America’s Renegade Retirees

clips, Frontera, mainstream media, Mexico, words

U.S. News and World Report

ROSARITO, Mexico — At the sprawling beachfront Las Rocas Resort and Spa in the Mexican state of Baja California, the restaurant El Mesón serves up American-style pizza and Mexican seafood accompanied by a breathtaking view of the Pacific. To drum up more business, the restaurant is running a new campaign in local publications, with a limited-time offer.

Their advertisement shows a beaming, middle-aged couple, a silver-haired gentleman and a blond. Her arms are draped comfortably around his shoulders. “Super special!” reads the text over their heads, in English. “Seniors 50% off your check!” In the tiny print below, a disclaimer notes that the deal is available to those aged 55 and up.

That marketing focus is intentional. In 2017, for the first time in twenty years, Mexico topped the list of International Living’s annual ranking of the best places for U.S. citizens to retire. The population of Americans in Mexico is rising, in size as well as in age.

Yet most of them may be there illegally. South of the border, it’s relatively easy for U.S. citizens to live without legal documentation. In fact, some official reports indicate that illegal Americans seem to be the rule, not the exception.

One 2015 study from Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography reveals that a stunning 91.2 percent of Americans in the country don’t have their papers in order. That figure includes typos and other minor irregularities, and doesn’t appear to account for dual nationals.

The welcome many American immigrants feel in Mexico stands in stark contrasts to the way their Mexican counterparts are treated by Uncle Sam.

At the border crossing into Tijuana from San Diego, Americans can drive straight into Mexico without stopping or showing any kind of identification.

Mexicans generally embrace Americans and the influx of U.S. dollars that accompany them, and the Mexican government rarely deports Americans – typically just for very serious crime. Fines related to immigration paperwork can range from $50 to a few hundred dollars.

Conversely, under the Trump administration, even those people who grew up in the United States, brought here as babies or children, are now being deported for lacking formal documentation.

“There is a great deal of irony there,” says Sheila Croucher, author of the book, “The Other Side of the Fence: American Migrants in Mexico.” She adds, “I believe the Mexican people are remarkably adept at separating the actions and attitudes of the U.S. government from that of the American people.”

According to the U.S. State Department, around a million Americans currently reside in Mexico. But that number is only an estimate, since citizens aren’t closely tracked leaving the U.S. For its part, Mexico struggles to tally incoming visitors.

“I think it’s safe to say that over the past few years there has been a marked increase,” Croucher says. “And there’s been no indication of a reverse flow of people coming back from the towns in Mexico where large numbers of Americans have settled.”

Statistics from the U.S. Social Security Administration show that distributions to beneficiaries in Mexico increased 7.2 percent between 2012 and 2016. Yet those numbers, too, aren’t exactly reliable: many American seniors move south while keeping their old bank accounts back home.

Some of the 15,000 Americans skirt formal residency requirements by obtaining tourist visas, and renewing them every 180 days. Otherwise, a one-year temporary visa costs about $194 USD.

Cheap living, proximity and established enclaves of Americans are three top reasons why Americans are drawn to retiring in Mexico, says Jen Stevens, the executive editor of International Living.

“Part of the reason Mexico came out on top [in our ranking] is because of the dollar being so strong this year, compared to the peso,” Stevens says. “It is even more affordable now than it was a decade before.”

Hot spots for American immigrants, young and old alike, include cities and towns like San Miguel de Allende, Rosarito, the Valle de Guadalupe, Lake Chapala and Ajijic.

And with the climbing cost of healthcare in the U.S., some American retirees also view Mexico as a good option if assisted living facilities or in-home private care become necessary.

Scott Astorga of Palm Springs says he opened a small retirement home in Rosarito in June 2016. “There’s a demand here,” Astorga says. “That’s why I’m in business. It’s growing. Back in 2003, there weren’t any assisted living facilities.”

Yet some Americans find themselves unsettled by what still seems to be a fact of Mexican life: the “mordida,” or bribe.

Sean Gunderson, 57, of Arizona bought a beachfront second home in a gated community along the Tijuana-Rosarito coast in 2004.

A few years later, the former law enforcement consultant was advised to pay a bribe after the Mexican government refused to fix a typo on paperwork related to his property. The incident rankled Gunderson so much that he decided to put his house on the market, scrapping a plan to develop a multi-million dollar assisted living community in Baja California.

“If you don’t mind operating that way, as an American, you can buy influence and connections,” Gunderson says. “But for us, in terms of investing, that was the straw that broke our backs.”

What Happens When Students Create Their Own Curriculum?


atlanticThe Atlantic Monthly 

Dozens of schools around the U.S. are opting to ditch the traditional school structure altogether to motivate teens in new ways—and it seems to be working.

by Erin Siegal McIntyre

Nothing in particular stands out about the two adjoining rooms at South Burlington High School, one littered with desks, the other lined with simple grey cubicles. Yet the 30 students working inside are taking part in a uniquely personalized curriculum unlike anything their peers—or most U.S. high-school students—ever get to experience.

Big Picture, a program with a chapter at South Burlington, bucks the traditional model of high-school learning. There are no tests, no grades, and, for some students, no traditional classes to sit through.

That’s because the program is centered around the concept and execution of self-directed learning. With input from advisors, working professionals, parents, and peers, each teen participant creates his or her own curriculum, tailored to fit personal interests.

Big Picture’s model is now used in more than 60 schools across the U.S. And in Vermont, it’s also a precursor to a new statewide mandate meant to take effect over the next three years: Public-school students in grades seven through 12 will soon be required to create their own personalized learning plans.

Within South Burlington’s larger student population of around 900, Big Picture accounts for just a small portion of students. The program is broken into two sections: Big Picture 101 for new participants, and a 201 level for upperclassmen and experienced participants. Students aren’t required to take classes like English or biology—though they can if they so choose.

Each Big Picture student comes up with a big idea, or hypothesis, for their year-long independent project, such as 17-year-old Joey Mount’s plan to design a clothing line and launch an accompanying website. Teens tap into their pre-existing interests, then come up with creative ways for the topic to be reimagined to gain proficiency in subject areas like science and math.

The goal is for students to stay motivated and learn while gaining real-world experiences—and honing the tricky art of time management. Four staff members help guide, coach, and hold students accountable: two advisors, one Americorps Vista volunteer, and one program director.

Over the course of each semester, projects are carefully vetted and executed according to reporting standards, which are also predetermined by students. It’s a process that the advisor Jim Shields said evolved over the program’s seven years at South Burlington.

“Most students who find us, find us for a reason: School isn’t working for them,” Shields said. “If you think of high school as having a ceiling and a floor, there’s the students who are struggling because they’re falling through the cracks in the floor. Then there’s the students who just wanna take the roof off, who are held back by high school.”

This year’s crop of Big Picture projects covers a diverse range of topics. Shields’s students are gaining the academic proficiencies required for them to graduate by studying artistic endeavors like blacksmithing, clothing design, e-games, and pinhole photography. One is conceptualizing and designing a card game meant to increase face-to-face interaction among participants; another is producing a film examining how depression and anxiety manifest in high-school environments.

To earn their proficiency-based diploma, which results in a non-traditional transcript, the program requires that students achieve “a minimum level of  proficiency and competence when it comes to mastering the essential knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college, work, and life.” At South Burlington, those lofty concepts are measured with the help of a rubric.

Kids are also required to seek out mentors related to their topic of study—a professional photographer for a project exploring pinhole photography, or perhaps a coder for another tackling e-game design. Second-year students also spend two full days a week working at internships, putting in 80 hours each 12-week semester.

Furthering that community involvement, the introductory students are also immersed in planning a group project, which the entire Big Picture group executes together. This year, they’re trying to open a café in South Burlington.

Although Big Picture is self-selective and small by design, Shields said he doesn’t turn many interested students away. “We look at a lot of things,” he said, “grades being an indicator but not the most important indicator. They may have no good grades, but started their own rock band, and they tour.”

After filling out a paper application, potential program participants are invited in to interview. The applicants and their parents are both required to submit essays, in which they explain why they think the program will work for the student. The process culminates in a test of sorts. Applicants are given a choice of two prompts to answer, both of which require the teen to consider how, exactly, they might complete a structured project over the course of the semester.

Sam Caron, 16, said he had trouble staying focused in a traditional classroom. He’s a first-year participant, and this year, his project is the creation of a cider press.

Comparing a traditional high-school schedule with a self-designed Big Picture curriculum is like comparing “apples and oranges,” Caron said. “Here, what I put into it is what I get out of it. It’s just that with this, I want to be putting more into it, because it’s stuff that I’m interested in.”

So how does making a cider press earn the equivalent of an A in, say, chemistry or world history?

To fulfill science proficiency requirements, each participant enters Vermont’s annual state science fair. Their entry has to have an angle related to their independent project, forcing them to think creatively in order to come up with a scientific hypothesis that can be executed and tested.

Caron will be testing and designing a contraption to demonstrate how best to extract the most juice from a single apple for this year’s science fair.

A panel of judges consisting of scientists and science teachers review each experiment according to a rubric. For other students, science fair feedback is just constructive criticism. For the Big Picture kids, it effectively replaces their grades, proving or disproving their science proficiency.

Shields said Caron’s cider press project would fall under the Big Picture “reasoning and problem solving domain.” The 16-year-old will learn through research, gaining hands-on experience while using the scientific method.

Throughout the year, students assesses their own work to measure what they’ve learned and to make sure they’ve identified, mapped out, and realized plans toward achievable goals. They also participate in exercises like weekly “Socratics,” where they read, analyze, and discuss a news article or piece of literature chosen by advisors or peers. Reflection and self-assessment are key.

At the end of the semester, instead of grades, feedback for each independent project comes after an “exhibition of learning.” Students give presentations to their peers, parents, and the public on their topics.

On a recent Monday, Shields stood in the Big Picture 101 room, moving from teen to teen as they worked through the day’s plans on laptops. As the bell sounded marking the end of the two o’clock session, his seven students put on their jackets, grabbed clipboards, and walked outside into the crisp Vermont air.

Their destination? Three local supermarkets two miles up the road: Hannaford’s, a New England chain; Trader Joe’s; and Healthy Living, a pricier health-food store. The students were on a fact-finding mission to help build toward opening their café, the program’s collective community project. On this particular outing, their goal was to figure out which menu items would be the most affordable.

As the group distanced itself from the old brick school, Shields walked along the sidewalk, in the middle of the pack.

The teens led the way.



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The Limits of Jurisdiction

clips, words

For the past six years, Karen has lived in Missouri with her adoptive parents. But a Guatemalan couple are convinced the child is their kidnapped daughter, Anyelí.


It’s unclear how the two-year-old broke her femur, Dr. Napoleon Castillo Molinedo told me. The Guatemalan pediatrician regularly saw the child, identified as “Karen Abigail Lopéz García” in his office records, for check-up appointments and vaccinations. Firing up a weary PC, the doctor retrieved Karen’s old records, printing out a list: ten visits in the first seven months of 2007 alone.

The adults who brought the toddler into Castillo’s office, members of the Bran family, were in the business of children. More specifically, they provided what most Americans call “foster care” for Guatemalan kids during their adoptions to mostly American families. According to Castillo, the Brans “didn’t overflow with love for the kids.”

“I charged them less per child, since they brought so much volume through my office,” the doctor said. He said the Brans claimed Karen “fell down” and broke her limb “jumping on a bed.” But he didn’t believe them.

