A stark choice for some Guatemalans: watch crops wither, and maybe die with them, or migrate.
NENTÓN, Guatemala — To understand why President Trump’s new sanctions and other flailing to end Central American immigration aren’t working, step into the dark, melancholy hovel of Ana Jorge Jorge.
She lives in Guatemala’s western highlands in the hillside village of Canquintic, near the town of Nentón, and she’s a widow because of the American dream.
Her husband, Mateo Gómez Tadeo, borrowed thousands of dollars and migrated north to the United States several years ago after his crops here failed. He found work in Alabama cutting flowers but then caught an infection and died, leaving hungry children back home and a huge debt hanging over the family.Two of their sons, aged 7 and 14, soon died as well, apparently of malnutrition-related illnesses. Jorge Jorge pulled another son, Juan, out of school in the second grade so that he could work in the fields and help pay off the debt. If it isn’t paid, lenders will seize the family land.
“We all suffer now,” Jorge Jorge told me grimly. “I have to struggle daily.”
If any family understands the risks of traveling to the United States, it’s this one. Yet Juan, now 11, is talking about trying to make his own way north. And Jorge Jorge, while terrified at the prospect of losing him, approves.
“I say, ‘Go,’” she said bleakly. “‘There’s nothing here, so go.’”
I’m on my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a university student on a reporting trip, and we’ve come to Guatemala to report on migration. My student winner, Mia Armstrong of Arizona State University, and I have heard from innumerable Guatemalans that the most fundamental driver of emigration is desperation — and, to an extent that most Americans don’t appreciate, this desperation often reflects drought and severe weather linked to climate change.
“Food doesn’t grow here anymore,” Jorge Jorge said. “That’s why I would send my son north.”
There are other factors as well, and the despair also reflects a marginalization of Mayan communities that goes back hundreds of years, presided over in the capital by an incompetent kleptocracy. But climate change is aggravating the desperation.
“The weather has changed, clearly,” said Flori Micaela Jorge Santizo, a 19-year-old woman whose husband has abandoned the fields to find work in Mexico. She noted that drought and unprecedented winds have destroyed successive corn crops, leaving the family destitute, adding, “And because I had no money, my children died.”
A third son, now 14, will be the next to try his luck. Remaining as crops fail and children suffer is not an option.
“There’s no rain, and no way to grow crops,” Mateo Mateo said. “One can’t live here.”
Human rights officials and activists have warned that the rule of law in Guatemala is under threat after a UN-backed special prosecutor was banned from re-entering the country – the latest in a series of clashes between the government and an international anti-corruption commission.
The country’s human rights ombudsman, Jordán Rodas, said in a statement on Tuesday that the government’s actions destabilize the rule of law, and expressed his dismay at “the arbitrary measures of the Government of the Republic that undermine democracy”.
Anti-corruption activists fear that the pioneering anti-corruption work of the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, Cicig, is now at risk.
Guatemala’s current president, Jimmy Morales, and his family are also the subject of multiple corruption investigations. On Friday, Morales announced he would not renew Cicig’s mandate, which ends in September 2019.
A staunch US ally, Guatemala was one of the handful of countries that backed Trump’s decision in December to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved its own embassy to the city just two days after the US relocated its diplomatic mission.
In the past, the US has been among Cicig’s strongest supporters, but it has not clearly condemned Morales’s recent attempts to derail the commission’s work. In May, Senator Marco Rubio placed a hold on $6m of US funding to Cicig, claiming the panel was being manipulated by radical elements.
Cicig’s success in bringing down corrupt officials, judges and lawyers has soared during the five-year tenure of the head commissioner, Iván Velásquez.
But on Tuesday, the government announced that Velásquez, currently in the US, would not be allowed back into the country, alleging that he was a threat to order and public security.
“The decision to declare Cicig commissioner Iván Velásquez as a threat to national security is an absurdity. The only threat to national security is the arbitrary and illegal action of a ruler accused of accepting illegal financing,” Iduvina Hernández, the director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy in Guatemala, told the Guardian.
Morales, a former TV comedian, has been accused of illicit campaign financing during his 2015 run for president and is currently facing proceedings in congress that could strip him of his immunity from prosecution, though previous attempts to do so have failed.
Last year, Morales declared Velásquez persona non grata, but a successful constitutional court challenge filed by the ombudsman Rodas reversed the measure.
Oswaldo Samayoa, a constitutional lawyer and university professor, considers the ban of Velásquez to be a violation of the 2017 ruling.
“It’s a violation of the principle of constitutional legality. It involves the disobedience of the president and therefore a crime has been committed,” he told the Guardian.
The opposition congresswoman Sandra Morán shares the widespread view that Rodas and the constitutional court are the targets of legislative reform under consideration this week in congress. The reforms would transfer powers from the supreme court to congress that can facilitate the ousting of officials, including constitutional court judges.
“If they replace one judge, the balance of power shifts,” Morán told the Guardian. “It would mean that they would have total control.”
Guatemala has a long history of authoritarian rule, particularly during a 36-year armed conflict in which US-backed state forces carried out acts of genocide against the indigenous Mayan population. Despite a 1996 peace deal, the conditions that led to the conflict remain, and the country’s fraught peace has been plagued by organized crime, drug trafficking, violence and corruption.
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, asked Velásquez to continue at the helm of Cicig from outside Guatemala until there is more clarity on the situation, the UN said on Tuesday.
But Jorge Santos, the director of Udefegua, a national human rights group, warned that there is a danger that Morales could disregard, dissolve or otherwise attack the constitutional court.
“Right now in the country there’s a really major risk of a return to the old patterns that gave rise to the Guatemalan dictatorship,” he said.