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Stepping out onto the metal stairway, Cheryl was finally able to fully take in her surroundings. She could hear the roar of the ocean surf nearby. She carefully descended the stairs, gripping the chipped, sun-baked railing. “So far, so good,” she reassured herself, conscious that the real challenge — getting through immigration — still lay ahead. Stepping onto the tarmac, she straightened her skirt and blouse. She obediently joined the procession of arrivals hastening towards the small terminal building; the other chelita was already at the head of the line. As Cheryl drew closer to the building she felt something instinctual, primordial, begin to swell up inside her like a scream — and then she saw them: three ominous shadows lurking near the entrance. They reminded her of pictures she had seen of Nazis: round iron helmets pulled low over menacing eyes, knee-high jackboots, machine-guns held tight and high with fingers at the ready. On the top of each helmet sat a crest with a menacing silver eagle and the words Policia de Hacienda — Treasury Police. Like birds of prey, the soldiers assessed each of the passengers. Only a couple of the well-dressed businessmen dared to provoke their glare; everyone else scurried past avoiding eye contact and clutching their children and other valuables.
Inside the terminal, Cheryl again reached into her purse and touched her documents, all the while hoping that the warning about the infamous black binder that contained the names of those “unwelcome” by the dictatorship was just an urban legend. Antonio had told her that the penalty for North Americans who had their name in the book was interrogation and immediate deportation, while for nationals it was far worse.
The terminal was hot but bearable given the solid block walls and concrete floors that kept the sun out and funnelled a constant ocean breeze through the corridors. The structure was simple, solid, functional — especially suited to wartime: immigration on the upper level, while departures and arrivals occupied either end of the ground floor. The entire building was infested with armed militia — Treasury Police, National Guard, Army, Air Force and some without uniform, unidentifiable as to what agency they belonged to, but heavily armed all the same.
The passengers walked up a ramp, through a set of heavy metal doors, and into a narrow room at whose far end were two exits, one blocked by a closed door, the other leading back down to the arrival area. The room was unfurnished except for a dozen hard plastic seats bolted to the floor. The walls were bare except for two government-issued posters of wounded children — one missing a leg and on crutches, another with an eye patch and a sad, broken body. They each bore the caption, “Stop the Terror.”
As the first passengers reached the immigration desk and halted, the room quickly backed up and filled. Soon they were crammed in like cattle at a slaughter house. Children began to cry. Some of the older women fanned themselves with their passports.