Sitting in a dingy yellow office in one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in Guatemala City, Castillo explained, back in 2010, that it wasn’t his business to investigate or even report his suspicions. His involvement with Karen had clear limits. It began when she came through the clinic’s doors. It ended when she left.

The same unspoken boundaries applied to many other adults involved in Karen’s protracted, complicated adoption. Someone had found the child. Someone had offered her for adoption. Someone fed her, and someone changed her diapers. One person processed adoption paperwork in Guatemala; another did the same in the US. Some links in the chain knew each other, and some didn’t. The simple compartmentalization helped obscure a shared responsibility, as well as legal jurisdiction.

And there lies one of the myriad issues facing the exhausted prosecutors of Guatemala’s human-trafficking unit in what is now a high-profile criminal investigation. For the past six years, the child known as Karen has lived in Missouri with her adoptive parents, Timothy and Jennifer Monahan. But Loyda Rodríguez and Dayner Hernández, a young Guatemalan couple, are convinced the child is their daughter, Anyelí, who was kidnapped in November 2006. Although a Guatemalan judge ruled that Karen should be returned to Guatemala in 2011, the Monahans have kept her.

Today, both families hope to do what’s best for Karen. But understanding what that means is just as complicated as understanding what actually happened to the child.

In Guatemala nearly a dozen people, including government officials, have been charged with serious criminal offenses related to Karen’s adoption, including dereliction of duty, human trafficking, and falsifying documents. Two women, a nursery director and a lawyer, have been found guilty and are serving jail time for their involvement with the child.

The case pits American against Guatemalan interests, a family against a family. It can be seen as a study in the failure of cooperation and international diplomacy, or as an examination of influence, wealth, and power. The situation forces questions about the definitions of what is right, what is moral, and what, exactly, is criminal.

This story was reported over the past six years. I used over five thousand documents obtained and leaked from various sources in Guatemala, interviewed dozens of parties, and gained insight from criminal investigators and experts associated with the case in both countries.


In 2006, Timothy and Jennifer Monahan, an American couple from Liberty, Missouri, began the process of adopting a boy from Guatemala. They already had one biological daughter. To adopt, they used the Florida adoption agency Celebrate Children International (CCI). Like many CCI clients, the Monahans shared a deep Christian faith with the agency’s director, Sue Hedberg. The adoption proceeded with ease, despite CCI’s checkered history of complaints alleging unethical business practices.

When the Monahans visited Guatemala, they found the poverty there overwhelming, according to a chronology of events written by Jennifer Monahan and later obtained by criminal investigators in Guatemala. “…[O]ur family is burdened with the vision of ‘street toddlers’ and reports of children not having enough to eat or drink, and even being incarcerated with their mothers in jail,” Monahan wrote, upon returning to Missouri. “We pray for the opportunity to adopt another child.”

Like countless other potential adoptive parents, they skimmed through photos of children posted online. When they saw a picture of a girl listed as Karen Abigail Lopéz García, aged twenty-three months, they decided to inquire. Abigail López García, photo from Consejo Nacional de Adopciones files

“We want to work with an ethical facilitator, although we know in Guatemala there are always things out of people’s control,” Monahan said, as recounted in an email she later sent to Guatemalan adoption lawyer Susana Luarca. “We also offered to help the birth mother if she needs help, since Karen appears to be extraordinarily well-cared for.”

At the same time, in 2006, the reputation of Guatemala’s international adoption industry was declining fast. Stories of baby-snatching and kidnappings for adoption peppered the pages of local newspapers.

Nevertheless, business was still booming. In 1996, the State Department reported that 542 Guatemalan children were adopted into the US. Ten years later, that number increased 663 percent to 4,135. Adopting parents paid agency fees ranging anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 per child. The money passed through various hands: those of child finders (buscadoras) and pullers (jaladoras), lawyers, specialized cabbies, pediatricians, civil registrars, judges, government officials, nannies, nurses, and more.

Yet increasing attention paid to Guatemalan adoptions meant that adoptive parents faced heightened scrutiny. “Guys,” CCI director Hedberg wrote in an email to dozens of her clients in October 2006, “there are again major problems with the police stopping families, foster moms and lawyers and harassing them and even taking the children away. This is not a safe time to travel to visit your children.”

A few months after the Monahans signed up with CCI to adopt Karen, the hitches and hiccups began. The required DNA test, meant to prove the parenthood of the relinquishing mother, kept getting delayed for various reasons. In January, the midwife’s license couldn’t be found.

At the time, the Monahans were still in the process of adopting their son. Jennifer Monahan wrote that in March, when they traveled to Guatemala to pick him up, she hesitated to meet Karen. The child was reportedly living with a foster mother, paid by CCI’s in-country facilitator, Marvin Bran.

Monahan told CCI she didn’t want to meet the child unless the adoption was certain to progress. She didn’t want to give her any false ideas. One of Hedberg’s volunteer staff members, acting as a case manager, warned the family not to meet Karen, since her requisite DNA test hadn’t been carried out yet. “She felt that this wasn’t going well, and that something might be going on,” Monahan noted. In her chronology of events, she wrote that she decided to pray about the decision.

But Hedberg insisted that nothing was wrong. The next day, against Jennifer Monahan’s wishes, a caretaker named Kimberly Bran brought Karen to the apartment the Monahans had rented, telling her to “kiss new mommy and daddy…” “Karen wept hysterically for the foster mother, then settled into our hearts,” Monahan wrote. By the time the visit ended, the Monahans had fallen in love with the child.

In May, however, CCI wrote to the family with bad news. Karen’s mother, who was listed on the child’s birth certificate as “Felicita López García,” was now suddenly “missing,” Monahan wrote in her chronology. No one could find her.

It was a problem. Without Felicita’s consent, and a voluntary sample of her DNA from which to establish a maternal connection to Karen, the child’s adoption to the Monahans would freeze—perhaps forever.


Guatemala is a small, brutally poor country. Almost half of all children there—and the majority of children in rural, indigenous communities—grow up stunted by chronic malnourishment. The nation was the site of the longest civil war in Latin American history: over three decades of brutality, during which the government massacred hundreds of thousands of its citizens. Trauma still hangs over the country, like a shroud.

Against this background, some Guatemalan families voluntarily relinquished their children to international adoption. Sometimes babies were given up to help siblings survive. For a woman with a starving family, selling a child might be an obvious, if heartbreaking, option.

Karla Ordoñez, a Guatemalan adoption facilitator who sometimes worked with CCI, told me pregnant women often called her, seeking help. “Most of the time they needed a house or food,” she said. Selling a baby was a way to meet basic needs: jaladoras, middlemen who identified children who could be “pulled” into adoption, reportedly offered pregnant women as much as $640 USD per unborn baby.

But sometimes, Ordoñez said, the women changed their minds. That kind of situation, she explained, was difficult to navigate. “Part of the money would have already gone to the woman, so you couldn’t get it back,” she said. Many American adoption companies, she claimed, weren’t interested in understanding the complicated details of individual situations. As with any business, after a deposit, goods were expected.

It was widely acknowledged that baby-selling in adoption was occurring, and had been since the early 1990s. The American government also knew. In June 1995, the US Embassy in Guatemala sent a highly disturbing cable back to the State Department in Washington, outlining what it called “a cruel international trade.” Some birth mothers, it noted, had been threatened with death after trying to get children back. “The issue is the following,” the cable stated. “Are we not morally obligated (if not legally) to prevent what is otherwise clearly reprehensible as well as criminal under any penal code—kidnapping, the illegal separation of biological children from their parents?”

Dayner Orlando Hernández, a bricklayer, and his wife, Loyda Rodríguez, had three children and were solidly middle class by Guatemalan standards. Unlike some of their desperate countrymen, they’d never been forced to consider selling a child. But on November 3, 2006, their daughter, two-year-old Anyelí Liseth, was abducted. The child, Rodríguez said, was snatched from their home in San Miguel Petapa, south of Guatemala City. with her three kids

The next morning, after a fruitless search, Hernández filed a formal complaint with the local police, and gave them a photo of his daughter. In the report, he stated that two unknown women had seized Anyelí, fleeing in a white taxi. The baby had been wearing a simple light-blue canvas dress and toddler-sized white shoes. The day after, he filed another complaint with the local branch of the Ministerio Público, and the following week, he lodged a third report with the Procurador de los Derechos Humanos, a congressional office on human rights.

But the authorities didn’t help.

Winter passed. So did Anyelí’s third birthday. The young family filed complaints with various Guatemalan authorities, and still nothing happened. Spring came and went. Hernández engaged in his own kind of guerrilla investigations, working the neighborhood streets and questioning people as to whether they’d seen his baby daughter.

By early summer 2007, the couple still had no information about Anyelí’s kidnapping. Was the child dead? Why would anyone take their daughter?


By June 2007, Karen’s mother had resurfaced. In her chronology, Jennifer Monahan claimed that CCI gave no explanation regarding the woman’s earlier disappearance. When the family asked what had transpired, CCI staff told Monahan to be patient—and to stop asking questions.

The DNA test was administered in July. Documents show that Karen’s cheek was swabbed, and that the sample was then compared with one from her mother Felicita’s cheek. The DNA comparison test, first put into place in 1995, was supposed to be a fool-proof fraud detector that verified whether a woman relinquishing a child was indeed biologically related to that child. A strict protocol instituted by the US Embassy mandated how the samples were drawn, handled, and shipped to pre-approved American laboratories that performed the actual testing. That way, it was thought, no one could tamper with the samples.

By mid-July, the US testing facility LabCorp hadn’t confirmed receipt of Karen and her mother’s DNA samples. The Monahans, again, pressed CCI for information.

“Dear Sue,” Jennifer Monahan wrote to Hedberg, “…Labcorp hasn’t notified anyone of receiving the sample—should we be concerned that it didn’t happen?” She tried calling LabCorp directly, to no avail.

“We just want you to know that after spending time with Karen, we know she is our daughter and we will do anything to bring her home,” Monahan wrote in a separate email, also included in the chronology. “We want to do the right thing through this process and not put undue pressure on anybody, but we are so concerned about how slowly things are going with no apparent explanation.”

Then new information arrived. On August 1, 2007, the Monahans learned that the DNA test had failed to establish a maternal match. Felicita Antonia López was an imposter.

According to the Monahan chronology, Hedberg said she’d ask LabCorp “…to bury this [DNA] result, like they used to do for her, but LabCorp said…they couldn’t do that any more.” Monahan noted, “She said she could get LabCorp to delay reporting for a week.” It’s unclear whether or not the reporting was delayed. Neither LabCorp nor Hedberg responded to requests for comment.

Hedberg, Monahan wrote, said there was now “zero chance” of the family succeeding in adopting Karen. The adoption was effectively frozen, since the child’s origins had been called into question. Via email, Hedberg urged the Monahans to drop the matter and move on. Their down payment on Karen’s adoption could be transferred to another child’s adoption.

In a cable from a decade before, when DNA tests became mandatory in Guatemalan adoptions to the US, Embassy officials noted that children with problem cases simply “disappeared into the same foggy background from which they came. It has been anguishing to all parties involved…”

Would Karen also disappear? If the Monahans followed Hedberg’s advice and chose another child to adopt, what would happen to her? Who would buy food and diapers for her if no one paid the Brans? Would Karen end up on the streets of Guatemala, transformed into one of the urchin children that had haunted their dreams?

Monahan reported begging Hedberg for help; she wanted to find Karen’s real birth mother in order to figure out what had happened. But Hedberg balked.

