The trauma remains overwhelming six years after gang members in Guatemala chased the man off a bus and tried to gun him down. Making it worse, a corrupt cop viciously beat him with a pistol and threatened his life.
Now a Chicagoan, the man was granted asylum in the U.S. last year under an umbrella of protection once focused on more traditional political refugees but now offered to some fleeing violent gangs and drug traffickers in Latin America.
The gangs still threaten Milton's relatives in Guatemala, so he does not want his last name published. But the 31-year-old knows that "I have had the fortune to be able to enjoy a new beginning, to leave my nightmare behind."
Beyond the more established ways that fallout from Latin America's drug wars touches cities such as Chicago, it is now arriving in the form of victims on the run.
With narco-violence spiking south of the border, U.S. officials report a sharp increase in the number of Mexicans seeking and gaining asylum because they fear for their lives in their homeland, along with a continuing flow from Guatemala, El Salvador and elsewhere.
The influx represents an evolving form of asylum — not based on the typical criteria of political or religious persecution in an authoritarian country. And that creates a challenge for the U.S. government, which must meet certain humanitarian obligations without opening the floodgates to all foreigners fleeing violence and without appearing to offend friendly neighboring countries.
Nationwide, the Department of Homeland Security reported that more than 250 Mexicans successfully received asylum in fiscal 2009, nearly twice the total from 2006, the year before the Mexican government's war on drug rings prompted an epidemic of violence.
In 2009, 93 Mexicans filed asylum requests in a 15-state region overseen by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' Chicago office, nearly a fourfold increase from 2007. Despite the distance from the border, the cases reflect how an established immigration pipeline allows Mexicans and others to make their way to the Midwest and seek support among relatives.
Gaining asylum remains difficult, but U.S. officials say they also are seeing a greater number of cases they consider credible. In 2009, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved 18 percent of Mexican cases it decided nationally, compared with 7 percent in 2006.
Even once they are in the asylum process, many applicants still fear for their safety. The lawyer for one Mexican who applied in Chicago this spring to flee violence back home requested that no details about the case be published.
To seek asylum, applicants must first make their way to the U.S. and then seek protection because they have a "well-founded fear" of persecution if they return to their home countries. They must also show that their home government is unable or unwilling to protect them.
A key hurdle is that they must convincingly argue that the threat relates to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or "membership in a particular social group." The largest number of Mexican applications still center on persecution based on sexual orientation.
Central American cases nationally and locally still outpace Mexican cases, although they are not growing at the same rate.
Eleni Wolfe-Roubatis, a supervising attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, traces the increase in asylum inquiries from Mexicans to a government crackdown against drug rings launched in 2007. The cartels have responded with beheadings, hangings and other murders targeting rival traffickers, government forces and even civilians.
Wolfe-Roubatis, one of Milton's attorneys, said it is tough to show that crime victims from Mexico and Central America fit into a social group. "The challenge is using this very limiting law to expand the protection of asylum while not having it seen by the court as opening the floodgates," she said.
Some advocates of tighter immigration enforcement have warned that a loose definition of asylum could open the door to Mexicans looking for a way into the U.S. when they could simply relocate within Mexico to escape danger.
The granting of asylum also could have political implications because Washington is giving Mexico hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment to fight the drug war, said Geoffrey Heeren, senior attorney with the immigration project of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Some experts also worry about the slow progress of cases, such as that of Erlin Bueso, a Salvadoran whose case has won the backing of lawyers from the National Immigration Justice Center, DePaul University and the high-powered Sidley Austin firm.
Bueso fled his country as a teen to join relatives in Indiana after gang members with ties to the drug trade slashed him with a knife and shot at him for not joining them. Now 21, Bueso has been waiting four years for federal courts in Chicago to resolve the application.
"I didn't want to come here," Bueso said. "But I told my mother that the only thing I can do to not be killed is to come to this country."