JALAPA, Guatemala — They climbed the terraced hillside in single file, their machetes tapping the stones along the darkened footpath.
Gehovany Ramirez, 17, led his brother and another accomplice to his ex-girlfriend’s home. He struck the wooden door with his machete, sending splinters into the air.
His girlfriend, Lubia Sasvin Pérez, had left him a month earlier, fleeing his violent temper for her parents’ home here in southeast Guatemala. Five months pregnant, the 16-year-old feared losing the child to his rage.
Lubia and her mother begged him to leave, she said. Unmoved, he raised the blade and struck her mother in the head, killing her.
Her father rushed outside. Lubia recalled watching in horror as the other men set upon him, splitting his face and leaving her parents on the concrete floor.
For prosecutors, judges and even defense lawyers in Guatemala, the case exemplifies the national scourge of domestic violence, motivated by a deep-seated sense of ownership over women and their place in relationships.
But instead of facing the harsher penalties meant to stop such crimes in Guatemala, Gehovany received only four years in prison, a short sentence even by the country’s lenient standard for minors. More than three years later, now 21, he will be released next spring, perhaps sooner.
And far from being kept from the family he tore apart, under Guatemalan law Gehovany has the right to visit his son upon release.
The prospect of his return shook the family so thoroughly that Lubia’s father, who survived the attack, sold their home and used the money to pay a smuggler to reach the United States. Now living outside San Francisco, he is pinning his hopes on winning asylum to safeguard his family. They all are.
But that seems more distant than ever. Two legal decisions by the Trump administration have struck at the core of asylum claims rooted in domestic violence or threats against families like Lubia’s, casting doubt on their case, and almost certainly on thousands of others as well.
“How can this be justice?” Lubia said before the family fled. “All I did was leave him for beating me and he took my mother from us.”
“What kind of system protects him, and not me?” she said, gathering her son in her lap.
“Despite the risk associated with migration, it is still lower than the risk of being killed at home,” said Angela Me, chief of research and trend analysis at the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
The issue is so central to migration that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, eager to advance the Trump administration’s priority of closing the southern border to migrants, issued a decision last year to try to halt victims of domestic violence, among other crimes, from seeking asylum.
To win asylum in the United States, applicants must show specific grounds for their persecution back home, like their race, religion, political affiliation or membership in a particular social group. Lawyers have sometimes pushed successfully for women to qualify as a social group because of the overwhelming violence they face.
But Sessions overruled that, questioning whether women — in particular, women fleeing domestic violence — can be members of a social group. The decision challenged what had become common practice in asylum courts.
Then, last month, the new attorney general, William Barr, went further. Breaking with decades of precedent, he issued a decision making it harder for families, like Lubia’s, to qualify as social groups also.
‘It’s like our like daily bread’
Years after the murder, Lubia’s family still lived like prisoners, trapped between mourning and fear. A rust-colored stain blotted the floor where Lubia’s mother died. The doorjamb, hacked by the machete, had not been repaired. Lubia’s three younger sisters refused to set foot in the bedroom where they hid during the attack.
With Gehovany’s release on the horizon, the family worried the men would come back to finish what they started.
“There’s not much we can do,” Lubia’s father, Romeo de Jesus Sasvin Dominguez, said. “We don’t have the law in our hands.”
He had no money to move and owned nothing but the house, which the family clung to but could hardly bear. His two sons lived in the United States and had families of their own to support. He hadn’t seen them in years.
“I’m raising my daughters on my own now, four of them,” he said.
He woke each morning at 3 a.m., hiking into the mountains to work as a farm hand. The girls no longer went to school. With the loss of their mother’s income from selling knickknacks on the street, they couldn’t afford to pay for it.
“There’s no justice here,” said Lubia, who added that she wanted to share her story with the public for that very reason. Her father did, too.
In her area, Jalapa, domestic abuse is the most common crime. Of the several dozen complaints Jalapa authorities receive each week, about half involve violence against women.
