Play serves as a reminder of the sometimes fatal flaws in the U.S.
By Greg Campbell
gcampbell [at] fortcollinsnow [dot] com
Four years ago this Thursday, a 16-year-old boy was gunned down in the
streets of Villanueva, Guatemala, by members of a notoriously violent gang
from which he tried heroically to free himself. The regularity with which
such murders occurred in places like Villanueva made the death of Edgar
Chocoy at the tattooed hands of Mara Salvatrucha wholly unremarkable. But
the circumstances of his being on the streets in the first place made those
gunshots echo around the world.
They will be heard in Fort Collins as a play based on Edgar's struggle to
save his own life comes to the Lory Student Center at Colorado State
University. It's a documentary look at how a troubled boy who was trying
desperately to change his life was sentenced to death by a flawed U.S.
Chocoy's story begins and ends in the slums of Guatemala, but his fate was
sealed in a Denver courtroom. His Fort Collins lawyer, who hasn't yet seen
the play, said knowing his story will be told on stage brings back a flood
of emotions, including anger and sadness. But there's also hope and
"There was a lesson to learn in Edgar's death and we haven't learned it,"
said immigration attorney Kim Baker Medina. "I'm very glad that they did the
play because we shouldn't forget about Edgar Chocoy as a person and for what
he represents. The system failed him terribly, and we need to learn about
why that happened and we need to work to see that it doesn't continue to
What happened was that Chocoy seemed doomed from the start. Born into a poor
family on the outskirts of Guatemala City, he was abandoned by his mother
when he was six months old and left in the care of his grandfather, who sold
drugs for a living. He'd only met his father once and didn't step foot into
a school until he was 9 or 10 years old. It was natural that his only sense
of family came from the kids he met on the street. All of them were members
of Mara Salvatrucha, and at age 12, so was he.
Although he wore the baggy pants, the tight white T-shirts and the tattoos
that aligned him with MS, Chocoy wasn't cut out for life as a gangster. He
hung out less and less with the street thugs, preferring to play with
friends in another neighborhood who weren't involved in gang life. Finally,
he was threatened with death if he didn't pay the gang an amount equal to
For Edgar, the price on his head may as well have been $1 million; he went
into hiding at an aunt's house until she feared for her life as well. Using
money sent by his mother-who was living in L.A.-he bused through Mexico and
entered the United States illegally, fleeing MS and trying to save his life.
Even though he was reunited with his mother briefly, the young teen's
problems were only beginning. In school, he was beaten and threatened by
gang members because of his MS tattoos; he was eventually kicked out of
school for fighting and then kicked out of his mother's home because he
wasn't attending school. He fell back into the only life he knew and got
involved in a gang. He transferred drugs for them and carried a .22-caliber
pistol to protect the gang members. According to what he eventually told a
Denver judge, he did this in exchange for a place to sleep. He was arrested
three times, twice for possession of a loaded firearm, and once for
possession of cocaine base.
Because of his young age, his violations were adjudicated, but he was sent
to an Alamosa, Colo., detention camp in the custody of the INS because he
was in the United States illegally. It was at the detention camp when he
first heard of the concept of political asylum. Medina, the Fort Collins
immigration attorney, began preparing his arguments that if he returned to
Guatemala, he would be killed by Mara Salvatrucha gang members.
Chocoy was under no illusion that this was the case.
"I know that if I am returned to Guatemala I will be tortured by them," he
wrote in an affidavit. "I know that they will kill me if I am returned to
Guatemala. They will kill me because I left their gang."
But Chocoy was caught in a criminal alien dragnet that did not differentiate
between hardened murderers caught on American soil and teens trying to make
a new start. Chocoy had even begun the painful process of removing his MS
tattoos, and had found an aunt in Virginia willing to raise him if his
asylum was granted.
Although immigration court Judge Joseph Vandello said he believed Chocoy's
testimony, and said he had made steps to remove himself from gang life, he
ordered him deported to Guatemala. Chocoy chose not to appeal the decision
because he didn't want to be locked up until a new hearing.
