AP Investigation: 500,000 criminal deportees from America wreak havoc in many nations

Saturday, October 25, 2003

The U.S. government calls them criminal aliens, but they are as American as drive–by shootings and crack cocaine.

Many came to the United States as children, often in the arms of men and women fleeing poverty and war. They went to school here, but usually not for long. They came of age on city streets from Los Angeles to New York. Eventually they broke the law.

In 1996, Congress banished them from America for life and directed immigration agents to hunt them down. The biggest dragnet in U.S. history is now well underway. Already, more than 500,000 have been rounded up and deported, according to government figures, and this year they are being banished at a rate of one every seven minutes to more than 160 countries around the world.

The culture of drugs and guns many carry back to their native lands is wreaking havoc in nations that receive them in substantial numbers.

A six–month Associated Press investigation, which included interviews with more than 300 police, deportees, church leaders, social scientists and government officials in the United States and abroad, found that in some countries, the resulting crime waves are overwhelming police and security forces.

In Jamaica, one out of every 106 males over the age of 15 is now a criminal deportee from the United States. Ten–thousand strong, most live in the capital city of Kingston –– the equivalent of 10,000 Jamaican criminals being dumped into the city of Indianapolis. Jamaican police say they have been involved in hundreds of murders and thousands of armed robberies.

In Guyana, more than 600 criminal deportees have been absorbed by a country of less than 700,000 –– the proportional equivalent of 231,000 Guyanese criminals let loose on the streets of America. Before their arrival, drive–by shootings, car hijackings, kidnappings and bank robberies were relatively uncommon, said Ronald Gajraj, the country’s Home Affairs minister. Now such crimes are a constant part of Guyanese life.

In Honduras, according to the latest figures from Interpol, murders increased from 1,615 in 1995, to 9,241 in 1998, after the first wave of what is now 7,000 criminal deportees. Honduran police say the guns, drugs, and gangs they have brought with them are largely responsible.

Despite the profound impact of the criminal deportations, few Americans know anything about them.

Under the 1996 U.S. law, every non–citizen sentenced to a year or more in prison is subject to deportation, even if the sentence is suspended. Deportable crimes can be anything from murder to petty theft. The law is retroactive, making immigrants deportable for crimes that did not warrant deportation at the time they were committed. And the law eliminated nearly all grounds for appeal, making deportations virtually automatic.

As many as 250,000 aliens now serving time in U.S. prisons, on probation or on parole have been marked for deportation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The total number of deportable criminal aliens among the estimated 11.8 million non–citizens living in the United States is unknown.

They are an army of social misfits –– drug addicts and drunken drivers, robbers and shoplifters, rapists and wife–beaters, drug traffickers and gang members. Eighty percent are being sent to seven Caribbean and Latin American countries –– Jamaica, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic –– places where jobs are scarce and police resources are limited. Mexico, by far the largest of these countries, has absorbed 340,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

These seven countries have already received them in numbers equal to, or in some cases double, their entire prison populations.

Deported after serving sentences for their crimes in America, the criminal deportees are simply set loose upon arrival, usually with little or no money and with no prospects for work.

In El Salvador, for example, the criminal deportees are greeted at the airport by Roman Catholic charities workers, given a sandwich and bus fare, and sent on their way. In the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago in the North Atlantic, officials said many have been dropped at the airport by U.S. immigration escorts without even the bus fare to get to town. Until the Azoreans established a transition center for them, some wandered off and were found sleeping at the side of the road.

To survive in what for most of them are unfamiliar surroundings, many turn to the skills learned on the streets of America –– to drug dealing, stealing, extortion, sometimes even murder.

Others try to stay out of trouble, but their path is not easy. Some sink into despair, foraging for food or living on handouts sent by family members left behind in America. In the Azores, some shoot heroin in front of the police station in Ponta Delgada, hoping to be admitted to a drug treatment center to get food and clean beds.

In Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, the AP found George Rene Marques, 43, living in an overflow pipe behind a power plant. He is wasting with AIDS, with no access to medical treatment. Marques said he was 12 years old when he immigrated to America, and worked as a personal trainer and a used car dealer before being deported for drunken driving. Criminal records indicate it was his only criminal conviction.

The criminal deportees who most worry receiving countries are the gang members. Soon after they arrive, many reconstitute the street gangs from their ‘hoods, recruiting from an inexhaustible supply of local teenagers eager to learn from their American cousins.

