“It was a nice little town,” Maria explains as she sets the food on the table. Sitting down she continues, “a safe place to grow up.” Her eyes are full of memories as she drifts back to a previous time; she even draws a little map of the local fútbol field and her old house on a napkin. The mood changes when she begins to talk about how the small Guatemalan town has changed for the worse since her childhood. Her sadness is palpable as we begin to eat and she starts describing a recent visit to her hometown, which hugs the border with Mexico. Now, she paints a picture of a place under siege by Mexican drug gangs and booming levels of crime and delinquency.
I stayed in Maria’s house during a recent trip to Central America and, unfortunately, her story is not unique, as the Mexico-Guatemala border has become a very dangerous place for many. While coverage most commonly focuses on the important issues surrounding the border seperating the U.S. from Mexico, there is a border even further south. The one between Mexico and Guatemala cuts through a terrain consisting of jungles and volcanoes that stretches from the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean. Along this other border, running along Mexico’s sourthern expanse, a drama of drug-related violence and illegal immigration is being played out daily.
Drugs Northward Tropism
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Americans’ demand for drugs affects the daily lives of local residents living far south of Mexico. Huge quantities of drugs pass through the Central American land bridge on their trip to consumers in North America. The three northernmost countries of Central America, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, have the highest murder rates in the region, much higher than those in adjacent Mexico. According to a recent story in the Washington Post, the homicide rate in El Salvador is 71 per 100,000 (Honduras: 67 per 100,000, Guatemala: 52 per 100,000), compared to 14 per 100,000 in Mexico. Much of the violence encountered in Central America is fueled by Mexican gangs, like Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel, whose members compete with local traffickers for control of the all-important drug transportation routes.
The border between Mexico and Guatemala is porous, allowing drugs to cross over en masse. It is also reported that there are many more illegal border crossings than authorized ones. The amount of drugs that pass into Mexico from Guatemala is not certain; however, according to a 2007 UN report, cocaine seizures in the region have increased fourfold since 2004. These drugs must cross into Mexico before they ever reach the U.S border.
Drug smugglers also use alternatives to the overland route to transport their cargoes in order to confound anti-drug officials. In December of 2009 the Heraldo de Chiapas, a newspaper distributed in the southern Mexican province of Chiapas, reported the discovery of four boat launches. These were often utilized to haul out boats transporting illegal drugs from Guatemala. Often fast boats are used, but larger vessels are also utilized to move large amounts of cocaine. The report described how the Mexican “Federal Police intercepted [a] cargo of cocaine hidden in 560 bags of concrete…a weight of 147 Kilograms.”
Guatemala’s Inability to React
The Guatemalan government is well aware of the magnitude of drugs moving though the nation; however, it is largely inert when it comes to reacting in order to curb the flow. Mexican drug syndicates are increasingly moving their operations south to gain more effective control of routes transporting Andean cocaine shipments and to avoid the increasing pressure on them in Mexico. These lethal organizations are also drawn to Guatemala by the perception that they will be able to operate more easily with less pressure from the police. The International Crisis Group prepared a report in June 2010 that described the failure of Guatemala’s post-peace accord security forces as “ineffective and deeply corrupt police.” The report also cites that high levels of impunity exist, which allow criminal organizations hailing from elsewhere, in addition to local groups, to operate in Guatemala with “little to no fear from prosecutors.” In fact, according to the Washington Post, “Of 6,548 murders last year, 423 suspects were arrested.” This de facto impunity is a critical, demoralizing part of the problem that the government of Guatemala must face in its response to the threat posed by the drug traffickers.
In Guatemala, there is a struggle for the government to exert sovereignty over the country. Guatemalans’ confidence in their government is languishing as high level officials continue to be accused of corruption related to drug trafficking. The government’s image is further tarnished by the fact that drug syndicates often run clinics, schools, or recreational facilities. By taking over these roles which are traditionally assumed by the government in more coherent societies, drug gangs increase their credibility in the communities in which they operate, while damaging the government’s reputation at the same time. This crisis in government outreach has been recognized by a number of organizations, some of which reported that seven of Guatemala’s twenty-two provinces may be under the control of criminal organizations.
Drugs are not the only illegal goods slipping over the Guatemala-Mexico border. Exotic animals, stolen cars, illicitly harvested timber from state forests, and weapons are also moved across secretly or through bribery. As is the case with its northern counterpart, the southern border of Mexico witnesses the daily entry of deadly small arms. For example, a few weeks ago, La Prensa Libre, a Guatemalan newspaper, reported that Mexican officials had seized seventeen illegal weapons which included AK-47s and AR-15s. These arms are just a few examples of the probably low estimate of 70,000 weapons coming from Guatemala that have been seized by the Mexican government since it began an initiative to halt the flow of guns being shipped from its their southern neighbor in December 2006. It is thought that weapons seized by Mexican authorities represent only a fraction of those that finally make it across the border and into Mexico.
