CUCUNA, Guatemala -“Oh, Osveli. My little one. Where have
Isolated in mountains where they’ve cultivated corn patches
for centuries, Mayan farmers chant for a fallen 15-year-old boy
– killed in Colorado as an illegal immigrant when a smuggler’s
van crashed Dec. 23.
They carry the boy in a donated steel coffin to a ridge crest
where they’ll pray for nine days – beneath the sun and the stars
– before decorating Osveli’s tomb with a cross.
Cristobal, Osveli’s father, opens the coffin, peeks at the
disfigured face. And villagers pack in what Osveli would need
for a journey.
Carefully folded clothes. A blanket. New black walking boots.
Even as fathers, mothers and sisters mourn, anxious young men,
soles of their own boots worn thin, talk nervously about the
journeys they intend to make.
“We need money to live,” said Osveli’s 23-year-old brother,
Aulio, a father of three.”I will go to the United States soon.”
The circumstances behind the tragedy of Osveli Salas Vasquez –
which was chronicled in The Denver Post a week ago – suggest the
makings of a mass migration from Central American villages.
Consider how, here in Cucuna, Osveli’s death only adds to the
pressure on the people he hoped to support. Just paying debts
Osveli owed means his family must send another son north in
search of work.
A Colorado rancher who brought home the bodies of Osveli and
Raquel Jimenez Aguilar, a second Mayan migrant killed in the
crash, got an intimate view of the situation. Neil Harmon, who
also runs a funeral home, embarked on an odyssey to do what he
and his wife, Judy, felt must be done.
They lost their son in a car crash two decades ago. And when
they saw the unidentified young Mayans in their morgue at
Springfield, they knew that somewhere parents were suffering.
Mayans here responded with incredulous gratitude.”We’ve
never had an American come into our village and do something
like this,” one man said.
And the villagers began confiding to the Harmons how they
want to benefit from the modern world but not get lost in it.
The Harmons returned to Colorado last week with a new
understanding of the migrant workers – a record 5 million of
them illegal – who help drive the U.S. economy.
“We have a responsibility to help these people who have
nothing,” said Harmon, a politically conservative 61-year-old
who serves as deputy coroner and sheriff’s posse member in
southeastern Colorado’s Baca County.”The pressure is really on
now. This matters because America could lose a valuable culture.”
Getting ahead in Guatemala has proven an uphill battle for
impoverished Mayans. They trek long distances from highland
villages to attend school. They migrate on foot across Mexico to
the United States.
The risks seem horrendous by U.S. standards. But Mayans say
they are desperate.
“We need money to buy land,” said Bidal, father of Raquel
Aguilar, after the first funeral the Harmons attended.
Bidal’s wife died a dozen years ago. Raquel and his five
brothers and a sister had to fend for themselves while Bidal
worked plots of land owned by others. They lived in an adobe
shack with no running water or electricity at Aldea La Laguna.
The village lies up a steep hill from another village called
Chejoj, which six months ago received electricity when
government workers extended a power line.
Raquel migrated to the United States and returned with enough
money to buy a small plot of land last year. But his brothers
and sister still seemed to be falling behind. Raquel”wanted
his little brother to go to school and get a career,” Bidal
said. So last fall, Raquel and his boyhood friend, Aniseto
Ramirez Vasquez, set out for Florida again.
As villagers hoisted his coffin off a dusty field and carried
it toward a cemetery, Bidal hung back.”I can’t bear to see him
go into the ground,” he said tearfully.
In the procession, 45-year-old Florenzio, Aniseto’s father,
approached the Harmons. Aniseto was one of 13 illegal immigrants
who survived the van crash on the prairie. It was Aniseto who
broke down, under questioning by U.S. Immigration and
Naturalization Service agents, and identified the body of his
Aniseto is in jail, a federal detention center at Englewood,
as a witness in the federal case against the smugglers who drove
the van. Then Aniseto faces deportation.
“Will he be able to stay there and work?” Florenzio asked.
“Or will they send him home? To stay and work, that would be
the best that could happen. We are poor. We have no money.”
The Harmons assured Florenzio that a priest would visit
Aniseto in prison.
Then Israel Roblero approached Harmon hopefully about working
in Colorado.”One of these days I may see you there,” he said.
Harmon paused a few seconds before replying.”Well, I’ll be
glad to see you.”
Some immigration experts believe economic integration across
the Americas will lead to more and more Mayan villagers
migrating to the United States for work.
Hurricane destruction of crops last fall added to the pressure
on indigenous farmers, confined to the margins of Central
American society. They can’t get ahead without leaving their
villages, said Tracy Ehlers, a University of Denver anthropology
professor who has worked in Guatemala since 1976.
