The threats from MS-13 had become incessant. There were handwritten letters, phone calls and text messages that all said the same thing: The gang was preparing to kill Ronald Acevedo. El Salvador had the world’s highest murder rate. Acevedo had already been stabbed once. His family pieced together a plan. They paid a smuggler to take Acevedo to the United States border.
The plan didn’t work. After eight months in detention, Acevedo, 20, abruptly withdrew his asylum claim. He was deported to El Salvador on Nov. 29, 2017. He disappeared on Dec. 5, 2017, and his body was later found in the trunk of a car, wrapped in white sheets. An autopsy showed signs of torture.
Acevedo’s case made its way through American immigration courts just as the White House launched attempts to reduce the number of people who are eligible for asylum, a protection that for nearly 70 years had served to shield victims of war and persecution. Some of those denied asylum are sent back to countries where their lives are put in immediate danger.
In addition to Acevedo, The Post has identified another asylum seeker, Miguel Panameño, who was killed this year, months after being deported to El Salvador. He is buried in the same cemetery as Acevedo.
Immigration lawyers in the United States believe many more cases exist. Some nongovernmental groups have made efforts to track the number of deaths, but there are no official mechanisms to catalogue them. Between 2012 and 2017, the United States denied asylum to 12,300 Salvadorans and deported them.
The number of people applying for asylum in the United States has increased steadily over the past four years, as has the number of people denied asylum. Last year, 120,000 migrants made asylum claims in U.S. immigration courts, a fourfold increase from 2014.
Many of those fleeing gang violence first attempt to disappear in another part of El Salvador before leaving the country. But MS-13 had, at least in some cases, tracked them down.
“They have connections everywhere,” Acevedo said in his credible fear interview, the first step in establishing a legitimate asylum case in the United States. “If you go to another zone they will know.”