To listen to the original Spanish interview with audio interview with Luis Enrique Guzman, please click here.
Luis Enrique was born in Guatemala, near the University of San Carlos. As a child growing up in Guatemala’s period of armed conflict, he was a witness to many of the student protests. At a young age he turned his attention towards issues of human rights and social justice. In 1981, at the age of 12 he was at home when he began to notice smoke coming from the University. The student movement was protesting the rise in transportation costs. But this peaceful protest turned unexpectedly violent. Luis Enrique, being young and curious, ran to see what the commotion was about, only to become witness of military police men firing their rifles at students. He saw the bodies of university students fall to the floor and die on the streets. It was this memory that changed who he would become.
Luis Enrique became an activist and joined the student movement. In the midst of his activism he came across a Mexican journalist who had photographed the massacre of Panzos, a community located in Alta Verapaz. Through these photographs, his consciousness was again impacted. He saw the limbs of men, women, elders, and children tortured and cut off, including women who were pregnant. The pictures of the scenes were graphic and violent. According to the Commission on Historical Clarification, the massacre at Panzos was only one out of 626 massacres that the Guatemalan Armed Forces was responsible for. The height of this violence occurred between the period of 1979 to 1986, under the governance of general Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia (1978 – 1982), general Efrain Rios Montt (1982 – 1983), and general Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores (1983 – 1986). A genocide took place in Guatemala where over 200,000 people died, many of them of Mayan ancestry. By 1982, the army adopted a different tactic and started executing more women than men in a brutally systematic manner.
Luis Enrique was profoundly affected by the state of his country and decided to take part in the guerilla movement. But before he could join, his mother talked to his father who lived in Chicago, Illinois and planned to send Luis Enrique to the United States. When Luis Enrique was 19 years old he emigrated to the U.S. Life changed for Luis Enrique after he moved to Illinois. After some time he decided to move to California. Unfortunately he was caught up in the criminal justice system and after violating his parole for crossing state lines, he was arrested in Nevada and imprisoned in a California state prison for three years. On June 12, 2006, the day he was to walk out as free man, the Department of Homeland Security waited at the prison doors to take him into their custody and transport him to an immigration detention facility.
While at the immigration detention center, Luis Enrique continued his activism. Once again he witnessed human rights violations inside the detention facility, including the death of Victorilla Arellano, a woman who was HIV positive and who was denied her medication. In August of 2007, he organized a peaceful demonstration with other detainees. Over 10 security guards beat Luis Enrique but the organizers were able to have their demands met.
Luis Enrique also began to spend time in the library inside the detention center. He began to research his case and realized that if he were deported, he would surely face death upon arrival in Guatemala. This is because he had been part of a student movement while he lived in Guatemala and he now carried tattoos on his body. Although his tattoos were not gang related, Guatemala’s “social cleansing” would label him as a gang member, making him susceptible to torture and murder either by other gang members or by the police. Luis Enrique was not going to take this chance and asked the judge to allow him to defend his case. He continued to do research and began to reach out for legal assistance.
Thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union, a national organization advocating for individual rights, and Homies Unidos, a Los Angeles based gang prevention organization, he received books to continue his research and was able to recruit three key experts who would aid him in convincing the Judge of the potential torture, or death that Luis Enrique could face if deported to Guatemala. Thanks to the Geneva Convention Laws against Torture, which was adopted by the United States, Luis Enrique successfully proved his case and won his freedom in December 2008.
Luis Enrique now continues to be a human rights activist and organizer. He is also a volunteer at Homies Unidos and gives legal assistance to detainees and conducts research for immigration cases. He is not a lawyer, but in fighting in court for his freedom for over two years, he has been able to use his experience for the benefit of the immigrant community. In a time of uncertainty for immigrants and their families, the story of Luis Enrique Guzman serves as an example for every individual to learn how to defend themselves, and stand up for justice.
If you would like to get more information on these cases, please follow up with Homies Unidos and the American Civil Liberties Union.