The agency head subsequently turned on her Guatemalan partner, adoption facilitator Marvin Bran. Then twenty-six and a law school dropout, Bran had originally been described to the Monahans as “a Christian, a good man who specializes in toddler girls,” someone Hedberg often worked with. She’d recommended him “without reservation.” But now, the agency director began weaving another story. Bran and his mother, she allegedly told Jennifer Monahan, ran “an illegal orphanage” out of their home. It was staffed with household help, working double duty as foster moms. Bran was “emotionally unstable.” It seemed as if the two business partners had a troubled relationship.

“Sometimes they didn’t have the money to pay the mothers and maintain the children,” said one of the Brans’ caretakers, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity. “Which is why they passed children around like ping-pong balls.”

Bran “might just dump her [Karen] somewhere where nobody could find her,” Monahan recorded Hedberg as saying, in her chronology. “Of course, this was terrifying.”

With the revelation of the failed DNA test, a chasm of unknowns emerged. The same day they learned about the imposter birth mother, the Monahans decided to hire Guatemalan private investigator Wilbert Reyna. They wired him $400. He started digging for information.

Five days later, the Monahans recorded in the chronology, Reyna reported back to them that the Brans were “cheaters,” and that “this is their usual MO.” Further, Karen’s birth records were “based on lies and false statements.” He thought that the child’s true mother was an “alcoholic and a prostitute,” information he said he got from talking to supposed neighbors of Karen’s real mother and sister.

Reyna offered up a theory: perhaps the imposter who failed the DNA test was Karen’s aunt, posing as Karen’s mother to protect her real mother’s reputation.

“This is an elaborate scam,” Reyna said, as recorded in Jennifer Monahan’s chronology. “…[A]n agency fwd[s] the [adoptive] parent’s money to the Brans, they take a case as far as to the DNA test, the DNA test blows…[and] by then they have already collected the first payment [for the child].”

Reyna also had a warning for the Monahans. If the family continued trying to adopt Karen, “…the odds are high [that] somewhere on the way something illegal would come out.”

Then the investigator abruptly quit. Reyna said he’d received threats from the Brans, and was concerned about his safety. He hadn’t found Karen’s biological mother. Nor had he found Felicita, but with good reason: the woman listed on Karen’s birth certificate wasn’t real.


The Monahans had reached another crossroads, and another choice needed to be made quickly.

Would the right thing be to move on and “drop” the matter of Karen, as Hedberg insisted? Or should the Monahans continue building a relationship with a child they believed to be unwanted, unloved, and possibly soon to be uncared for?

The path they chose would determine the shape of Karen’s life in the weeks, years, and decades to come.

Without the involvement of a known birth parent, a “relinquishment”—the most popular way of adopting from Guatemala—was now impossible. The Monahans reached out to Guatemalan lawyer Susana Luarca Saracho, who was well known in American adoption circles. Luarca had a reputation for a deep knowledge of the intricacies of Guatemalan law, and the ability to guide complicated adoption processes for children in situations like Karen’s—those without relinquishing parents, or those whose parents appeared to be missing.

In 2007, Jennifer Monahan sent Luarca the detailed chronology, listing dates, phone numbers, summaries of events, names, and the addresses of everyone she believed was related to the child’s case, including notes from the private investigator. A confidential source later shared the chronology with me, and criminal prosecutors in Guatemala verified its authenticity.

In the document, Monahan outlined a conversation she’d had with Rodolfo “Rudy” Rivera, an American adoption lawyer, in early August 2007. Rivera allegedly told her that the US Embassy hadn’t received a copy of Karen’s negative DNA test. “Rudy…confirms that we can proceed in looking for the birth mother, and [that the] US Embassy will not stand in our way should the abandonment ever be complete,” Monahan wrote.

When I spoke to him in 2010, Rivera wouldn’t comment on the US Embassy, or its alleged willingness to bend rules. He admitted he was familiar with Marvin Bran and Sue Hedberg, saying Bran was “bad news.” He recalled, “His [Marvin’s] mother was what they call a jaladora, a finder, a foster care lady.”

He didn’t have any proof of malfeasance on their part, but he didn’t trust them, either. “My gut made me feel uncomfortable,” he told me. Rivera said he “helped” the Monahans with Karen’s case, declining to say how.

Rivera went on to claim that Hedberg often called him for advice. “A lot of her cases needed to be cleaned up in the end,” he said. “She worked adoptions for two simple reasons. It’s money, and number two, a lot of us feel you’re getting as many kids as possible out [of]…a rotten situation.”

In September 2008, Karen was delivered to Asociación Primavera, a private nursery owned by Susana Luarca. in the private Guatemalan nursery Hogar Luz de María

Although the nursery was in Guatemala City, Luarca and her staff brought Karen to a court in the town of Escuintla, over an hour away, to begin abandonment proceedings.

Under Guatemalan law, a child without known parents or relatives had to go through a series of steps before being declared legally abandoned and thus available for adoption. The child would be brought before a judge, who would set a date for a hearing meant to uncover facts about the child’s situation. The hearings were advertised, with a photo of the child, in local newspapers. Any existing family was supposed to come forward at the hearing and declare their relationship to or interest in the child. If no one came forward, the child could be legally declared abandoned, and legal custody could be subsequently reassigned by the judge. Custody often went to whoever brought the child forward in the first place: often a nursery director, facilitator, or adoption lawyer.

Having a child declared legally abandoned generally took much longer than a relinquishment adoption, and would sometimes stretch to nine years.

But not for Luarca.

“That woman fought with every judge in Guatemala,” said Mario Fernando Peralta Castañeda, the Escuintla judge who maintained he heard at least forty of Luarca’s abandonment adoption cases. “The First Court, the Third Court, Chimaltenalgo, Zacapa…all of them. She was very arrogant, very abusive.”

But Peralta, too, had a reputation. Guatemalan prosecutors followed him for years, even giving him the nickname “Danny DeVito,” based on his resemblance to the American actor. They suspected him of taking bribes, of being yet another corrupt player within a larger system known for acquiescence to power and money.

Judges routinely passed on taking Luarca’s cases, Peralta told me in his chambers. He claimed he’d ended up with dozens after she opened another childcare facility in Palin, a city within his jurisdiction. The abandonments seemed like an adoption workaround, he said, pure and simple.

Peralta said he’d never taken a bribe or money from Luarca. “She doesn’t use money for this. She uses the law, pressure. She makes people uncomfortable,” he said. “Look, if I was corrupt, I’d be well off…. I would have Versace suits, a Lamborghini.”

On Karen’s behalf, Peralta contacted the Guatemalan newspapers Siglo Veintiuno and Al Día, asking them to run an ad announcing the date of her upcoming hearing, scheduled for November 6th. Both of the ads solicited “Felicita” by name, asking her to come forward—even though she had already been exposed as a fraud., bottom: The advertisement placed in a newspaper before Karen’s abandonment ruling

Loyda Rodríguez and Dayner Hernández never saw the ad with the small, dark picture. No one came forward to announce an interest in Karen.

“In 2007, they presented the child to me, we now know, with false documents,” Peralta told me. “But I didn’t know that [at the time].” On December 5th, Peralta ruled that Karen was legally abandoned.

Luarca’s staff assumed custody and reignited adoption proceedings for Karen to become the Monahans’ daughter. It had been roughly a year since the Monahans had first seen the child’s picture on the Internet.

For most of the next year, Guatemalan investigators believe, Karen lived under the care of Luarca’s nursery. According to flight records obtained by criminal investigators, the American couple regularly flew to Guatemala to visit, sometimes as often as once a month.


Shortly after Karen was declared legally abandoned, Loyda Rodríguez’s search for Anyelí led her to the doors of Fundación Sobrevivientes (Survivor’s Foundation), a nonprofit focused on women’s rights in Guatemala.

“The authorities here weren’t doing anything to find her,” Rodríguez said. They kept asking her if she’d sold Anyelí. It had been a year and a half with no clues or leads.

At the time, Sobrevivientes was in the midst of an adoption-related campaign, “No Más Cunas Vacías” (No More Empty Cribs), to pressure the Guatemalan government to investigate kidnappings for adoption.

At Fundación Sobrevivientes, Rodríguez met Mildred Alvarado, whose two daughters had been missing for eighteen months in a dramatic parallel case detailed in my book Finding Fernanda. At the time, no one knew that some of the same people—Sue Hedberg, Marvin Bran, Bran’s mother—had also been involved with the young Alvarado sisters.

Rodríguez attended the court hearing, bearing witness as a judge formally returned Alvarado’s daughters to her. She fought back tears, she remembered, wondering when the same thing might happen to her.

She learned that three of the various women working with Sobrevivientes had been able to successfully recover missing children. She asked the nonprofit to take her case and soon was being formally represented, pro-bono, by a Sobrevivientes lawyer.

In May 2008, Rodríguez participated in a hunger strike whose goal was to call attention to the women’s missing children and kidnappings for adoption. Camping out with a small group of searching mothers atop blankets in a public park near Guatemala’s National Palace, Rodríguez lasted eight full days.

Sympathetic coverage of the protest saturated the newspapers. Afterward, the Guatemalan government announced that the mothers, including Rodríguez, would be allowed to read and review various adoption files held in government offices.

With help from her husband and brother, Rodríguez reviewed thousands of files. In the three years since Anyelí had been kidnapped, American citizens had adopted around thirteen thousand Guatemalan children. By now, Anyelí was almost five years old. Rodríguez wondered how her daughter’s appearance had changed since she’d last seen her.

Some files were thick with documents; others lacked the requisite headshots of the children they involved. Some dockets for boys mistakenly contained photos of girls, and vice versa. After a few long days, Rodríguez identified three children resembling Anyelí. She submitted samples of her own DNA to be tested against each of the children’s, kept on file. None matched.

By March 23, 2009, the case had received so much attention that the Public Ministry announced a reward, posted publicly online, of 100,000 quetzales ($13,000 USD) for any person who came forward with information about Anyelí’s kidnapping or her whereabouts.

Three days later, during another review session, Rodríguez’s brother opened an adoption file for a child identified by the name Karen Abigail López García. “Look, this is her!” he exclaimed. When Rodríguez looked at the photographs stapled inside the file, she immediately recognized her daughter’s face. Abigail López García, photos from Procuraduria General de la Nación adoption dossier

Loyda Rodríguez’s DNA was compared to the DNA sample kept on file for Karen, drawn in July 2007. Two independent labs, one in Spain and one in the US, sent their findings back to Guatemala. Both agreed: Rodríguez and “Karen” tested 99.98% positive for a maternal match.


Claudia Palencias, then working as a lawyer with Sobrevivientes, began making frenzied phone calls to track down documents related to Karen’s adoption. The process had produced a convoluted paper trail through different government offices.

“We asked for the file, and we found the negative DNA result,” Palencias recalled. It was a powerful lead, albeit a surprising one. Palencias didn’t understand how Karen’s adoption had continued moving forward without the consent of a relinquishing parent.

When an imposter birth mother was exposed via a negative DNA test, the adoption case was supposed to freeze, so that a criminal investigation could take place. But Guatemala’s Ministry of Justice lacked resources and was burdened by a heavy backlog of criminal cases. Investigations commonly took years, even decades, to complete. By the time a child’s origins had been ascertained, he or she could be a teenager, or even an adult, living in one of Guatemala’s few state-run orphanages or being cared for by a nonprofit.

