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After Decades of Civil War Followed by Neoliberal Reforms, Guatemala's Children are Fleeing Escalating Violence

Escaping a Failed State

by COSME CAAL

Gate 31 of the Tom Bradley International Terminal in Los Angeles is packed with white American tourists, volunteers and missionaries, waiting in little huddles. And there too are Guatemalans and American/Guatemalan children waiting to depart for Central America. Everyone chit chats. In English. In Spanish. In Spanglish. The tourists and volunteers pay us Guatemalans no mind. They exercise their civil inattention, a practice we Guatemalans consider rude and contemptuous. But no one really seems to care. We all want to go to Guatemala. I hear whispers and conversations about “dangerous Guatemala,” the incessant killings, and the deportations. Yet, here we are. Here I am, going home one more time as a transnational American.

Six hours later at the Guatemala International Airport, La Aurora, families jubilantly gather at the main gate. One by one Guatemalans get picked up by their families and go home. My ride is late. It is a chance for me to sit and observe. The white American tourists and volunteers huddle even tighter. Their faces reveal worry, even here at this very militarized airport, militarized for their safety. Their very presence is important for the Guatemalan government. They must be protected. They get picked up in a late model Mercedes Benz bus with tinted windows and an armed guard. There is a small placard on the windshield that says “Antigua,” the most secure city in the entire country. For two decades Antigua has been the main destination for white tourists from the United States and Europe. But between the airport and Antigua exists a Guatemala most tourists and volunteers never get to see. Especially white Americans.

Another world unfolds as soon as you walk out of the airport. A world buzzing with hard working people who live in perpetual fear. Extortion by well-armed and highly organized gangs is now a national problem. Most small businesses, corporations, and even sex workers and tortilla makers must pay up to these gangs upon threat of death. And there are many who refuse to pay, and even risk reporting them to the authorities. Murder is a common occurrence. Bus drivers are shot dead in broad daylight. Small storeowners or their relatives are shot on the spot. Body dumping has become commonplace.

Killing styles have become standardized. Incarcerated gang leaders dispatch two-men teams on motorcycles. The passenger is the shooter. Five to ten shots to the head and torso with a semi-automatic gun is the preferred execution method. According to the National Institute of Forensic Sciences 1,747 people have been murdered between January and May 31st of this year. Corrupt prison guards smuggle cell phones to organized crime leaders, along with any other tools they might need to guide the mayhem from behind bars.

Guatemala is virtually a war zone. Police from different federal agencies patrol in late model trucks armed with military weaponry. They swarm poor zones of the cities and countryside. Teams of soldiers led by police captains are dispatched every morning to most zones, including wealthy areas that are now fair game to extortion and kidnapping gangs. Fifty percent of the National Police patrols the capital city. Private security guards stand alert at virtually every successful business. They carry fully loaded shotguns with the safety switch off. Badly trained and under-paid, these guards have killed innocent civilians by mistake. Their fear for their own lives keeps them on edge.

No one feels safe. Not the rich, not the small business owners, and definitely not the poor. Guatemalan President Otto Perez’s promise of “Mano Dura,” or Tough Hand, against crime has proved a failure. In fact it has provoked cruel violence by gangs and organized crime.

Femicide has reached epidemic proportions too. The killing and dismembering of women picked randomly off the street has become an intimidation tactic against the Guatemalan state by gangs.

A walk from the heavily guarded Old Downtown into any zone in the city reveals gated communities with check points. Police teams randomly search men at bus stops, parks, and shopping centers. Ambulances rush by on their way to pick up another dead body. Mugging is something to be expected and be prepared for. People are unceremoniously shot dead for refusing to give up their property.

The presence of heavily armed police and private security guards does not deter crime. In fact there are recurring reports of police misconduct and corruption. According to Diego Camajá, the General Inspector of the Civil National Police, there are 12 to 17 daily reports of police corruption and brutality. Five or six of these prove to be substantiated. There are 300 open cases this year alone.

This is a war. As in any country experiencing war, Guatemalan society is coming apart at the seams. Violence has been normalized. Interpersonal violence is rampant. Two in five married women will be assaulted by their husbands. According to the bureau of National Judicial Development and Statistics violence against Guatemalan women has risen 104% over the past year. Physical and psychological abuse rose 90% over the same period. Delia Davila, director of Guatemalan Human Rights Watchdog reports that at least seventy Guatemalans seek treatment daily for psychological trauma. The most recurring issues are family violence, poverty, and post traumatic stress.

After a forty-year conflict, Guatemalans sought to build peace with the Esquipúlas peace accords in 1996. More than 200,000 people died in in the Civil War, mostly Mayan women, children and the elderly. The accords briefly represented a chance for Guatemalans to begin a national development project. But the peace accords came also with Guatemala’s more rapid incorporation into the capitalist global economy, under influence of the United States.

