As a confidential informant, Jorge Amaya was eager to please, scouring the treacherous U.S.-Mexico borderlands for tips to pass along to his government handlers. But when gang members who prowl the border ordered him to stop snitching and disappear, he found himself caught between two formidable forces: ruthless drug gangs and the enforcers of a severe immigration policy in the United States.
Amaya is now in immigration detention in Florida, preparing to be deported and, he fears, killed in Mexico.
“I feel a bit cheated,” he said, about how he was treated by his government handlers. “If I was in danger, or my family was in danger, why couldn’t you help me?”
Listening to Amaya’s tale during his deportation hearing, Miami immigration judge Adam Opaciuch concluded: “They shafted him.”
Amaya, 36, of medium stature, with spiky black hair and a slightly graying beard, speaks tirelessly of how he provided details about migrant smugglers and drug traffickers during morning meetings in El Paso, Texas, parking lots.
For being an informant, Amaya, previously an undocumented immigrant, got permission to remain temporarily in the United States — and he also got a work permit.
But his handlers said they couldn’t promise him protection. They also said that he could stay in the country only as long as he was feeding them useful information.
Amaya wasn’t worried — at least initially. “At the beginning, I didn’t have to take big risks,” he recalled in an interview at the Glades County Detention Center. He even signed papers agreeing to the handlers’ conditions.
“All he wanted was to be here with us and work,” said girlfriend Givliana Cestony, 32, a U.S. citizen born and raised in South Florida. She gave birth to Amaya’s daughter a few weeks ago, while he was in detention.
“Basically they used an immigrant helping the United States.”
A federal official familiar with the case confirmed that Amaya had been an informant for Customs and Border Protection. None of the immigration agencies involved in Amaya’s case would comment.
Decade under radar
Amaya had lived as an undocumented immigrant for more than a decade.
His troubles started in 2012, when he got stopped for a traffic violation and was deported. Every time he tried to return, he was caught. He was incarcerated three times for illegal re-entry. (Crossing back into the country after deportation without permission is a felony, which complicates Amaya’s path to permanent legal U.S. residency).
The last time Amaya was caught, border patrol agents peppered him with questions about his migrant smugglers. He answered them. He was frustrated with the smugglers for keeping him captive for more than a month with up to 50 other migrants at a time, and for letting him get caught when he finally crossed.
“I thought it was a good idea, especially if I was helping to detain people who were actually stealing from needy people,” Amaya told the judge.
With the permission he got from Customs and Border Protection — called humanitarian parole — plus a work permit and a Social Security card, Amaya could finally live a normal life, above the radar. He worked as a cook at a Mexican restaurant in El Paso, lived with his girlfriend and met with his handlers once a week. On his days off, he was free to travel across the border to his native Ciudad Juarez, to visit family and to search for information for his handlers.
With the intelligence that Amaya provided, he helped authorities capture one of his migrant smugglers, who pleaded guilty.
But Amaya was a victim of his own earnestness. His handlers asked him about migrant smugglers, but he began volunteering information about drug dealers and drug traffickers.
He told his handlers about a warehouse in Oklahoma that La Linea de Juarez, part of the Juarez Cartel, was planning to use for storing and distributing drugs.
In text messages that Amaya sent to his handlers, he sought their approval and feedback.
“I have a question,” he wrote in April, “apart from drugs what would be most helpful for me to follow.”
He sent frequent, detailed updates on people or items of interest.
“Why did I continue?” he said, reflecting on the experience from detention. “They had told me as long as I was giving them [information] bit by bit by bit by bit by bit, we could keep going.”
When summer came around, he said he began passing information about a relative of Rafael Caro Quintero, a drug lord convicted in the 1985 high-profile killing of Enrique S. “Kiki” Camarena, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent. After more than two decades in Mexican prison, Caro Quintero got his conviction overturned on a technicality. Released last year, he is wanted by the U.S. government, with a $5 million bounty on his head.
The relative often came to the restaurant where he worked, Amaya said. During a World Cup broadcast attended by the relative, Amaya texted his handlers from the restaurant, describing what the man looked like and what he was wearing.
Two weeks later, as he walked home from work, three men with shaved heads and gang tattoos, members of the fearsome Barrio Azteca — a border gang allied with the Juarez Cartel — forced him into a white Ford F-150 and pointed their guns at him. They worked for Caro Quintero, they said. Amaya said they knew where he lived in El Paso, and where his mother lived. They also knew about his pregnant girlfriend and his girlfriend’s 14-year-old daughter.
They ordered him to stop informing or they would kill him and his family, Amaya said.
He was still trembling when he got home and told his girlfriend what happened.
The next day, he was on his way to Florida, where his girlfriend’s family lives. “I am really scared,” he texted to one of his handlers. He mentioned his pregnant girlfriend. “I don’t want anything to happen to her. I don’t know what to do, I’m very scared. I’m sorry, I will get in touch later.”
When there was no response, he turned off his phone and left it off for a couple of weeks. The gang members had his phone number, and he didn’t want them to track him.
In Florida, he settled into his girlfriend’s relatives’ apartment and started working as a cook at a restaurant in the Brickell Avenue neighborhood.
