peña / El Faro
“The police here blackmail you, it extorts you. The employers exploit you. They pay you crap and they threaten to denounce you because you're undocumented. But at least no one wants to kill you,” said one 20-year-old Salvadoran who fled his country because of threats from Barrio 18. Standing next to him, a 24-year-old Honduran who also escaped death in his home country added, “If I return to my country, they will cut me into pieces.” Víctor Peña / El Faro
On a road to Toledo district, a man repairs tires. That's been his job in Belize since he asked for asylum in 2016. “The people who threatened me and forced me out of Honduras are capable of coming to look for me here and murdering me.” Víctor Peña / El Faro

2 The wrong island

Belize is a country. If you Google it, it looks like a coral reef, or a shipwreck island with a perfect palm or a gringo diver with a mask flashing a victory signal with his fingers. But Belize is a country. Its capital, Belmopan, which just saw its first traffic light, has never seen a traffic jam, or a McDonald's or any other international fast food chain; the office of mayor may be ad honorem; the Ministry of the Interior may be in an office building in an office on the second floor, where there is a piece of paper stuck up on a door that reads "Ministry of Home Affairs.”But Belize is a country. It is, even though on all its coins there appears the face of a woman who is still alive and who is famous for being the queen–the queen–of another country. Despite being a huge and exuberant rainforest of almost 23,000 square kilometers in which it is a challenge to locate its 380,000 inhabitants; despite its official language not being the one spoken by most of its citizens; despite the fact that in 1980 it was still a British colony...Belize is a country. A very nice one, by the way.

A ten dollar bill from Belize. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

Belize looks like an island whose destination was to float in the turquoise Caribbean and end up stranded in Central America, a land of more or less democratic republics, where it is the only country to define itself as a "parliamentary constitutional monarchy" and the only one to recognize Queen Elizabeth Of England as its sovereign.

It is also the only one whose official language is English, although most of its citizens prefer to speak day by day in Kriol: a Creole language whose origins go back to the linguistic jumble of African slaves. Belize is reluctant to be a Central American country. The Belizeans call their neighbors indistinctly "Spanish" or a distant "Central American.” In the free tourist guide offered at the borders, there is a list of the peoples that make up that country: the Mayans, Creoles, Mestizos, Garífunas, Indian—Indians, Arabs, Chinese, Mennonites and Central Americans. Regarding this last group, the tourist learns that "Wherever you go you will hear Spanish spoken because of the large number of people from Central American countries who have migrated to Belize over the years in search of new opportunities and a more peaceful lifestyle.” In quest of a more peaceful lifestyle. In other words, from the outset the official tourist guide presents the country’s neighbors as refugees. And that’s right.

Armenia is a town 20 kilometers away from Belmopan, Belize’s capital. It’s a settlement along the road that leads to the south of the country. A new generation has come to ask for refuge due to gang threats in their countries of origin. Víctor Peña / El Faro

Central Americans, particularly those who come from that fearsome area known as the Northern Triangle–Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras–have historically arrived in Belize fleeing their countries. In the 1970s and 1980s, those escaping from civil wars were sneaking into the jungle where there was plenty of space to grow corn and to survive. That was until the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) decided to intervene and set up refugee camps, which eventually became Belize villages like Valley of Peace or Armenia.

After the civil wars, the Belize government gave the ex—refugees the option to return to their countries or to become Belizeans. The majority decided to stay and tell their children–born in Belize–the history of the war—torn countries of their grandparents and indulge in nostalgia from afar. In the 1990s, UNHCR ended its work and the Belize government breathed a sigh of relief for having turned the page on the episode of Central American refugees. Until, in 2009, things began to change again and Belize began to receive the odd request for asylum–and then another and another and another. By 2014, the Belize authorities had already raised an eyebrow. But it was not until 2015, when El Salvador became the country with the highest homicide rate in the world, when the problem broke out and the Belize authorities did what politicians normally do when they are scared and do not know what to do. They swept the dust under the rug and hoped nobody would notice.

