“Why haven’t we killed him already?”. It was one of the few things Orlando León could hear his captors arguing about through the sound of rain pounding on a metal roof in Guatemala. From where he sat with his hands bound in front of him and a hood pulled over his head, he wondered the same thing: How was he still alive? And how long had he been sitting there?

A metallic taste filled Orlando’s mouth as blood dripped from the gums where his top four front teeth had once been. It was difficult to see anything through the hood, but Orlando knew he was in a cemetery. Before his kidnappers had shoved him inside a small building, he’d been able to make out the silhouettes of gravestones and crosses when flashes of lightning illuminated them against the dark backdrop of the jungle. Judging from other stories he’d heard about kidnappings in Guatemala, he figured his abductors had already dug an unmarked grave for him.

“What do you want from me?” Orlando asked.

“Shut up, you son of a bitch,” one of the captors said.

The other men inside the room continued arguing in hushed tones before appearing to come to an agreement. Orlando could hear them rustling around. “Use these,” one of them said amid the beeps of cell phones being turned off and on. “They could be tracking us.” Then, before using one from what Orlando presumed to be a bag full of burner phones, the men demanded a number from him.

Thousands of miles away in Aurora, Sylvia Galván Cedillo’s cell lit up with a call from an unknown number in Guatemala. It was October 19, 2014, and it had been almost 12 hours since relatives in Guatemala alerted her that a group of men had snatched her husband from the streets of his ancestral village of Aldea Zarzal. Since then, her house had sounded like an emergency call center. Sylvia and her daughter, 28-year-old Alondra León, tried to find out more about who Orlando had recently been in contact with. And her sons, Chris and Elvis León, then 27 and 30 years old, respectively, had reported the kidnapping to the Aurora Police Department—although, according to the family, Aurora PD failed to take a report once it heard the incident was in Guatemala. Officers instructed them to contact the FBI.

So, the family turned to other officials, including the FBI (who the family says advised them to file a report online but declined to get involved right away), as well as the Guatemalan consulate in Denver, Guatemala’s national police, and local police in the Zacapa region of Guatemala where Orlando had last been seen.

After Sylvia saw the unknown number on her screen, she answered uneasily.

“Call the police again and we’ll kill your husband,” a man said.

A jostling sound obscured the other end of the line before Sylvia heard a familiar voice. “Stop asking around about these guys,” Orlando said to his wife. “Just do what they say!”

Before hanging up, the callers said they’d be in touch. Now the León family felt even more unsettled. How had the kidnappers known they’d been calling police in Guatemala? Later, the family would speculate that alerting both the local and national police put enough pressure on Orlando’s captors to save his life, but in the panic of that day, it seemed that any move might be the difference between life and death. Sylvia couldn’t make sense of it. Why had Orlando been kidnapped? Her husband had simply made a routine trip down to Guatemala to sell used cars from America like he had dozens of times before.

Another call came in after midnight in Colorado. This time, the kidnappers issued instructions: Orlando could live, and they would spare his Guatemalan relatives as well, if Sylvia deposited $7,000 into a specified bank account at Wells Fargo. Sylvia and her son, Elvis, say they didn’t question the request and remember going to a Wells Fargo branch on a Monday morning to pay the ransom.

The promise of the money compelled his captors to let Orlando go free, but while Sylvia and Elvis were at the bank, something else happened: As Sylvia gave a female bank teller the account number, Sylvia divulged that the deposit was a ransom payment. Sylvia asked the teller if she would be willing to share the name and address of the account holder. The bank teller initially declined and cited a privacy policy. But after Sylvia shared details of the family’s plight, the Wells Fargo employee, according to Sylvia and Elvis, discreetly turned her computer screen around so that it faced the mother and son. “This money isn’t going to Guatemala,” the teller said.

Elvis’ and Sylvia’s eyes went wide as they realized their money was being routed to a bank account in the Denver metro area. They weren’t sure yet, but it occurred to them that it was possible Orlando had been kidnapped by associates of the very people who’d hired him to transport cars from Colorado to Guatemala.