But Sobrevivientes claimed that Karen’s adoption file had no documentation suggesting that such a criminal investigation had begun. Instead, the child had simply been declared abandoned. Further, the abandonment proceedings seemed clearly flawed: not only had the Escuintla judge sought out the imaginary “Felicita,” the police had, too, in their requisite missing persons search.

Invigorated by the break in the case, prosecutors from the Ministry of Justice’s human-trafficking unit took up the investigation into Anyelí’s disappearance in earnest. Each document related to “Karen Abigail López García” was examined. Because manufactured birth certificates were common, agents trekked into the countryside to visit the town where the child was allegedly born to verify her data. There, they found the birth year on Karen’s certificate had been blacked out. They also found a second version of the certificate, with a different date written in by hand. The agents tracked down the midwife listed on the document, who allegedly attended Karen’s birth. The woman said she’d never met a child called Karen, nor did she know Felicita. certificate used in adoption of Karen Abigail López García, later determined to be false

Inside Karen’s adoption file, an official government social report about the child, written in October 2007, plainly stated that the address for Felicita Antonia López had been manufactured. Staffers from the attorney general’s office tried to visit Felicita. They couldn’t find her, and instead spoke to the woman listed on paper as Felicita’s mother. That woman said she had no daughter named Felicita. The investigators went on to question people around the small village. “If…Felicita Antonia lived here, everyone would have known,” one neighbor said.

Investigators drew sketches showing the possible routes of the kidnappers, and photographers re-created crime scenes outside Loyda Rodríguez’s house.

Rodríguez, the Sobrevivientes lawyers, and the agents working on the case were caught up in an intense flurry of activity, driven by the possibility that Anyelí was still hidden somewhere in Guatemala. Preparations were underway to obtain permission to search inside Asociación Primavera and other Guatemalan nurseries commonly used in adoption.

But the momentum was short-lived. Two weeks after the human-trafficking unit presented a formal inquiry to determine whether or not Karen had left the country, they received an answer. They were four months too late. On December 9, 2008, the child had left Guatemala on a Continental Airlines flight, alongside the Monahans. And now, she had a new US visa, and a new name: Karen Abigail Monahan. issued to Karen Abigail López García


Guatemalan authorities began making arrests. Judge Peralta, who had declared the child legally abandoned, was charged with human trafficking, conspiracy, and failure to report a crime. An official from the office of the attorney general, César Augusto Galicia Prera, who failed to halt the adoption’s progression or notify Peralta of any missing child reports, was charged with dereliction of duty and human trafficking. Investigators raided the offices and home of attorney Susana Luarca, charging her, too, with human trafficking.

Investigators also discovered that a person named Felicita did in fact exist: she was a 30-year-old Nicaraguan baker who’d immigrated to Guatemala years before. Her identity had been stolen, then used by a stranger to create a fake mother in order to facilitate Karen’s adoption.

Marvin Bran turned himself in to the Public Ministry in May 2009, attempting to obtain immunity from the prosecution for trafficking. He provided a copy of a $7,000 check he’d deposited from CCI, explaining that he worked for them. In his deposition, Bran admitted to having paid 30,000 quetzales ($3,800) to two women, “Ligia and Sara,” for Karen. Initially, investigators said, he claimed the women were lesbians who’d snatched the child and escaped via motorcycle. Bran

But the Public Ministry didn’t believe Bran. Chunks of his colorful story were hard to understand, and lacked evidence. Investigators said they didn’t trust Bran because he’d previously lied under oath. Bran’s former defense attorney, Fernando Linares, thought Bran “wasn’t a big enough fish” in the investigation to warrant protection, or an offer to become a protected witness of sorts. Linares speculated that the US government was culpable in the case, since they’d issued Karen’s orphan immigrant visa. “Perhaps they didn’t read what was in the computer,” he told me wryly, referring to the long-established and easily discoverable negative DNA result.

On her personal blog, Luarca published a long defense, clarifying her own role in Karen’s adoption and accusing Guatemalan authorities of planting evidence to frame her. She also accused them of general incompetence. Dated October 11, 2009, the account included a discussion of Karen’s “adoptive parents,” though Luarca never explicitly named the Monahans.

“Unfortunately, when her [Karen’s] parents were approached by the Guatemalan Consulate, they said that they would talk to their lawyer and stopped accepting calls,” Luarca wrote. “They hired a lawyer who does not want to collaborate, for reasons that I cannot understand, since it is in the best interest of the family who hired her, to clear things up, in order to be assured that nobody is going to show at their doorstep, demanding that the girl be returned to Guatemala.”

At the time, the idea of Guatemala demanding the girl’s return may have seemed far-fetched. No child had ever been in a situation like Karen’s before—or at least no situation like hers had ever been reported.

“All these problems could be solved,” Luarca continued. She suggested that the Monahans get a re-test of the child’s DNA to compare it Loyda Rodríguez’s. “If only the family of Karen would…. It is a pity that they are ill-advised and hurting so many people by refusing to do so. They have nothing to lose and a lot to gain. Wouldn’t it be nice to be sure that your daughter is not involved in this?”

Meanwhile, Alexánder Colop, head of the human-trafficking unit at the Guatemala Ministry of Justice, tracked payments Sue Hedberg sent to her adoption facilitators in Guatemala. “The money came from the US. From there, they’d give it to a ‘cambista’ (changer) who would turn it into cash, and from there, the Brans would distribute it,” he alleged.

He didn’t know if Hedberg was under criminal investigation in the United States, and said he wondered if she was being investigated for violating US laws. She had been investigated, but was never indicted.

To Colop, in cross-border investigations like Karen’s trafficking case, the US Embassy could be helpful, but not always. “They are there [primarily] to protect US citizens,” he told me, “not help us investigate.”

His investigation was as dangerous as it was difficult, which is why Colop has bodyguards. “It’s a pretty delicate issue, to investigate lawyers who were involved in adoptions for years,” Colop said. “You could be going after a lawyer and not know who he might know. It’s an issue where each case has people behind it, friends.”

Guatemala’s prosecutors were helped by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known by the Spanish acronym CICIG, an investigative and prosecutorial authority set up by the United Nations. Some CICIG staff also have bodyguards, and the offices sit, bunker-like, behind tall fortified walls. Bomb-sniffing dogs and X-ray machines inspect each visitor, including members of the press.

Illegal adoptions have been a priority since CICIG opened in 2006. The Commission hopes to hold every actor involved in child trafficking accountable, from bribe-taking government officials, private attorneys, and adoption “facilitators” down to those directly involved in the dirty work, like kidnapping and purchasing children.

The case involving Karen was unique for CICIG, in part because of the existence of clear evidence implicating powerful people like Luarca, who had previously been considered more or less untouchable. Such a case had never been tried before. Karen had already been living a new life as an American citizen for more than a year.


Through 2010, CICIG and the Public Ministry built their prosecution. Through early 2011, the US government remained publicly silent about the case. The Monahans did, too, although they had known about the criminal investigation into Karen’s adoption since April 2009, when Guatemalan officials reached out to them through diplomatic channels. According to a faxed response, the Monahans told the officials to communicate with their lawyer.

Both countries were and remain parties to the Inter-American Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters. Via the MLAT treaty, Guatemala’s Public Ministry asked the US State Department for assistance in taking a new DNA swab from Karen, to verify whether she was the same Karen who had, in July 2007, positively matched as Loyda Rodríguez’s daughter.

But the US Justice Department told Guatemala it wouldn’t help. There wasn’t enough evidence tying adoptive parents to kidnapped children, it said, and because of that, it couldn’t undertake DNA testing. A heavily redacted document obtained by public records request shows at least two MLAT requests for assistance have been formally made from Guatemala, related to two other missing children believed to be living in the American Midwest.

Loyda Rodríguez and her husband persevered. After receiving anonymous death threats, they were forced to move to an undisclosed location hours away from their previous home. At times, Rodríguez said, it took a full day’s bus ride to get to meetings in the capital about the case. They continued to rely on pro-bono legal counsel from Sobrevivientes.

In the summer of 2011, the case was finally thrust into the international spotlight. A Guatemalan judge issued an unprecedented order in July, ruling for the cancellation of the Guatemalan passport and birth certificate issued to “Karen Abigail López García,” now Karen Abigail Monahan. The judge gave the Monahans an ultimatum: they had two months to return Karen to Guatemala. If they didn’t cooperate, she ruled, Interpol would be called upon to enforce the order.

A deluge of press attention followed. The Monahans hired a Washington PR firm, which released a statement saying, “The Monahan family will continue to advocate for the safety and best interests of their legally adopted child. They remain committed to protecting their daughter from additional trauma as they pursue the truth of her past through appropriate legal channels.”

They also retained Jared Genser, an aggressive former lobbyist and Washington lawyer specializing in international human rights.

In October 2011, the Monahans appeared on the CBS’s Early Show. Jennifer Monahan spoke softly and held her husband’s hand; she said the couple believed their adoption of Karen was legal. Footage taken in the Monahan’s handsome living room showed leather couches and a fully outfitted children’s playroom, complete with a brown-skinned Barbie.

The Monahans made it clear that they didn’t believe the results of the DNA test that showed a match between Karen and Loyda Rodríguez. They implied that the little girl in their home wasn’t the same child whose DNA had been tested in 2007. In Guatemala, Jennifer Monahan said, “DNA is sort of viewed as a title, and we strongly feel that Karen isn’t property.”

A shot of Genser was spliced in remotely. He declared that the Guatemalan court ruling had no jurisdiction in the US.

Yet the original issuance of Karen’s orphan immigrant visa, necessary to enter the US, and her American citizenship both depended on the authenticity of certain identifying documents—the same documents that had been voided by the Guatemalan judge. Essentially, US citizenship had been granted to a girl whose identity was in dispute.

When asked what they would do “if it is proven that Karen is Mrs. Rodríguez’s daughter,” Timothy Monahan answered, “It’s really very difficult to say.” He added that they’d been “trying to work with authorities all through this process.” But Guatemalan authorities said they’d never been contacted by the Monahans.

The same day the Monahans made their TV appearance, thousands of miles south, two women intimately involved in Karen’s adoption were sentenced in court for human trafficking, document fraud, and criminal enterprise related to the buying and selling of the child. Luarca’s nursery director and the lawyer who facilitated Karen’s adoption were both found guilty of all charges, and were sentenced, respectively, to sixteen and twenty-one years in prison.


Eight years have passed since the kidnapping of Anyelí Liseth Hernández Rodríguez. Karen has now lived in the United States since December 2008. It’s been three years since Guatemalan prosecutors concluded the child’s identity was manufactured. As the criminal proceedings move forward at a staggeringly slow pace, a host of difficult questions remain.

What are the best interests of the little girl at the heart of the case? How will the nullification of her Guatemalan birth certificate and passport affect her status as an American citizen? If Marvin Bran is guilty of human trafficking, will there be ramifications here for the Americans who worked with him?

As of yet, no one knows.

Since their TV appearance, the Monahans have remained publicly silent about the case.

Their lawyer also refuses to speak on the record. Jared Genser sent letters and emails to journalists and editors reporting on the case, including to myself, the Associated Press, the New York Times, and others, threatening legal action. Little has been written in the American media about the case and ongoing criminal investigation.

Although under Guatemalan law Karen Abigail Monahan was trafficked, her sale doesn’t constitute trafficking under US law, since the child wasn’t purchased for reasons of forced labor or sexual servitude.

And since US adoption agencies are licensed by the states in which they operate, federal authorities have almost no power to monitor their activities, and even less ability to punish those involved in trafficking.

