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'There Is Nothing For Us Here': Why People Keep Leaving Guatemala


Since 2016, more than 90,000 Guatemalans have been deported by air from the United States. Most fled north to escape extreme violence and poverty. When Vice President Mike Pence met with Central American leaders in Guatemala recently, his message was loud and clear - stop the exodus of migrants. In this week's long listen, reporter Maria Martin looks at why that's so difficult.


MARIA MARTIN, BYLINE: Every day, there are at least three planeloads of what are called los vuelos de los deportados, the flights of the deportees. Each bring some 75 to 130 dazed Guatemalans back to their homeland.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: When they land, carrying nothing more than a small backpack, the returnees are given a sandwich and a bottle of water and a short pep talk by a government employee.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: After that, they're mostly on their own, facing the same desperate situation that drove them north in the first place. Forty-four-year-old Juan Sebastian Tuil Mejia was deported a year ago and still can't find a job.

JUAN SEBASTIAN TUIL MEJIA: Even if, you know, went to school and you graduated and everything, it's very hard to find a job. So that's the reason why we decide to go to the States and try to complete our dreams.

MARTIN: Only 3 out of every 10 Guatemalans have a formal job. The unemployment rate is particularly high among Guatemalan youth. Tuil Mejia left when he was just 14. He worked construction in Los Angeles for 30 years before being deported a year ago. His wife and six American children are still back in California. He now fills his days volunteering as a greeter for returned migrants at the airport and often thinks about going back.

TUIL MEJIA: Of course, you know, a lot of people are going to try to go back again because, financially, we're not doing OK. So there's nothing for us here.

MARTIN: Some returnees wind up at the migrant refuge called Casa del Migrante in Guatemala City, which has been more crowded in the last few months. Twenty-three-year-old Hicer Hernando arrived after coming on one of today's flights. He says he's afraid to go back to his community in the province of Izabal.

HICER HERNANDO: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: Hicer says he fled his community and tried to enter the United States after his father was killed in a machete attack due to religious differences.

HERNANDO: (Through interpreter) Because we are Catholics and they are evangelical Christians.

MARTIN: Guatemala is one of the most violent countries the Western Hemisphere. Its weak government is no match for the drug traffickers, vicious street gangs and corrupt politicians that control many levels of society, says Casa del Migrante's director, Father Mauro Verzeletti.

MAURO VERZELETTI: (Through interpreter) Corruption has taken over our governments. They've been co-opted by narco traffickers and organized crime.

MARTIN: Verzeletti says deportations won't stop Central Americans who see migration as their only hope.

VERZELETTI: (Through interpreter) Practically, it's like a game of pingpong. Why? Because the United States deports, and the migrants keep on migrating. Our studies show that 95 percent of those we've studied intend to migrate again.


MARTIN: Many returnees with no other options head back to their villages.

MARTINA: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: Twenty-year-old Martina, a young Indigenous woman living in a small village in northern Guatemala, lives not only in poverty but also in fear and terror.

MARTINA: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: She was raped by a neighbor when she was just 13. When her family filed a legal complaint, Martina and her parents suffered death threats. She says she couldn't take it anymore.

MARTINA: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: Martina says she wanted to be in a safer place. She had a sister in the United States and tried to find refuge there, first in 2012, then in 2016, but was deported from the border both times.

MARTINA: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: Now Martina says she doesn't leave her house for fear that her rapist, who was released from jail early, will fulfill his threat to kill her and her family in this country with one of the highest rates of violence against women. For this reason, she asked we only use her first name.

MARTINA: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: Martina sometimes thinks of trying to go north again but has heard that asylum for women fleeing violence is becoming harder to get. And she now has a baby and has heard that children have been separated from their parents.

A few hours from Martina's village is the bustling Q'anjob'al Maya community of San Pedro Soloma. At least 50 percent of Guatemalans are of Maya descent and live in rural communities like this one. Migration north started here in the 1960s when people fled a civil conflict the U.N. has called a genocide against the Maya. Now at least half of the families in San Pedro have someone living in the United States, and they sent millions home by way of remittances.


MARTIN: Don Sebastian Gaspar owns the largest store in town, selling everything from electronics to toys. He says remittances allow villagers improvements they couldn't previously afford.

DON SEBASTIAN GASPAR: (Through interpreter) In the communities, now there are cement-block homes. In the time of our grandfathers, it would be straw roofs. Now you can see houses with terraces and two or three stories. And instead of people barefoot, now just about everyone has a pair of leather shoes.

MARTIN: On this busy Sunday, hundreds of San Pedroans are lined up to cash in their remittances. Tomas went to the U.S. as a teenager and now has a business in Mexico. He says that if remittances shrink, it will be disaster for this community.

TOMAS: (Through interpreter) In reality, people would die of hunger. There's not much work here. It would be total chaos.

MARTIN: Father Dionisio, pastor of San Pedro's Catholic Church, says that, ironically, the Trump administration's hard-line immigration policy, instead of decreasing migration, may actually contribute to the worsening of social and economic conditions that may spur it even more.

DIONISIO: (Through interpreter) It's like trying to cover up the headwaters of a stream. If you do it, everything dries up.

MARTIN: "And the result," he says, "there will be more poverty and social conflict."

For NPR News, I'm Maria Martin in Antigua Guatemala.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Reporting for this story was made possible with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. ] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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