Orlando León and Sylvia Galván Cedillo this past winter in Colorado. Photo by Amanda López

Drive along the highways of south Texas, or in Mexico’s eastern states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz, and Tabasco, and they’re hard to miss: caravans of used passenger vehicles, usually old pickup trucks, heading southbound toward Central America. Oftentimes, the used autos are piled high with secondhand goods, such as washing machines and motorbikes, and they’re typically hauling a second passenger vehicle behind them with torn pieces of duct tape spelling out “In Tow” on a rear hitch or window. The drivers of these vehicles are transmigrantes, a term derived from a special visa program that the Mexican government devised to allow goods and vehicles to move overland from the United States to Central America along designated highways and without drivers having to pay high import-export fees.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the idea behind the program was to allow families in the United States to move—or transmigrate—across Mexico to Central America while not imposing heavy customs duties on items they brought along with them. Other times, individuals from the United States use the visa to personally transport goods (which they’re not allowed to sell in Mexico) to family members in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, often during the holiday season. Over the past three decades, though, an entire industry of freelance truckers has arisen around the program and its tax loopholes.

Like many who fall into the transmigrante trade, Enrique Orlando León has Central American roots. A skilled auto mechanic, Orlando grew up in rural Guatemala, moved to the United States in the 1970s, and met his wife, Sylvia, in Los Angeles, where they had three children. In 1995, the family of five moved to Colorado’s Front Range to escape their gang-troubled neighborhood in Southern California.

It was not long afterward that Orlando—now 67 years old, with salt-and-pepper hair often hidden beneath a baseball cap—attended an auto auction in Highlands Ranch, where he met a man who described how he’d been transporting used cars he bought in Colorado to Central America. To cut down on customs fees, the man explained, he’d been using Mexico’s transmigrante program—and was generating handsome profits by selling the vehicles in Guatemala. “You can earn 100 percent returns,” the man told Orlando. “Even up to 200 percent, depending on the type of vehicle.”

Intrigued, Orlando checked out the man’s claims. Not only was it completely legal to use the transmigrante program in this way, Orlando learned, but it was also a classic arbitrage scenario, the term economists use when the same item has different prices in separate markets. Certain types of cars were in much higher demand in Guatemala, with price tags significantly elevated over their counterparts in the United States. And the most sought-after vehicles of all? Toyota pickup trucks—especially Tacomas—which farmers in Guatemala like to use to move materials up and down steep rural roads. “Back then [in the ’90s and 2000s], if you found a used Toyota pickup here for $900,” Orlando says, “you could sell it in Guatemala for $3,000.”

As it turned out, Orlando had inadvertently moved his family to an ideal home base for work as a Guatemala-bound transmigrante. For a while, he remembers, Colorado seemed to be a gold mine of cheap Toyota pickups, and his skills as a mechanic paid off when he bought and repaired salvage vehicles from local auto auctions such as Copart, as well as online resources like Craigslist and, later, Facebook Marketplace. With I-25 and I-70 merging in Denver, the Centennial State’s central location also makes it an ideal staging ground for local transmigrantes who make trips to fetch used vehicles in states like Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

From the start, Sylvia didn’t love her husband’s new profession. Early on, Sylvia noticed that Orlando’s profits were actually pretty meager after factoring in what he spent on gas, motels, bribes, repairs, and flights home. “And when he left, it was always more work for me to take care of the children,” she says.

Then there were the inherent dangers of the job, which even Orlando readily lists: car accidents, highway robberies, police shakedowns, and running the gauntlet through cartel territory, which could involve payoffs or far scarier run-ins, including kidnappings. To mitigate those risks, transmigrantes stick together in caravans, and it wasn’t long before Orlando befriended other drivers in Colorado—a group he currently estimates to be about 30 strong. Among them is Jorge Reyna, who lives in Capitol Hill and has been doing transmigrante runs since 1987. Like Sylvia, Reyna points out that the financial incentives of transmigrante work don’t always justify the effort or the risk, but he has always had other reasons for doing the trips. “It’s a job that doesn’t enslave you like all those people who work five days a week, eight hours a day, in an office,” Reyna says.

Plus, Reyna explains, being a transmigrante allows Guatemalan-born men like himself and Orlando to maintain a connection with their families and ancestral homelands. “We bring things that help people in Guatemala,” Reyna says. Whenever transmigrantes deliver cars and other requested items, like televisions, washing machines, clothing, and furniture, they’re hauling away America’s detritus for a second life in Guatemala. America’s excess becomes Guatemala’s gain.

“This is a good thing for the people of Guatemala,” Reyna says. After enduring a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 and resulted in the deaths of as many as 200,000 people, Guatemala has had to play catch-up with the economy of the modern world—and goods from America help in that process. The main problem, as Orlando and Reyna learned, is that not everyone surrounding the transmigrante trade is so noble-minded.

