Death threats from the maras – or gangs – in his native Guatemala are the reason Ronald Aldana says he left.
The son of farmers from the rural region of Santa Ana says it started when he was 16 years old. He was studying auto mechanics at a trade school. One day, his cousin was murdered as he jogged down the road. Aldana and his father reported the crime to the police and helped with his burial. Within hours, he started getting threats that escalated into attacks.
“We just couldn’t deal with it anymore," says Aldana, recalling that moment when he realized he was a target. "The first time they tried to kill me, I’d gone out to pick up some books and as I headed home, a group of men on the street started shooting in my direction, but I jumped toward a ravine behind me.”
Aldana survived a couple of these attempts within a month. His family hustled to move him temporarily to his uncle’s house, then to his grandparents’ house – until his father decided it was time for him to go. For good.
“My dad hugged me and said: 'Son, you know I love you, but you cannot stay here. I’d rather die than have you killed,'” says Aldana. At first, the teen resisted. But he was familiar with this kind of story, and he knew its likely ending: If the gangs target you – you’d better go.
His older sister, an undocumented immigrant who lives in Los Angeles, said she’d be able to help. She sent $5,000 to pay the smuggler, and within a day, Aldana started his trek.
He walked north for two days until he reached the Mexican border. Once inside Mexico, he joined a group of adult migrants from Central America. They walked some more, and boarded long-distance buses.
“It took us a little more than two days to cross Mexico, too, because there was a lot of police around, and also the Zetas, which are notorious for targeting migrants," says Aldana, referring to one of Mexico's most feared and violent drug cartels. "I don’t know if it’s true, because they didn’t harm us, but that’s what the coyote would tell us.”
When they tried crossing the border by foot, the U.S. Border Patrol stopped them. Aldana lied to the border officials, saying he was a Mexican boy named Rodrigo Gomez Cepeda, so that they’d return him to Mexico, and not as far as Guatemala. Days later, he crossed again and was able to make it.
Once on the U.S. side, he walked along a freeway, under the hot sun, with nothing but the disheveled clothes he wore. Then, he spotted a crew of construction workers who said they could drive him as far as Las Vegas.
As it turned out, the drivers were also without papers. And when they went through a Border Patrol checkpoint, agents took Aldana into detention. But this time, he told officials the truth: that he was fleeing gang violence from Guatemala. They referred him to Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), a pro-bono legal and advocacy organization, and transferred him to a children’s shelter in Arizona.
“I didn’t talk to anyone back then; I was traumatized and really withdrawn," says Aldana, his voice cracking. "I would wake up in the middle of the night, screaming.”
The shelter staff fed him well and taught basic English to him and hundreds of other kids there. Still, he recalls that all he wanted was to be reunited with his older sister – the one who made the illegal trek many years earlier.
“Eventually, my sister was able to drive from Los Angeles and get me out of the shelter, and she brought me to live with her,” he says.
Meanwhile, KIND worked with the federal Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Refugee Resettlement to fact-check Aldana’s story and represent him in court. Eventually, the U.S. government granted him asylum because he was a minor who fled organized violence in his native country.
KIND's director Wendy Young says Aldana represents a big surge in kids who’ve arrived alone in this country during the last couple of years. Only a lucky few, she says, gain asylum.
“Kids who are represented by counsel are three times more likely to obtain relief from deportation," she says. "We primarily work with kids once they’re released from custody. But I have to say, with the number of kids going through the system currently – I’m very concerned. Honestly, my office has been flooded.”
Southland consulates have known about the trend, and they’re scrambling to assist families in Central America who send their kids north.
“In the California area, we have had some cases, though not as many as in Arizona,” says Guatemalan Consul General Pablo Cesar Garcia Saenz, whose office is aware of four children so far under the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Los Angeles area.
“What we’re focusing on now, is trying to dissuade kids and their parents in Guatemala from sending their kids on their own across the border,” he explains.
But no program so far seems to efficiently prevent children between the ages of 6 and 18 from leaving — or their parents from sending them. Organizations like KIND say their caseloads are soaring, and young people like Aldana increasingly need representation. Without that, they say, unaccompanied minors lose the opportunity for a fair hearing, and risk repatriation to the conditions that compelled them to flee their native countries.
The founder of Homies Unidos, Alex Sanchez, is a former gang member from El Salvador who gained asylum from violence in his homeland during the 1990s. He explains that young people throughout Central America have left their countries for decades now, fleeing war, seeking opportunities for their families or escaping natural disasters. But according to him, these days, the main push factor is a dramatic rise in gang violence.
“They try to seek these asylum cases in which they get attorneys to fight a case, and usually say that they were force recruited, that they were targeted by local gangs, or that they were targeted by law enforcement, thinking that they were in gangs," he says. "So these are people that we see here often that are fleeing the gang violence down there, both perpetrated by the gangs and the government.”
More than three years after he crossed the border, Ronald Aldana is now 20 years old. He lives in the Hancock Park section of Los Angeles in a small apartment with his girlfriend, her parents, and her siblings. He left his sister’s cramped apartment because he didn’t want to burden her, he says, but she still helps him out with money.
Aldana recognizes he’s lucky to have gotten asylum. It allows him to work part-time, and soon, he’ll be able to apply for a green card, too.
When that comes through, he says, he’ll look for a way to move his parents and five siblings out of their native country and into the US. But that won’t be easy: First he’ll need to prove that he has the financial means to support them all.