Belmopan’s central market is one of the spots where one can see more clearly the presence of Central Americans in Belize. Spaniards control most businesses in the heart of the city. Víctor Peña / El Faro

3 The judge and the Mopán river

For a decade now, Judge Coldman Scott has been arriving at five o'clock in the morning at the border of Benque Viejo, which is the main gateway for Central Americans who enter–legally–to Belize. A border like any other in the region: a sun like no other, petulant immigration agents, money changers running in packs and colleagues of Judge Coldman Scott, who all come very early to wait for customers at the border.

"Anyone can cross there. From five in the morning, you can see people who, instead of crossing at the official border point, cross the Mopan River and run off down any path. Entire families cross over every day," the judge told us, pointing to the river bank.

Judge Scott was the first to explain that Central Americans who enter illegally have no chance of obtaining asylum in Belize, however tragic their tragedy may be, but that evil Guatemalan coyotes deceive them into believing they will not be allowed to enter via the border point, and that their only chance is to pay them to show them an illegal crossing. Judge Scott himself has given rides to families lurking in the bushes: if they pay him for the ride, he does not ask questions. The conversation can not continue because new customers arrive and it is the turn of Judge Scott to work. He helps a woman to load her bags and he steps into a taxi to give her a ride. He is the justice of the peace of Benque Viejo. It is a position with no requirement for a law degree. But it does not come with a salary. So the judge earns his living as a border taxi driver. Another taxi driver, with almost a full set of teeth, passes by mumbling in Spanish: "This country’s big problem is the immigrants.”

Immigration checkpoint in Benque Viejo, in the border with Guatemala. Almudena Toral / Univision

The photojournalist and I decided to explore the banks of the Mopan River to take some photos and see if that natural border is as well traveled by undocumented immigrants as Judge Scott claimed. At some misguided moment, it seemed a good idea to take a knife with me–one fit for a great explorer.

I had walked only a few feet down an almost invisible path, covered in thick vegetation, when I realized that Victor was not following me. I decided to double back only to find him surrounded by the Belize border patrol in full strength. An agent reached for his gun and asked me to give him the knife. They took our passports and put us into to something that looked like a 4x4 golf cart to interrogate us on the second floor of the border building.

4 Patrolling the border in a golf cart

While Detective Chuc was checking our passports, Sergeant Ayala advised us to be friendly and avoid problems. He promised us that if all our documents were in order, and we asked for the proper permits, he himself could give us a tour on the banks of the river. He even said we could see him in action, catching undocumented migrants. He told us that he feels a lot of sympathy for the immigrants because his mother is Guatemalan: "Sometimes they come stinking because they do not have the money to buy deodorant, because they have given all their money to the coyote in Guatemala," he said to signal his empathy.

An immigration officer next to the car that Belize authorities use to patrol the border. Almudena Toral / Univision

The sergeant is the head of the border patrol on the border of Benque Viejo. He reaches all the hidden spots in his 4x4 cart. But he admits that his work is rather symbolic because the entire border patrol consists of just four people: Detective Chuc and him, plus two agents who must take turns patrolling and providing security at the border checkpoint. Sometimes they sit on a plastic chair by the river and wait for an undocumented immigrant, or go up to the second floor of the building to see if they can see someone running. But most of all they are in the cart–the only one they have–patrolling close to the building. The cart is not in condition to cover much distance anyway. Detective Chuc re—entered the office, snorting like a bull. And he went to photograph our passports without saying a word, until he got tired of taking photos and gave them to us saying that we could go, but that he did not want to see us ever close to that river again. He then told us that whatever we needed we could call him. He wrote down his cellphone number and he shook our hands looking at us as if he were going to kill us. It was his way of being kind. When we were leaving, Sergeant Ayala gave me back my knife, but he warned me that it was illegal to carry it after eight o'clock at night.

A patrolling station by the Mopan river, in the border area of Benque Viejo (Belize)-Melchor de Mencos (Guatemala). Víctor Peña / El Faro

5 A goal without a goalkeeper

The borders in Belize are for show, a formality. Maybe that's why–in the few yards they manage to patrol–Sergeant Ayala and Detective Chuc are so zealous.