In 2011, Orlando felt like he’d caught a break. During his decade-plus of transmigrante runs, it had always been time-consuming work finding leads on used trucks, checking under their hoods, and oftentimes losing bids for those vehicles at auctions. Cheap Toyota trucks were also becoming increasingly difficult to come by. It seemed like transmigrantes across the American West scoured the same auction sites and Facebook pages that Orlando used. Where hundreds of transmigrantes used to cross the Texas border each month in the late 1990s, now hundreds, sometimes thousands, were doing so every week. So, when Orlando met a Guatemalan family in Colorado who wanted to hire him to move their cars and their goods, the Aurora mechanic seized the opportunity to do some contract work.

Over the next three years, Orlando estimates he did half a dozen trips as a hired hand for one family. (5280 is not naming Orlando’s employers at the request of the León family and because the individuals have not been charged with any crimes.) Orlando says he never examined the cargo in the vehicles that closely, and everything always passed inspections at the U.S.-Mexico border. “But I also never suspected anything was up,” he adds.

That would all change in September 2014, when his Colorado employers asked if he could drive a box truck full of furniture to Guatemala. Orlando initially told them he was busy; he was already planning to transport a school bus he’d bought to resell in Guatemala and had promised to drive the bus in a caravan full of other transmigrantes, including Reyna. But when Reyna heard about his friend’s dilemma and suggested another driver that Orlando could subcontract with to drive the box truck, the Colorado employers gave Orlando the go-ahead.

Later that month, the caravan set off from the Texas border and rumbled southbound through Mexico. Before nightfall, the weather turned rainy, and as the hours stretched on, the box truck got well ahead of Orlando and Reyna. Daylight disappeared as the caravan passed the city of Naranjos in Veracruz. That’s when they saw the brake lights. The word was that there was an accident ahead—and it involved a big rig and a box truck.

By the time Orlando realized his hired driver had flipped his vehicle sideways in a drainage ditch while trying to avoid a wayward semi, Mexican police had already stuck the driver into a hospital-bound ambulance and were working to impound the damaged vehicle. Knowing the Mexican police would likely confiscate everything they could, given the opportunity, Orlando says he paid the cops $600 in cash so they wouldn’t rob the truck he was supposed to deliver to Guatemala. Still, it would take nearly four weeks for Orlando to get the box truck out of the impound lot and tow the wreckage to Guatemala.

Much to Orlando’s relief, Carlos,* the recipient of the box truck, seemed in relatively good spirits when Orlando handed it off to him near the Mexico-Guatemala border on October 13. To make up for the delay in delivery, Orlando had promised to provide a comparable box truck to make up for the damaged one, and Carlos agreed to the transmigrante’s offer. So, when Orlando traveled six hours away from the border to stay with his sister in Aldea Zarzal, he figured the ordeal was mostly over. A few days later, however, Carlos knocked on Orlando’s sister’s front door at 8:30 a.m. and asked if Orlando had time to grab coffee with him and two of his friends.

As soon as Orlando stepped out into the street, he felt the butt of a pistol slam against his face. A villager would later find Orlando’s teeth lying in the roadside grass. It was only after the Coloradan regained consciousness and found himself in the cemetery that he began to question the legitimacy of the delivery he’d made. Had Mexican authorities, despite their assurances, stolen anything while the truck sat in impound? And what, exactly, had been inside?

Even now—years later—Orlando still hears rumors about what may have been concealed in the truck’s cargo, including guns or even up to $2 million in cash hidden inside pieces of furniture. If that much money had gone missing, though, Orlando doesn’t think he’d be alive—or that he’d have been able to negotiate his release for such a comparatively small sum. While his kidnappers originally asked for $15,000, Orlando says he negotiated it down to $7,000 by telling his captors they could keep the school bus he’d driven down to sell in Guatemala. Only in retrospect does it appear that some outside factor—perhaps his family’s calls to local Guatemalan police—saved him from a shallow, unmarked grave.

Photos of Orlando León’s injuries from a Guatemalan police report and an X-ray that he had done after his kidnapping. Photos courtesy of Elvis León

Orlando managed to escape Guatemala with his life, but now he craved justice. No sooner had he returned to Colorado than the León family began approaching numerous U.S. law enforcement agencies—and politicians. This included a second conversation with the Aurora Police Department, which did send an officer to the León home on October 26, 2014, to take a report, but only after Morgan Carroll, then a Colorado state senator, had heard about the situation and called the department to ask it to do something. Once again, Aurora Police referred the Leóns to the FBI, who the Leóns say told them that the Wells Fargo account Sylvia and Elvis had deposited money into had multiple account holders. Although the name Sylvia had written down at the bank was a person related to Orlando’s ex-employers, it would be difficult to prove in court who actually received the money. (In a statement to 5280, the FBI could not “confirm or deny” that the agency ever looked into the matter.)