“There are no opportunities for kids,” Ehlers said.”They
have to take their lives in their hands and go north.”
A U.S.-orchestrated coup here in 1954 led to decades of
Guatemalan civil war and a legacy of poverty. The conditions
have led desperate Guatemalans into smuggling cocaine and
growing opium for Mexican mobsters.
“Are we responsible for this in any way? Yeah. No doubt about
it,” said Robert Carlsen, a University of Colorado professor
who recently published a book about a highland Mayan community.
“We’ve contributed to the destabilization that makes it so that
(Mayans) can’t exist in their own villages. We put the generals
in power. The cocaine consumers are in the United States.”
And the U.S. economy benefits from cheap migrant labor,
Carlsen added.”Where would we be without them?”
U.S. immigration officials are watching for signs of a mass
migration. In December, most of the 2,400 migrants stopped along
the southwestern U.S. border came from Central America, said
Greg Gagne, INS spokesman in Washington, D.C. Many were
indigenous people who find little opportunity at home.
“We recognize that the potential is there,” Gagne said.
“We have contingency plans that deal with augmenting our
resources along the border. … Certainly, on a human level, we
have empathy for these individuals. But our job requires us to
enforce the law. And we do.”
After Raquel’s funeral, reaching Osveli’s village proved
difficult for Harmon.
The road to Cucuna turned into a steep trail, too rough for
four-wheel-drive. Harmon set out on a mule.
Osveli’s brother Aulio and other men already had hauled the
300-pound casket up the steep, 3-mile, twisting trail to Cucuna.
Harmon followed them into the clouds where, at an altitude of
about 9,000 feet, villagers look down on Chiapas, Mexico, to the
Men trek down there, sneak across the Mexican border and work
on small coffee plantations. They earn about $3.50 a day.
Osveli got tired of that and left. And died.
When Harmon arrived, the villagers, who speak mostly in Mam,
They invited him into an adobe house, across from the
thatch-roof adobe where Osveli lived. The closed coffin was on
display, candles flickering around it. Women arranged lilies
they picked below in the valley by the Coatan River.
Cristobal, Osveli’s 57-year-old father, spoke to Harmon through
“Thank you for bringing my son back to his home. I am content
now that my son is home.”
Into the night, as villagers grieved in the candlelight, nine
young men gathered more closely around Harmon.
“We can’t do anything,” Santos Hernandez confided in a
quavering voice, tears in his eyes.”We work all the time. We
have to go to make it, to make it here. To stay we would have to
work the land better using fertilizers. But we don’t have the
money to get fertilizers. We can’t do anything. We all want to
go to the United States.”
Hurricanes last fall wiped out most of Cucuna’s corn. A bit
that was salvaged was stored in the rafters above where Osveli’s
body lay in the coffin.
The next day, the young men told Harmon how Osveli had
borrowed 8,000 quetzales (more than $1,000) from a woman in
Tacana, the electrified town 5 miles below in the valley.
It was money he needed to pay guides and make it to Florida,
where he hoped to join his sister, Irma. He planned to earn
enough money to pay off the debt and more. But robbers took the
money in Mexico.
When Osveli set out a second time with his brother, Noe,
the family already owed the debt from his first try.
“”So that is why now I must go,” Osveli’s brother Aulio said.
The death raised concerns about dangers of the long journey
north – which Mayan migrants make mostly on foot.
A 23-year-old villager, Jaime Rodrigo Perez, confessed that
Osveli’s death leaves him”a little afraid” about leaving home
for the United States. He described an uneasy tension between
young men and village elders who never felt they had to leave
“We have to go for money. Here, we can’t earn it,” Perez
said.”Our parents say: “Don’t leave. It’s far. Why leave?’ But
we need to live better. We try to explain to our parents. They
are content only when we return. And then, they thank us.”
The Harmons say they never thought much about migrant workers
until the accident near their ranch. Now they’re convinced that
technical assistance delivered directly to Central American
villagers, and compassion toward migrants in the United States,
could help improve a complex, intertwined situation.
In Cucuna, Neil Harmon asked villagers what they would buy –
if village debts were paid – with any extra money their children
might earn in the United States.
A water pump, they said. Elders said a gasoline-powered pump
might help them move water hundreds of feet up from the valley
floor below during dry seasons. And a pump could move greater
volumes of water from side streams when they run full.
Harmon nodded. What else?
Electricity, they said. A farmer across the valley in another
hillside village had a solar-powered light. Cucuna villagers
looked out at it every night.
And how did he get it?