“It’s like our daily bread,” said Dora Elizabeth Monson, the prosecutor for women’s issues in Jalapa. “Women receive it morning, afternoon and night.”
At the courthouse, Judge Eduardo Alfonso Campos Paz maintains a docket filled with such cases. The most striking part, he said, is that most men struggle to understand what they’ve done wrong.
The problem is not easily erased by legislation or enforcement, he said, because of a mindset ingrained in boys early on and reinforced throughout their lives.
Lubia fell in love with Gehovany in the fast, unstoppable way teenagers do. By the time they moved in together, she was pregnant.
But Gehovany’s drinking, abuse and stultifying expectations quickly became clear. He wanted her home at all times, even when he was out, she said. He told her not to visit her family.
She knew Gehovany would consider her leaving a betrayal, especially being pregnant with his child. She knew society might, too. But she had to go, for the baby’s sake, and was relieved to be free of him.
Until the night of Nov. 1, 2015, at around 9 p.m., when he came to reclaim her.
The smugglers’ road north
Sasvin Dominguez woke suddenly, startled by an idea.
In a single day, it was all arranged. He would sell his home and use the proceeds to flee to the United States.
The $6,500 was enough to buy passage for him and his youngest daughter, then 12.
He hoped to reach his sons in California. With luck, he could find work, support the girls back home — and get asylum for the entire family.
A week later, in October of last year, he left with his daughter. A guide crossed them into Mexico. Soon, they reached the side of a highway, where a container truck sat. Inside, men, women and children were packed tight, with hardly enough space to move.
A dense heat filled the space, the sun baking the metal box. They spent nearly three days in the container before the first stop, he said.
In early November, they arrived in the Mexican border town of Reynosa, and were spirited into a safe house. After weeks on the road, they were getting close.
That day, the smugglers called one of Sasvin Dominguez’s sons, demanding an extra $400 to ferry the two across the river to Texas. If not, they would be tossed out of the safe house, left to the seething violence of Reynosa.
Sasvin Dominguez’s son sent the money. Last-minute extortions have come to be expected. A day later, they boarded a raft and entered the United States.
They wandered the dense brush before they stumbled upon a border patrol truck and turned themselves in.
Sasvin Dominguez said he and his daughter spent four days in a Texas facility with no windows. The fluorescent glare of the overhead lights continued day and night, troubling their sleep. It was cold. The migrants called it the icebox.
When they were released in November, Sasvin Dominguez was fitted with an ankle bracelet and instructed to check in with immigration authorities in San Francisco, where he could begin the long process of applying for asylum.
His son bought them bus tickets and met them at the station. It was the first time they had seen each other in seven years.
He and his daughter live in the family’s modest one-bedroom apartment, now bursting at the seams.
Sasvin Dominguez remains suspended in the sadness and fear he left behind in Guatemala. His other daughters are still trapped, and there is no money to move them.
Besides, he says, the journey north, even if they could afford it, is far too dangerous for three young women and a toddler to take on their own. His only hope, he says, is asylum.
That could take years, he is told, if it happens at all. A heavy backlog of cases is gumming up the courts. He does not even have a date yet for his first hearing.
In the meantime, he lives in self-imposed austerity, scared to embrace his new life, as if doing so might belittle the danger his daughters still face.
Stuck in Guatemala, Lubia and her two other sisters moved into a small apartment, where they share a single bed. A portrait of their mother hangs on the wall.
They all work now, making tortillas in town. But they go straight home after, to avoid being spotted. Not long ago, Lubia ran into Gehovany’s mother.
Lubia still bears the stigma of what happened. Neighbors, men and women alike, continue to blame her for her mother’s death. It doesn’t surprise her anymore. Now 20, she says she understands that women almost always bear the blame for problems at home.
She worries about the world her son will grow up in, what she can teach him and what he will ultimately come to believe. One day, she will tell him about his father, she says, but not now, or anytime soon.
By then, she hopes to be in the United States, free of the poverty, violence and suffocating confines for women in Guatemala.
“Here in Guatemala,” she said, “justice only exists in the law. Not in reality.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.