In Guatemala, the entire adoption industry has ground to a halt. Americans can no longer adopt Guatemalan children. Since 2009, Guatemala has been trying to update its laws and regulations, to prevent child-buying and to implement more safeguards, checks, and balances in the process. No one knows when the country might open again to hopeful foreign couples.

Since the decision, Rodríguez and her husband have considered filing suit in Missouri. They haven’t yet been able to retain the pro-bono counsel.

Of the twelve Guatemalans facing criminal charges in relation to the adoption, only two are behind bars today, Enriqueta Francisca Noriega Cano and Alma Beatriz Valle Flores de Mejía. (Others are in prison, but awaiting trial.) The accused include three former government officials from Guatemala’s Procuraduría General de la Nación: César Augusto Galicia Prera, Marco Tulio España Sánchez, and Mairena Trujillo Reyes.

Raúl Ticún Urias, the lawyer who served as Jennifer and Timothy Monahan’s power of attorney in Guatemala, awaits trial from prison. Others are in custody. Peralta’s arrest, along with that of Judge Rossana Maribel Mena Guzman for trafficking in persons related to adoption, made it into the US State Department’s 2012 Human Rights Report on Guatemala. Peralta is accused of participating in a reported twenty other adoption cases with irregularities.

Marvin Bran disappeared, and is now considered a fugitive of justice, though he maintains a Facebook presence. Susana Luarca is being held in a women’s prison in Antigua while her trial continues. She has appealed the charges, and the next hearing is scheduled for January 2015.

Sandra Noemí Maldonado Chajón de Velásquez, who posed as the Nicaraguan baker Felicita (a real woman, but not the birth mother), and two more lawyers, César Augusto Trujillo López and Saúl Vinicio García, are also waiting.

Almost all of those involved in the human trafficking network underpinning this adoption case have appealed their charges.

CICIG lawyer Flor de María Gálvez, a co-prosecutor on the case, said that the Commission has never been in contact with the Monahans. When asked if either the Monahans or Sue Hedberg would be charged or linked to the case, she said she couldn’t comment since it was “still under investigation.”

Gálvez said that the prosecution is still waiting for a response from the US government to Guatemala’s requests for help in the criminal investigation. “This case is important for Guatemala because it involves a criminal network,” she said. “A network made up of public officials, judges responsible for matters concerning children, attorneys, notary publics, and other individuals. It’s also important because of the damage caused to the girl, and to her biological family.” diagram created by the Ministerio Público mapping the people involved in Karen’s adoption

A source inside the Ministerio Público said the criminal sentences are expected to happen in early 2015, after the hearings. “They [the adoption networks] have no political power now,” the source said. “They’ll probably be convicted.”

I asked Chris Bentley, an official from US Citizenship and Immigration Services, what could happen in a hypothetical kidnapping for adoption case, where a child’s identity was manufactured in order to obtain US citizenship.

“There’s no case precedent for situations like this that I’m aware of,” he told me. But
a process called denaturalization could occur. It’s rare, and depends on the individual situation.

“Willful misrepresentation is the threshold that would have to be met to begin a denaturalization process,” Bentley said. “[It] is when you are asking for something you don’t qualify for. You are willfully making up facts to try to convince the government that you are eligible for something when you know you’re not…to circumvent the system.”

When I spoke with Loyda Rodríguez in Guatemala City in 2009, she was buoyant. “I think that they are going to ultimately return her,” Rodríguez said of the Monahans.

Since then, her dreams have faded. Now, Rodríguez said, she wants just one thing: to be able to communicate with her daughter. She wants to explain to Anyelí that she was never given up, and that she was always loved.


Read These Kids’ Horrifying Tales of Abuse in U.S. Detention Facilities

clips, words


For | Earlier this year, a 13-year-old boy was taken into U.S. Customs and Border Patrol custody in Hidalgo, Tex., separated from his sister, and placed in a holding cell among adult men for three days. According to a complaint filed in June by the ACLU in conjunction with four other nonprofits, two adults in the cell that night threatened the boy, telling him they’d “ ‘eat him up’ while he slept.”

The boy, identified as J.P., was sexually molested. Then he was molested again.

“J.P. repeatedly tried to report the abuse to CBP officials,” the complaint reads, “but they ignored him. J.P. continues to feel afraid when he remembers what happened to him.”

According to the graphic complaint, which was delivered in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security on June 11, immigrant children and teens in U.S. detention facilities have been enduring brutal abuse for years. With the recent surge in the number of apprehensions of unaccompanied minors making national news, the question now is whether such incidents are becoming more frequent.

One in four migrant children caught entering the U.S. and taken into CBP custody “reported some form of physical abuse, including sexual assault, beatings, and the use of stress positions by CBP officials,” the ACLU complaint alleges.

Assuming the ACLU sample is representative, extrapolating it to the number of juvenile migrants currently in CBP custody would mean the number of underage abuse victims potentially totals more than 13,000.

Over the last three years, the ACLU has been agitating for information related to sex abuse perpetrated against immigration detainees held in the United States. After Freedom of Information Act requests went unanswered, ACLU lawyers sued for the public records.

Children reported being forced to eat spoiled food, getting sick from a lack of medical attention, and being verbally and physically abused by agents. Verbal abuse was reported to include agents calling children “dogs,” “parasites,” and “sluts.” One teenager, identified as C.S., said, “The only drinking water available…came from the toilet tank in her holding cell.” A female J.P., age 12, and her sister “required medical treatment for dehydration” after their release from custody in Texas. A 19-year-old mother said that during nine days in custody, she had only been allowed to change her infant daughter’s diaper once. Five-year-old O.M., an asylum seeker accompanied by his mother, reportedly ate a single cookie each day for three days straight, sleeping at night on the hard ground with no bedding.

These children and teens are a new subset of the “most vulnerable” detainees, up until now regarded as women, gay, and transgender immigrants.

The problem isn’t that a protective framework doesn’t exist. The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 was revised in March 2014 after a damning investigation by Frontline in 2012 found that the large majority of sex abuse complaints in immigration detention centers were never investigated, let alone resolved. On Nov. 20, 2013, a Government Accountability Office report agreed: Hotlines for reporting abuse had been set up, but no one bothered to answer the phones. Certain reports of abuse vanished. A quarter of all cases under investigation had been closed because of “lack of evidence”—that is, the victim had already been deported. No one was tracking the government agency’s responses to allegations of abuse.

The new, expanded federal PREA guidelines are supposed to make all facilities under the Department of Homeland Security umbrella, including immigration detention, subject to standardized reporting.

But meaningful change, oversight, and accountability could still be a long way off. The June 2014 abuse complaint against the Department of Homeland Security, filed months after the PREA update was passed, is strikingly similar to one the ACLU filed in 2011.

Abuses by immigration officials “have been documented and reported to DHS for years,” the ACLU noted in its letter. “But the government has not implemented reforms or taken any action to hold agents accountable.”


“Immigration and assimilation: Finding a cultural foothold … in a gang” | Christian Science Monitor, July 7, 2013

clips, words


“Immigration and assimilation: Finding a cultural foothold in a gang,” by Erin Siegal McIntyre, from the July 7, 2013 cover story package on immigration for the Christian Science Monitor. 

In 1979, at age 7, Alex Sanchez and his younger brother left El Salvador. They didn’t want to immigrate to theUnited States, but they had no choice. Five years earlier, their parents had made the journey north. The young brothers had spent most of their lives believing that their neighbors, who acted as temporary caretakers, were family.

“It was a hard transition to come into the United States to meet these new people,” Mr. Sanchez explains. “We’d been calling someone else Mom and Dad in El Salvador.”And once the family was reunited in Los Angeles, the children’s situation got even more difficult. Sanchez’s parents fought. “We started getting beat for things like not calling our dad ‘Dad,’ ” he says. His father often left the family, and his mother sank deeply into religion.

At school, Sanchez was ridiculed for not speaking English, and the other Spanish-speaking Latino kids derided his Salvadoran slang. “There was really nothing to help us to integrate into society,” he says, describing what experts call “downward assimilation,” integrating culturally but not into the mainstream culture. “It was difficult for us to understand what was happening. We just knew that we hated this country, that we hated our parents. We hated everybody and everything around us. There was no American dream. And in some ways, it became an American nightmare.”

The family moved to South Central L.A., then Koreatown. Finally, at a new school, Sanchez found a group of other immigrant children whose experiences mirrored his own – including being humiliated and bullied. Among his new clique, Sanchez found the sense of love and belonging that had eluded him since moving to the States.

“Instead of responding individually to harassment, they responded with unity,” he says. “And eventually, this became known as the Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13.”

Today, the US government recognizes the high-profile gang as a transnational criminal organization. According to the FBI, which has a task force dedicated to battling the gang, the organization operates in more than 42 states and boasts between 6,000 and 10,000 members.

At first, Sanchez says, the gang felt like home. At age 11, he got his first tattoo. By 15, he’d been shot. His adolescence was spent bouncing in and out of juvenile detention, and by 20, Sanchez had served three separate jail terms for various offenses. “For us, going to prison was a rite of passage,” he recalls today. “You got recognized by the gang; you were someone to be reckoned with.”

By 1994, after his third prison sentence, the gangster glamour of doing time started to tarnish. Sanchez was 21 and realized he wanted to turn his life around. After another arrest, he signed voluntary deportation papers, weary from the intensity of gang life. Perhaps deportation, Sanchez imagined, could serve as a vacation of sorts. 

He was wrong...

Deported Warriors, Playboy Magazine

photojournalism, words

by Erin Siegal McIntyre and Luis Alberto Urrea

Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. Big Pac-Man still tucks his trousers into his high black jump boots. He learned to do this at jump school in the Army. He posts photos of jumps on Facebook—high up, looking down on paratroopers as they drop, Fort Bragg tiny below like a model-railroad landscape. His knees and back still ache from all the hard landings. But he walks through the pain in a brisk march. He has a loud laugh—you can hear him coming before he arrives.

On the day we meet with him, he’s driving his white beater car, the seats occupied by his soldiers. They’re laughing and shouting over the radio. They could be warlords in an insurgency or narcos swarming out of Tijuana, looking for targets. Big men. Shaved heads. Music blaring in Spanish. Their car comes in off the cracked street and rattles to a stop in the apartment courtyard. The communal chihuahua runs for its life as the soldiers burst out of the vehicle. “I’m hungry!” Big Pac-Man shouts, which is why they call him that: He’s always eating.

It is not uncommon to find him in his dress uniform. He wears his beret and sometimes stands at attention at the U.S. border fence, watching lines of cars snake into San Diego. It’s a kind of sentry duty. Tourists and businesspeople avoid eye contact, but he stands firm before them. His colleagues often join him, and they form an honor guard, squared away as if awaiting inspection. Their signs say Banished Veterans. Hector Barajas, of the 82nd Airborne. Deported.

Barajas is a member of a shadow army whose numbers are kept obscure by the U.S. government. He estimates that 3,700 veterans of the U.S. military are exiled in Mexico alone. It is hard to prove; even requests under the Freedom of Information Act yield scant data to prove or disprove his theory.

He and his colleagues have created a tiny, unofficial VA center in Barajas’s apartment: the Deported Veterans Support House. Here, between his social-media activism, impromptu health care, counseling and charity work, Barajas attends to his calculations and his restless hunt to discover others like himself.

“From my understanding,” Barajas says, “we have had more than 10 veterans in each detention center. There are about 250 centers in the United States. Let’s say 16 years of deportations since 1996. Ten times 250 equals 2,500. Twenty-five hundred times 16 equals 40,000. I think you can get better stats than I can.”

