We're only halfway through 2018, and more unaccompanied minors from Guatemala have been detained at the U.S. border than the year before.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the number of unaccompanied Guatemalan minors seeking entry into the United States is at a historic 17,649.
Meanwhile, 33,389 Guatemalan families have been detained at the border. That’s almost a third higher than the entire previous year.
The California Report wanted to get an independent, nuanced understanding of why so many people -- many of them vulnerable children -- are fleeing this Central American country for the United States, some of whom are entering the U.S. illegally.
So for three days, I toured the country from Guatemala City to the mountainous highlands to the Guatemala coast south of Chiapas, Mexico.
This is what I found.
Guatemala City is a mismatch of big shopping malls, high-end stores and extreme poverty. It’s common to see shopping centers with modern, shiny glass facades next to tin-roofed bodegas selling hot meals and phone cards. The city is divided into zones, and each zone has its own reputation with locals.
Zona 4 is where the hipsters are -- not quite gentrified, but getting there. There are coffee bars and art stores similar to what one would find in Midtown Sacramento. Zona 11 is the financial district, meaning there are big banks, a Porsche dealership and shopping malls on every block. Zona 10 is the nightlife district -- think dance halls, TGI Fridays and a few small casinos. And Zona 1 is the heart of Guatemala City, home to the oldest neighborhoods and many of the city's social services.
One of those service centers is Casa Del Migrante. The center houses “retornados” from the U.S., as well as immigrants fleeing violence in Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Many of the families arrive without clothes or other basic necessities.
Part of the mission is to help migrants find work, regardless of whether they are returning to or leaving Guatemala. The country has a relatively low unemployment rate, around 4 percent, but most jobs pay very little.
Job coordinator Lucrecia Oliva told us that for retornados who come back to Guatemala City after being in the United States, it can take decades to rebuild their lives.
“Unfortunately, our society here sees people who have been deported as criminals,” said Oliva. “That they did something bad in the United States and that’s why they’re deported. If they’re not deported but they return with money, with resources, they are seen as heroes. But if they’ve been deported, they’re treated as they did something very bad. And they feel that, because of the way they look, the way they talk, there is a lot of prejudice.”
It’s also hard for indigenous people to find work in Guatemala City, as there is a deep racism in the city held by some of European descent toward their native compatriots. In fact, according to the United Nations, 79 percent of the indigenous population here lives in “extreme poverty.”
The Road to Huehuetenango
There is a constant flow of old U.S. school buses in and out of Guatemala City. These buses are decorated in neon lights, and named as boats would be in the U.S. -- for example, there’s a bus named “Blanca Estrada” and “Norte Estrada.”
These buses often don’t stop, even at designated pickup points. Instead, they slow down, and the passengers run and jump on board, throwing their luggage up to a young man who stays perched at the top, roped to a luggage rack. These buses run at all hours, shuttling indigenous passengers from their native homes in and out of Guatemala City. Many head to the Guatemalan highlands. This is where the minority indigenous population lives.
The highway to the town of Huehuetenango is a semi‐paved collection of deep potholes on a narrow path. Our rental car shook so much from the road that the front bumper would fall off. I inhaled thick clouds of diesel exhaust from the buses and their rich‐burning engines.
On this road, I saw three bodies on the highway.
One motorcyclist near the town of Mixco was either shot or hit by a car -- regardless, what was once the back of the man’s head had come out of his helmet and spilled out onto the street.
Further north in the town of Chimaltenango, two bodies lay on the ground, their motorcycle 50 yards away.
An officer told us the men worked for drug cartels and were killed by police.
“They caught some sicarios,” he said. “Thank god ... they weren’t able to carry out their mission.”
The roads stay backed up for hours after the killings.
Ultimately, it took nine hours to drive 134 miles to the town of Huehuetenango, the capital of the region where most Guatemalan migrants come from.
The ancient cradle of the Mayan civilization, Huehuetenango is a town of small dwellings, a few pharmaceutical companies and an open sewer that can be smelled from almost any point in the town.
