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De Guatemala a Guatepeor - or - Out of the frying pan, into the fire

By Peter Costantini ~ Seattle, Washington

In this video, a Guatemalan immigrant talks about life and work as a day laborer in Seattle.

When I asked Juan Us Tiquiram, "How was the trip from Guatemala?" he replied: "Well, I made it. The idea is to get here to the United States. And it went well since I got here."

Us, a middle-aged construction worker from the Quiché region, had traveled north two years ago seeking work to support his family in Guatemala City. Behind the stoicism of his answer lies a brutal double gauntlet that Central Americans have to run on the road north.

Migrants from Central America have to cross two dangerous borders before they arrive in the United States. The perils of the Mexico - U.S. border have made news in North America. But those of the Guatemala - Mexico border are little known here.

During a days-long trek through the jungle and then on trains and buses northward, organized crime, notably the transnational Mara Salvatrucha 13 gang, preys on the migrants entering Mexico. But even more disturbingly, many Mexican security officials join the gangs in plundering and savaging the migrants.

An "extortion network" made up of members of the Army, Navy and police systematically violates the human rights of migrants through Mexico, kidnapping, torturing and robbing thousands of Central Americans every year, according to a report delivered to Mexican President Felipe Calderón by the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants, Jorge A. Bustamante.

"Mexicans commit worse human rights violations against Central Americans than are committed against Mexicans in the United States," Bustamante told Armando Tejada of the Mexican daily La Jornada (my translation from Spanish). "Mexico, in relation to the Central American countries, is one of the world champions of human rights violations. The United States is too, of course."

On the U.S.-Mexico border, Bustamante asserted, intensified enforcement has led to over 5,000 deaths since the beginning of Operation Guardian - "That's more than all the U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq."

Within a week last November, 20 Central American women were kidnapped by armed men, apparently from drug trafficking groups, in two separate incidents in the same area in southeastern Mexico, according to a story by Diego Cevallos of Inter Press Service. "I don't see any investigation, only grief and despair," a Catholic priest who runs a nearby shelter for immigrants told Cevallos.

Hundreds of other Central American migrants have disappeared while crossing Mexico to reach the U.S., a situation that the National Human Rights Commission of Mexico termed "tragic." In February, a caravan of 26 Salvadoran women took part in what they called a "Caravan of Hope" through southern Mexico to demand information about their missing loved ones, Cevallos reported.

Staying at home in Central America, however, is not a viable option for Us and multitudes of others like him.

The heat of the polemics around "ILLEGALS" (often written in capital letters by those who have drunk the Kool-Aid), obscures that we're talking primarily about responsible human beings. The great majority of them are simply trying to eke out a minimal living for their families. When odds of doing that in their local economy get too long, desperation launches them on a dangerous journey into the unknown in search of a livelihood. Of the income they make in the U.S., many send back a considerable part to their families as remittances.

In Guatemala, with "one of the most unequal income distributions in the hemisphere," almost a third of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and 13.5 percent subsist on less than $1, according to the World Bank. Levels of infant mortality and illiteracy are "among the worst in the hemisphere." At the other end of the spectrum, the wealthiest 10 percent of the population extracts almost half of all income, while the top 20 percent receives two-thirds of the total.

Indigenous people like Us, who is Quiché and speaks Spanish as a second language, comprise over 40 percent of the population. They have been kept down economically and politically by a plantation economy and persistent racism, and suffered terribly in a long-running civil war that ended in 1996. The fighting erupted in the wake of a 1954 military coup sponsored by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency that overthrew a democratically elected government. The U.S. provided aid to the military throughout much of the war.

Over 200,000 Guatemalans died or disappeared in the conflict, some 93 percent at the hands of the military, which committed genocide against Mayan people in some regions, according to a report by the Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification, which was mandated by the peace agreement. The army's scorched-earth strategy razed hundred of villages and produced an estimated one million internal and external refugees.

Although the government of Guatemala is again democratic, the country has not been spared by the global economic crisis. Latin America Monitor forecasts a real GDP contraction of 0.6 percent for the country in 2009, "with workers' remittances collapsing at a record clip." The Mexican economy is doing even worse: the International Monetary Fund projects a 3.7 percent drop in output this year.

While Juan Us's wife makes a little money selling tortillas to her neighbors, his family still depends on the dollars that he sends back. The shortfalls experienced by them and other Guatemalans are looming for migrants around the globe, and particularly in Latin America. A recent World Bank report found that remittances from the U.S. to Latin America and the Caribbean have dropped 71 percent.

In neighboring El Salvador, 17 percent of GDP came from remittances in 2008, according to a piece by Raúl Gutiérrez of Inter Press Service. The country has a population of 5.7 million people; 2.9 million Salvadorans are living abroad, with 90 percent in the U.S.

"A crisis lies ahead: the tendency is for remittances to substantially decline in 2009 and 2010," sociologist Juan José García told Gutiérrez.

As remittances decrease, the economies of the towns and barrios that depend on them risk becoming increasingly moribund. This vicious circle means that, for those trying to support their families by working abroad, hopes of coming home to live and work there again are receding.