His grim plea: Asylum, or I die

Should a 20-year-old who fled danger four years ago be forced to return to Honduras, where he says gang vengeance will be waiting?

Published April 26, 2006

MIAMI - Kenny Rivera says the tattoo on his upper right arm is a death sentence.

That's why he fled his home in Honduras four years ago to escape a violent street gang that had already killed two of his friends.

Facing deportation as an illegal alien, Rivera, 20, is hoping to persuade a Miami immigration judge today not to send him back home. In a potentially precedent-setting case, he is asking for political asylum because he fears he will be killed if he sets foot in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.

Rivera's attorney, Julie Ferguson, says she believes Rivera has a right to protection under U.S. immigration law, as well as the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

"There's a strong likelihood that he will be tortured and killed by gang members if he is sent back," said Ferguson. Even if he manages to escape the gang members, he could just as easily die at the hands of local police and vigilante groups, accused of operating death squads, she said.

The emergence of ultra-violent Central American street gangs in recent years has sent shock waves through the region. The impact is felt increasingly in the United States where the gangs boast 25,000 members in 33 states, according to the FBI.

Cases like Rivera's pose a tricky dilemma for U.S. immigration judges who are reluctant to open the door to a potential flood of gang members seeking similar legal protection.

But Ferguson says her client is a special case. Despite his tattoo, Rivera says he never belonged to a gang. Instead, he says he was forcibly recruited by members of the 18th Street gang, one of two main groups in Honduras.

Ferguson must convince the judge that her client faces persecution back home due to membership in a particular social group. In this case: children who refuse to join violent street gangs.

Rivera says he and several friends were playing soccer a few blocks from his house in Tegucigalpa in August 2000 when they were approached by 18th Street gang members. The boys rejected an offer to join the gang. But soon after the gang was waiting for them at the soccer field. This time they were armed with knives and home-made guns, known as chimbas, rudimentary weapons fashioned from pipes.

"We had no option," said Rivera, who described how all four were summarily tattooed on the upper arms with the 18th Street insignia, "XV3."

To avoid trouble, the four decided to lie low, mostly staying indoors. Rivera lived alone with his grandmother in the Morazan barrio, near the national soccer stadium in center of the city. His mother, Blanca Vinces, 45, had left when he was 7 to find work in Miami.

But in February 2001, the gang caught up with one of the boys, Julio Rodriguez. A member of a youth church group, Rodriguez begged to be excused from gang duties. He was shot and killed.

To escape the same fate, Rivera spent the next 18 months dodging from place to place.

Then another friend, Carlos Chevez, was killed, gunned down a few doors from his home in Morazan.

Chevez had covered up his gang tattoo with a religious image after being picked up by police on suspicion of gang membership. In doing so he ran afoul of strict gang rules that deem tattoo removal to be an act of betrayal, punishable by death.

When Rivera's mother heard of the latest victim she quickly sent money to bring her son to Miami. "I was frightened for him," she said. "My friends said if I didn't bring him I would lose him."

Only 16, Rivera made it to the U.S. border in October 2002. He was briefly detained by immigration authorities, before he was released to his mother's care.

In Miami he found work laying marble floors. While Rivera's mother is also an illegal alien, she enjoys Temporary Protected Status, a category reserved for citizens of countries in dire circumstances. Honduras was added to the list in late 1998 after the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch.

But the status only applied to persons who arrived in this country before 1999. Rivera wasn't covered so authorities began deportation proceedings in September 2003.

This month the St. Petersburg Times visited Rivera's barrio in Tegucigalpa.

Residents of Rivera's street - a row of simple one- and two-story concrete-block homes - recalled why Rivera left the country after his friends were killed. "He told you the truth," said Rivera's former soccer coach, Juan Carlos Godoy, a born-again Christian who belongs to the national Soccer Federation.

"They were good kids," he added, standing outside his home only a few doors from where Rivera lived. "They weren't involved in gangs or anything like that."

Residents also confirmed the risks Rivera faces if he returns home.

Friends of one of the murdered boys, Chevez, described how he was gunned down by men in a taxi 50 yards from Rivera's door.

His mother, Irma Chevez, 47, said the gang had demanded 4,000 lempiras ($220) to leave him alone. "We don't know who they were. They came from another barrio," she said.

Residents described three other gang killings in the neighborhood, including one 17-year-old girl, Cristel Trochez, who was murdered only a few days after returning to Honduras from New York. An 18th Street gang member since age 12, Trochez had undergone laser treatment to remove her tattoos. She was apparently killed after gang members found out she was back in the country and demanded she rejoin.

U.S. law enforcement officials confirm the strict codes and extreme violence of the gangs. "Retaliation is very common," said Ed de Velasco, a gang specialist with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who teaches law enforcement courses at St. Petersburg College.

"They do surveillance. They know everything," he added, though he stressed he has no specific knowledge of Rivera's case.

The way Rivera sees it, the 18th Street gang isn't his only worry. There's also the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, arch rivals of the 18th Street gang who are considered even more violent.

Then there's the police. "They have a license to kill anyone suspected of being a gang member," said Maria Luisa Borjas, former head of internal affairs for the Honduran police and a 25-year veteran officer.

"They have safe houses and plainclothes officers carrying out kidnapping, torture and murder of gang members. It's a policy of state terror."

Borjas, 52, was fired in 2002 after denouncing rampant police corruption.

Since then the government has changed. Officials promise to purge corrupt officers, but Borjas says she is still waiting to see action taken.

Tears rolled down the face of Sarah Sauceda, 41, as she described how her 16-year-old son, Darwin Sauceda, was hounded for a year by a local policeman who threatened to kill him.

An 18th Street member, Sauceda was last arrested in February 2002. A day after his release he was found dead with 15 bullet wounds in his chest in the shape of a cross. That's precisely how his police tormentor threatened to execute him, his mother said.

Despite documentation of shocking abuses, persuading immigration judges is not easy, said Ferguson. She cites the case of Edgar Chocoy, a young Guatemalan ex-gang member who fled to the United States. He was killed in March 2004, only seven days after being deported following denial of his asylum request.

Ferguson said she knows of only a handful of successful cases. In one celebrated case in July 2002 an immigration judge in Los Angeles granted asylum to an ex-gang member from El Salvador, Alex Sanchez, on the grounds that he was marked for death.

Ferguson says Rivera deserves the same. "I feel really strongly about this case because the problem with the gangs is so well documented," she said. "Kenny's story checks out."

David Adams can be contacted at dadams@sptimes.com