Hector Barajas-Varele is a banished veteran who comes to the Mexican side of Friendship Park every week. Here, he spends time with acquaintances and friends at Boundary Monument #258. He often wears his old army uniform.
Hector lived in the United States from the time he was seven years old. He grew up in Compton, California. At the age of seventeen, he joined the Army, but had to get a signature from his parents because he was so young. He didn’t start his basic training until the age of eighteen when he started out as an E1 Private. Hector considered it the best time of his life. He served in the 82nd airborne, a very prestigious unit where he often jumped out of airplanes, from 1995 to 2001.
“I put my life on the line for various operations,” he said.
When Hector got out of the Army in 2001, with an honorable discharge as an E4 Specialist, his problems began. He got caught up in drugs and had subsequent problems with the law. He ended up having an addiction problem and did three years in prison. When he got out, Hector was picked up by immigration and put into detention for about a year until he was deported in 2004.
Hector was deported through a door in Nogales, AZ. He was told the exact date beforehand, so his parents, sister and girlfriend were already waiting for him on the other side. (They live in the U.S. and are U.S. citizens.) Basically, Border Patrol opened the door and that was it. Hector had no family living in Mexico.
He stayed for six months trying to make a new life, but it didn’t work. Hector fled back to the U.S., knowing he might face almost 20 years in prison if he got caught.
“That’s part of the stipulation when you get deported: you are not allowed to go back,” he said.
Hector, however, didn’t get caught — until 2009. At that moment, he hadn’t committed any crime, he simply got caught and was deported. While his first deportation had a 20 year deportation sentence, the second was a life deportation.
They Can Go Home In Coffins
“Most of the men, they usually get deported for life. Right now I’m in the process of obtaining my citizenship because of a couple things that happened in my case. Most men, once they are deported are never allowed to go back.
“The only way I can go home, just like other men who have passed away outside the United States, is once they die their body is taken across. You’re given the full military honors, the flag will be given to the family and they will say thank you for your service.
“It’s dishonoring soldiers,” Hector said.
Deported Veterans Support House
Hector now lives in Tijuana while he awaits citizenship papers. In the meantime, he fills his time as director and founder of the Deported Veterans Support House, a shelter located in Otay, Mexico. He created the shelter in 2012 and currently six people live there, including one female who is not a veteran, but is staying at the bunker.
“We try to do what we can. We try to help each other out. We live by the motto leave no man behind,” he explains. “We have veterans deported from 24 different countries, from the Vietnam War to Iraq and Afghanistan. They served honorably, but after their service they got into some kind of trouble with the law. It could be a $300 check to something like a discharge of a firearm, like myself. I did three years in prison. I had my legal residence. I was not undocumented.”
One of the issues Hector is working on it to allow deported veterans to still get their medical benefits. Just because they are deported, doesn’t mean they lose their health care. However, they can’t be physically present for their appointments. Hector is working to get the VA to outsource those programs. That way, all these men who fought in Iraq and Vietnam and have PTSD can, at the very least, receive treatment.
“It’s something that by law they have to get treated. It’s not like we are just asking for it or begging for it, it’s something they have to give us,” Hector said. Then he added, “The hardest thing is to be separated from my nine year old daughter. Most of us, that’s basically it — being separated from our families.”
The Fence At Las Playas
If you visit the U.S.-Mexico border on the Mexican side, graffiti and art installations come and go. There are no permits needed to paint on the Mexican side of the wall. (Who would they get permission from, after all? The Mexican government who doesn’t own it? The U.S.?)
Hector and many other deported veterans have created an upside down flag along the fence. Many deported veteran names are also printed there.
To see how the Deported Mural was created and more about Deported Veterans, check out this movie by artist Lowkey RiderOne: