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Man fights deportation by invoking his former gang ties

He has changed, he says, but tattoos mark him for death. An appeals court weighs his case.

June 03, 2007|Sonia Nazario | Times Staff Writer

He was arrested in Guatemala four times on what he said in court documents were false or trumped up charges. He said he was never charged and was typically beaten, then imprisoned for three-month stints before being released.

After his final arrest, in the fall of 2002 following the Black Shadow bus incident, he was sent for a fourth time to Pavoncito Prison, a place Echeverria says is known for beatings and torture by guards. Machete killings by rival inmates are common, Echeverria said.

Alvarado-Veliz said that during his incarceration, he watched as one prisoner was raped and another had his throat slit. A gangster in his unit, viewed as disloyal to the MS-13 gang, had tattoos skinned off his arm with a knife. Inmates fried the flesh and ate it.

He said that at his grandmother's home, anonymous men with deep voices called day and night to threaten that if Alvarado-Veliz didn't leave Guatemala, a grenade would be lobbed into the home.

After he was released, he fled north and in the summer of 2003 entered the U.S. illegally for the third time.

Alvarado-Veliz says that he tried to live a better life after returning. He got a job at Target, attended Burbank adult school at night and began attending his mother's Church on the Way in Van Nuys. "I wanted to make my mother proud," he said.

But in 2004, police charged him with carrying a small amount of marijuana and disturbing the peace. He was convicted on the infraction of disturbing the peace.

Also that year, he was convicted of a misdemeanor count of petty theft. In 2005, after failing to make one of his $100 monthly court-ordered fines for a misdemeanor conviction for driving with a suspended license, he was sent to an immigrant lock-up in Eloy, Ariz., to be deported.

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Sworn testimony

On Dec. 7, 2005, Alvarado-Veliz, then 22, went before immigration judge Thomas M. O'Leary in Arizona.

In sworn testimony, Alvarado-Veliz said he hadn't been a gang member for four years, had never been convicted of a violent crime or violent felony and faced torture and beatings by Guatemalan police for being a suspected gang member.

"If I go back, they are going to kill me. I'm talking about my life, your honor."

O'Leary denies 94.4% of asylum claims in his courtroom, according to one study, making him among the toughest of 224 immigration judges nationwide. But he found Alvarado-Veliz's account credible.

Alvarado-Veliz, the judge ruled, was "more likely than not" to face torture if returned. He granted him the right to stay in the U.S., with one caveat: He would be deported if he ever committed another crime.

Seven months later, when an immigration appeals board reversed that ruling, his attorney appealed to the 9th Circuit Court. Alvarado-Veliz has been locked up for 22 months.

In prison, he leads a daily Bible study and on Sundays translates the prison chaplain's sermon for the mostly Spanish-speaking inmates. He faces another year before a court decision is likely. He believes the jail time and previous torture are punishment enough for his past. Jesus Christ, he said, taught forgiveness.

He says he hopes one day to be a youth minister targeting those involved in gangs and drugs in Los Angeles.

"My past is pretty messed up, but I think I can use it to the benefit of other people," he said.

\o7 --\f7

sonia.nazario@latimes.com\o7

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