Forty minutes by car from the official border of Benque Viejo is El Arenal village, where there is a soccer field that you can not use if you want to be respectful of immigration laws: one goal is in Belize and the other in Guatemala. So the players–at least the forwards–have to become illegal immigrants if they want to win the game. In the village of El Arenal, there is a police post, which from the outside gives the appearance of being a rundown house and, on the inside, that is what it is. There, the policemen are less enthusiastic than their colleagues in Benque Viejo. Our only problem with them was having to wake them from the siesta enjoyed by the entire delegation. When we knocked on the door, a very young policeman woke up frightened on a couch and ran to call Corporal Cob, who, after putting on his shirt, made it clear that he was not there to prevent people from crossing the border. That was for the border patrol at Benque Viejo.

Far to the south is the border village of Jalacté...Well, there is Jalacté, which is a very primitive village, with its straw huts in wild meadows. A hundred yards before the village, there is an ankle—deep stream with a wooden bridge unable, of course, to withstand the passage of a vehicle. That bridge marks the border. You can cross from side to side without realizing that you have changed countries without even a dog barking at you.

A soldier's post permanently monitors that bridge from a hill. As we approached the post a commander appeared with the neck and belly of a bull along with an escort who looked like a child dragging a rifle. The commander told us that we could not photograph the military hut, but if we wanted to take photos of the bridge, there was no problem. Of the refugees, or of the undocumented, the commander does not know anything, but he does not want to know either. He is there, he said, to protect Belize from aggression and that other business is for the immigration department. A group of Guatemalan natives crossed the "border" loaded with merchandise in sacks and baskets. A pack of dogs accompanied them. But even on the official border of Benque Viejo, guarded by Chuc and George Ayala, entering Belize by the border building is just one of the options. On the Guatemalan side, that border is called Melchor de Mencos and anyone would say that it is the cosmopolitan side: there is a labyrinth of streets and pharmacies and dining rooms and even a whole village with traffic lights and traffic.

The police station in El Arenal, Belize. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

Melchor de Mencos and Benque Viejo are joined by a strong bridge that spans the Mopan River and that facilitates many Guatemalans’ work on the Belize side every day. Under the bridge, a few men shovel sand with which they fill the bed of a pick up and nobody knows for sure if that is Guatemalan or Belize sand.

The only bus company that arrives from Guatemala City to Melchor de Mencos is Fuentes del Norte with its regular service and Gold Class (which basically differs in the color of the seats and the power of the air conditioning). When it arrived at six o'clock in the morning, the first bus of the day–of the distinguished Gold Class–parked on the side of the bridge and was immediately surrounded by a group of men who harassed the passengers with full—throated shouts of "change money!" Every time a passenger managed to get off the bus and pick up their bags, the swarm chased them waving Belize bills and screaming "change money!” When I got close to the bus, they started shouting for me to exchange cash too.

He was a skinny man with notorious gaps in his teeth even though he was probably not much older than 30. I asked him if he knew how to get into Belize without papers, he told me that he provided "that service.” I told him we were reporters doing an investigation and then he lowered his voice: "I will get you across but they must not see your colleague’s camera." We explained that we did not want to enter Belize, but only to see the illegal points of entry to the country. For $35 we closed a deal to do the tour, with taxi driver included.

Many Central Americans who cross over to Belize start their journey in this trash repository in the neighborhood of Suchitán, Melchor de Mencos, Guatemala. This is one of seven points through which coyotes smuggle people in the country illegally. Víctor Peña / El Faro

It was a small disappointment: the taxi was passing along the border line and every so often the skinny pointed to a path in the middle of the mountain that continued until it became lost in a ravine. Then another, making its way through a garbage dump where a starving horse grazed on plastic bags. There were a series of more or less obvious roads pointing to the Belize side. "Listen, you do not need a coyote for this. It seems like anyone can just take one of those roads on their own," I said. But the guide replied explaining his value. "But you have to know them and you have to know where to go, because sometimes you can get attacked.” There were seven hidden entry spots in total that we saw in a journey of almost 40 minutes. "We have a conscience here," he said. "We only charge people according to what they can pay –between 100 and 300 dollars," he said, as if waiting for a compliment. "The coyotes that take you to the United States, those people who cheat people, those people should be killed," he said before asking the taxi driver to turn around and take us back to the bridge over the Mopan River.

