Nation & World

Iowa teen returns to Mexico - and his death

Friends think gangs slit his throat in country he never knew

San Diego-Tijuana International Border Wall stock photo (Dreamstime/TNS)
San Diego-Tijuana International Border Wall stock photo (Dreamstime/TNS)

Mexico was an unfamiliar place for 19-year-old Manuel Antonio Cano-Pacheco. He was only 3 when his parents brought him to the United States without a visa.

In 2015, as a teenager in Des Moines, he qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the initiative spearheaded by President Barack Obama to give temporary protection to undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.

Cano-Pacheco gained DACA status and with it, a work permit, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But then he was arrested and convicted on two misdemeanor drug charges. The convictions voided his DACA status, and in 2017, he was arrested by ICE. Two months ago, facing a high likelihood of being deported, Cano-Pacheco chose to return to Mexico and soon was escorted across the border by ICE deportation officers.

Instead of graduating from high school in Des Moines he returned to an increasingly violent country where he hardly knew anyone, even his relatives, Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz, a pastor in Des Moines who knows the family, told The Washington Post.

The relatives he left behind in Iowa worried for his safety, knowing how deportees often are targeted by gangs in Mexico, as news reports have confirmed.

In May, three weeks after arriving in Mexico, Cano-Pacheco was killed in the north-central state of Zacatecas. He had his throat slit while getting food with an acquaintance of his cousin’s, his family and friends told the Des Moines Register.


“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” his high school friend, Juan Verduzco, 20, told the Register. His family does not believe it was a targeted attack, but believe it was tied to a gang, Alfaro-Santiz said.

Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for ICE, reiterated that Cano-Pacheco was not deported. He requested and was granted voluntary departure after he was convicted in Iowa of two additional misdemeanors, including drunken driving.

Voluntary departure does not include the penalties of a formal deportation. For example, people with voluntary departure are not banned from returning to the United States.

Cano-Pacheco was given an escort to return him safely to the border in Laredo, Texas. Once he crossed the border, he was turned over to Mexican officials.

Regardless of the circumstances that landed him in Mexico, Cano-Pacheco’s death underscored the dangers immigrants face when returning to parts of Mexico and Central America.

The Mexican state where he died, Zacatecas, has seen a sharp increase in homicides; three different cartels currently are operating across the state. Last year, a mass grave of 14 bodies was found there, believed to be linked to gang violence.

Politicians and immigrant rights activists frequently invoke this fear of death when they seek support for causes like DACA, or child refugees from Central America seeking safety. But the fates of those who return to their native countries often go untold.

The government does not monitor what happens to deportees, and families of deceased deportees often refrain from speaking publicly.


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Cano-Pacheco’s death has stunned friends and community members in Des Moines. Alfaro-Santiz helped organize a small memorial service earlier this week for him in his church, Trinity Las Americas United Methodist Church in Des Moines.

“It was very somber,” Alfaro-Santiz said. “People just couldn’t talk.”

Many in this community are still shaken by the death of another former Des Moines resident, Constantino Morales, an immigrant rights activist who was killed in 2015 in his native Mexico after his request for U.S. asylum was denied.

The former police officer told immigration officials he feared he would be killed by the drug cartels if forced to return to Mexico. Morales’ case gained national attention, and drew support from legislators and even a county sheriff.

He was deported in 2014, and killed a year later in a gunfight with cartel members who had threatened him when he served there as a police officer.

Deaths like these are “nothing new” to the community, Alfaro-Santiz. “They’re very aware of the risks. That’s why they’re fearful of being deported.”

The Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration enforcement has heightened these fears. Earlier this month, in Mount Pleasant, 32 undocumented immigrants were arrested in an ICE raid at a concrete facility.

On July 1, a new state law takes effect pushing back on “sanctuary” policies by saying city and county officials must work with federal officials to enforce immigration law.


“People are very afraid,” Alfaro-Santiz said. “We have people not coming to church now. They don’t go out unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

Cano-Pancheco’s death “makes it more real for many people.”

Juan Verduzco, 20, mourned the loss of his friend at the memorial service. Speaking to the Register, he recalled him as an upbeat, friendly young man with a passion for car mechanics. He had received a scholarship to study the trade at a college in Chicago, Verduzco said.

But he also had been struggling emotionally in recent years, particularly after his father went to prison for drug offenses. He was forced to help support his family. He found work installing floors. “Things were going downhill. I didn’t know what to do about it,” Verduzco told the newspaper.

During this time, he also had a baby with his girlfriend, a boy that is now 1-year-old.

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