Central America: Staying and Leaving

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Images: Courtesy of Front Line Defenders, https://www.frontlinedefenders.org

Human rights defenders in Guatemala are under attack, the Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns said in an appeal for solidarity last week, citing 391 reported attacks against human rights defenders, including 26 killings and 147 cases of criminalization in 2018.

Two of those threatened by the current Guatemalan government are Maryknoll affiliates in Guatemala. These human rights defenders have been targeted because of their defense of the country’s Constitutional Court. This is one more chapter in the ongoing saga of human rights violations in Guatemala. (Here’s a link to the Maryknoll call to action, related to this specific case.)

These defenders have not fled the country to seek asylum. If they do, they will not be welcomed by the United States, which no longer welcomes any asylum seekers. (“This country is full,” the current U.S. president insisted at the border, calling for an end to all asylum and the abolition of the immigration court system and all judges.)

“Congress has to act,” Trump said. “They have to get rid of catch and release, chain migration, visa lottery, they have to get rid of the whole asylum system because it doesn’t work, and frankly, we should get rid of judges.”

Despite the physical and legal barriers thrown up against them, asylum seekers and economic migrants continue to head north from Central America.


In a stunning and sometimes stomach-turning report in the New York Times, Sonia Nazario describes the plight of women in Honduras and why they flee for their lives. Nazario, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Enrique’s Journey, tells story after story of women with no recourse in their own country. 

“It’s wrong to turn our backs on vulnerable women under any circumstances, but especially when they are coming from countries like Honduras, where the government is doing virtually nothing to protect them and is sometimes itself th e predator.

“Honduras is one of the world’s deadliest places to be a woman — a 2015 survey ranked it in the top five countries, with El Salvador and Syria. According to official statistics, 380 Honduran women were murdered last year (slightly fewer than in recent years), in a country with roughly the population of New York City. But no one believes the government’s numbers. The number of women who have “disappeared” continues to rise….

“A 2018 study of cases in San Pedro Sula found that more than 96 percent of women’s murders go unpunished. The prosecutor’s office blamed this largely on family members being afraid to testify — in a place where you can buy a hit on a person for $50 and no one believes the police can or will protect them. Of 783 killings of women in Cortés between 2013 and 2018, prosecutors here say that just 17 percent have begun a court process and an estimated 12 percent will get a verdict — statistics they trot out as an improvement.

“Government entities work with police and narcos and gangs to hide cases sometimes,” said Belinda Domínguez, the coordinator of Choloma’s Women’s Office. She described prosecutors purposefully losing files or slow-walking cases, and corrupt cops tipping off accused criminals as soon as a complaint is filed. Prosecutors who actually did their jobs have ended up dead.”


Not all migrants flee violence. Some leave because they have no way to feed their families. In a series filled with personal stories and in-depth reporting, the New Yorker described their plight and their flight.

The first article in the series describes the impact of climate change on remote highland villages in Guatemala. Residents there never made much more than a subsistence living, planting corn and potatoes to feed their families. Now, nowever, climate change has brought more frost than before, less rain, and new kinds of insect pests.

Funding for agricultural projects responding to climate change made a difference for some, and began to show a way forward. Then the Trump administration ended all funding for the Climate, Nature, and Communities Program.

“In 2014, a group of agronomists and scientists, working on an initiative called Climate, Nature, and Communities of Guatemala, produced a report that cautioned lawmakers about the region’s susceptibility to a new threat. The highlands, they wrote, “was the most vulnerable area in the country to climate change.”…

“Of the ninety-four thousand immigrants deported to Guatemala from the U.S. and Mexico last year, about half came from this region.”

Migrating to the United States is expensive and difficult. There is no legal route, no “line” for would-be immigrants. Instead,  most pay smugglers to help them get across the border, running up debts, mortgaging their homes, often to no avail.

“These days, average migrant debts have climbed so high that a U.S. wage is the only real way to pay them off,” Johnson told me. The Trump Administration has only exacerbated the situation. By focussing almost exclusively on harsher enforcement at the border, it has made crossing much more painful but no less urgent for those who are trying to alleviate mounting debts. “Deportation doesn’t seem to deter undocumented migration,” Johnson said, “so much as to reinforce it.”

“[Lopez] recognized that the odds were against him, but he had to concede that, at a certain point, he might have little choice but to try again. “The only way I could ever take care of this debt is to get to the United States,” he said. There were tears in his eyes as he said this; when I looked over at his grandfather, he was crying, too. “If you don’t make it to the U.S., the bank takes your house,” Don Julio said. “If you do make it, it’s a blessing from God.”

Despite the danger, difficulty, and debt that accompany attempts to migrate, people keep leaving. Many feel they have no alternative. Money from relatives in the United States keeps families and whole communities afloat.

“People can afford milk and eggs because of the remittances they receive,” Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, a social anthropologist from Quetzaltenango, told me. “They can build houses. Their children can get an education. And people can start small businesses. The only way poor indigenous women can afford their traditional dress is because of remittance money.”

Last year, remittances from family members in the United States to their relatives in Guatemala totaled about nine billion dollars.

That’s nine billion, with a B.

In contrast, U.S. aid to the region is about $300 million. Last year, remittances from Guatemalans living abroad made up more than 11 percent of Guatemala’s gross domestic product.

The New Yorker writers visited the small town of Cajolá, where remittance money pays for home building.

“Each remittance house in the western highlands tells its own story. …

“His older son’s house, which is next door to the construction site, is already finished; his wife and five-year-old daughter, whom he’s never met, live there, and so do Vaíl, his wife, and Vaíl’s own parents. Vaíl estimated that a quarter of Cajolá’s population had emigrated to the U.S. When I asked why, he pointed to a hundred-pound bag of maize. “That’s Mexican maize,” he said. Since the mid-nineties, large industrial producers in Mexico and the U.S. have been flooding the Guatemalan market with cheap maize; families like Vaíl’s, who used to sell and eat their own, could not compete. “More people living in the U.S. are now sending their money back for houses because of Trump,” he continued. “They want to protect themselves in case they get deported. They need to have a house to come back to.”

Human rights defenders, farmers in the highlands, women fleeing violence, others threatened by gangs: each migrant family has their own story. Migration is a last resort: these stories help to understand some of the reasons that people make the dangerous journey north.


About Mary Turck

News Day, written by Mary Turck, analyzes, summarizes, links to, and comments on reports from news media around the world, with particular attention to immigration, education, and journalism. Fragments, also written by Mary Turck, has fiction, poetry and some creative non-fiction. Mary Turck edited TC Daily Planet, www.tcdailyplanet.net, from 2007-2014, and edited the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, in its pre-2008 version. She is also a recovering attorney and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues.
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