6 Kim Won Hong's legacy

No one knows for sure how many Central Americans have sought refuge in Belize in recent years. This information is kept as a state secret and the government does not share it even with the United Nations and, of course, much less with a journalist. The issue of migrants is considered a toxic issue for Belize politicians. Ever since the scandal of a case centering on Kim Won Hong from South Korea, the less said, the better. It turns out that Kim Won Hong–whom we will call Kim for short–processed his Belize nationality successfully, after filing his papers in September 2013 and obtaining his Belize passport. All was well until it was discovered that the real Kim was imprisoned in Yilam prison in Taiwan, and had never set foot in Belize, sparking a national scandal that ended up uncovering a whole web of illegal document trafficking that cost several officials their jobs, including Minister Elvin Penner, who was responsible for immigration and border security. An audit following the Kim scandal suggested that Belize was becoming a haven for mafiosi and thugs in England, Nigeria, Lebanon, Taiwan, China and also Honduras and Guatemala. To this day, the issue is still hotly debated in the House of Representatives and the granting of shelter or any other immigration status has become a hot potato no one wants to touch.

In an immigration office in Benque Viejo, in the border with Guatemala, a TV broadcasts a live Senate discussion about a recent scandal in which the government was accused of falsifying passports and immigration documents. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

The effects of Kim's failed play had a blast that put a chill on any issue related to receiving foreigners in Belize and also occurred at the worst time for Central Americans seeking refuge. 2014, the year the immigration corruption scandal broke out, was also the year in which the Central Americans began to arrive–again–in large numbers.

In the 1990s, Belizeans celebrated the end of their neighbors' military conflicts by undoing their refugee department and closing the UNHCR's permanent mission.

To keep an eye on the country, the United Nations delegated to the NGO Help for Progress the authority to represent them in Belize. For years, only a lost African or a not—so—lost Cuban appeared and Help for Progress took their data, listened to their cases, and advised them on the procedures for seeking asylum, until Enrique August, an NGO refugee coordinator noticed a significant change in the flow of Central Americans who said that to return to their countries was a death sentence. According to Enrique August, in 2015, around 300 people would appear every week begging for a safe haven.

Enrique August, refugee attention coordinator at the NGO Help for Progress. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

The noise around that NGO alerted the media, who began to wonder if all those people seeking refuge had a connection with Kim and the corrupt network. The government was not amused that the issue was being stirred up and prevented Help for Progress from receiving new cases. Instead, it set up its own official refugee department in May 2016 with the idea of centralizing the issue.

The problem is that the refugee department has not done anything. In two decades, Belize has not given asylum status to anyone. A person can ask for refuge and they will give you a form and they will even do an interview and they will give you a piece of paper that says that this person should not be kicked out of the country...after that nobody really knows what is going on. In theory, the Refugee Department must see that the person qualifies and then transfers the case to a committee. Which then has to give a recommendation to the politician who is in charge of the matter who in turn must decide something. And so it has gone on for two decades.

The immigration minister, Beverly Williams, in her office in Belmopan, Belize. The minister insists the government is analyzing their capability to receive the new refugees. However, they’ve not approved any of the almost 200 applications that the admissions committee already approved.Almudena Toral / Univision

Traumatized by the refugee crisis of the 80s, fearful of the number of new people knocking on the door and conscious of the Pandora’s box that was opened by Kim, it is no great surprise that Belize put up barriers against foreigners. They unearthed, for example, a law passed in 1991, which establishes that a person can only apply for refuge if he entered the country legally and only within the first 14 days. The immigration authorities have begun to apply it strictly as of September 2016. Belizean law also mandates that anyone caught without papers should be sent to its one and only jail for six months and must pay a fine of $502.50 plus the expense of repatriation. If you are caught a second time, the prison sentence increases to one year and the fine to $1,005 plus repatriation expenses, of course.

The 14—day rule has no other justification than the fact that Belize legislators passed the law at the time. In general, all those immigration provisions make a mockery of the international agreements Belize has signed regarding this issue. The United Nations has protested, of course, but the historic Caribbean tradition of ignoring UN complaints is well documented.

7 Sinking in an office

The Refugee Department is a sad office. There are benches separated from the street by a trellis that allows anyone who passes by to peek at the applicants and think: look at the refugees, they seem like normal people.

The only decoration is a device that extends numbered papers to tell people to wait in turn. Every so often, the door is opened and a guard shouts “next"–not daring to leave the air conditioning–and then a young man stands up or a family with a baby carried in a mother’s arms and they invariably enter with a plastic bag full of papers. The things castaways cling to.

The day I arrived to request an interview with María Marín, the head of the refugee department, a tall, thin Honduran boy came out of the office, a fibrous peasant with broad, hard hands and his best clothes: a T—shirt full of scribbles with glitter and loose jeans. He came out with glassy eyes and clenched teeth, dragging his steps like a sad child to spread out on a bench looking without looking at the paper in his hands. His friend–an even younger boy–had intended to ask him something, but the guard shouted "next" and he entered the office with his own bag of papers.

The Department of Refugees in Belmopan, Belize. Almudena Toral / Univision

He is 24—years—old and has a hint of dangerous rage. Only a year ago he lived in Santa Barbara, the Honduran town where he was born, until the MS13 gang decided that it was time for the boy to swell its ranks. Then he moved to Cofradría, another village, in the hope that the gang would forget him. But the same thing happened: the gang found him and continued to harass him. Then he got his passport and came to Belize, where a cousin already lived. "I did not go to the United States because they say it's a long way off and I did not have any money. So I arrived in Belize without a dime," he says, fingering the paper they have given him. The boy entered legally, but the immigration agent gave him only eight days to be in Belize. It was not until two months of living without documents that he learned that a refuge existed for people who have had to escape from death and their countries–which in these cases is one and the same. He and his friend came to the Refugee Department.

"They have just told me that I arrived after the permit was expired and they sent me to immigration to see what they decide to do with me. I do not know what to do, but my passport was taken away and sent to immigration. They did not want to hand it back to me. They just gave me this paper and told me that I have to go and hand it to immigration. I do not know what to do, I am between a rock and a hard place. I do not know what to do, " he sighed deeply while his eyes flashed fiercely. "The problem is that I can not work, nobody wants to give me work. I'm staying at a house of a lady. No one wants to give me work.” He is either about to cry or punch a fist somewhere. He crumbles the paper in his hand.

I advised him to go to Help for Progress and he said he had already been there. "I filled out a form and they put a paper in my passport and they told me they can not do anything for me. But the police, when they stopped me asking me for my documents, I gave them the passport with that paper and they just said that that paper is useless and they told me I had to give them money. The first time they stopped me they took away 200 Belize dollars (US $ 100) that I had earned. And recently we had got a job and when we got back they grabbed me and some Salvadorans and took our money back," he says through gritted teeth.

At that moment his friend left the office, with the same forlorn face, without his passport and the same note that neither of the two can read, because it is in English. In short, with all the flourish of bureaucracy, the letter says that they do not qualify for refugee status because they requested it after the allotted period.

This second boy is Salvadoran, is 19 years old and made the mistake of getting involved with the girlfriend of a gang leader. He was fortunate that one of the gang henchmen was his friend and warned him that he had orders to kill him, so he was able to escape in time. A few days after his escape, the gang killed his friend.

They both sit poker—faced and do not know what to do: they can go on to immigration and try to get a work permit, but they can also be arrested and locked up or deported or have to pay a fine or all of the above. And they leave without knowing what to do with less hope and with fewer passports than when they arrived.

Antonio was also with his wife and two children: six years the eldest and six weeks the little one. He made the mistake of looking for secret Salvadoran graves to find his missing brother. For that lack of prudence, the Barrio 18 gang threatened him with death. Unlike the boys, he did arrive within the allowed time. He asked for refugee status and received a little card that only says that his case is under review. He has already been waiting for almost a year and every now and then he takes a turn with all his offspring to see if something has progressed and find out that, no, it has not advanced.

A Honduran and a Salvadoran have taken refuge in San Martín, a town in Belize City. Both of them escaped death by gang members. Now, they face a new threat: that of Belize police every time officers ask for their Passports.Víctor Peña / El Faro

I returned the next day, to be told that there was no possibility that Maria Marín, director of the refugee department, would attend to me, not that day or any other day. At least, the assistant who informed me was so friendly it was almost a pleasure to hear the bad news. That was when I heard Arnoldo fly into a tantrum in one of the rooms where individual interviews take place.