Guatemala is awash with weapons because of its own decades-long civil war. More than ten years after the peace accords that brokered an end to the protracted conflict, Guatemala still struggles with the proliferation of small arms and high levels of violent crime. Last year, Guatemala introduced an overdue law to limit the sale of arms and tighten ownership restrictions, but this has not yet been able to significantly alter the reality of easy access to readily available small arms.
Many standard goods also move across the border into Mexico so that they can be exported to the U.S. In fact, the Governor of Chiapas, Juan Guerrero, has been quoted as saying, “the [legal] exports of Guatemala have an opportunity in the Port of Chiapas; they are welcome[d] like part of Mexico, so that they can be exported to the United States.” In a similar spirit, the Mexican Ambassador to Guatemala, Eduardo Ibarrola Nicolín, hopes that the border can be seen “not as a nightmare or a problem but as a fountain of opportunities.”
Immigrants En Route to the U.S.
I met Gabriela while volunteering with a non-profit group in Honduras and was struck by her story. It was her first day of work and, as she sat down for lunch with her new co-workers, Gabriela chatted about her hometown, Minas de Oro, and her young child. Gabriela had just started working at the small office in Siguatepeque, Honduras, and the light hearted mood in the break room turned more sober when she described her search for employment. Things had become desperate for her in the months before she found this job. “If I had not been employed by this organization I would have gone north,” she explained, referencing her planned journey to the United States. When questioned about the details of the plan, she vaguely explained how she would travel north through Guatemala and Mexico to find work in the United States.
A large number of immigrants from Central America and beyond are drawn by an economic pull, but many are also fleeing soaring levels of violence in their home countries. Accurate numbers are hard to come across but, according to one report by National Geographic, more than 400,000 Central Americans on average cross into Mexico illegally every year. Some search for work in Mexico while others are intent on continuing to the United States.
The border is quite porous; often the crossing involves nothing more than paying for a raft-ride across the river and a ten dollar bribe to a soldier. Poor law enforcement, however, hardly guarantees an easy trip for immigrants, who face multiple dangers around the border area. Journeyers are constantly at risk of being robbed or raped by the numerous outlaws who frequent the usual migration routes. Taxi drivers have been said to alert immigration officials or muggers to the presence of vulnerable looking people in order to collect a payoff.
Once they have entered Mexico from Guatemala through the southern border, the travelers must make their way through the country. The journey through Mexico can also be dangerous as immigrants often attempt to sneak onto trains headed north or traverse areas under the surveillance of thieves on foot or on bicycle. One thing is for certain: by the time Central American immigrants arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, they usually have already overcome a host of deadly obstacles.
In a 2007 survey, the Pew Hispanic Center reported that in the United States there is a population of over three million people who identify themselves as being of Central American origins. Many of these people entered through legal processes, but others first crossed the border of Guatemala and Mexico illegally. The large number of immigrants from Central America illustrates just how many people have undertaken an odyssey with the specific intention of evading law enforcement officials.
At times, it seems that everyone in the region knows someone who has travelled to the United States. To test this theory, I took an informal survey of one classroom in Siguatepeque, Honduras last February. I asked a class of about thirty students to raise their hand if they had any relatives who were currently in the United States. Nearly every student eagerly threw a hand up.
The Inter-American Development bank reported that in 2004 nearly USD 8 billion were being sent annually back to Central American countries in the form of remittances. The movement of residents northward clearly has a very notable impact not only on the communities that migrants pass through and arrive in, but also on those communities from which they depart. Many of these communities back in the home country rely on remittances for financial support, and it is that burden that motivates many job seeking migrants.
Even as U.S. citizens call upon their local as well as national leaders, demanding a more secure and less porous border in southern Mexico, U.S. drug users demand more access to drugs, and U.S. employers demand an availability of cheap labor. It is not hard to determine which message is being more clearly heard. Guatemala is just one of a number of countries affected by the policies and markets of the U.S. The violence, trafficking, and smuggling of contraband around the border of Guatemala and Mexico are symptomatic of broader regional challenges. At the same time, the impact of such a sensitive border being so penetrable is undeniable. The Guatemalan government is ill-equipped to control the central regions of its country, let alone the 550 mile frontera that runs along its northern and eastern border. The implications for Mexico are also immense as it grapples with drug syndicates and violence from the north and the south. For now, the town that Maria grew up in remains a victim of hemispheric forces that are being so strongly felt, not only along The Rio Grande, but also around Mexico’s southern border.