Orlando then approached the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) after other Guatemalans in Denver suggested that his employers may have been involved in narco-trafficking. The DEA, according to the León family, told them two things: that the agency believed they were in imminent danger and should move, and that it found Orlando’s story too suspicious to accept at face value. This included the fact that Orlando had been kidnapped by a man in Guatemala—Carlos—whom he had delivered vehicles to before and could easily identify. “They basically said that there were a lot of red flags in this story,” remembers Orlando’s son Elvis, who had begun helping his Spanish-speaking parents interface with U.S. law enforcement agencies. “The DEA said that my dad knew more than he was letting on, and unless he confessed that he was selling drugs, or moving money and guns for these guys, that they would not move forward with us.”

While the answer frustrated Orlando, who swore he had no knowledge of illegal activity before his kidnapping, the DEA’s response insulted Elvis. The now 38-year-old Army veteran had served a tour in Iraq and thought his military service would help get agencies like the DEA to take his family’s situation seriously. As Elvis saw it, his father—a permanent legal resident—was inviting powerful federal agencies to pick over the details of his life and work. Orlando himself had also told the DEA that there could’ve been contraband in the cars he’d transported from Colorado. Why, Elvis wondered, was his father being asked to confess to the very things he wanted the feds to investigate?

It would take finding an agent with personal experience investigating Guatemalan criminal activity in Colorado for Orlando to gain any traction. In 2016, after a year and a half of dead ends with other federal agencies, Elvis and Orlando walked into a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) office in Greenwood Village and were directed to Andrew Anderson. The HSI agent had previously investigated another Colorado incident in which unsuspecting drivers moved contraband to Guatemala. That 2010 case involved a shipping company called Transportes Zuleta, an unwitting, DHL-type outfit that a number of Colorado-based criminals took advantage of and used to illegally ship guns to Guatemala by hiding weapons inside speakers and televisions. As Anderson worked that case and helped nab one suspect in an undercover gun buy, the white, Spanish-speaking agent came to develop a variety of Guatemalan sources around Denver. “What’s unique about the Guatemalan community here is that they all seem to know each other,” Anderson says.

When Anderson, who is now retired, learned the details surrounding Orlando’s kidnapping, not only did the story of an innocent driver bear resemblances to the Transportes Zuleta case, but Anderson was also able to go back to various sources and vet Orlando’s reputation. “I had several people say, ‘I know that guy; he’s a great guy. He takes cars to Guatemala,’ ” Anderson says. The references matched Anderson’s own sense of the man. “He seemed just to me like an older, hardworking guy,” he says. “I didn’t have any reason to think he was involved in anything.”

The agent felt comfortable enough around Orlando that he decided to take him on a few ride-alongs so that Orlando could help identify the people who’d hired him in Colorado, as well as point out properties where he had picked up vehicles. Anderson recalls some of the locations being isolated pieces of ranchland, making them difficult targets for in-person surveillance.

Surveillance difficulties weren’t the only issue, though. Once Anderson started asking around to see if any of his old sources knew the suspects—and might be willing to gather intel on them—the agent learned that people were intimidated by Orlando’s former employers. The word was they had guns. And money. The federal agent soon began to understand why the León family was so afraid.

By the time Orlando began doing ride-alongs with Anderson in late 2016, there had already been a number of developments in his kidnapping case south of the U.S. border. Based on a police report that Orlando had submitted before he’d returned to Colorado, the Policía Nacional Civil—Guatemala’s national police—had arrested one of his captors in March 2015. As La Prensa Libre, a Guatemalan newspaper, reported, Carlos “was captured in El Molino…. He is accused of having participated in the kidnapping of a businessman in October of 2014.”

When the León family heard the news, Elvis says he and his parents were shocked. “This doesn’t happen in a place like Guatemala,” Elvis says. “No one gets arrested there.” The report was cause for celebration, some of which Elvis captured on video. With his parents’ permission, he had begun filming his family’s experiences for a possible documentary. After leaving the Army on an honorable discharge, Elvis had studied film production at Aurora Community College and Regis University on the GI Bill. With a few documentary shorts in his portfolio (Cecil & Carl, a film about an aging gay couple in Denver, played at 50 international festivals and earned eight awards), the budding auteur realized that, in the aftermath of his father’s kidnapping, he had intimate access to one of the most compelling human dramas he could imagine.

