San Antonio Secortez, Guatemala – Nine-year-old Audel Caal carries a small bouquet of artificial white flowers as he runs down the dirt path leading to his grandfather’s home in the rural Guatemalan village of San Antonio Secortez.
Paying attention to the details, he carefully places the bouquet in a glass and straightens a framed photo of the younger sister, Jakelin.
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“I’m really sad,” Audel says, fighting back tears. “We played a lot.”
Jakelin died earlier this month while in the custody of the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency. She was seven years old.
“We don’t want what happened to us to occur to anyone else,” says Jakelin’s 61-year-old indigenous Q’eqchi’ Maya grandfather, Domingo, who has lived in San Antonio Secortez since its founding more than three decades ago.
“Migrants need more attention and protection from the United States,” Domingo tells Al Jazeera. “Every day, there are thousands and thousands of people migrating all over the world.”
Family disputes US story
Jakelin died in CBP custody on December 8 after being detained along with her father, Nery, a day prior in New Mexico. US government officials initially claimed the seven-year-old died of dehydration, but her father refuted these claims. The official cause of death is pending as the autopsy results are being finalised.
The administration of US President Donald Trump blamed Jakelin’s father and the people smugglers, often referred to as coyotes, who led the pair, along with more than 150 more across the border.
“This is exactly why we try to encourage migrants to go a port of entry. Unfortunately, they arrived in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere,” Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security Secretary, said before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. “As soon as [the father] indicated there was a health issue, we did what we could do as quickly as possible to get her to medical care … the men and women of CBP did everything they could do.”
But the family rejects that Jakelin was sick upon arriving at the border.
“The government and Donald Trump are negating the case of my daughter,” Claudia Maquin, Jakelin’s 27-year-old mother, tells Al Jazeera in her native Q’eqchi’ language through a translator. “He is saying she didn’t get sick in custody. It was in their country and they are responsible for her death.”
Claudia, standing in her home in San Antonio Secortez, adds that she believes the US is trying to “protect their backs”.
Claudia wants the Trump administration to allow her 29-year-old husband to stay in the US in order to find work to pay back the debt he accumulated while fleeing to the US. She also hopes he can stay to live out Jakelin’s dream of living in the US.
“The worst and the most painful thing that could happen to us is that my husband returns without completing his and our daughter’s dream,” Claudia says.
Nery remains in CBP custody and may be deported as early as Sunday, according to the family.
Discrimination, poverty, climate change
Jakelin and her father fled to the US for the same reasons that have pushed hundreds from the area to leave. Guatemala has long suffered from systemic inequalities and discrimination against indigenous communities.
The extreme poverty and lack of government attention have pushed many to migrate as a means of survival, especially in San Antonio Secortez. According to Domingo, Jakelin’s grandfather, at least 12 other families there have migrated to the US.
This is reflective of the rest of the communities across the municipality of Raxruha. According to Pedro Ico, the spokesman for the municipality of Raxruha, at least 200 families have migrated from the region.
“The extreme poverty is causing many to migrate from our municipality,” Pedro tells Al Jazeera, adding that families started leaving in 2017 due to lack of opportunities in the town.
“The prices of the products that we produce here do not have any value,” Pedro says. “Farmers have to work day to night, but there is no return. Because of this, many are migrating.”
San Antonio Secortez sits in the lush Guatemalan department of Alta Verapaz. Here, the land is among the most important assets for rural farmers.
For centuries, peasant farmers have faced the rampant expansion of agro-industry. This has led to extensive inequalities of land ownership, especially for the indigenous Q’eqchi’ communities.
The community of San Antonio Secortez was founded in the early 1980s after years of struggle to gain access to the land, which according to Caal was once owned by General Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia, the dictator of Guatemala between 1978 and 1982.
It was a difficult struggle. The Guatemalan military carried out massacres across the region during the dictatorship of Lucas Garcia and the subsequent administration of Efrain Rios Montt.
“It was dangerous and it was a long struggle,” Domingo says. “There wasn’t any liberty to carry out these type of actions.”
Domingo was 27 years old when he won the rights to the land. He left this victory for his children.
Yet in the decades since the community has been heavily affected by the lack of opportunity and by climate change, these factors are driving many to make the dangerous journey to the US.
“There is less rain every day and it is getting warmer,” Domingo says.
What little is produced is not enough to support the family.
“Here, there is no opportunity to work, we are receiving low pay for what we produce and everyday things are more expensive,” Claudia says. “My husband decided to go to the United States to find the means to support our family.”
Nery worked nearly 0.4 hectare of land. Through this, the family earns around 700 quetzals (roughly $90) every six months following the biannual corn harvest.
Expanding production was not an option.
“We could not sell more since we needed the corn ourselves,” Claudia says. “And we could not plant any more since there was not any more land.”
It pains us deeply that we lost our daughter while in search of a better life.
According to Claudia, her husband had attempted to find work on the nearby palm oil plantations the previous year, but no one was hiring.
It was earlier this year that her husband began to talk about migrating to the US. His goal was to earn money to buy more land to support the family.
Unlike other neighbours, Caal did not mortgage his land to get the money to pay the smugglers, locally known as coyotes, to arrange his trip to the US.
“My husband never had a debt with the coyotes. He has a debt with our neighbours and family members,” Claudia says.
The stress of having to pay back the money weighs hard on Claudia, she says. For now, though, she must prepare to bury her daughter, whose body is scheduled to return to her community on Sunday.
“It pains us deeply that we lost our daughter while in search of a better life.”