Escaping the Killings and Elimination of Witnesses
Fleeing Violence in Mexico and Central America
In the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time, A Family Pays the Price
Doctors and medical experts from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) visited the U.S.-Mexico border to conduct clinical evaluations of individuals seeking asylum in the United States. This is one family's story.
Romina, Sergio, and their two boys lived in an area of Honduras where small-scale farmers, private security firms, and paramilitaries clash over land. Sergio worked with a farmers’ collective. He suspected that some members were using the collective to launder money, buy arms, and work with a paramilitary group involved in robberies and violent land evictions.
One day, Sergio saw a child gunned down lying on the ground, surrounded by seven armed men, some of whom were masked. Days later, some collective members called Sergio and asked whether he knew who had killed the child. Although Sergio did not recognize the killers, the men did not believe him. They said, “You will only leave this collective with cotton in your nostrils and ears,” while showing him a 9-mm gun, which was a way of telling Sergio that he would be killed if he left.
Romina and Serigo’s life was never the same after that day. People often told him that he was a target and that he “knew too much.” A man also came by to see Romina when she was home alone. He told her, “They are going to kill him anyway. Just turn him in [to us] and we will give you your part.”
On one occasion, two men on a motorcycle attacked Sergio, Romina, and their son with a machete, missing the boy by just a few centimeters.
With assistance from a local human rights organization, which filed a complaint to the authorities, the family fled to another town and then crossed the border to Guatemala. They spent two months there before reaching southern Mexico – only to find out that they had been followed there – and then headed to Tijuana, where they hoped to seek protection in the United States. The family still does not feel safe in Tijuana; but when asked what would happen if she had to go back to Honduras, Romina replies, “It would be better to be dead.”
Medical experts from PHR conducted an extensive interview with Romina, and the clinical evaluation is consistent with her narrative.
At times during the interview, she seems disassociated, a common reaction given the nature of the experiences she recounts. She also reports a range of psychiatric symptoms that are consistent with her positive screen for major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Since the threats to her family began, Romina’s asthmatic condition has required medication, her heart races periodically, and she suffers from insomnia.
“I’m so anguished that I cannot concentrate on anything. I think to myself, ‘I cannot go on’ and then I become short of breath. Twenty minutes later I faint, my head hurts, and I feel as though I cannot go on any longer. The children are there so then I have to get myself back together.” - Romina
Romina’s mental health also has ongoing major adverse effects on her ability to interact with others. She is startled easily and has profound distrust of others.
On two occasions, she has suffered from suicidal ideation by considering cutting her wrists or jumping off a balcony to end her life:
“Sometimes I am almost hypnotized, as if I disappear for a moment; this happens when I feel as though I can go on no longer.… I asked for psychological help because I was at the point where I could hurt myself. I would grab knives and would put them here [pointing to her arm] and would feel like cutting myself, but then I would always look at my children and they have always been my salvation.”
Antonio screened positive for PTSD and anxiety. When asked if he would return to his country, he replies “I am afraid. I think something would happen to me. I think they would kill me and my mother and my parents.” Since he witnessed violence, Antonio has become sad and cries often. He often holds his breath when he is afraid, and he has to hold his mother’s hand to be at ease. Since arriving in Tijauna, he has had nightmares where he says in his sleep, “Mom, hurry! Hurry! The guy is going to kill us!”
Despite having had to flee home precipitously with his family, an event which is typically destabilizing for children, Antonio’s brother Miguel demonstrates resilience during his clinical evaluation, though he says he is very worried about his brother and tries to help him. Miguel misses home and the rest of his relatives who were left behind, but he is scared that his family would be killed if they return home.