The project would eventually consume him and grow to include more than 600 hours of footage. But even from the start, Elvis recognized a second incentive to capture video: By documenting the incidents that had started to befall his family in Colorado post-kidnapping, he could gather evidence for law enforcement.

Not long after Carlos’ arrest in Guatemala, Sylvia says cars with tinted windows would slowly drive by the family’s Aurora home; in one case, Orlando remembers a vehicle parking directly in front of the house and idling there for hours with its engine on. The couple, who had never owned firearms, started keeping weapons in their house and taking target practice on the weekends. They installed security cameras around the property.

Elvis, Orlando and Sylvia’s son, has documented his father’s ordeal on video. Photo by Amanda López

Then the family began getting calls from Guatemala, some of which Elvis captured on video. Orlando’s relatives told him they were receiving death threats—including warnings that they would “eat worms”—and begged Orlando to drop his accusation against Carlos. Another time, Orlando says one of Carlos’ lawyers called him and offered to pay back the ransom money, which he refused. Finally, Orlando says he got three calls from Carlos himself, from inside the jail where he was being held before trial. “In Guatemala, if you pay the police enough money, they’ll let you do anything inside a jail,” Orlando says. “So, Carlos calls me and says, ‘C’mon, how much money do you need?’ And I said, ‘I can’t do anything for you.’ ”

The threats to Orlando’s relatives only escalated, and he grew more embittered that the investigation wasn’t going anywhere. Elvis noticed his dad became desperate to gather more evidence. At night, Orlando had begun playing detective, driving around to map out the various homes and companies the Colorado suspects owned. While Orlando never saw any of the suspects, everyone in the León family feared that Orlando’s sleuthing might lead to his death.

By mid-2017, the case in Guatemala seemed to have stalled; Carlos’ trial had been delayed for more than two years, and it still wasn’t clear to anyone when or if it would actually happen. The family also heard less and less from HSI, until August 2019, when Anderson delivered bad news: Without any inside sources or a suspect they could flip in Colorado, his agency couldn’t gather enough evidence on Orlando’s ex-employers to continue its investigation.

As disappointing as this development was, Sylvia prayed her husband might take Anderson’s news as a sign to give up his quest for justice. The strange cars driving by the house, the veiled threats, the constant fear—it was getting to her. “We had many fights about this,” she remembers. “I told him, ‘You are free. You are well. Think about how many times they kidnap someone and you never see them again. So please stop for us, OK?’ ”

Orlando remained implacable. He said he had to see his case through. Although Sylvia believed her husband ignored many of her pleas, she was able to get Orlando to agree to one concession: that he wouldn’t leave the United States on transmigrante runs. Per their agreement, he would only take used cars as far Los Indios, Texas, to hand them off to other drivers. After all, she said, the border was dangerous enough.

The Free Trade International Bridge, a four-lane highway with barbed wire fences that spans approximately 500 feet across an emerald green section of the Rio Grande between Los Indios, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico, has traditionally been the only border crossing that transmigrantes could use under Mexico’s visa program. That changed in March 2021, when a second port of entry in Presidio, Texas, opened. Still, Los Indios continues to see the vast majority of transmigrantes. According to data compiled by Cameron County, Texas, around 5,000 transmigrantes enter Mexico through there every month. Those numbers have created a cottage industry in Los Indios, which includes not just rest stops, convenience stores, and dorms for transmigrantes, but also so-called forwarding agencies, which transmigrantes use to pay document fees, get visa paperwork approved by Mexican officials, and get sign-off from U.S. customs agents (who check to make sure vehicles leaving the United States are not stolen).

Forwarding agencies are viewed as necessary middlemen who help transmigrantes navigate government bureaucracy. When Orlando and Reyna first started doing their trips, these agencies’ fees were negligible. But starting around 2011, the prices charged by every agency in town began climbing; by 2022, it wasn’t uncommon for a transmigrante to pay almost $500 per vehicle in various fees.

According to a federal indictment unsealed by a U.S. District Court judge in December 2022, there were nefarious reasons behind the price hikes. A group of alleged extortionists, some of whom are U.S. citizens with family ties to the Matamoros-based Gulf Cartel, are accused of coercing Los Indios’ forwarding agencies into a price-fixing scheme. When some industry personnel refused to go along with the conspiracy, things turned violent.