The next time he talked to one of his handlers, it was from immigration detention.
About a month after arriving in Florida, as he was preparing to take his girlfriend to a pregnancy-related doctor’s appointment, he was picked up by immigration agents.
Amaya’s humanitarian parole had been revoked. It had been set to expire in May 2015.
On the phone, Amaya’s handler was upset, saying she had never received his message. She said he had taken advantage of their agreement, Amaya recalled.
“How did I take advantage, if I already had what I wanted in El Paso?” Amaya said.
“I was going to Juarez whenever I wanted, I was working legally, I could do my taxes legally, I could build credit, I had everything that I had spent so long fighting for and hadn’t been able to get. Why would I throw it all away just to come to Miami?”
Reached by the Miami Herald, the handler declined to comment. His other handler could not be contacted.
None of the immigration agencies involved in Amaya’s case — all under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security — would discuss the revocation of his parole. They referred all questions to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the enforcement wing of the Department of Homeland Security.
“ICE arrested Jorge Amaya Aug. 12 due to his unlawful presence in the United States,” Nestor Yglesias, a spokesman for ICE, wrote in an email. “Mr. Amaya, a citizen of Mexico, has been previously removed from the United States five times and has been convicted of unlawfully reentering the United States three times.”
Amaya thinks they were able to find him so quickly in Florida because, when wiring money to pay off a debt in El Paso, he used the Social Security number issued to him when he worked as an informant.
Longtime immigration attorney Ira Kurzban said he sees “a lot of these kinds of cases.”
“They can yank the parole whenever they want. It’s like being a puppeteer and having the puppet on the string,” he said.
Robert Sheldon, Amaya’s immigration attorney, said Amaya is being treated as if he were “completely expendable.” Sheldon added, “if they can’t use him, they’ll use someone else.”
A stacked deck
In deportation proceedings, under the arcane immigration rules, Amaya had to prove he had suffered past persecution or had a “well-founded” fear of future persecution, on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Or, he had to prove that he would be tortured by the Mexican authorities, or with the consent of a public official, upon his return to Mexico.
That’s a difficult burden to meet.
Despite endemic violence in Mexico, few Mexicans are granted asylum by judges, according to data from the U.S. Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the nation’s immigration courts.
Immigration judges share a “tremendous ignorance of the realities in Mexico,” said Carlos Spector, an immigration attorney and activist in El Paso.
Calls to Judge Opaciuch’s office were referred to the press office of the Executive Office for Immigration Review. A spokeswoman said she couldn’t comment on judges’ decisions.
“Judges have extremely limited discretion in removal proceedings,” said Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “I think that’s something that a lot of members of the public don’t understand because they think if you are a judge you have tremendous authority and power.”
In his final remarks, Judge Opaciuch also noted that Amaya’s “extensive history of immigration violations” made it difficult to exercise discretion in his case.
Judge Marks and the National Association of Immigration Judges have advocated giving “more general, humanitarian” discretion to trial-level immigration judges.
“The system has some really heart-wrenching cases where the judges don’t have any tools in their toolbox to solve them,” she said.
Judge Marks said she couldn’t comment on this case specifically, but she has seen similar cases throughout her nearly three-decade career as a judge.
“There’s several things that DHS could have done. The first is given him an S visa, or they could have exercised prosecutorial discretion not to bring charges against him.”
The “S” visa — often referred to as the “snitch” visa — is given sparingly to people who have helped law enforcement, either as an informant or as a witness. Only 29 “S” visas were granted in fiscal year 2013, according to DHS data. There is an annual cap of 200 “S” visas for people who have given information on a criminal organization or enterprise, and 50 “S” visas for people who have passed information on terrorism.
The lesson from Amaya’s case, Judge Opaciuch said in the deportation hearing, is that when you work as an informant for the government, it’s at your own risk. “They don’t have your back,” he said.
Amaya, who has since been transferred to a detention center near Jacksonville, is appealing the deportation order. If he isn’t successful, Amaya said, he is considering applying for asylum in another country, like Canada or Spain. He says he can’t go back to Mexico.
“How long will I survive there?” he said. “They can torture, they can kill, they can mutilate, they can decapitate. They don’t have any limits over there.”
Bruce Bagley studies drug trafficking in Latin America and has served as an expert witness in similar cases.
“Anybody who has cooperated [as an informant] and is sent back is going to have a target on his back,” said Bagley, chair of the University of Miami’s Department of International Studies. “These guys will track you down.”
Cestony, Amaya’s girlfriend, started polishing up her resume and looking for work as soon as she gave birth. She’s out of money. She paid the lawyer with Amaya’s last paycheck but still owes him close to $3,000.
Cestony and Amaya met about five years ago while they were both working at a Mexican restaurant in El Paso. He is a “really good stepdad” to Cestony’s 14-year-old daughter, according to a letter the girl wrote to the judge. “Please don’t deport him,” she pleaded. “We all love him.”
Cestony’s newborn daughter with Amaya was supposed to be a twin; she lost the other baby after four months of pregnancy.
She is afraid of losing another loved one.
“I’m not scared for him to get deported,” she said, her newborn asleep in a bassinet at her feet. “I’m scared for him to get killed.”