But as we will see, that is not entirely true.

Most Americans have no idea Mexico’s border cities house a cadre of banished warriors who believed their service in the U.S. armed forces would win them access to American citizenship. Barajas and his partners have discovered fellow deported soldiers in 19 countries besides Mexico—Jamaica, Italy, Canada, Guyana, Peru, Trinidad, the U.K. and Bosnia among them. The deportees are not just Iraq and Afghanistan veterans; Korea and Vietnam vets live in dirty rooms all over Tijuana.

Fabián Rebolledo is Barajas’s partner in the Deported Veterans Support House. He can’t eat as much as Barajas, so they call him Little Pac-Man. But who can eat as much as Big Pac-Man? The vets scoff at the notion. Rebolledo was promised citizenship for enlisting, but after returning from active duty in Kosovo, he was deported.

“They taught me it was easy to kill people,” he says. “Then they threw me away.”

Hector López, deported veteran

The Pac-Men’s small VA operation is in Rosarito, Tijuana’s sister city to the southwest. Twenty miles north, across the border, the American coastal neighborhoods are billion-dollar enclaves. Here, not so much. The glory days of MTV Spring Break and college students cavorting in sombreros are gone. Now bodies and body parts are regularly found throughout the city—a woman’s tattooed torso zipped up in a black suitcase left on the beach, an arm in the weeds by the highway.

The Deported Veterans Support House is situated in Barajas’s cramped two-bedroom apartment in a surreal compound. Painted bright colors, it is populated by expat gringos in various stages of distress. Radios compete for most obnoxious squall. A pregnant-looking American dude with unbuttoned shorts drags a heavily pregnant Mexican woman wearing yellow rubber gloves onto his lap and kneads her ass. An addled evangelist barks, “You ever been shot in the mouth? I have!” He displays blown-out teeth. Then he tries to make the perfectly normal leg of a visitor grow an inch through the power of Jesus. Big Pac-Man sends him scuttling away. “Learn some manners,” he says as he fires up the computers.

“I like Mexico and all,” he says. “But I hate being in this country. I want to go home. I’d gladly go to prison for five years if the U.S. would finally let me be a citizen and raise my daughter.”

Barajas works the machines, sending messages to a growing army of contacts and followers. He is a tireless Facebook presence. Soldiers find him and seek his help. The Pac-Men have people around them all the time. It is unclear who they are or what they want. On this day a young man with the kind of scary neck tattoos that make suburbanites shy away sits in a corner. He could be a soldier.

“Were you in the crazy life in Los Angeles?” he is asked.

“Oh yeah.”

“Were you a bad boy?”

“Oh yeah.”

“If we were in East L.A., would we be talking?”

He smiles. Hangs his head. Chuckles.

“Oh no.”

Barajas says, “In my case, I didn’t shoot anybody. Nothing like that. Okay, I may have shot a car.”

They burst out laughing. And Rebolledo stares at his hands. Their dress uniforms hang on the wall, carefully pressed.

For Big Pac-Man, it started with partying. He was a fiery kid, a quick-fisted social butterfly from a neighborhood ruled by gang law. Barajas popped in and out of high school, finally enlisting and reenlisting in the Army. He started to straighten out, snaring a 1997 certificate of achievement for providing “outstanding medical support to the 82nd Signal Battalion during immunization day.” By 1998 there was a Good Conduct Medal for “exemplary behavior, efficiency and fidelity in active federal service” and by 1999 the Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service to Charlie Company, 307th Forward Support Battalion. It said his “outstanding performance reflects great credit upon himself.” Barajas was honorably discharged.

But home in Compton he started hanging with old friends. One night the homeys thought they were being followed. They weren’t: They were high, strung out and paranoid. Shots were fired. Barajas pleaded guilty to discharging a firearm at a vehicle and served three years in prison. Then he was deported.

Big Pac-Man tried to sneak home, but he got caught. Today he has pretty much given up on the idea of sneaking back to Los Angeles. Instead, from Rosarito he is assembling his own deportee army.

These former soldiers live in a world of ironies. They are banished from the United States as a result of their crimes and infractions, sometimes related to PTSD, sometimes to outright cons and deceptions by recruiters. Many wrestle with drugs and addiction. They readily acknowledge they are not saints. But their problems could have been handled with treatment and therapy at real VA hospitals if they’d been U.S. citizens. And on the day they die, they are eligible for burial in the U.S. with full military honors. They were honorably discharged, after all.

Barajas says, “We’re only good enough to be Americans when we’re dead.”

Although these banished veterans have been rendered officially invisible, they have transformed themselves into unlikely media stars. Televisa interviews them. Activists seek them out. Photographers pose them with flags. A steady stream of reporters and now filmmakers flows out to the beach to study them and post their story. The soldiers spend a lot of time trying to explain. Aggravated-felony charges got many of them tossed out of the country and are at the heart of their struggle; the key word that turns them into pariahs is felony.

When Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996, the American immigration system received a major face-lift. The 200-page bill effectively overhauled existing law. It became a lot easier to be deported.

Not only did the Border Patrol gain more than 10,000 new employees, but funding for Immigration and Naturalization Service investigations increased to unprecedented levels. They needed something to investigate, and these new investigations needed new metrics to put check marks in the proper columns. Hence, stricter penalties for infractions were imposed. To keep the conviction flow healthy, the definition of what constituted an infraction broadened. For example, the act created a 10-year banishment for any “illegal” immigrant caught living in the U.S. for more than a year. And there came a new definition of the term aggravated felony. The better to catch you with, homeboy.

Certain misdemeanors became felonies overnight. Shoplifting while Mexican became a felony. Driving under the influence was now a potential felony. And felonies were deportable offenses. But the genius of it, the draconian stratagem of the deporters, was to make these hardcore penalties retroactive. So soldiers who had already served time for their infractions—even decades earlier—were immediately subject to deportation. And the system revved up its Hoover and started vacuuming them out of their houses. Immigration detainees, according to the system, have no right to counsel.

At the same time, immigration judges were stripped of the one avenue for mercy left open to them: Their judicial discretion was denied.

Green cards didn’t matter, time served didn’t matter, legal counsel didn’t matter. An aggravated felony conviction—even after the fact—meant permanent mandatory banishment. President Barack Obama and his administration would not comment.

Obama has deported more people than any other president in American history. His administration—until its recent embrace of border reform and “pathway to citizenship” (you can hear the rustling sound of a vast Latino voting bloc coming of age beyond the White House fence)—maintained strict quotas for the Department of Homeland Security, keeping the Tea Party happy. Obama’s target has been 400,000 humans a year.

Since 2008 the U.S. has deported almost 2 million people. Last year it set an all-time record: 409,849 humans through the goal posts. Fifty-five percent of them had been convicted of misdemeanors or felonies. That would leave more than 180,000 who are not—even retroactively—guilty of such infractions.

Interestingly, no government agency adrift in that vast trinomial soup of enforcement claims to know how many U.S. veterans are among these numbers.

“Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not currently track how many individuals removed from the United States are military veterans,” says spokesperson Lori Haley.

Hold up now: The Center for Naval Analyses states that 70,000 immigrants enlisted between 1998 and 2008. The Department of Homeland Security posted numbers on its website: 83,532 immigrants naturalized through military service in the past decade—and hundreds of lucky bastards won citizenship posthumously. It’s hard to believe no bean counter knows how many of these soldiers were kicked out of the country. President George W. Bush signed 2004’s National Defense Authorization Act, which made it possible for people to become American citizens on soil outside the United States. That means you could become a U.S. citizen in the middle of a battle—say, in Baghdad, where 161 immigrant soldiers were naturalized on a single day in 2007.

The head spins. Apparently Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is feeling a bit dizzy herself: Writing of citizenship services held for 24 enlistees in 2010, she said “they come to America because of their commitment to our ideals and their belief in the American dream. Many of them risk their lives for their country even before they officially become citizens.”

But before the moment they became citizens, they might have committed a misdemeanor that magically became a felony, which means they can be thrown out with their medals.

Immigration officials claim military service is taken into consideration during deportation proceedings, as mandated by a highly publicized June 2011 document known as the Morton Memo. In it, ICE director John Morton outlined factors for considering mercy in deportation cases.

One factor, wrote Morton, is “whether the person, or the person’s immediate relative, has served in the U.S. military, reserves or National Guard, with particular consideration given to those who served in combat.” It gets better: “certain classes of individuals” deserve “particular care.” Who dat? “Veterans of the U.S. armed forces.”

Recap: We know how many of them exist, but we don’t know how many of them exist. We do, however, know what each of these unknown soldiers did and when they did it and have prosecuted them individually, though we again do not know who they are. We honor their military service to this country and offer them full honors in a U.S. military cemetery upon their deaths, though we deported them for being an unwanted burden to this country. And maybe they could become citizens right there in Tijuana if the U.S. invaded.

No wonder Big Pac-Man feels confused.

Big Pac-Man may be a big badass felon, but he became famous for crying. When reporters from Univision came to visit, they were so taken with the deported veterans that a three-part special report resulted. They followed Barajas around: attending church, talking to other vets, manning the computer workstations with Little Pac-Man.

And they taped him being a dad, Skyping with his seven-year-old daughter, Liliana, in California.

“Chicky-boo,” he called into the screen. He lit up with delight as the little girl’s face appeared. “Hey! Hi, Mama!”

“Hi,” Lily replied. She sounded muffled.

The pair giggled and started talking. Lily’s image was purplish. The slow internet connection made the conversation freeze and hop.

“It’s not enough,” Barajas said under his breath. “I can’t hold her.”

The Univision reporter, Santiago Lucero, next visited Barajas’s mom, Margarita, in the U.S. He taped a greeting from her to Barajas with an iPhone. Later, in Mexico, while Univision’s cameras rolled, Lucero played it for him. Margarita was tearful. She told Big Pac-Man she loved him, that she wished he could return soon. That she prayed for him.

Barajas sucked in a breath and looked away. His forehead crumpled under his beret. A tear ran down his cheek.

“Word of a mother, broken by her son’s deportation,” Lucero intoned in Spanish.

The camera cut away, leaving Big Pac-Man gasping for composure.

On any given day, those staying at the Deported Veterans Support House might be fielding phone calls, searching Tijuana streets for homeless vets, Facebooking maniacally or perhaps painting their names and a simple three-foot-high, three-character message—SOS—on the wall dividing Tijuana from San Diego. Really. No one who visits Tijuana’s most western edge, where the city meets the sea and Mexican beachgoers suck down mangos and gamy fish tacos, can miss the plea for help. Seen by itself, with no veterans present, the sign might seem baffling. Next to it, they painted a giant upside-down American flag: the soldier’s sign of distress.

It’s easy to get sucked in by Big Pac-Man’s laugh. He’s likable, charismatic, candid to a fault. At times you want to say, “Hector, stop it. Don’t tell me that. Too much, Hector.” Like the time he fell off the wagon in the support house earlier this year, after five long months of sobriety. “I like to get high,” he says. “I know I’m an addict. I know the bad outweighs the good.”

He pauses.

“Just sometimes I go, ‘Fuck it.’

”Big Pac-Man launches into the story. Yet another reporter was banging on the door of the support house, waiting to ping the vets with questions. Rebolledo didn’t know what to do. Maybe the reporter would just leave. Barajas had been up for days; when he heard the front door, he dived into the musty bathroom. Tweaking and terrified, he’d put up barricades. Rebolledo pretended no one was in the house and stayed silent.

