ILJ Delaware Valley helps a Survivor find Safety under the
U. N. Convention Against Torture
Warning: this story contains descriptions of terror and violence.
It was so much like a scene from a movie that for a few ticking seconds, Raymundo couldn’t accept it was real.
But the taste of gunmetal, warm and ashy, was real. The glint of madness in his tormentor’s eyes as he pushed the barrel of the gun further into Raymundo’s mouth was real. The certain knowledge that he would die, that his body would never be found, and that his murder would go unpunished…all of this was real, too.
And there wasn’t a thing Raymundo could do about it. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t move. He could only endure.
Was that a click he heard? Raymundo closed his eyes and prayed.
His tormentor grinned as he withdrew the gun.
“Next time,” he promised.
In the Grip of Extortionists
The scourge of drug trafficking and gang violence in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador is well documented. It has been a tragic reality for poorer communities in these countries for many years.
These same communities are also suffering through a rise in wholesale and inescapable extortion. Although less profitable than drug trafficking, extortion is safer and provides a stable income for criminal gangs at a substantially lower risk. It also gives them the ability to wield continuous and complete control over their victims.
It is now estimated that extortion rackets in the countries of the Northern Triangle are worth up to $1.1 billion every year.
But Raymundo doesn’t need a think tank to tell him about extortion in his home country of Honduras. He lived through it. He barely survived it.
“Yes, such people exist in the world,” he says simply. “They are very evil people.”
Nowhere to Run
Since he was a small child, Raymundo had loved working with his hands. He especially loved carpentry, but was adept at all kinds of home construction. He eventually started his own small home repair business. It was hard work, but he was able to provide for his wife and daughter. He was happy.
The shakedowns for money started small. And then the demands grew larger, the threats more frightening, and the time between violent beatings shorter and shorter.
“They were never satisfied,” remembers Raymundo. “They always wanted more and more until I just couldn’t pay anymore.”
“The police didn’t give me the help I hoped for,” he continues, his voice tinged with bitterness. “They were no help at all. They refused to help.”
With that final horrific assault, when Raymundo thought he would surely die, he knew he had reached his breaking point.
“I had to leave my country and my family,” he says, his voice shaking at the memory. “The only thing I could do was leave.”
He didn’t know anywhere he could go to in Honduras that would be safe. Every place he heard of was also controlled by the extortion gangs.
And so, he headed north.
Someone to Help
Alexis Duecker is the executive director for Immigration Law & Justice of the Delaware Valley, serving Southern New Jersey, Southeast Pennsylvania, and Peninsula Delaware. She had completed most of the preparation for Raymundo’s case while she was still an asylum attorney—working under a grant provided by the United Methodist Committee on Relief—for our New York ILJ affiliate. When she left for her new position, she brought Raymundo’s case with her, determined to see it to the end.
Initially detained in a border detention center with horrific and dehumanizing conditions—two weeks without showers, little food, and so overcrowded that detainees had to sleep on the cold, hard floor—Raymundo was then sent to a facility in the Northeast. An attorney from another nonprofit secured his temporary release on bond.
But it was up to Alexis to find a way that would allow Raymundo to remain in the United States.
Unfortunately, asylum was not a possibility. Although his case for asylum was a strong one, Raymundo was ineligible because he had previously been deported when he was a younger man.
But there was another avenue available to him, provided by the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT).
Ratified in 1987, CAT forbids member states to transport people to any country where there is reason to believe they will be tortured. Recipients of relief under CAT must demonstrate reasonable grounds to believe they will face torture—and be subjected to severe pain or suffering—if returned to their country of origin. The standard of proof under CAT is much higher than the standard for asylum, yet the applicant’s fear of torture does not have to be on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
Asylum attorneys routinely ask for CAT status for their asylum clients. There is even a box to check for CAT on the asylum application form. Alexis has years of experience as an asylum attorney and is very familiar with CAT. But she had never won a case for a client based on CAT before.
Only 900 CAT cases are approved each year in the entire United States.
“Most importantly, I knew it would protect Raymundo from removal,” explains Alexis, “and he would obtain a work permit so he could work legally. However, relief based on CAT also means he would not be able to bring his family to join him in the future.”
Raymundo would further be required to go before a federal judge in immigration court and tell his story. With so much riding on his appearance before the court, we wondered…did he feel nervous?
“No,” he answers firmly. “I felt thankful that I had an opportunity to explain myself. I opened my heart to her [the judge.] And she heard me.”
Raymundo—and Alexis—won the case.
Safety for Raymundo
“From the first moment I met Alexis,” says Raymundo, “she was…marvelous. How better can I explain it? So professional, so caring…she helped me in so many ways.”
Raymundo is a person born to be cheerful, a positive attribute nearly stolen from him by the traumatic violence he experienced. “I still feel sad,” he admits with a slight shrug of his shoulders. “I know I still carry a lot of heaviness within me.”
Chief among these is the separation from his wife and daughter, a separation hard to bear, especially at this time of year. Raymundo lives in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he has no relatives and only a few friends from his job at a local home construction business.
“I am always thinking about my family,” he says. “Always. But those men wanted to kill me. I would be dead now if I had stayed.”
The heaviness he spoke of now seems to settle around him like a mantle. And then he shakes it off with his familiar smile.
“It’s good that there is this country,” he says. “And that there are good people here who want to help others.