The refugee worker tried to keep the conversation low, but Arnoldo had already lost his patience with diplomacy and thundered in Spanish: "What do you want me to do, if you do not let me work ?!" And I watched him bulldoze out of the office like a little war tank. I managed to reach him on the street, when the rain was coming down in just a few drops. Before he allowed me to go further he said he had to ask me two questions: "Do you promise me that my real name will not come out?" And I said yes, “Promised. "Are you going to take any pictures?" I do not have a camera, I told him. "In that case, I am happy to oblige” and he shook my hand, and we both ignored the rain that began to trickle down over our foreheads.

A church in Armenia, Belize, that until recently was home to Salvadoran refugees. 1,400 people live in this community. It started by Central American refugees in the late 80s. New refugees have arrived with the new wave of violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

He is a solid, compact man with a haircut and a military face. "I am an armed forces veteran of El Salvador," he said immediately. "I fought in the military detachment No. 3 and then in the special forces command of San Francisco Gotera in Morazán," he told me. I understood why it seemed so important that I was clear that he was a soldier during the war.

"I'm not going to let my family be destroyed, I'd destroy myself first," Arnoldo repeated as a refrain. At the end of the civil war, Arnoldo used his retirement money to buy a car and convert it into a taxi. He married and had two sons. It was years before the inevitable happened, the gang appeared asking for a "collaboration". They wanted Arnoldo to make free trips and he said no, then they told him that he would have to pay extortion and Arnoldo said no to that too. "I am a war veteran, I am a man of arms," he reminded me at this point. Then the gang wanted to charge him by using his family. “They already took my son ...", and there he paused in his story and stopped to combine his two refrains. "I am a military man and I will not let my family be destroyed." I asked him if he had killed the gang members, and he carefully measured his words. "I do not want to have to use weapons again." The rain began to sing as only tropical downpours can. The sky cleared its throat for a few seconds and then roared as if there were no tomorrow. We rushed to a kiosk where all his family waited and there the story continued.

Arnoldo had to sell his car, his house and came with his wife, his children, his daughter—in—law and a grandson to stop in Belize. He no longer remembers where he got the idea of living here, but he knows how dangerous it was to travel with all those people to the United States and more dangerous to leave them in El Salvador. In a year he has already used up the money they gave him for all the things he owned and he is staring at a bleak future. His wife has cancer of the uterus. He is penniless and does not have permission to work. “Not even in the orange fields. They don’t event let me work cutting down oranges because I do not have papers!" And, one again, he returns to being the broken man I met." My daughter wants to study and I can not pay for her education, and I do not want my wife to die." The war veteran and military man burst into tears, despite his shame at crying in front of his family. Sometimes, he said, he only sees a choice between returning to El Salvador or trying his luck with his eldest son on the trek to the United States. He is undecided. But there is one thing he is clear about. Arnoldo says he will destroy himself before he lets his family be destroyed. It is not exactly clear what that means ...

8 Some flee, some lie

The El Salvador embassy in Belize has a kind of mural newspaper called "Monseñor Romero", which is a cork board with several notes from the newspaper "La Página" printed out and pasted with thumbtacks. The articles chosen during a week in arch when I visited the embassy praised the government's actions against insecurity. The main story was headlined: "February closes with 237 homicides, confirms police director". It was supposed to be good news because the previous year there had been 644 in February. A barefoot woman finished sweeping the embassy which, apart from her, looked deserted.

Luis Carabantes Palacios was about to celebrate two years in Belize representing the interests of Salvadorans. He welcomed us with a fond smile. We began by trying to put some figures in black and white. How many Salvadorans are there in Belize, Mr. Ambassador? "There are like five sets of data: the official one is ours – we have a record of about 6,800 Salvadorans living here. Then there is a number from the Central American University (UCA) of 40,000; Then El Diario de Hoy did an investigation that puts the number at 50,000. And then there is a popular number that is cited by everyone that is 80,000. That is the figure the government of Belize unofficially uses. But we can not say if it is true. Although I'm pretty sure there are more than 40,000."

