It started in 2016 with a hard play on the soccer field. After the game was over and the players were heading home, two men came up to Arnovis Guidos Portillo, then 24 years old, and told him he was as good as dead. He had bumped into the wrong person on the field—the brother of the leader of the local Barrio 18 gang.
In the following days, the death threats came pouring in, and Guidos knew to take them seriously. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, largely driven by gang violence, and now some gang members wanted him dead. He stopped sleeping at home, and, as soon as he could scrounge up some money—the family sold a goat for $200—he fled the country. On his first try across Mexico, he was caught and deported. He fled again, this time making it into the United States, where he asked for asylum. After months of fighting his case in detention without a lawyer, he was deported again. Back in El Salvador and without any money, he tried to lie low and found a job working on a corn farm, earning $7 a day. A couple months in, however, gang members spotted him, and Guidos had to flee again. By this point, his wife had had enough and decided to leave him, which meant that Guidos was now the sole caretaker of their 6-year-old daughter, Meybelín.
With help from a brother living in the United States, Guidos hired a smuggler who, for a steep price, loaded father and daughter—along with about 100 other migrants, including Guidos’s brother-in-law and that man’s 7-year-old daughter—into a refrigerated truck-trailer. After a freezing, cramped, and painful 52 hours, they made it to the US-Mexico border, crossed the Rio Grande in a leaky raft, and turned themselves in to a Border Patrol agent. They were taken to a detention center and, two days later, Guidos was separated from his daughter. He didn’t see or speak with her, or know her whereabouts, for the next 23 days. He claimed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents coerced him into signing for his deportation. He was frantic, and If Meybelín was not going to be returned to him, A sleepless week after he was sent back to El Salvador, worrying constantly for her, Meybelín was finally returned to him.
Guidos’s case is just one of more than 2,000 instances of family separation—the direct result of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance policy,” which seeks to prosecute all migrants who cross the US-Mexico border at some place other than a port of entry, even if they do so to ask for asylum—which makes it a legal act under both US and international law. Guidos described the experience, quite simply, as hell.
I went to Guidos’s home in Corral de Mulas, in the Usulutan state of El Salvador, on July 6, and spoke with him at length about the experience. His daughter was sleeping in a hammock when I arrived, but after a while she woke up and sat next to us for parts of the interview, occasionally interrupting to ask her father to climb up a palm tree to get her a coconut (which he did) or to play around on his phone.