His son had worked in the U.S. and brought the solar panel
Today, just about every ambitious Mayan in Cucuna has Neil
Harmon’s address on the Colorado prairie near Springfield.
“No, I won’t be surprised to see them knocking on my door,”
Harmon said, heading home past the mist-shrouded tops of
volcanoes.”And I wonder, will I welcome them then? I don’t
know. … But we’re going to try to help.”
Coloradans help Guatemalan clan
GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala – A Colorado rancher and his wife
walked solemnly into a world of grief this week – bringing the
bodies of two illegal immigrants home.
The fathers of the two Guatemalans were waiting for Neil and
Judy Harmon at a mortuary. Anguish etched on their faces, they
are Mayan farmers who journeyed for more than seven hours from
Guatemala’s impoverished highlands to the capital.
Their sons – 15-year-old Osveli Salas Vasquez and 22-year-old
Raquel Jimenez Aguilar – died near the Harmons’ ranch in
southeastern Colorado – victims of unscrupulous smugglers.
“I was trying to convince him not to go,” Aguilar’s father,
Bidal, lamented. “But he saw that the situation here wasn’t
getting any better. He went to support his little brothers and
The Guatemalans gazed with awe at the Harmons, who also run a
funeral home near their ranch in Springfield, where they had
taken care of the bodies since the crash Dec. 23 of a van packed
with illegal immigrants.
The Harmons couldn’t ignore the tragedy – two decades ago,
they lost their own son in a car crash. And the more they tried
to do the right thing, the deeper they ventured into Central
The villagers who raised Raquel and Osveli are desperate.
A U.S.-backed coup here in 1954 led to decades of Guatemalan
civil war, which brought guerrillas and government soldiers into
the highlands and erased more than 400 Mayan villages. War gave
way in the mid-1990s to lawlessness and pockets of extreme
poverty. Then last fall, hurricanes hammered Central America,
worsening the poverty by destroying coffee plantations where
Mayan villagers sometimes found work.
So village elders had little choice but to wave adios to their
young shining stars last fall. Osveli and his 19-year-old
brother, Noe, left from Canton Cucuna, near Tacana, and Raquel
from Aldea La Laguna, near Cuilco.
They hiked down from their native land of towering volcanoes
and joined the exodus of tens of millions of people moving from
poor countries to rich ones. Raquel, Osveli and Noe hired
“coyotes,” smugglers who spirited them through Mexico and into
the Arizona desert. There they met other smugglers, who drove
them in van along a notorious smuggling route – one that INS
agents say brings at least 1,300 illegal immigrants a month
through Colorado. But these smugglers pushed too hard. On a
frigid patch of prairie west of Springfield, the van crashed.
Raquel died instantly of head injuries. Osveli died soon after,
also of head injuries, at Southeast Colorado Hospital.
The bodies lay unidentified in Springfield for more than a week.
Some authorities called for cremating or burying the illegal
immigrants in Springfield. But Neil Harmon, who also serves as
the deputy Baca County coroner and a member of the sheriff’s
posse, wouldn’t do that. In 1980, the Harmons’ 19-year-old son,
Bo, died on that same prairie when a tractor-trailer mowed
through his prized bronze-colored Camaro.
“It’s bad enough losing a child,” Harmon said recently at
the wheel of his white pickup. “But for the families that sent
those boys not to have the bodies back. …”
So he embalmed the bodies carefully. And he waited, checking on
them at the end of each day.
“These boys need to go home.”
The tragedy of Osveli, Noe and Raquel began with basic education
They grew up in villages where elders speak mostly in Mam – a
language spoken before Spaniards arrived in America. No
electricity. No running water. The villagers harvest just enough
maize and beans to survive. But the boys went to school in
accordance with new Guatemalan laws. They learned to speak
Spanish and write a bit. In the Vasquez family, Osveli was the
youngest of twelve, said his 57-year-old father, Cristobal Salas
Perez. “My last boy.”
Rugged, nearly impassable terrain separates Osveli’s village
from Raquel’s. The two never met before reaching the United
Raquel had worked briefly in Florida before and saved enough
money to dream about buying a bit of land near his home,
building a house and getting married. He returned from Florida
in February 1998 to check on his father, five younger brothers
and a sister. Their mother, Rosenda, died 12 years ago.
The children were barely managing to eat, said 47-year-old
Bidal. “That’s why Raquel left again, to help the family
Getting into the United States was an ordeal.
After the journey through Mexico, U.S. Immigration and
Naturalization Service agents caught Raquel trying to cross the
border illegally near Nogales on Dec. 8. They entered his
fingerprints into a computer database and sent him back across
the border. On his second try, Raquel made it. He sneaked to
orange groves near Chandler Heights, Arizona, a well-known
staging ground for smuggling across the United States.