— And what is the benefit for a Salvadoran to come and register at the embassy?

— Many benefits: someone who registers can go to public hospitals in El Salvador, free of charge. In addition they do not pay the 10 dollars that is charged to foreigners when they arrive. And then they can go to look for work and their children can go to study in El Salvador.

A scar in Arnoldo's head. He was walking down the street one day when he heard a group of local men say: damn Spanish! He continued walking and ignored the comment. Then he felt something hitting his head. He had to go to the hospital and get stitches. Almudena Toral / Univision

Given the data was far from black and white, we tried another tack. How many Salvadorans have sought refuge in Belize until today? "We met with the refugee department and tried to get information, but we can not share it because we get it unofficially." It was the same with this question: How many Salvadorans did Belize deport last year? "We repatriated a total of 118 in 2016" ... it seemed to have worked, until the spokesperson for the General Directorate of Migration assured me afterwards that there had only been 19. In Belize the data is a volatile matter, so I left the subject and the conversation continued in other directions:'What about the people who are at risk in El Salvador and who come to seek asylum here?

—You have 14 days to apply and if you don’t you no longer qualify to seek asylum. If somebody is supposedly coming for asylum and he is seeking to be a refugee, then there are posters on the border that state how much time they have to apply. People should follow the legal procedure and ask for asylum.

"The 14 days is an arbitrary rule because ...

"No, it's law.

"Yes, it is in a law, but it is not supported in any international convention on refugees.

—Look: 14 days is more than enough, as long as the information is available. And even if there were no information, they should be looking to come to the embassy to get information. You could extend the application period for a year but then what would happen is people would lose sight of why they came into the country.

"Most of the people we talked to had no idea even about the existence of refugee status, because they are more concerned that they will not be killed.

"That’s not so accurate. Many who come to seek asylum have already left Belize, so that shows that it was not true that their lives were in danger in El Salvador. Perhaps they just wanted a better life. People had told them that there is land and that Belize is generous. I go to the communities and it is not true. There are only a few who are fleeing from threats. It’s just a way to get in here and try to legalize their status.

Bernardo and his brother have lived for the last three years in the town of Armenia, in Belize. Both of them escaped from the eastern part of El Salvador after being threatened by gang members that wanted part of the remittances that their father was sending them from the United States. Víctor Peña / El Faro

"Is it a sham made up by your countrymen?"

"It could be – because that can help them stay here.

"Do not you have the feeling that this issue of refugees is very sensitive for the government of Belize?"

— The fundamental reason is the gangs, that is, that the gangs will not arrive mixed in with the other immigrants. Here cannot be a shelter for gang members.

The mayor of Valle de Paz, Juan Arias, is an honest politician: when asked why the street that passes in front of his house is called "Arias Street," he responds with a big smile: "It is that this is my last name, That's why I put it like that on the street. "

Juan Arias presides over the most emblematic village from the days when Belize welcomed the downtrodden who had to escape the armed conflicts that once ravaged the Central American north triangle.

He himself is the son of a refugee family from the 1980s. The Belize government of the time granted a piece of jungle for UNHCR to build a village for Salvadoran refugees. Almost 5,000 people living in Valle de Paz came from other countries. Here there are people who fled from war themselves or they are the children or grandchildren of those who fled.

9 Gang members know how to dance

The mayor considers himself a Salvadoran, despite having Belize nationality. His whole generation grew up here, from the time when the jungle had to be beaten back and the only means of transport capable of dealing with the impossible sludge was a single tractor relied on by the entire village. They all speak Spanish with a Salvadoran accent, they eat pupusas, they know the name of their town of origin, even though they have never visited it. The only school is called Monsignor Romero ... but when they talk about the new refugees, those who are gradually getting away from the new horrors of their land, they cling to their Belize papers and call them, distrustfully, "the Salvadorans".

Tránsito del Carmen Batres arrived in Belize in the 1980s, escaping the civil war in El Salvador. She settled in Valle de Paz. This community was sponsored by UNHCR and together with the Belize government back then it was agreed that for every three Salvadoran families they received a local Belize family would be able to settle there as well. Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

An old man who was shoveling sand to fill a puddle said that the "Salvadorans" who are coming are those who are going to ruin the village. He believed that they came running from the things they did and that there was evidence that gang members were coming with them. He said he had proof. A few months, ago there was at the entrance of the school a blue ribbon that adorned the entrance and someone stole it and in his logic who else could that be but a Salvadoran, one of the new arrivals, a gang member. The old man is also concerned that in the village there is only one single policeman whom everyone calls Cantún. He suspects that it will not be enough to stop the invasion that he already intuits.

Maria Antonia passed by and pretended not to be listening to the conversation. But she then recounted that the Barrio 18 gang killed her 16—year—old son in San Salvador four years ago and she fled without a fight until she wound up in Valle de Paz. A girl who cleaned the house of one of the teachers of the school said she was the wife of a soldier who had to escape from El Salvador when the Mara Salvatrucha—13 gang threatened to kill him. Then a day laborer, who had been on a bicycle and was reluctant to join in the conversation, added that he had problems with "the boys" before darting off on his bicycle with a panicked look on his face. They are everywhere trying to go unnoticed, but the old man with the shovel was convinced that they will be the ruin of Valle de Paz. In the Las Flores village, another settlement of Salvadoran ex—refugees, they shouted to the rooftops in protests when they learned that Help for Progress had proposed to temporarily insert 10 families of new refugees among them. The NGO boasted that, for these families, it would be easier to live with people with the same roots. But the NGO was blindsided by angry villagers and their pitchforks and abandoned the idea.

Valle de Paz, in the middle of the jungle. This is the town where the Salvadoran refugees who escaped civil war settled. Nowadays this town also receives quite a few asylum seekers who escape from the current gang violence. Víctor Peña / El Faro.

Juan Martinez, Mayor of Bella Vista, the largest Central American community in southern Belize, electrocuted a man who had just arrived from El Salvador and, according to the mayor, boasted he was a gang member. The mayor imposed a curfew a few years ago in the community, because they were losing some bicycles and he suspected that his community could become infected with Salvadoran gang members. So — without an argument beyond his gut feeling — he banned people from the streets after 9 pm. He and some allies roamed the streets in their trucks picking up anyone who was out walking at the forbidden hour. Then a tattooed boy appeared "who was very kind, greeted everyone." But someone told him that this boy was a gang member and that he planned to kill the mayor. So they detained him. "We started out wanting to get the truth out of him and he said denied the accusation and said it was a lie. We hooded him and we started to torture him and we started to give him electric shocks and the guy never said anything. There he was ... we gave him shocks and he did not say anything. So what did we do? We transferred him to immigration and deported him. "

Earlier this year, Mayor Juan Martínez welcomed his own nephew, recently arrived from El Salvador, who had to escape the threats of the MS—13.

Juan Carlos Martínez is Bella Vista’s mayor. He is paid 50 Belize dollars per month ($25USD). Víctor Peña / El Faro

Working alongside the old man from the village who feared the arrival of new Salvadorans, there was a boy, 22, born in Belize. He also had a shovel and a very clear idea about the gangs. "The Salvadorans who are coming are coming to break up the community. There was one who came here. He already arrived. He was turning his little girl into a gang member. We noticed it because he was teaching her to dance, because the gang members are good at dancing, right?”

Credits

Produced by: Univision Noticias, El Faro

Narration of audiobook: Javier Figueroa

Design: Juanje Gómez, Andrés Góngora

Montaje: Juanje Gómez, Daniel Reyes

Ilustrations: Mauricio Rodríguez-Pons

Video: Almudena Toral, Andrea Patiño Contreras, Brent Toombs

Dron video: Devin Burns

Photos: Víctor Peña, Andrea Patiño Contreras, Almudena Toral

Map: Luis Melgar

Editing: Ricardo Vaquerano, José Fernando López

Social Media: María Carolina Hurtado

Digital production: Andrés Barajas, Paola Duque

Digital coding: Juanje Gómez, Andrés Góngora, Fabián Padilla, Cristhian Mora

Translation: Saúl Hudson, Juan Tamayo

English language editing: David Adams, Jessica Weiss