In Honduras and El Salvador, for example, Los Angeles street gangs with names like Mara Dieciocho (the 18th Street Gang) and Mara Salvatrucha (the 13th Street Gang) are now competing for a piece of the drug trade, warring with indigenous thugs and with one another.

“We’re sending back sophisticated criminals to unsophisticated, unindustrialized societies,” said Al Valdez, an Orange County, Calif., assistant district attorney and gang expert. “They overwhelm local authorities.” For example, he said, in San Pedro Sula, a city in Honduras, one detective is working 139 gang homicides.

In El Salvador and Honduras, many of the deportees become victims before they can become victimizers. Regarded as pariahs in their native lands, they are hunted by vigilante squads, some shot down within days of stepping off the unmarked U.S. Marshal’s Service jetliners that carry them into exile several days every week.

In San Pedro Sula, vigilantes with assault rifles prowl the night, searching for young men with American gang tattoos, said the city’s Roman Catholic Bishop, Romulo Emiliani. “They approach young people, open their shirts, and if they have tattoos, they don’t ask anything. They just kill them.”

Hugo Omar Barahona –– 4 years old when he immigrated to Los Angeles with his parents and 21 when he was deported to El Salvador for robbery in 1999 –– was shot in the leg and back in the capital city of San Salvador on April 28. The two gunmen, he said, apparently spotted his American gang tattoos. Somehow, he survived; many do not. For them, deportation is a death sentence.

The 1996 law was intended to reduce crime in the United States by getting rid of some of the people who commit it. Large–scale deportations are a relatively new crime–prevention strategy. There were criminal deportations in the past, but the number last year alone exceeded the total between 1905 and 1986.

In 1986, immigration agents began focusing on deporting aliens who had committed serious felonies punishable by at least five years in prison. In that year, fewer than 2,000 were deported, the number increasing to 33,842 in 1995.

With passage of the 1996 law, criminal deportations surged again; the number this year is expected to reach 77,000 according to U.S. government statistics. Forty–one percent of the deportations last year were drug–related, and no other crime accounted for more than 10 percent.

The criminal deportees represent a fraction of the 11 million non–citizens who have been deported from the United States, or allowed to leave voluntarily in lieu of deportation, since 1996. Most had entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas.

One in every 11 U.S. residents –– 32.5 million people –– was born abroad, the largest number in the nation’s history. According to a report by a group that included the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the crime rate among immigrants is only half to a third that of native–born U.S. citizens.

But unlike citizens, aliens who commit crimes can simply be sent home.

Officials in many of the receiving countries, however, said “home” is not where the criminal aliens are going –– that many, perhaps most, were children when they first came to America and have no real connections to the countries of their birth.

The U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it has no statistics to support or refute this, and most receiving countries don’t either.

But officials in the Azores, a stable, Western European society that keeps reliable statistics, said 71 percent of its nearly 500 criminal deportees were under 13 when they first left for the United States and an additional 8 percent were teenagers. When they returned, many did not even speak Portuguese.

For some, the dislocation is even greater. Of the 67 already deported to Cambodia –– 1,400 more are in the pipeline –– some had never before set foot in that country. They were born to refugee parents in camps in Thailand. According to the Seattle Public Defender’s office, three–fourths of the 57 Cambodians facing criminal deportation from that city were 10 or under when they came to America.

Most of the criminal deportees arriving in Jamaica “know nothing about our country,” said Aham Brown, police liaison for the Jamaican Embassy in Washington. “Jamaica is the land of their birth, but that is their only connection to the island.”

Guyana’s foreign minister, Rudy Insanally, said many Guyanese who immigrate to America with their children are well educated, yet their children return as criminals. “You are sending us the dregs of your society,” he said, “and at the same time you are poaching our teachers and nurses.”

He, like officials in several other receiving countries, complained that the United States is seeding the world with American–bred criminals.

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R–Texas, a primary author of the 1996 law, is not persuaded. Until they obtain citizenship, immigrants are guests in the United States, he said, and “when they commit a serious crime, they have, under our laws, forfeited the right to live among us.”

The only problem with the law, he said, is that too many eventually make their way back through America’s porous borders.

Some countries, including Guyana, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, have asked that the deportations be stopped, or at least slowed, but have been rebuffed.

“It is a subject of national anger and regional concern – a major foreign policy issue,” Insanally said.

Vietnam and Laos refuse to accept criminal deportees. Guyana tried to refuse, Gajraj said, but backed down after the United States threatened to withhold visas for Guyanese officials.