Following the advice of neoliberal economists already meager social services were eradicated in order to introduce private services for nominal fees. Corruption in every national ministry became necessary to introduce neoliberal policies, wrecking havoc in an already fragile nation-state. The war on drugs further militarized the Guatemalan state, arming the national police with more deadly weaponry than they had access to during the Civil War. Guatemala’s extortion gangs are well armed and highly disciplined too. They are the product of poverty and militarization and hopelessness among much of the working class. The majority of Guatemalans are caught in between these lethal pincers.

This is the reality many teenagers and children are escaping, risking the deadly route north to the United States. According to the Youth Defense chapter of Guatemalan Attorneys for Human Rights, one out of four minors migrate to the United States to escape the violence that plagues the nation. As hard as it is too believe, the situation is getting worse as the government and gangs continue escalate the war. Extortion gangs and organize crime have learned to exploit the relative impunity with which underage soldiers can carry out killings. Guatemalan laws are lenient on minors. Hence poor teenagers are recruited to kill. If they refuse, they will be murdered, or worse their family members will be hunted down. Kill or be killed is the motto among poor teenagers in the most poverty stricken zones like Zona 6 and Zona 18 of Guatemala City.

According to Enrique Leal, Secretary of Social Welfare, the incarceration of adolescents has increased dramatically this year. There are now thousands of minors housed in different jails throughout the country. The shift in tactics by extortion gang leadership promises to increase that number, especially in the capital.

The National Police report that robbery, extortion, illegal weapons, and drug possession are the four major crimes committed by 1,310 minors arrested in the capital so far this year. The PNC also reports that 2,609 weapons, mostly rifles and pistols, have been seized between February and April of this year. Extortion gang leaders are now arming their foot soldiers with grenades. To force one brewery to shell out thousands of dollars last week, minors launched grenades at three different factories and warehouses, injuring eleven heavily armed guards. Teenagers arrested during sweeps have been found to carry grenades in school backpacks. The question is, how do they have access to military weapons?

The Guatemalan government is considering passing laws to prosecute minors as adults. This is a model many Guatemalans approve of in their desperation to find an end to the terror.

As the migration crisis of Central American children grows, the Guatemalan government is mobilizing to prosecute coyotes (smugglers of humans) and the families of those children who pay them to take them north. This is the social context tens of thousands of teenagers and children are escaping, risking the route north. If they stay, they risk being coerced into gangs waging a virtual war against the society. If they fall into the hands of the state they may be imprisoned. They may be executed someday soon. If they somehow manage to avoid the state and the gangs many will still be condemned to a life of poverty, toiling at the bottom of the global economy’s labor hierarchy.

Alejandra Carrillo, of the Guatemalan National Youth Council points out that 40 percent of Guatemalan migrants are between the ages of 14 and 24. She argues that this percentage increases when the age frame is expanded to 13 and 29. Guatemala is bleeding its young people.

This is the context deported minors rounded up in Mexico and the United States will be reintroduced into. There is no real government protection of Guatemalan children. A stroll in any part of the capital city reveals thousands of children working in the informal economy along with their parents, or on their own. These are the fortunate ones who have parents to care for them. Steady work means food and shelter. It means a level of love and care regardless of their inability to go to school or have a childhood.

Hugo Moran, president of the Commission on Families and Minors announced the introduction of new laws to eradicate child labor. But laws abound in this country. They mean very little, especially for the poor. Laws are on paper. Reality is in the streets.

The situation for girls is worse. Human trafficking and sexual slavery in Central America and Mexico is rampant. There are almost weekly reports of busts in local bars in Guatemala, Tegucigalpa and San Salvador, of illegal and legal brothels, where migrant minors are held captive and force into prostitution. These girls are half raw material, half labor in the global sex industry, patronized very much by Americans and Europeans, in addition to Guatemalan and Mexican men.

Lastly, there are teenagers who have been hardened by street life. Abandoned by their parents at a very young age, they have learned to scrape together a life on the streets. Unable or unwilling to become hired killers, many opt to escape north in search of anything but the violence that surrounds them.

Guatemala is one of the most militarized nations in Latin America, yet no one feels safe, especially not young Mayan men who are continuously stopped and searched. To be dark skinned is a mark of suspicion among the police and soldiers who are increasingly groomed into this psychology, even when the majority are Mayan men themselves.

The United Nations has positioned Guatemala as the fifth most deadly nation in the world. The other four are nations in open conflict like Iraq and Afghanistan. It is mind boggling to realize that this violence is happening so near the United States border, but of course the border is very much part of the cause.

A highly religious society, Guatemalans have hope in god, and very little trust in their government. “May god light your path and bring you back home” has become a common farewell in a nation where death and abduction are too common. Unless the Guatemalan government, with the help of foreign organizations, find a solution to this unofficial internal conflict, new waves of underage migrants, many of them children, will risk the route north to the United States. “Where there is a will, there is a way” is something Guatemalans know very well. And a way out of this conflict and through the USA border they will find. Such is their desperation.

Cosme Caal is a community activist and scholar from the Americas. His interests include political mobilization of Mayans in Guatemala and Los Angeles, and the Pachakutik indigenous political organization in the Andean region.