Guatemala: The indigenous population too poor to stay

Poverty and threats of violence, kidnapping and extortion force many to make multiple attempts to reach the US.

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Debora Martina Junech Pastor with her baby daughter. Her son went to live with relatives in the US after they received threats that he would be kidnapped [Zoe Sullivan/Al Jazeera]

San Jose Calderas, Guatemala – Roughly 3,000 people live in San Jose Calderas, a small town hidden in the folds of the Guatemalan hills about an hour from Guatemala City.

There is no paved road into the town – although work on one has begun – and Debora Martina Junech Pastor, 26, says that cars and buses heading here are frequently robbed.

Aside from construction work on the road, there are few other opportunities in the area, and extreme weather conditions have made farming increasingly challenging.

Desperate financial circumstances have seen some turn to kidnapping and extortion. 

Debora’s son was threatened with kidnapping and worse if the family didn’t pay 25,000 quetzals ($3,300) to ensure his safety. Written demands and threats arrived at the family’s door, said her sister-in-law, who asked us not to reveal her name for fear of retaliation.

More than 400 people were kidnapped in Guatemala in 2008, but the country’s public ministry reported that the number of kidnappings had decreased by 65 percent in 2015.

Some speculate that this decline simply reflects the fact that extortion requires less organisation than a kidnapping.

“It’s a really small town. We’re all neighbours. We all know each other. But, by the same token, because we all know each other, some people monitor you because the people who extorted us are from the same town,” Debora said.

Although one person was arrested, Debora says he was held for less than 24 hours.

Yet according to her sister-in-law, even while that one person was briefly in jail, others continued to hound the family.

Fear and poverty

Debora feeds her two-month-old daughter as we speak in her mother’s kitchen.

She had migrated to the US, but returned to Guatemala in 2008, with the son she had given birth to there, after immigration raids in Pottsville, Iowa saw her mother and older brother deported. Her son’s father remained in the US for a short while before following them back. 

When her son was threatened with kidnapping, Debora turned to Conamigua, the Guatemalan government entity focused on supporting migrants. Because the boy is a US citizen, he was immediately repatriated before anything could happen to him. The nine-year-old now lives with relatives in the US.

But threats against the children in her extended family, along with the kidnapping and beating of her sister-in-law’s father, worry Debora. It was the same concerns that prompted her sister-in-law to pay a people smuggler 70,000 quetzals ($9,100) to bring her and her five-year-old daughter to the US last March.

Now, Debora says these fears, coupled with stress over her partner, Benicio’s, 35,000 quetzal ($4,600) debt are pushing him to try to reach the US again.

Benicio has made two previous unsuccessful attempts to reach the US. His debt is the money he owes the people smugglers who accompanied him.

Now he has a job in Guatemala City, which gives him a steady, if minimal, salary. But, before, Debora says, there were weeks when her husband would earn as little as 50 quetzals ($6) doing agricultural work in the area around San Jose Calderas. Still, his current salary doesn’t allow them to make any inroads into paying off the debt.

The family’s situation is not unique, and Benicio is not alone in making multiple attempts to migrate. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that in 2013, approximately 300 Guatemalans left every day. More than two-thirds of these were forcibly repatriated.

Migrants’ rights activists told Al Jazeera that most who attempt to migrate and fail try again, often several times.

The Guatemalan government reported that more than 31,000 people were deported from the US by plane in 2015, while another 75,000 were deported over land from Mexico

As kidnapping becomes rife, many Guatemalans fear for their children and feel that it would be better to try to get them into the US [Zoe Sullivan/Al Jazeera]
As kidnapping becomes rife, many Guatemalans fear for their children and feel that it would be better to try to get them into the US [Zoe Sullivan/Al Jazeera]

The poverty pushing out indigenous Guatemalans 

Debora’s story reflects some of the harsh realities behind that exodus. And those realities seem to hit indigenous communities the hardest.

Activists and academics say that neo-liberal reforms made during the 1980s and 1990s – pushed by the Washington Consensus and other lending agreements – dismantled those institutions that supported the poorest Guatemalans. 

Dramatic cuts to the public sector were part of the terms developing countries had to fulfill in order to obtain international loans, but it was the poorest that paid the most. 