The U.S. State Department would not discuss the foreign policy implications of the deportations, referring questions to the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement – which in turn referred them back to the State Department.

U.S. embassies in some receiving countries, including Jamaica and Guyana, say there is no statistical evidence linking criminal deportees to major crime waves. In fact, no government agency or research institute has thoroughly studied the criminal deportations. Most receiving countries lack the resources to track the deportees, or even determine how many are now in prison for crimes committed since their arrival.

CARICOM, an association of English–speaking countries in the Caribbean, is trying to measure the impact of criminal deportees on four countries in the region, but its study is not expected to produce clear results.

Preliminary figures, based largely on prison statistics from the receiving countries, suggest criminal deportees are no more likely to end up in jail than the general population. But Yolande Forde, a criminal statistician directing the study, said the statistics she is relying on are incomplete, and that deportees, often more sophisticated than native thugs, seldom get caught.

“The full story of crime in the Caribbean cannot be told statistically, and this is what the United States has to understand,” she said.

“The full story of crime in the Caribbean cannot be told statistically, and this is what the United States has to understand,” she said.

Jamaican authorities have statistics too, but it is difficult to judge their reliability. An analysis by the Jamaican Constabulary concluded that deportees, many of them gang members from the northeastern United States, were involved in 600 murders in a 20–month period ending in January 1999. In proportion to the population, that is equivalent to 60,000 murders in the United States. Over the same period, the constabulary said, deportees were involved in 1,700 armed robberies and 150 shoot–outs with police.

The numbers, large enough to defy belief, would be huge if reduced by half. Jamaican police said they could not provide the AP with raw data to support the figures.

Lucius Thomas, commissioner of the constabulary, said U.S. officials think Jamaica is exaggerating the problem, but that “it’s not overblown from where I stand.”

Glen Hinds, senior superintendent in charge of the island country’s bureau of criminal intelligence, said just one deportee, a former New Orleans gang member, runs a crime syndicate in the city’s Spanish Town that is responsible for 20 murders in a recent four–month period.

In Mexico, criminal deportees tend to remain in border towns where U.S. immigration agents drop them off by bus. There, they await their chance to slip back into the United States. In the meantime, according to Mexican police, some traffic in drugs and prey on migrants trying to cross into the United States to find work. Two have been charged with killing two policemen and wounding another in a June 5 shootout in Tijuana.

“They are creating enormous pressure on the border towns,” said Nestor Rodriguez of the University of Houston, one the few academics doing research on criminal deportees. One of those towns is Nogales, a city of 300,000 that received 8,500 criminal aliens in a recent nine–month period.

While the situation on the Mexican border is bleak, criminal deportees have much greater impact on small countries, said Valdez, the Orange County gang expert.

In Guyana, for example, officials said they have been overwhelmed by the sophistication of some criminal deportees. They are better armed and harder to catch than homegrown criminals, said Gajraj, the Home Affairs minister. And their crimes, including hijackings and kidnappings, are more violent.

Some carry laser–targeting military weapons, said Ivelaw Griffith, a Guyana native who has studied criminal deportations at Florida International University. Five bandits, some of them deportees, were armed with them when killed by police in a botched 1997 burglary at the home of the country’s former national elections chairman, he said.

Some deportees have become criminal kingpins, corrupting government officials and organizing native Guyanese into gangs that are smuggling drugs into the United States and firearms into Guyana, Gajraj said.

The criminal deportees are more brazen and vicious than local thugs, Gajraj said. “They don’t even wear masks.”

Before the deportees began arriving, Gajraj said, Guyanese police officers were killed at a rate of two or fewer every five years, but 23 were killed last year alone.

Some human rights advocates in Guyana said the figure is misleading. The government, dominated by descendants of immigrants from India, has used the deportee–driven crime wave as an excuse to ruthlessly crack down on the country’s predominantly black population, they said, and some of the police killings were in retaliation.

Although the U.S. embassy in Guyana does not acknowledge criminal deportees represent a significant threat, its security officer did bow to local fears by advising shopkeepers how best to avoid kidnappers.

The training sessions ended on April 13, when the U.S. embassy security officer, Steve Lesniak, became the country’s 18th kidnapping victim of the year.

The 35–year–old former Marine was seized at a golf course near Georgetown and released only after a friend paid $10,000 of the kidnappers’ $300,000 ransom demand.

AP National Writer Sharon Crenson contributed to this report.