Victims in drug war fighting deportation
By DIANE SMITH
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
FORT WORTH, Texas - Henry believed his family was finally safe from murder or abduction in the fifth-floor Bogota, Colombia, apartment, with its burglar bars, armed guards and underground parking.
But in late January 2002, a stranger's voice invaded. Henry answered the telephone and heard: "Donde se escondan, los encontramos."
"Wherever you are hiding, we will find you."
Henry hung up, certain his role in the war on drugs - under a civilian contract with the U.S. State Department - would cost him his family. Within 15 days, his wife, Belinda, and their two teen-age boys used their tourist visas and were living in Texas.
Family members say they are victims of the drug war, though they are now fighting the U.S. immigration bureaucracy - not Colombian drug lords.
The 42-year-old father eventually joined his family in Arlington, Texas, but has been denied political asylum, which could allow him and his family to remain in the United States permanently.
A judge denied the asylum request in January, ruling that Henry hadn't proved that his family was being persecuted in Colombia.
Henry has appealed the judge's decision, and he wonders at the irony.
"I have to bring a cadaver or a mutilated son or show that my wife has been kidnapped," Henry said. He can, however, remain in the United States legally while he awaits the outcome of his case.
Henry asked that his last name not be published for fear that Colombian guerrillas would harm his family if they were forced to return home.
In Colombia, Henry's job was to ride in helicopters that protected other aircraft during spraying missions to destroy coca and poppy crops, the raw materials for cocaine and heroin.
He advised pilots when helicopters malfunctioned or took bullets midflight. Sometimes, he manned a machine gun, firing back at narco-terrorists.
It was a dangerous job but worth the risk to make Colombia safer for his family, Henry said.
Then, on a mission in July 2001, Henry removed his flight helmet and unwittingly revealed his identity to photographers, placing his family in peril.
His plight has stirred members of the First United Methodist Church of Arlington, where the family attends services and volunteers. Church friends have attended court hearings and served as character witnesses on behalf of the family. Some have written lawmakers hoping to garner interest in the case.
"I see the injustice of them being deported to a place where they are in danger, and the fact is that they were doing something for our country and that's what has them in danger," said Joe Nussbaum, a church member.
MILLIONS SEEKING ASYLUM
Henry's family is among millions of Colombians who have sought legal shelter in the United States and other countries in recent years. In the past five years alone, 1.5 million to 2 million Colombians have left their homeland, said Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami international studies professor who has served as an expert witness in asylum cases.
Internal conflict, the drug trade, murder and kidnappings have fueled the exodus - mostly by members of the middle and upper classes.
Almost 5,000 Colombians were granted asylum in the Unites States in fiscal 2002, which ended Sept. 30, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office.
In Colombia, paramilitary groups have been tied to massacres, death threats and selective killings, according to a Human Rights Watch report. Guerrillas have tried to enlist children. Those who attempt to leave face punishment or death, the human rights organization says. The State Department has warned Americans against traveling to Colombia.
Bagley noted that Colombians are trying to leave their country even as the United States, Spain, Mexico, Ecuador and Panama tighten policies to keep them in Colombia. Efforts to offer Colombians temporary protection in the United States have not gained political momentum.
Under U.S. immigration rules, asylum is granted to people who have fled their homelands in the wake of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group.
Jews oppressed in the former Soviet Union, for example, have been granted asylum.
But each case is different, and a person's legitimate fears may not be enough to convince immigration authorities that they qualify for asylum. Bagley said it often boils down to "How good is your case?"
STOPPING NARCOTICS TRAFFICKERS
After a career in the Colombian air force, Henry had found work repairing helicopter and plane parts. In 2001, he went to work for a company that had a contract with the State Department to maintain helicopters for the Colombian narcotics police.
"Our responsibility was to protect the fumigation. When we were attacked, we defended ourselves," Henry said, adding that he flew as many as five or six missions a day.
It was a job few wanted, he said. As a civilian employee, he did not work for the United States or the Colombian government. But the pay was good, and he was doing something he believed in.
Colombia's long, bloody history of internal strife fueled by the drug trade became a top concern of the United States in the 1980s. The U.S. government has spent billions to help Colombian authorities fight narcotics traffickers.
A Human Rights Watch 2003 World Report said the United States plays a "pivotal role in Colombia" because Americans are the biggest consumers of illegal narcotics.
Cocaine alone accounted for an estimated 2.7 million chronic users in the United States in 2000, according to the government's Office of National Drug Control Policy. Users spent an estimated $35.3 billion on cocaine in 2000, according to the office.
"It's a war against drugs. It's a war of money. It's a war without scruples," Henry said recently from his apartment.
Most importantly, Henry said, it is a war in which he felt Colombians needed to take part, to protect youth - and a war he never intended to leave.
