Migrantes caminando en carretera. Foto: Foro Humanos.

The migrant caravans expose an endless drama, where vulnerable families face violence and extreme risks in search of safety and opportunities.

Author: Diana Fuentes

Human Forum

In Central America, almost a decade will soon have passed since the phenomenon of migrant caravans began. They were a catalyst for highlighting the conditions of each country and understanding their realities, as well as the various reasons for their migrations.

Some families know that this is how they will escape danger in their countries, but they do not fully grasp that the level of vulnerability is even greater when traveling irregularly, as they are victims of robbery, murder, extortion, kidnapping, and all kinds of violence committed by transnational organized crime. More than one million migrant individuals were detained between 2016 and 2020, with 43% from Guatemala, according to the Mexican Ministry of the Interior (Segob).

In Guatemala, from 2018 to 2019, the migration rate remained low, but from 2020 to 2023, the rate of people attempting to emigrate to the United States increased considerably, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

Source: ECLAC.

The economic situation and lack of academic and income-generating opportunities are the primary reasons for leaving the country, and another major reason is the violence that forces them to depart immediately.

The current president, Bernardo Arévalo, established an anti-corruption commission in February of this year, as promised during his campaign. The United States has high expectations for Arévalo to curb irregular migration from Guatemala.

The Guatemalan president stated that «the migration phenomenon is regional, therefore it requires responses that are marked by collaborative efforts among the different countries located along the transit of these human flows.

Recently, the Secretary of Homeland Security of the United States, Alejandro Mayorkas, visited Guatemala, and one of the topics on the table was irregular migration. Mayorkas emphasized, «Creating strategies that combine the expansion of safe, orderly, and legal lives for individuals, with the enforcement of strict consequences for those who do not use those legal means,» according to a note from France 24 in Spanish published on March 22, 2024.

The visit took place after tensions over migration continued to increase between Joe Biden and the state of Texas since the beginning of the year, along with various deaths of migrants at those borders.

Migrants attempting to cross borders. Photo: Human Forums.

The reality of migrant families in remote communities of Guatemala

According to Álvaro Caballeros, the Deputy Executive Secretary of the National Council for Migrant Assistance of Guatemala (CONAMIGUA), «Two major situations coincide in their territory: the issue of irregular migration and the interests of organized crime, which together imply a significant level of risk for thousands of people who see migration as an escape from their reality.»

It used to be common to travel alone, but for the past 4 years, entire families have been migrating either within caravans or individually by paying a guide, commonly known as a ‘coyote’, who are individuals trafficking migrants and charging a large sum of money to take them north irregularly.

The situation, in either case, is not encouraging for families leaving their country due to violence. Families are aware of the risks and decide to embark on their journey. El Quiché, a department in the northwest of the country, is one of the regions with the highest migration rates. According to the Guatemalan Institute of Migration, during January to February 2024, El Quiché ranked fifth with 1,372 individuals returned out of a national total of 18,000. Approximately 10,000 citizens migrated from this region alone last year.

Source: Guatemalan Institute of Migration.

Juan Hernandez from the community of Xix de Chajul shares, «The journey is not just about going; one suffers from the first day you leave your home, you don’t know if you’ll arrive or not, or what will happen. When I traveled for the first time, many companions stayed behind on the way, few of us made it through, and we were caught. I was already in Tennessee when there was a checkpoint, they chased the car we were in, pulled us out, took us to jail, and then to the airport. We were detained for 45 days, then they sent us back here.»

Juan decided to travel a second time, this time with his 15-year-old daughter. He knows how difficult the journey is, but he will still make the trip. He explains the reasons for his journey: «It’s really due to poverty in Guatemala, there are no jobs, and we don’t have land to farm to support the family and children. We can’t stay here anymore, we’re thinking of migrating to the United States.»

In many cases, the violence they face is terrible. ‘Coyotes’ decide to transport migrants in trucks, buses, or on foot, leading to accidents and deaths.

This issue is not new; the problem is that the way ‘coyotes’ operate now is trafficking people in mass to generate more income. This was the case with 166 Central Americans, mostly Guatemalans, who were traveling to the United States packed into a trailer that tragically crashed in Chiapas, Mexico in 2022.