According to U.N. statistics, 90 percent of the people here live in absolute poverty. In real terms, what this means is there are few schools, dirt roads, and no water service to most of the 88,000 people in the area.
Throughout the day, women meet at a municipal water hole in the center of town near the open sewer, where they wash their family’s clothes. Girls as young as four years old use concrete washboards to scrub the stains out of shirts, while women as old as 80 scoot to the side as men fill up jugs to take clean water to their homes.
The Road to Champerico
Huehuetenango is isolated from the rest of the country by high mountains and bad roads. To get a sense of life in the valley and the coast, I head toward the beach town of Champerico.
In the high mountains, I see young indigenous children play soccer in front of small huts with clay roofs. Sometimes traffic stops for goat and sheep herders, who lead their animals to graze the deep green grass that grows on subvertical mountainsides.
Young people often stop traffic here by putting a rope up across the roadway. These roped roads are guerrilla tollways. Children swarm the car when the driver stops. To avoid the children, most drivers just go faster, forcing the kids to pull the rope off the road or watch it fly into the air when the car hits it.
Garbage is piled in lots on the side of mountains or in the valleys. There are no garbage trucks and no landfills, so the locals either burn their trash or dump it on public property. Often the trash is sorted by item in these impromptu dumpsites. There are diaper-pile trash sites, where hundreds of used diapers have been thrown on the side of the road.
Eventually, the windy mountain road turns into a series of straight lines in various valleys and through a host of little hamlets and towns. While each population center is similarly anchored by both a church and municipal hall, there are differences in what the vendors on the side of the road sell to passers-by: bananas, coconuts, leather goods, water, colorful indigenous dresses, baskets, melons and so on.
The traffic typically slows to a crawl in each town, offering creative vendors a captive audience to hawk their wares.
Traffic begins to move on the final 30 miles of our journey. The road connecting the town of Retalhuleu to Champerico is smooth and straight, an investment made during a time when Guatemalan officials hoped to turn the beach into a tourist destination. But located as it is south of Chiapas, Mexico -- one of the most drug-worn areas in the world -- Champerico has remained impoverished and crime-ridden.
It was night when I checked into a local hotel a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean. For a large room with three beds, I pay the equivalent of $35. The rooms are without air conditioning, and it's 95 degrees. The woman looks surprised to see an American, and asks if I’m lost and how long I’ll be staying.
The hotel owner tells me to lock the car up at a nearby neighbor’s house. A man walks over and directs me to follow him to his home. I drive slowly behind him as he pedals his bike. A few blocks away, he opens a double-gated car park. I park the car and lock the doors.
Nearby, I can hear the crashing of ocean waves. I head toward them, but the man tells me not to head to the beach at night.
“It’s too dangerous,” he says, without clarifying what he’s talking about.
I ball up the sheets from the other bed, and hold them while I sleep, so they can soak up the sweat that’s pooling up on me, trapped by the ocean’s heat and humidity.
The next morning, the driver's side door is unlocked. I check the rest of the car, and see that the fender has been removed and reattached overnight.
I don’t ask the man about it and try to forget I noticed it.
Before I leave, I stop by the beach.
There, a 10-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother carry machetes, coconuts and straws in a big red bucket. I buy two coconuts from them, and sit on the beach. The siblings walk around trying to sell the rest of the coconuts. After being rebuffed by the vacationing Mexicans, I watch as brother and sister begin sword-fighting with the machetes, using the coconuts as bombs. Seven-foot waves crash behind them as they run on the black volcanic sand.
After a few minutes, the two get bored and ask me to buy more coconuts. They plop down next to me, tired under the hot noon sun. We talk about what they want to be when they grow up. The girl tells me she wants to be a police officer. Her little brother says he wants to be a robber with the cartels.
“I’d catch you,” the girl tells him. “And put you in jail.”
“I’d kill you,” the boy says, laughing, pointing his machete at her.
The sister’s eyes get big with play anger, and she grabs her machete. The two start sword-fighting again, swinging machetes as they run down the beach.