Belinda had no idea how deeply her husband was involved.
"I knew he worked with police against narco-traffickers, but not that he went on these helicopter missions," she said.
In summer 2001, Henry accompanied medical examiners and authorities to pick up the bodies of five slain Colombian lawmen in Belen de los Andaquies in the southern state of Caqueta. The town had been attacked by narco-terrorists, according to a July 30, 2001, report by a pilot who documented the incident for the chief of the aviation police.
The team landed in a soccer field. It was sweltering. Henry did something he wouldn't normally do - he took off his helmet.
While he was waiting to help transport the bodies, Henry noticed three men taking photographs.
He told a supervisor. One of the men was carrying cash, cellphones, ammunition and cameras and yelled at Henry as police took the man into custody.
"You are going to pay. You don't know who you messed with," Henry heard the man say.
That's when the telephone threats began. They called him a "sapo," or frog, a term used to describe a snitch.
Henry told supervisors about the calls and then dismissed them. But when the callers contacted his wife in late 2001, he began to take the threats more seriously.
He reported them to Colombian authorities and to his supervisors. He told his wife to stay with relatives, then moved his family to the secure apartment.
He reported the threats to the national police and asked for special protection, but officials said they could not help, according to documents in Henry's immigration file.
One caller said Henry's sons would be enlisted against their will as guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
"They were going to kidnap the boys and have them fight against their father," Belinda said. "I hung up. I was scared."
Weeks later, the caller told Henry the family would be found.
That's when he sent Belinda and his sons to the United States. They arrived with enough money to last six months while he stayed behind to keep working.
"If someone hurts my sons in Colombia, I don't know. ... I don't know what would happen to me," Henry said. "I've seen a lot of things. I've had colleagues whose wives and children have been killed."
Belinda applied for asylum, but her efforts failed. She said an attorney lost much of her paperwork and left the state without telling her.
Knowing his wife would never stay in Texas without him, Henry made his own plan to get to the United States.
PROTECTING A FAMILY
Henry maintains that because of his association with the Colombian police, he is perceived as a political opponent. The family received at least six telephone threats between July 2001 and January 2002.
Immigration Judge Cary Copeland disagreed with Henry's assertion. In a Jan. 6 opinion, the Dallas judge wrote that Henry's case didn't meet the criteria for asylum, saying Henry "failed to demonstrate that he or his family members have suffered harm in the past rising to the level of persecution."
A spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services in Dallas said that immigration authorities don't comment on asylum cases because of privacy concerns. But an attorney representing the government argued that law enforcement officers face dangers every day that don't necessarily constitute persecution.
Henry, Belinda and members of their church hope that Copeland's decision will be overturned on appeal. Their case is pending before the Board of Immigration Appeals in Falls Church, Va.
The family hopes that if Henry is granted asylum, he can sponsor them so they all can obtain permanent permission to stay.
"This just cries out for justice," said Earl Hampton, another church friend.
Paul Zoltan, the Dallas immigration attorney who is representing Henry, said: "It's a disgrace to say to a man who is on the front lines of our war on drugs, `You made your bed, you lie in it. And by the way, your family is fair game.' "
ASKING FOR HELP
Henry Ghitis, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Colombia, was taking a break from a helicopter training session when Henry approached him in early 2002 at the Guaymaral Military Base on the outskirts of Bogota.
Henry told Ghitis of the threats against his family. Then he dropped an awkward question: Would Ghitis help Belinda and their sons find temporary refuge in the United States?
"He was a victim of narco-trafficking. You could see he was telling the truth. You could see the fear," said Ghitis, who lives in Arlington. "I believed him, but I wanted to confirm it."
A check with Henry's superiors convinced Ghitis that Henry indeed faced grave danger.
"He was directly in the fight against narcotics," Ghitis said. "The groups are guerrillas, but they are really terrorists controlling the drug trafficking."
On March 2, 2002, Ghitis met Belinda and her sons at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. Ghitis said he hasn't regretted helping the family.
"If it's in your hands to do it, why turn your back?" Ghitis asked. "There is a war going on. It's not a game. It's really a war."
Henry's sons attend high school and volunteer with church food drives. They hope to attend college and are hard workers, school counselors say. They've forged friendships, worked to perfect their English and struggled to gain legal status by staying within the rules.
They wait in limbo within the walls of a tidy apartment. The peace outside is interrupted only by the occasional sound of neighbors greeting one another.
Here, there are no burglar bars, no armed guards, no threats.
What is asylum?
People seeking asylum must prove they have been or will be persecuted in their homeland because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group.
Petitioners in the United States can file for asylum through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office. Applicants are interviewed by federal asylum officers. If not approved, the application is considered by a civil immigration judge.
In fiscal 2002, which ended Sept. 30, 4,958 Colombians were granted asylum in the United States.