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 parent’s home here in southeast Guatemala. Five months pregnant, her belly hanging from her tiny 16-year-old frame, she feared losing the child to his rage.
Lubia and her mother slipped outside and begged him to leave, she said. They could smell the sour tang of alcohol on his breath. Unmoved, he raised the blade and struck her mother in the head, killing her.
Hearing a stifled scream, her father rushed outside. Lubia recalled watching in horror as the other men set upon him, splitting his face and leaving her parents splayed 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, according to legal officials in Guatemala.
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 of 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 extraordinary 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 — not only casting doubt on their case, but almost certainly on thousands of others as well, immigration lawyers say.
“How can this be justice?” Lubia said before the family fled, sitting under the portico where her mother was killed. “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.
Their case offers a glimpse into the staggering number of Central Americans fleeing violence and dysfunction — and the dogged fight the Trump administration is waging to keep them out.
Across Latin America, a murder epidemic is underway. Most years, more than 100,000 people are killed, largely young men on the periphery of broken societies, where gangs and cartels sometimes take the place of the state.
The turmoil has forced millions to flee the region and seek refuge in the United States, where they confront a system strained by record demand and a bitter fight over whether to accept them.
But violence against women, and domestic violence in particular, is a powerful and often overlooked factor in the migration crisis. Latin America and the Caribbean are home to 14 of the 25 deadliest nations in the world for women, according to available data collected by the Small Arms Survey, which tracks violence globally.
And Central America, the region where most of those seeking asylum in the United States are fleeing, is at the heart of the crisis.
Here in Guatemala, the homicide rate for women is more than three times the global average. In El Salvador, it is nearly six times. In Honduras, it is one of the highest in the world — almost 12 times the global average.
In the most violent pockets of Central America, the United Nations says, the danger is like living in a war zone.
“Despite the risk associated with migration, it is still lower than the risk of being killed at home,” said Angela Me, the chief of research and trend analysis at the United Nations 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, citing a 2014 case in which a Guatemalan woman fleeing domestic violence was found to be eligible to apply for asylum in the United States.
But Mr. Sessions overruled that precedent, 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 P. 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.
Violence against women in the region is so prevalent that 18 countries have passed laws to protect them, creating a class of homicide known as femicide, which adds tougher penalties and greater law enforcement attention to the issue.
And yet, despite that broad effort, the new laws have failed to reduce the killings of girls and women in the region, the United Nations says.
That reflects how deep the gender gap runs. For the new laws to make a difference, experts say, they must go far beyond punishment to change education, political discourse, social norms and basic family dynamics.
Though gangs and cartels in the region play a role in the violence, most women are killed by lovers, family members, husbands or partners — men angered by women acting independently, enraged by jealousy or, like Gehovany, driven by a deeply ingrained sense of control over women’s lives.
“Men end up thinking they can dispose of women as they wish,” said Adriana Quiñones, the United Nations Women’s country representative in Guatemala.
A vast majority of female homicides in the region are never solved. In Guatemala, only about 6 percent result in convictions, researchers say. And in the rare occasions when they do, as in Lubia’s case, they are not always prosecuted vigorously.
Even defense attorneys believe Gehovany should have been charged with femicide, which would have put him in prison a couple of years longer. The fact that he was not, some Guatemalan officials acknowledge, underscores the many ways in which the nation’s legal system, even when set up to protect women, continues to fail them.
In the courtroom, Lubia’s father, Romeo de Jesus Sasvin Dominguez, spoke up just once.
It didn’t make sense, he told the judge, shaking his head. A long white scar ran over the bridge of his nose, a relic of the attack. How could the laws of Guatemala favor the man who killed his wife, who hurt his daughter?
“We had a life together,” he told the judge, nearly in tears. “And he came and took that away from us just because my daughter didn’t want to be in an abusive relationship.”
“I just don’t understand,” he said.
‘It’s like our like daily bread’
Lubia’s son crawled with purpose, clutching a toy truck he had just relieved of its back wheel.
The family watched in grateful distraction. Years after the murder, they still lived like prisoners, trapped between mourning and fear. A rust-colored stain blotted the floor where Lubia’s mother died. The dimpled doorjamb, hacked by the machete, had not been repaired. Lubia’s three younger sisters refused even to set foot in the bedroom where they hid during the attack.
Santiago Ramirez, Gehovany’s brother, never went to prison, spared because of a mental illness. Neighbors often saw him walking the village streets.
Soon, Gehovany would be, too. The family worried the men would come back, to finish what they started.
“There’s not much we can do,” said Mr. Sasvin Dominguez, sending Lubia’s son on his way with the toy truck. “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, whose high cheekbones and raven-colored hair resembled their mother’s, no longer went to school. With the loss of her income from selling knickknacks on the street, they couldn’t afford to pay for it.
His youngest daughter especially loved classes: the routine, the books, the chance to escape her circumscribed world. But even she had resigned herself to voluntary confinement. The stares and whispers of classmates — and the teasing of especially cruel ones — had grown unbearable. In town, some residents openly blamed Lubia for what happened. Even her own aunts did.
“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, a region of rippled hills, rutted roads and a cowboy culture, men go around on horseback with holstered pistols, their faces shaded by wide-brimmed hats. Though relatively peaceful for Guatemala, with a lower homicide rate than most areas, it is very dangerous for women.
Insulated from Guatemala’s larger cities, Jalapa is a concentrated version of the gender inequality that fuels the femicide crisis, experts say.