Then a neighbor let the damn reporter in.

“Aw, man, it was so bad,” Barajas says. He rubs his hands over his head. “I go about a week and a half, no sleep, nothing. I get weird. Something like that could hurt the cause, the veterans. It could discredit me.”

But it doesn’t stop him from talking, from revealing. Big Pac-Man exposes himself. He lays it all out. You can like him or not, though it’s hard not to. He sparkles. And what’s clearer than anything is the fact that he’s trying as hard as he possibly can, and he wants people to know he’s trying.

He has broken ground. No one else has been able to organize the vets. It’s sort of like wading into the ocean and catching jellyfish by hand. Sometimes there are patches, two or three new deportees snared, a few more unofficial “intake” forms filled out. But for long stretches no new names appear. Lately it’s been a slow trickle.

Virtual vet hunting is almost a full-time job. Barajas and Rebolledo stalk around online, monitoring the news and online petitions and the go-to mainstay, Facebook. Then there are real-life passes through homeless territory, certain Tijuana streets lined with gutters of garbage and girls. High or sober, Big Pac-Man continually pulses with frenetic energy.

Barajas taught himself HTML so he could run the Banished Veterans website. His baby mama, whom he desperately wants back, now pays the domain renewal fees. The rudimentary lists of deported vets taped up in the apartment crawled off the walls and into Google Docs. With help from a MagicJack, the phone calls started: with lawyers (pro bono, immigration, criminal defense), congressional aides (anyone who answers), journalists and missionaries. Evangelist Tony Lamson, a former marine, brought food and faith, words of motivation to stay straight. The soldiers try.

Sometimes things get messy. Drama. Petty fights break out, over girls or slights or respect. Every day is a new set of challenges. The electricity shuts off. There’s no food. Someone gets drunk, crashes a car and runs away from the scene. Someone sleeps with a reporter. Old childhood friends from L.A., gangbangers, show up with goodies to inject or sniff. The deportee army is one band in a sea of borderland deportees flooding Tijuana. Sometimes Barajas’s perceived power is challenged in creative ways.

But whatever the reason—candor, relatable fuck-ups, nonstop leave-no-man-behind banter, genuine affability—Big Pac-Man continues as the unofficial leader of the Banished Veterans. And he’s not focused on deportees alone. He also tries to catch his “brothers in arms” before their boots hit foreign ground.

Enlisting wasn’t really Ruben Azevedo’s idea. It was his buddy’s. After the towers fell on September 11, they felt patriotic. So they became marines.

Azevedo ended up loving the service, even after 14 brutal months in Iraq through 2004 and 2005, after Falluja and after Najaf. “I loved being in,” Azevedo says. If it were up to him, he’d still be a marine. But it’s not. Shortly after returning from Iraq, he broke his back in a car crash. He was subsequently honorably discharged. It was 2006.

“After I got back from Iraq,” says Azevedo, “I was pretty messed up in the head.” One night a few summers later, in 2008, police stopped the car he was riding in. He recounts the story. His friend, who was driving, was charged with driving under the influence. During the arrest, Azevedo yelled at the officers and ended up with his own charge: disorderly conduct. It didn’t seem to be too big a deal.

But a few months later, in August, a team of ICE agents surrounded his house. “They were in SWAT vehicles,” Azevedo says. They had come to deport him.

The marine was baffled. When the Azevedo family emigrated from Portugal in the 1980s, they’d settled first in California and then in the small rural community of Twin Falls, Idaho. They’ve lived there ever since. It’s classic small-town America, population 25,000, the land of big trucks, country music and camping.

In middle school Azevedo met Idaho native Brittnie Bjornn. They fell in love and later married. The junior high school sweethearts have been together for 18 years, more than half Azevedo’s life. He’s 30.

Azevedo tried to do the right thing. He turned himself in. Surely, he thought, there was some mistake. He was held for a day, he says, in “a little cubicle with a bunch of Hispanic people.” Everyone else spoke Spanish. He doesn’t. ICE officials scoffed, he says, when he told them he was a U.S. marine and Iraq combat vet.

He used his phone call to contact Brittnie, who brought in the documents to prove it. Before he was released, Azevedo says, he had to sign various court papers.

It was confusing because he’d applied for citizenship before but had never heard back from the U.S. government. He hadn’t expected any problems, given his combat service to the country, his American wife and the fact he’d lived in the U.S. since he was a baby.

When he was in Iraq, he and “a bunch of other guys” even took a course offered by the military that walked service members through the naturalization process and helped them file their paperwork. The documents were supposed to go to immigration processing centers specially designated for military applicants. Azevedo says neither he nor any of the others heard back.

After the surprise ICE detainment, he applied again. He hasn’t heard anything. At the same time, Azevedo hasn’t hired a lawyer, shrugging off the idea. Would they really pluck him from Idaho and send him to Portugal?

“If they want to deport me, they can sure as heck try,” he says. He’s pragmatic and down-to-earth, but it’s also clear he thinks the whole deportation-proceedings mess is silly. “I’d like to see ’em try.”

When Big Pac-Man found Azevedo on Facebook shortly after the incident, he tried to warn him. “He doesn’t get it yet,” Barajas says. “These guys, ICE, are serious. They don’t care.”

He throws up his hands. “I can only do so much. These guys! If they don’t want to listen, well, you can lead a horse to water….”

For all the younger combat vets, there are also old ones. Hector Manuel Barrios is almost 70. Black-and-white snapshots from Vietnam show Barrios as a strapping young man of 24, trim and well muscled. One is a portrait of him slyly confident in a combat helmet. Then he’s shirtless, sitting outside what might be barracks. In another, Barrios sits on a bench with three other soldiers, clutching a German shepherd puppy. Three of the four look unsure, but Barrios, one hand resting lightly across the dog’s heart, is grinning for the camera.

Barrios’s mustache is small and neat. So is the one-room apartment in Tijuana’s seamy Zona Norte, where he now lives. His shoes are tucked carefully beneath his bed, a twin mattress sagging on a metal frame. A single bare bulb, dangling from an extension cord, reveals peeling walls. A tattered postcard taped to the door frame bears the emblem of the 1st Air Cavalry, a bright yellow shield inlaid with a horse’s head. In the corner of the room is a small TV. Its picture shimmies and jumps.

It’s hard for Barrios to feed himself. On one of his ID documents, the small box for U.S. citizen is checked off with two faded Xs, stamped in old typewriter ink. On others he’s listed as a legal permanent resident. He makes a few dollars a week hunched and hobbling around a small taco stand. In 2001 he was deported after an arrest at the U.S. border for transporting marijuana in a car. Now he’s a heroin addict. It’s hard for him to talk about Vietnam: His gravelly voice ebbs and flows and cracks.

Sometimes Big Pac-Man visits. “He’s not only my tocayo”—Spanish for “namesake”—“he’s my brother in arms,” Barajas says. Sometimes he tears up, gets emotional. “It’s the ultimate betrayal. If he died in combat, he would have been an American hero.”

Barajas throws an arm around the elderly man’s frail shoulders, giving a hearty squeeze. Barrios grunts. Each time they’re together, Big Pac-Man insists on a cell phone picture. The Hectors huddle together on the weary bed. More fodder for the social-media networks. Each time, for photos Barrios breaks into a habitual grin. It transforms him. The old man is instantly, suddenly, temporarily that same guy in the photos from Vietnam: brave, strong, limbs unencumbered, spine strong despite everything. His eyes are cheerful and gleaming.

When Big Pac-Man first arrived in Tijuana, he was scrambling for a job. No big shock: The entire city is scrambling—it’s the definition of Tijuana. He joined the great human tide, seeking something meaningful to do. He found it in an old-folks’ home, where he tended to faltering seniors in their last days. One can imagine what the conditions in a Tijuana retirement hospital might be. Big Pac-Man engaged his military discipline and walked into the smell and sorrow every day. There he found he had a real talent for helping others.

Fourteen years ago, addressing the Senate, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont declared, “The zealousness of Congress and the White House to be tough on aliens has successfully snared permanent residents who have spilled their blood for our country.” He said the INS was prepared to deport vets “for even the most minuscule criminal offenses.”

Yeah. What else is new, senator? Leahy’s bill, the Fairness to Immigrant Veterans Act, died, as did Representative José Serrano’s version in the House.

Even outspoken characters like former congressman (and current San Diego mayor) Bob Filner, who chaired the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, are mostly powerless. “An incredible number of kids come back with an injury or illness that puts them in trouble with the law,” Filner once told the press. “To simply have these people deported is not a good way to thank them for their service.”

Right. That was a few years ago. Now Filner’s press director won’t even grant us an interview on the subject.

And now another Democrat from California, Representative Mike Thompson, has unveiled a plan to help. In 2011, he introduced the Support and Defend Our Military Personnel and Their Families Act. His press release about the bill said 45,000 noncitizen vets were enlisted at the time. The bill would presumably speed up the process of citizenship for vets and guarantee them a hearing in front of a judge; therefore it “helps to protect them from deportation.” Maybe—the bill was crushed in committee, but Thompson reintroduced it last February. The bill isn’t that different from the previous one. “I feel optimistic this time around,” Thompson tells us.

But it doesn’t mention those already deported. When pressed, Thompson says that the deportees (and those in deportation proceedings) will “certainly be taken into consideration.” That is, after the bill “shows progress.”

“I know that the situation is bad,” Thompson says. The congressman, a veteran himself, sounds grim. “What I think I would tell them, face-to-face, is that I very much appreciate what you’ve done and your service to our country, and we very much plan to give you the support that you’ve earned. And that goes for your family as well.”

Big Pac-Man and the deportee army have heard this for years.

It’s a bright day in Rosarito. The beach is only a few blocks away, and not far from the Deported Veterans Support House, the Baja Studios film lot sits quiet, locked down. The sets for Titanic are in there, along with 51 acres of soundstages and dressing rooms, just waiting for film crews to return. Inland, about a quarter mile away, Tijuana’s new convention center materializes in a field of golden grass and running dogs. It’s going to bring big business to town—concerts and car shows. So they say.

The banished warriors are in their car again. It’s time to go eat. Everywhere Barajas goes lately, it’s like a parade. The soldiers’ car has become two cars caravanning into town, all seats full.

The caravan pulls into a carnitas joint on one of the main drags into the southern end of the city. Carnitas Michoacána—braised pork done in the style of deep western Mexico—is a meal served here the way Big Pac-Man likes it. The platters are ordered by weight. Big Pac-Man orders a kilo.

The mountain of meat arrives, sizzling and fragrant. Tortillas fly around the table. Barajas leads the conversation and the laughter. He repeats, from earlier in the day, that he wants to go home for good. That he’d do anything to raise his daughter. To be good. “I don’t even know how to do a drive-by shooting,” he says. “They done me wrong.”

The young dude with the neck tattoos says, “Sure you do.” He holds out his left arm as if steering a car. He crosses his right arm over it, rests his wrist in the crook and squeezes off imaginary rounds. “That’s how,” he says.

Hector Barajas and Fabián Rebolledo attend to their food. Barajas smiles but shakes his head. “Nah, man. Staying out of trouble,” he says. “I’m never getting into trouble again.” It sounds almost like a prayer.