On March 9, 2019, a woman who handled transmigrante paperwork and had refused to pay bribes or engage in price-fixing had driven just beyond the Free Trade International Bridge and was inside Mexican territory when gunshots crackled around her. The woman, whose identity has been concealed in the federal indictment, was shot but survived. Another industry worker she was with, Rocio Alderete, died at the scene.

Eight months later, more bullets: On November 5, 2019, three forwarding agency employees from another company that had refused to go along with extortion demands found themselves in the gunsights of assassins. This time, all three employees who had traveled to the Mexican side of the border died from gunshot wounds.

The killings laid bare a dark side of the transmigrante industry. Everyone, including Orlando and Reyna, heard about them. As the U.S. Department of Justice would reveal in its indictment charging a dozen individuals for 11 crimes, including extortion and money laundering, the accused criminal ring may have siphoned $27 million worth of fees and bribes from transmigrantes since 2011. According to one person 5280 spoke with in Los Indios who asked not to be named because the court cases are still pending, that figure is conservative.

“We do everything we can to reduce border violence,” says HSI acting deputy special agent in charge Mark Lippa, “and we understand that there’s a legitimate means for [transmigrantes] to operate in our border area.” For the transmigrante community at large, the indictment signaled that not only were American authorities approving the trade publicly, but they were also finally coming in to protect it.

Orlando cannot say the same for himself—in this country or in Guatemala. It is a truth he will likely never get over. On a recent day in early February, Orlando met up with Jorge Reyna at an auto junkyard near Watkins, the two veteran transmigrantes sporting oil-stained sweatshirts to protect themselves against the Eastern Plains’ subfreezing chill.

In a hushed tone, Orlando mentioned that, just the week before, the last active case against his kidnappers had been dropped by a Guatemalan judge. He knew he should have expected this; history was simply repeating itself.

In fall 2017, Orlando had gone to Guatemala to testify in Carlos’ trial. At considerable risk, the then 62-year-old had arranged an in-and-out operation so that he could show up at the courthouse just long enough to take the stand. Less than two weeks later, though, the judge dismissed the case. Prosecutors blamed Sylvia, a key witness, for not testifying in person—she’d been too afraid to go to Guatemala. But rumors also circulated about payoffs to court personnel and threats that influenced other witnesses’ testimonies.

Elvis says that moment, along with HSI’s later decision to drop the case, triggered something of a collapse for the León family. After everything they’d endured, it seemed like everyone had abandoned them. Without a direction or tidy ending, Elvis’ documentary project floundered. “Everyone was always like, This is amazing. It has Netflix written all over it,” says Elvis, who has since moved to LA. But no one would actually write a check.

Arguments between his parents spiraled. “I’m not remaining silent, because everyone else remains silent,” Orlando would often tell Sylvia as he continued to press Guatemalan police to make arrests. “That’s what has allowed gangs to take over. I have to try to help others so that the same thing that happened to me can’t happen to them.”

“That fight is so big for just one man,” Sylvia would respond.

Not everyone would say Orlando’s crusade is irrational. According to Jeff Brand, a Boston-based psychologist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on trauma in Guatemala, some people simply cannot “get over” their trauma—nor should they be expected to—especially if they come from a culture fraught with violence. While not remarking on Orlando’s particular case, the psychologist says, “The idea of alleviating trauma symptoms and ‘putting it behind me’ may mean nothing when I know that, at any moment, it could happen to me again, or to the people I love, or to the community I call home.”

But home remains elusive for Orlando. While he’d like to retire in Guatemala someday, it’s still too dangerous for him there. So, he stays in Colorado, where the peril still feels very real—his ex-employer still lives in the Centennial State, and whispers suggest that he’s been asking around for Orlando’s new cell number—albeit maybe less brazen.

As Orlando and Reyna neared the heart of the junkyard, mangy dogs danced around their feet in a sludgy mixture of mud and snow. After sidestepping a piece of plywood, the two men emerged into a clearing filled with nearly a dozen used Toyota trucks with Colorado and Wyoming plates. Orlando smiled wistfully. Soon, these vehicles would be filled with used items and a group of transmigrantes would take them down through Los Indios—more American waste finding a second chance in Guatemala.

Orlando still hopes for another chance, too. “They may be abandoning them,” Orlando says of the cases against two of Carlos’ alleged co-conspirators in Guatemala. “But, in my mind, I know that someone is going to help me find justice one day.”

*Name has been changed due to safety concerns

This article was originally published in 5280 May 2023.
Chris Walker
Chris Walker
Chris writes for various sections of 5280 as well as 5280.com.