Seventeen days after being returned to Villanueva, gang members carried out
their threat and shot Chocoy to death. His family did not learn about his
murder for four days; by then, Chocoy had already been buried in a cemetery
for the homeless.
Chocoy's death caused an international outcry.
Both Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees have issued statements condemning Vandello's decision to deport
Chocoy. His case shed light on how children, especially those who are
separated from their families, are treated by a "deport them all" mentality
toward criminals by the U.S. immigration system.
Although too late to help Chocoy, the outcry led to some reform, including
the formation of a program specifically for detained children by the Rocky
Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, the organization that originally
referred Chocoy's case to Medina. She said the attention brought to Chocoy's
case has led to more support for attorneys working with children facing
deportation, a higher awareness of the threats posed by gangs in Latin
American countries, and a more organized network of child-rights advocates.
Even at the federal level, there have been changes. The most recent
appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security-the agency that
scuttled a grant by the Office of Refugee Resettlement to place Chocoy with
his aunt in Virginia because of Chocoy's gang ties-changes how children
facing deportation are handled by the government.
The report by the House committee hearing the bill ordered U.S. Immigration
and Customs Enforcement to transfer unaccompanied children in its custody to
the Office of Refugee Resettlement in a timely fashion rather than keep them
in Border Patrol stations or jails. The committee specifically cited concern
over children's safety once returned to their home countries.
"The Committee is concerned about the lack of repatriation services
available for unaccompanied alien children who are removed from the United
States to face uncertain fates in their countries of origin," the report
states. "The Committee directs ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), in
close consultation with the Department of State and ORR (Office of Refugee
Resettlement), to develop and implement policies and procedures to ensure
the safe and secure repatriation of unaccompanied alien children to their
home countries, including through the arrangement of family reunification
services and placement with non-profit organizations that provide for orphan
But perhaps the most significant change has been increased awareness about
the flaws in a system that effectively sentenced Edgar Chocoy to death, not
just among attorneys and federal bureaucracies, but with the public as well.
That was the motivation for Jeffrey Solomon, a New York City playwright and
a member of the Half Moon Theater Company.
"We focus on stories that really are not being told and need to be heard,"
Solomon said. The idea to tell Chocoy's story came from the company's
experience doing another play about asylum seekers; they wanted to delve
more deeply into the story. Washington, D.C., immigration attorney
Christopher Nugent recommended that Solomon speak to Medina about Chocoy.
Bringing the teen to life as more than a statistic became one of the focal
points of Du Novo, Part 1: Lil' Silent, the play that takes its name partly
from Chocoy's nickname. In the course of Solomon's research, he obtained
both the audio and the written transcripts of Chocoy's hearing, his written
affidavits and even letters he wrote to his mother from detention.
"The really emotional core of the play are the letters his mom gave us (that
were) written from detention," Solomon said. "They really reveal a kid who
made some missteps with gangs but who wanted to change and just wanted a
chance. Getting these letters, we don't get to hear directly from Edgar, but
these letters really reveal something important about the kid. You really
get what he was going through and what he wanted with his life."
Medina said it will be difficult for her to see the play because of the
range of emotions his case touches in her, but said that it's important to
introduce to people a boy she grew very emotionally attached to.
"It lets us get to know Edgar as a person," she said. "During his life very
few people took the time to know him as a person. As a tribute to him, we
could get to know him after his death. ... Edgar didn't want to be a hero,
he didn't want to be a martyr. He wanted to be a boy. He was a good kid."
And through Chocoy, Solomon also hopes the audience will come to understand
that there are many others like him. The United States processes about 8,000
unaccompanied minors in the country illegally each year; Medina herself has
three cases with children facing immigration court hearings.
"I think the actors have worked really hard to show the humanity of the
people swept under the system," Solomon said. "I hope people take away that
Edgar's story is not just Edgar's story. It's our story, he was asking the
American people for shelter. ... We have a very direct role in this kid's
life. We're implicated in some way.
"It may have a Guatemalan accent, but I would hope we would want to know
about his story and others like him."