Osveli and Noe fared better at first. But the desert route
they took left cactus spikes embedded in Osveli’s right hand and
Laying low in the orange groves, they met other immigrants,
all hungry and exhausted, and haggled with smugglers for rides.
Much of what happened next is described in a federal affidavit,
based on interviews with crash survivors, that prosecutors in
Denver filed for their case against smugglers.
Investigators believe 13 illegal immigrants jammed into the
ill-fated van. They paid $250 to $700 each for transportation to
labor compounds in Tennessee, North Carolina and Florida.
The smugglers suspected of transporting Osveli, Raquel, Noe
and the others were illegal immigrants themselves: Alberto
Velasquez of Guatemala and Beltran Morales Roblero of Mexico.
Other than front seats for the driver and his assistant, there
was one seat. Most of the immigrants huddled on the floor. And
in the frigid darkness of Dec. 23, the van was speeding along
U.S. 160, which runs east from Trinidad. INS agents say they
can’t afford to patrol the long, empty highway.
The accident occurred about 6:30 a.m., 8 miles west of
Pritchett, where the highway curves sharply to the north. Over
the last two decades, more than a dozen vehicles have crashed at
The driver hit the brakes and skidded. The van apparently
flipped and rolled.
The immigrants wore no seat belts. Some, including Noe, were
dozing. The impact hurled them around the metal interior. Some
were ejected through shattered windows. The van’s roof crumpled.
At the back of the van, Raquel slumped, face down and
lifeless, his skull crushed.
Six survivors, cut and bruised, staggered away from the
wreckage. One man threw away a driver’s license that INS
investigators later found in a clump of grass. As the sun rose,
the survivors trudged across the prairie toward three grain
elevators visible in the distance. A Colorado Public Service
utility crew picked them up and drove to the scene of the crash,
then radioed for help.
At the Southeast Colorado Hospital in Springfield, a doctor
pronounced Osveli dead. Nurses called for an airlift to Denver
for his brother, Noe, who was unconscious with neck injuries.
“This disturbed me terribly,” said nurse Marilyn Chenoweth.
The immigrants she treated “looked like a bunch of kids.”
Meanwhile, Neil Harmon, in his capacity as deputy coroner, went
to the scene and retrieved Raquel’s body. And Noe woke up
clueless in Denver.
Doctors at Denver Health Medical Center had stabilized him and
put his neck in a brace. Several teeth were bashed in, leaving
raw nerves exposed. A nurse told him he’d been in an accident.
All Noe knew was that his little brother Osveli wasn’t with him.
At the INS regional detention center in Aurora, agents pressed
the crash survivors for evidence, anything. They got nothing for
Then one of the survivors, another Guatemalan, broke down and
identified Raquel Jimenez Aguilar. He gave the name of a cousin
in North Carolina.
Around Christmas, Noe was released, somehow, from the Denver
Health Medical Center. His discharge papers indicate nurses
checked him out on Dec. 26, with instructions to seek further
treatment. Noe went to the Denver Rescue Mission in a taxi
sent from the hospital, shelter director Paul Anderson said.
That was home for a week. Noe barely spoke, shelter workers
said. He couldn’t eat, though he was starving, with the nerves
of his broken teeth exposed.
And Noe might still be at that shelter today were it not for
the Corica family of southeast Aurora.
On the snowy evening of Jan. 2, Carmine Corica, his wife,
Razz, and Gaby, their 12-year-old daughter, who wanted to help
homeless people, arrived at the shelter for a stint as volunteer
A Sun Microsystems technician, 37-year-old Razz Corica once
was an illegal immigrant herself, smuggled across the Mexican
border with her mother. Once, after INS agents raided the
Chicago plastics factory where her mother worked, she was nearly
deported. An agent took pity on the mother and her daughter and
offered to sponsor them as future citizens.
At the homeless shelter in Denver, Razz remembered all this
when she noticed Noe gazing down, looking lost, as she tried to
hand him a green chile burrito.
He sat down alone and couldn’t eat it. The Coricas decided to
sit down next to him.
He told them he’d been in an accident. “He said: “I’m on my
way to Florida to meet my sister,”’ Razz recalled. “I said:
“You’re in Colorado.’ He took that in. He said: “How far is that
Another homeless man showed them a crinkled newspaper story
about an accident in Springfield. The bodies hadn’t been
From that moment, the Coricas made the case their mission.
“I put my arms around him and said: “We’re going to help you
find your family,”’ Razz said.