“Lately, the ladder of wealth often connects the police, gangs, anything that might be a gang [and] narco-traffickers,” said Mateo Lucas of the Asociacion Pop N’oj, which supports Guatemalans of Mayan ancestry around territorial and cultural issues.  

“The whole system is a strategy that obliges you, when you’re trapped underneath it, to either join it or flee, because the people who stay often risk their lives.”

Lucas points to violence and poverty as factors pushing indigenous Guatemalans to flee. 

According to researcher Lauren Heidbrink, 95 percent of those under the age of 18 who migrate are indigenous. 

The absence of basic infrastructure, such as roads, electricity and schools, along with high rates of malnutrition and poverty, offer evidence of a lack of government investment in predominantly indigenous areas, according to Alvaro Caballeros, a sociologist at the University of San Carlos. 

“The departments with the largest indigenous populations – San Marcos, Huehuetenango, Totonicapan, Alta Verapaz, Solola, Quiche, Chimaltenango – are also the ones that expel the most migrants because these departments have been on the margins of state policy,” Caballeros said.

While he traces these problems back to Guatemala’s conquest by Spain, he also underlines the contemporary challenges facing these areas.

“Over the past few years, Guatemala has decided to focus on extractive industries like mining and hydro-electric dams. This means taking advantage of resources in indigenous territory. So now, these territories are being threatened and affected by these dynamics related to capitalism’s reconfiguration.”

Mines and hydroelectric projects have been undertaken without consultation with indigenous communities, whose collective ownership of the land requires such meetings. 

Such projects have also contaminated drinking water, while charges of murder and rape have been reported as well.  

In Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second-largest city, economist Mario Anibal Gonzalez teaches at FLACSO, the Latin American Department on Social Sciences. He blames the dismantling of entities designed to support the rural economy for the high rates of migration.

“The National Wheatgrowers Association was eliminated. Guatemala produced more than 50,000 tonnes of wheat in the 1980s. The price was regulated, and there were protections. When the organisation was eliminated, all that was lost. Now, anyone under the age of 15 has no idea that wheat was ever grown in Quetzaltenango,” he said.

He laments Guatemala’s dependence on remittances and decries the government’s lack of effort to develop alternative sources of income within the country. “The former president of the Bank of Guatemala, Lizardo Sosa, said that it was good that people left because their needs weren’t met here and that they sent their money home. He said this should be stimulated,” Gonzaléz recalled. “I told him he was exploiting the people’s poverty.”

Nearly one in 10 Guatemalan families receives remittances, according to the country’s national household survey. The Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) reported that in 2015, these funds accounted for nearly 10 percent of Guatemala’s GDP, or $6.3bn.

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‘The right not to migrate’ 

In spite of this substantial flow, Guatemala’s underlying economic issues persist. Data collected by Caballeros in 2014 for a study commissioned by Oxfam found that 73 percent of the families receiving remittances use the money for food.

The IADB reported that one third of those receiving remittances are indigenous, and Guatemala’s National Survey on Living Conditions found that in 2014, nearly 67 percent of indigenous people lived in extreme poverty.

Conamigua, which focuses on the domestic effects of migration, concurs with Gonzalez that the problem extends beyond specific policy measures to an overall lack of support for the development of rural communities and their infrastructure.

“We see that in Congress when they discuss a law on rural development the private sector is terrified. The reason is that, for them, for their way of seeing these things, rural development is the same as agrarian reform or communal lands, which is not the case,” explained Alejandra Gordillo, the executive secretary of Conamigua. “All the people I’ve been in touch with on this topic are afraid that their lands will be expropriated.”

Gordillo insists that the contrast between Guatemala’s modern, affluent capital and the extreme poverty of its rural communities is an issue that hasn’t been adequately dealt with.

“There are commonalities among communities with the highest percentages of migration. There’s no electricity, there’s no water, and if there is transportation it’s a truck that goes through once or twice a day.”

This, says Julia Gonzalez, the director of MENAMIG, a civil society organisation focusing on migration, illustrates the way in which rural development intersects with migration.

“We’re talking about the right to not migrate,” she said. “It’s a right to migrate, but it’s also a right to not migrate. This means having access to all the basic conditions to live with dignity in [Guatemala].”

This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Source: Al Jazeera