According to information from Mexican authorities, 55 people died, and 105 were injured. Teresa Mateo Mendoza, mother of Raymundo Jovani Mateo, an 18-year-old from Chajul, Quiché, and one of the affected individuals, said, «He was my eldest son of 5 children, he was the only boy, my son saw the need to buy a house, but he died on the way, I am very sad.»

Álvaro Caballeros adds, «When there are migration attempts that do not necessarily involve the murder of the family member who carries it out, there is indeed an economic impact because families take on debts and large financial commitments and put their family heritage at risk (…) Obviously, families experience greater economic implications, a tremendous deterioration of their family economy.»

The phenomenon of traveling in groups in Guatemala is to ensure the success of the household because if a family member dies on the way, there is another who takes over and perhaps succeeds in reaching safety to start sending money back to the family remaining in Guatemala.

Deaths caused by transborder cartels

Few murder cases are lucky enough to be known and brought to light; most remain silent and impunity is total, and there are also no records of cases where people are attacked by organized crime.

In Comitancillo, San Marcos, a young migrant woman named Santa Cristina Garcia Pérez died in January 2021 due to burns suffered during her attempt to reach the United States. Oscar Pérez, a 21-year-old merchant and the victim’s brother, says, «Those who did this to my sister, let them repent. People go to the United States with the sole purpose of having a better life, chasing the American dream of earning a couple of dollars, but what they did to my sister is not fair; it really hurts to hear that they killed her and burned her; it hurts too much.»

This particular case did result in a conviction; in 2023, the Prosecutor’s Office in Tamaulipas, northeastern Mexico, sentenced 11 police officers to 50 years in prison for the murder of 19 Guatemalan migrants.

The young man assures that his sister left the country because the street vending business they had was constantly attacked by gang members in different regions of Guatemala, and the extortion money they had to pay was too much. Additionally, she wanted to undergo surgery for her younger sister who had a cleft lip. She chose to leave without knowing that it would end her life.

Extortion of businesses is a cancer in Guatemala, and labor difficulties for merchants and companies have become extremely complicated. For some, the solution is to migrate for a better future, but they encounter a path filled with risks from Mexican cartels and gangs.

Central America has become one of the most violent regions in the world. For decades, violence has increased at a rate of 62.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMI).

Insufficient Actions

Government agencies’ actions tend to be slow, and the situation has been overwhelming for decades. Former director Stuard Rodríguez, who resigned from the Guatemalan Institute of Migration on March 26 this year, talks about the Reception Center for Returnees, especially families: «This mode is for families with accompanied minors; there are also minors traveling alone, and there is the mode for adults. Today, we received 16 families with minors and are providing them with protection.

Migrants seeking asylum outside the Casa del Migrante in Tecun Uman, San Marcos. Photo: Human Forums.

This center was inaugurated on August 4, 2021, and to date, it has received constant flights of returning families. The goal is to assist minors and their parents. In the first three months of 2024, according to the Guatemalan Institute of Migration, 200 family units have returned.

A recent achievement was the implementation of the Migration Policy in Guatemala on March 5, led by Vice President Karin Herrera and national migration authorities. This agreement had been endorsed since last year but is only now being implemented. It is a guiding instrument to ensure comprehensive care for all migrants. Former director Stuard Rodriguez said, «In Guatemala, we have a strong and stable migration policy.» Despite making it clear weeks earlier that he would resign to President Bernardo Arévalo, who accepted it on March 28, leaving the IGM more unstable, Arévalo’s urgent challenge will be to find a new director to address the migration crisis.

Other government entities provide information from the year 2023. According to the Secretary of Social Works of the President’s Wife (SOSEP), they have provided assistance to over 5,000 returning migrant family units.

Data is hardly exact, each instance provides segregated information that makes it difficult to analyze and contrast to have a single detailed database and have accurate information.

President Bernardo Arévalo recently engaged with the Guatemalan community in the United States and emphasized in his speech that he will work for their relatives who are in Guatemala despite his short time as president.

The migration situation is one of the major problems for any government in office, which will hardly be solved in 4 years. However, it is an outstanding debt with the country’s migrants while facing the situation of a huge migratory flow passing through Guatemala. This generates international pressure, so political actions must be expedited because every neighboring country demands it, especially the United States.


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