Forty-four Guatemalans deported on one flight from the United States this week have tested positive for COVID-19, a Guatemalan government official with knowledge of the situation said, amid rising rejection of deportees due to virus fears.
Later Thursday, Guatemala Foreign Affairs Minister Pedro Brolo told The Associated Press the government had again suspended deportation flights. He did not explain why, but said the move was temporary.
"We're working on the details," Brolo said, adding that he did not know when the flights would resume.
Presidential spokesman Carlos Sandoval said that "Guatemala is working with United States authorities to revalidate the health of Guatemalans returned in recent days." He said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Guatemala's national laboratory would retest all those who were found positive and negative.
Asked for a response, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the CDC had representatives in Guatemala reviewing the COVID-19 tests and attempting to confirm the results. Once results are available, the immigration agency said it would determine whether it needed to work with the CDC to re-evaluate its medical procedures.
"The health and welfare of detainees in ICE custody is of the highest priority to the agency," ICE said in a statement to the AP.
The flight with the infected deportees arrived in Guatemala's capital Monday carrying 76 Guatemalans. Three deportees displaying coronavirus symptoms were immediately taken for testing. When one of those tests came back positive others who had been quarantined at the airport were tested and 43 more resulted positive, said the official with knowledge of the situation who had not been authorized to share the information publicly and requested anonymity.
There was confusion over where the flight originated.
On Monday, Alejandra Mena, a spokeswoman for Guatemala's National Immigration Institute, told reporters two flights of deportees had arrived. Initially, she said they came from Alexandria, Louisiana and El Paso, Texas, then immediately corrected herself to say they came from Brownsville, Texas and El Paso. She reconfirmed that information Thursday, saying that is what the agency has officially recorded.
But according to the flight tracking site FlightAware, two flights from a U.S. government contractor that operates deportation flights arrived in Guatemala City Monday. One came from Alexandria, Louisiana and the other came from El Paso, Texas, which departed shortly after another flight by the contractor arrived in El Paso from Brownsville. It's not unusual for the deportation flights to stop in multiple U.S. cities.
The unreconciled number of infected deportees was the latest sign that the president's office and health authorities might not be on the same page.
On Tuesday, the government's accounting of deportees with COVID-19 was drawn into question when Health Minister Hugo Monroy said that on a March deportation flight from the U.S., more than 50% of the deportees had later tested positive for the new coronavirus. The president's office later confirmed that Monroy was talking about a March 26 flight from Mesa, Arizona with 41 passengers, but said the official number of infected deportees had still not been adjusted.
Ursula Roldán, an immigration expert at Rafael Landívar University, said Guatemala was under great pressure to continue receiving deportees at the same time deportees were becoming a flashpoint in the country.
"It's very clear there is pressure from Washington," she said. "If before there was an immigrant problem, now it's a triple problem. They don't want them."
She said Guatemala needed to start quarantining all deportees in government facilities with proper medical attention rather then telling them to self-isolate in their homes with their families.
"If we want containment, this is the point of containment," Roldán said.
Monday's flight arrived after Guatemala lifted a one-week suspension on deportation flights from the U.S., imposed because three other deportees had earlier tested positive.
Monroy has said the deportees are a worrisome factor driving up the country's COVID-19 caseload. The government said Wednesday that this week it had started testing all deportees, regardless of whether they showed symptoms, when anyone on a flight tested positive.
ICE has said that 100 detainees in its custody have tested positive for the virus, including 17 at a detention facility in San Diego and 12 at one in Batavia, New York. It said 25 employees at detention centers have tested positive for the virus, including 13 at a removal staging facility at the airport in Alexandria, Louisiana.
Deportees and their potential to carry the virus into Guatemala are a sensitive topic. The U.S. government has continued deportations through the pandemic. But some Guatemalan communities are beginning to reject deportees returning home out of fear that they could carry the virus.
On Wednesday evening, President Alejandro Giammattei referenced an incident in which townspeople fearing the virus had allegedly organized to burn deportees.
Videos circulated on social media showed hundreds of angry residents gathered in a community in Quetzaltenango west of the capital. They accused deportees who were staying in quarantine in a government facility of leaving it in a threat to the community.
Giammattei said five community councils had organized "to try to go burn the center, because they want to burn the people." In a televised address, he said those 80 deportees had arrived earlier in the week and all had been tested. So far, none had come back positive.
"It's already guaranteed they don't pose a risk to anyone," he said.
Tekandi Paniagua, Guatemala's consul in Del Rio, Texas, said Guatemalans who are stopped by Border Patrol agents are returned to Mexico within a half-hour without any medical exam and often without having their photos or fingerprints taken under rules that took effect March 21 to combat the virus' spread.
"They aren't registered or anything," Paniagua said.
Byron Milian, a 25-year-old deportee who returned to Guatemala earlier this month, said he tried to quietly come home without neighbors noticing because he was worried about their reaction amid the pandemic.
Under orders from the health ministry he has self-quarantined for two weeks. He said health officials check on him every other day.
Milian was apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol in Arizona in early March.
He and a few other migrants were briefly held, during which time they took his temperature. Then they were loaded back into a truck, driven to the border and handed over to Mexican authorities.
Within a week Mexico had delivered him back to Guatemala. In Guatemala, authorities took his temperature, listened to his lungs and stuck a tongue depressor in his mouth.
"On Sunday my quarantine ends," he said. "Thank God everything is normal."