Corrida de Toros

Pictures, words

This Sunday, I went to a bullfight at the Bullring by the Sea in Playas de Tijuana. It was my first one, and perhaps my last. I hadn’t expected the bulls to die so slowly, or express so much pain. After they’ve been stabbed, their tongues loll out of their mouths, wagging back and forth. Bulls have surprisingly long tongues. They also wail loudly: a haunting cry that reminded me a bit of a faint foghorn.

Going into it, I knew the bulls were going to be killed, and that it might be unpleasant to witness. Given the long, storied history of the corrida (bullfight), I imagined there was something I simply didn’t understand about the allure. Beforehand, various fans explained the elegance of the art– no, not sport, but art– to me, saying the matadors engaged in a delicate ballet with the animal. One man, Herman Montaño, told me that the bulls are selectively bred from Spanish bloodlines.

I taped four interviews with my new radio mic, along with lots of ambient sound: the cries of the bulls, the crowd cheering and jeering, the live band warming up and playing, the stadium sound system blasting Chino y Nacho, food vendors joking around and setting up their wares. I also stuck my microphone in front of the matador pictured above, El Zapato, as he greeted fans and signed autographs before the corrida. Aficionados (fans) thrilled to the performances, though the stadium was less than a quarter of the way full.

When I fell asleep, I dreamed of wailing bulls.

Contributed Reporting: NYT cover story

clips, words

BAXTER, Minn. — Beechestore and Rosecarline, two Haitian teenagers in the throes of puberty, were not supposed to be adopted.

At the end of last year, American authorities denied the petition of a couple here, Marc and Teresa Stroot, to adopt the brother and sister after their biological father opposed relinquishing custody.

Reluctantly, Mr. and Mrs. Stroot, a special-needs teaching assistant and a sales executive with four children of their own, decided to move on.

Then on Jan. 12, a devastating earthquake toppled Haiti’s capital and set off an international adoption bonanza in which some safeguards meant to protect children were ignored.

Read the whole piece on the New York Times website! It’s by Ginger Thompson, and I contributed reporting.

Up, up, and away!


I’m speechless. After just six days- six!!- of my book being listed on Kickstarter, I’ve reached my target funding goal of $3,000.

As of today, a grand total of fifty-five people have chipped in, contributing anything from five to five hundred dollars. I really didn’t expect everything to happen so fast, but because it did, today I’m booking my tickets to return to Guatemala for a final month and a half of writing and reporting.

While I’m there, I’ll continue blogging over at Kickstarter, and I’ll also be posting to the new project site I launched last week,

Right now, the project website is simply a rough draft. I built it myself from a WordPress template, and I’m not going to shape it into an in-depth, multimedia project home until I’m finished writing and reporting the actual manuscript. Gotta take things one step at a time. But come October, after my book deadline, expect some major changes!

The site will not only house photos and audio, but source documents as well, including leaked emails, government files obtained via FOIA request, and much, much more.

Taryn Simon TED talk


Yup, this is an old TED talk, but I thought I’d post because Taryn Simon is one of my very favorite photographers. I adore her work so much I’d even intern for her (well, almost). Her books An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar and The Innocents are both worth picking up. Here’s one of her quotes referencing The Innocents that applies to almost any photographic work.

Photography’s ability to blur truth and fiction is one of its most compelling qualities. But when misused as part of a prosecutor’s arsenal, this ambiguity can have severe, even lethal consequences. Photographs in the criminal justice system, and elsewhere, can turn fiction into fact. As I got to know the men and women in this book, I saw that photography’s ambiguity, beautiful in one context, can be devastating in another.

When you’re writing a book…


Photo work tends to take a back seat. For now, my snapping is limited to the occasional assignment from my wonderful agency in New York, Redux Pictures, and some freelance clients. In terms of personal work, well, my head is pretty much swimming with information related to the investigations I’m unravelling in my upcoming book. It’s been hard to muster the energy to shooting non-cerebral work. And so, I’ve been shooting just for pleasure. Yup, I feel like an art-school kid again.

But I have to say, it’s really nice. Shooting for the love of photography is something I haven’t done in so long. My old Toyo 4×5 studio camera recently passed into her next life, and I’ve been adjusting to shooting in a different format. I dragged that poor old Toyo to so many places- leaking Brooklyn warehouses, Wyoming plains, urban California bedrooms- that her bellows finally had to be duct-taped together.

Though I’ve kept my lenses and film backs for when I can replace her, in the meantime I’ve been shooting 2 1/4 work in the same vein as the “Brooklyn Hangar” series that initially made me fall in love with large format photography. It feels strange, but I think it’s just the newness of the format. I’m using a new used Pentax 645 with just one lens. Hasselblads never felt right in my hands, and I just can’t think in a perfect square. The Mamiya systems I’ve used are just so damn heavy and insanely expensive. The Pentax is less precious, too- something I like a lot.

I miss photojournalism, too, and my head is bursting with story ideas that I can’t wait to start. I swear, my idea list never shortens. But for now, “real” photo work is back-burnered. I’m shooting for the sake of shooting. And it feels good!

Haiti: Photographer Roll Call


Q. How many photographers does it take to cover an earthquake?

A. Too many for me to count accurately…

But here’s a stab at a roll call, gleaned from clips and discussions on Lightstalkers and various photo agency blogs…

Michael Appleton, NYT, Ozier Mohammed, NYT, Damon Winters, NYT, Ruth Fremson, NYT, Fred Conrad, NYT, Tim Fadek, TIME magazine, Keith Marlowe, LIFE, Jim Nachtwey, TIME magazine, Evan Abramson, Nick Weissman, James Oatway, Sam Albright, Jospeph Molieri, Jeff Antebi (NPR), Mark Ovaska, Andy Levin, Carlos Barria, Reuters, Roberto Schmidt, AFP, Chris Hondros, Getty, Eliana Aponte, Reuters, Tomas Bravo, Reuters, Gerald Herbert, AP, Thony Belizaire, AFP, Win McNamee, Getty, Jean-philippe Ksiazek, AFP, Louis Quail, Maggie Steber. NYT, Ron Haviv, People magazine, Peter Periera, Simon Biswas, Zoriah, Jan Grarup, Gary Fabiano, Joao Pina, Fred Dufour, Getty, Joe Raedle, Getty, Stan Honda, AFP, Hughes Leglise-Bataille, Willie Davis, Michael Mullady, Q. Sakimaki, Pedro Farias-Nardi, Mark Peterson, Tequila Minsky, Jeremy Cowart, James Wardell, Shayne Robinson, Jayms Ramirez, Kevin C. Downs, Rick Loomis, LA Times, Carolyn Cole, LA Times, Brian Vander Brug, LA Times, David Levine, Guardian. Bruno Stevens, Cosmos, Jeroen Oerleman, Panos, Moises Saman, Panos, William Daniels, Panos, Julie Platner, WSJ, Dominic Nahr, WSJ, Charles Ommaney, Newsweek, Peter Power, Globe and Mail, Julie Remy, MSF UK, ADRIANA ZEHBRAUSKAS / POLARIS, Alvaro Ybarra Zavala,Getty

Daniel Morel, who contributes to Corbis, is the only Haitian photographer I’ve heard of who’s getting any play. Can anyone correct me? An interview that the NYT Lens blog did with him is here.

So is that enough?

Online Media Legal Network


There’s a brand new, pro-bono network “that connects qualifying online journalism ventures and digital media creators with lawyers willing to provide legal services on a pro bono or reduced-fee basis. OMLN supports promising ventures and innovative thinkers in online and digital media by providing access to legal help that would otherwise be unavailable.”

It’s the Online Media Legal Network at Harvard’s Berkman Center. OMLN is a brand new project of the Citizen Media Law Project.


FOIA’ing the FBI


Well, today I’m getting my FOIA requests in order, one of which is being sent to the FBI. They’re the government agency crowned with George Washington University’s National Security Archive’s “Rosemary Awards” this past March for “outstandingly bad responsiveness to the public that flouts the letter and spirit of the Freedom of Information Act” (FOIA).  The press release about it is here.

I guess it really shouldn’t be too much of a surprise- I mean, look at how their website looks, using Safari as a browser on a Mac.

Picture 1

Here’s the Attorney General’s memo that tells the FBI to shape up. Unfortunately, there’s no deadline. It sort of seems to be lip service to Obama’s January 21st mention of FOIA failure… and just this month, The FOIA Blog reported that U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that the FBI’s FOIA search system was still “devoid of the necessary elements” set forth by FOIA case law standards.

It makes me shudder to think that their agency is worse than the Department of State, who have been sitting on a bunch of my requests for over a year now. History of Phone Phreaking has a nice breakdown of how the FBI filing systems work- and how to interpret  your documents, that is, if you ever get them.

At your wits’ end? Calling FOIA officers and establishing relationships with them is super useful. I haven’t done this yet with the FBI, but it’s worked well with the DOS.

FOIPA Public Information Officer (PIO)
David P. Sobonya
Phone: (540) 868-4593
Fax: (540) 868-4995
Please call this number to talk with the PIO about the status of an existing FOI/PA request, or other FOIPA matters. Our PIO cannot answer questions about Name Check requests, all calls received for Name Check information will be referred to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
FOIPA Public Liaison Officer (PLO)
Dennis J. Argall
(540) 868-4516
Please call the PLO number if you have concerns about information received about the FOIPA after contacting either the RSC or the PIO.

Wanna know if the feds have a file on you? You can FOIA your own FBI records here– or those of your family members.

Flight of Procrastination


I’m supposed to be editing, doing another few passes through those same 80 pages. The latest in procrastination methodology? Capturing benign little yellow warblers acting viciously towards one another.

Sure, they look cute…



My boyfriend, also a photojournalist, just looked at me and smirked. “What, now you’re a nature photographer?”

Nope.  Art photographer, maybe?


Anybody wanna buy a birdfight print? I swear, some are even in focus…

Invited to PDN 30


I’ve been invited, for the second year, to apply for the PDN 30. I’m not sure who nominated me, but I’d bet it’s the good folks over at Redux. Check out the full gallery from 2009 here.


Last year, I passed on sending in work. Since I was just embarking on a year of grad school, the timing didn’t seem right. I’m sort of on the fence about submitting again this year, but I guess I have until October 16th to make up my mind.

Latest Tear: New York Times

clips, words

Finally, I’m finished with grad school and back to work! My first assignment back in the photo world was for the New York Times last month.  I met NYT reporter Jim Dao in Santa Clara, California, to work on a piece about Vietnam veterans from the 11th Armored Cavalry’s Alpha Troop. Alpha Troop was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation at a banquet on the Sunday of that weekend, September 12, 2009.


One of the experiences I was able to listen to was that of 58-year-old Ray Moreno, an Alpha Troop vet. During the second day of the assignment, I stayed in the room alongside Jim while he recorded the interviews that went into the final multimedia package. Some of the stories were, expectedly, heartbreaking. The final multimedia piece can be seen and listened to on the NYT site here. The editors combined my pictures and pictures from Vietnam to make the end product, a series of slideshows that play while audio from each A-Troop vet recounts their experience.


Overall, it was a great assignment. The 11th Cav guys were a boisterous and hospitable bunch, and I felt blessed to be able to bear witness to one of their reunions. I left with a notebook packed with names, email addresses, and instructions from various vets regarding where and how to email them photos. Many of the guys there weren’t exactly fans of the “liberal” New York Times, and told me I should get a better job working for Fox News. It was also the first time I’ve ever been photographed while taking pictures- kind of amusing.

I left wondering about all the stories that will be taken to the grave by the thousands of vets who- like some members of the A-Troop- came home to shame and stigma, drowning memory in silence.