Noe had little to offer. The telephone numbers to reach his
sister Irma in Florida had been lost. That night, Razz worked
her computer and phones, focusing on “Ejido Miscun,” the name
of a village in Chiapas, Mexico, that Noe mentioned – a village
where his other sister, Mercedes, might have access to a public
Razz reached an operator in Mexico City who gave her an area
code for southern Mexico. Razz dialed a number randomly,
reaching a servant, and arranged to call back 15 minutes later
for an area code for Ejido Miscun. Using that code, she dialed
randomly again, reaching a nurse. And the nurse gave her a
number for a public telephone facility close to Ejido Miscun.
Razz reached an operator, who said she would have Noe and
Osveli’s sister Mercedes by the telephone that evening.
At last the connection was made.
The Coricas got more phone numbers and information they needed
to help Noe.
They’d taken Noe into their two-story, three-bedroom home.
They rented him a Bruce Lee video.
Carmine Corica persuaded Noe to drive with him to Springfield
in early January to try to find out about his brother. Noe was
terrified that police would arrest him.
Inside Neil Harmon’s funeral home morgue, Noe gazed at the two
bodies silently for more than 10 minutes. He and Corica got
back in the car. That’s when Noe broke down.
Corica still recalls those wails word for word. “My poor
little brother. Now I’ll never see him again. He’s dead. And I
was supposed to protect him.”
Corica called the Harmons later to identify the body.
Neil Harmon rarely has felt so relieved. “I’ve never had a
body this long in 17 years,” he said later in Springfield.
“You think, who is this kid? How do I get him back? He needs to
go back to his family. And am I going to be able to show him
when I get him back?”
The Harmons began collecting money to send the bodies home.
“After losing Bo, it really became important to us to get
these bodies home,” Judy Harmon said. “We’re Christians. We
like to go the extra mile.”
They received contributions from four prairie churches. Baca
County social services officials kicked in $2,000. Denver City
Councilwoman Debbie Ortega persuaded American Airlines to ship
the bodies for free. Illegal immigrants where Osveli and
Raquel’s relatives work scraped together more than $1,000. And
in the end, the Harmons contributed $2,500 of their own money.
They hired Funeraria Latina of west Denver to handle paperwork
with the Guatemalan consulate in Los Angeles.
Meantime, Carmine Corica had rented a car and was driving Noe
on to his destination – a labor compound in Florida.
Reunited with his sister, Noe has managed to elude INS agents,
who are eager to find him as a witness to the crash.
The Coricas are confident they did the right thing.
“I believe U.S. actions in Latin America over the last 200
years are deplorable,” Razz said. “All those governments they
propped up at the expense of the peasant population. … If this
is what I get put in jail for, it’s a noble cause.”
This weekend, the Harmons are traveling with the fathers and
cousins of Osveli and Raquel back into their villages. Families
in the villages plan funerals based on a fusion of Catholic and
The journey, with gray steel caskets in tow, is a long one on
rugged roads. Logistical preparations began Thursday when the
bodies arrived, and when Guatemalan Congressman Juan Diaz
Gonzalez intervened to help speed matters with airport
authorities. As president of Guatemala’s Commission on
Indigenous Communities, Gonzalez sees smuggling of undocumented
workers as a growing problem that countries must address
cooperatively – not just with domestic immigration crackdowns.
Impoverished Mayans are making their way to the U.S. “out of
necessity,” said Gonzalez. “It’s survival for them. And the
migration is going to increase rapidly because of the hurricanes
A cooperative approach could eliminate opportunities for
smugglers: Guatemala could open its doors to U.S.
labor-contracting companies that would recruit workers here and
grant them proper eight-month visas up front, Gonzales said.
But mourning, not politics, was the priority in Guatemala City.
The fathers and cousins repeatedly thanked the Harmons.
“We’ve been suffering here. We were far away and couldn’t do
anything when we heard about the deaths,” said Luis Domingos
Vasquez, a cousin of Raquel Aguilar serving as family spokesman.
“The boys were in their country illegally. And for these people
to help. …
“How can we ever repay you? ” he said to the Harmons. “God
will reward you. We are very satisfied and content with what you
Osveli’s father, Cristobal, can’t bear to look directly at the
Americans, ashamed because he doesn’t have money to help pay for
a truck to carry his dead son’s casket.
“I want to thank for all your work and sacrifices,” he told
Judy Harmon in a quiet, measured voice. “I am completely
grateful to you.”
The Harmons replied, through an interpreter, that they
understand, a little, because they lost a son once, too.
Guatemalan migrants “are just people, like we are,” Neil
Harmon said. “They are poor, hardworking people just trying to
get a job. And I can identify with them.”