“It’s stark,” said Mynor Carrera, who served as dean of the Jalapa campus of the nation’s largest university for 25 years. “The woman is treated often like a child in the home. And violence against them is accepted.”
Domestic abuse is the most common crime here. Of the several dozen complaints the 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 mind-set ingrained in boys early on and reinforced throughout their lives.
“When I was born, my mom or sister brought me food and drink,” the judge said. “My sister cleaned up after me and washed my clothes. If I wanted water, she would get up from wherever she was and get it for me.”
“We are molded to be served, and when that isn’t accomplished, the violence begins,” he said.
Across Guatemala, complaints of domestic violence have skyrocketed as more women come forward to report abuse. Every week, it seems, a new, gruesome case emerges in newspapers, of a woman tortured, mutilated or dehumanized. It is an echo of the systematic rape and torture women endured during the nation’s 36-year civil war, which left an indelible mark on Guatemalan society.
But today, the countries with the highest rates of femicide in the region, like Guatemala, also suffer the highest homicide rates overall — often leaving the killing of women overlooked or dismissed as private domestic matters, with few national implications.
The result is more disparity. While murders in Guatemala have dropped remarkably over the last decade, there is a notable difference by gender: Homicides of men have fallen by 57 percent, while killings of women have declined more slowly, by about 39 percent, according to government data.
“The policy is to investigate violence that has more political interest,” said Jorge Granados, the head of the science and technology department at Guatemala’s National Institute of Forensic Sciences. “The public policy is simply not focused on the murder of women.”
The femicide law required every region in the nation to install a specialized court focused on violence against women. But more than a decade later, only 13 of 22 are in operation.
“The abuse usually happens in the home, in a private context,” said Evelyn Espinoza, the coordinator of the Observatory on Violence at Diálogos, a Guatemalan research group. “And the state doesn’t involve itself in the home.”
In Lubia’s case, she fell in love with Gehovany in the fast, unstoppable way that teenagers do. By the time they moved in together, she was already 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 New York Times tried to reach Gehovany, who fled after the killing and later turned himself in. But because he was a minor at the time of the murder, officials said, they could not arrange an interview or comment on the case.
His oldest brother, Robert Ramirez, argued that Gehovany had acted in self-defense and killed Lubia’s mother accidentally.
Still, Mr. Ramirez defended his brother’s decision to confront Lubia’s family that night, citing a widely held view of a woman’s place in Jalapa.
“He was right to go back and try to claim her,” he said. “She shouldn’t have left him.”
He looked toward his own house, etched into a clay hillside, a thread of smoke from a small fire curling through the doorway.
“I’d never allow my wife to leave me,” he said.
The smugglers’ road north
Mr. Sasvin Dominguez woke suddenly, startled by an idea.
He rushed to town in the dark, insects thrumming, a dense fog filling the mountains. 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. Traveling with a young child was cheaper, and often meant better treatment by American officials. At least, that’s what the smuggler said.
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.
Ciudad Tecún Umán, Guatemala
Ciudad Tecún Umán, Guatemala
Ciudad Tecún Umán, Guatemala
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 idling. 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 as bodies brushed against one another. They spent nearly three days in the container before the first stop, he said.
The days went by in a blur, a log of images snatched from the fog of exhaustion. An open hangar, grumbling with trucks. Rolling desert, dotted by cactus. Sunlight glaring off the metal siding of a safe house.
They rode in at least five container trucks, as best they can remember. Hunger chased them. Some days, they got half an apple. On others, they got rice and beans. Sometimes they got nothing.
One night, they saw a man beaten unconscious for talking after the smugglers told him to be quiet.
“I remember that moment,” said his daughter, whose name is being withheld because she is still a minor. Her hands twisted at the memory. “I felt terrified,” she said.
Days later, starved for food, water and fresh air, she passed out in a container crammed with more than 200 migrants, her father holding her, fanning her with whatever documents he had.
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 Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.
Mr. Sasvin Dominguez said he and his daughter spent four days in Texas, in a 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, Mr. Sasvin Dominguez was fitted with an ankle bracelet and instructed to check in with the 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.
On a sunny day in June, Mr. Sasvin Dominguez shuffled to a park, his daughter riding in front, hunched over the bars of a pink bicycle meant for a girl half her age. Behind him, his son and grandson tottered along, hand in hand.
They traversed a quintessential American landscape — bungalows perched on tidy green yards, wide sidewalks shaded by soaring live oaks.
He and his daughter live in the family’s modest one-bedroom apartment, now bursting at the seams. The trappings of suburban life fill the backyard: toolboxes, wheelbarrows, recycling bins.
But Mr. 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.
In the park, families cooked out and blasted reggaeton. His daughter play-fought with her nephew, who never tired, no matter how many handfuls of grass she stuffed down his shirt, or how many times he retreated in tears.
She has found a better rhythm in their new life. In June, she finished sixth grade at the local school, which she loves. Her older brother keeps the graduation certificate on the small dining table.
She has dyed the tips of her hair purple, a style she’s grown fond of. Her face often falls back into the wide smile of the past, when her mother enrolled her in local beauty contests.
But she grows stormy and unpredictable at times, refusing to speak. She misses her mother. Her sisters, too.
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.
Life for the sisters is measured in micro-improvements, pockets of air in the stifling fear. They are scarcely more than children themselves, raising children alone. Lubia’s 18-year-old sister now has an infant of her own.
They sometimes visit their mother’s grave, a green concrete box surrounded by paddle-shaped cactus.
“We are left here with nothing,” Lubia said.
She 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.”
Meridith Kohut contributed reporting from Jalapa.