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Migrant Justice: Texas migrant deaths highlight growing desperation in Guatemala

by Jeff Abbott

Families are in mourning after dozens were found dead in an abandoned trailer en route to a ‘better future’.

Tzucubal, Guatemala – Silence echoed in the dusty streets of the Indigenous Mayan Kiche community of Tzucubal in Guatemala’s western highlands on a recent afternoon, as a few children rode by on bicycles.

The community was in mourning after two local teenagers who had left for the United States were found dead late last month in an abandoned trailer in Texas. A total of 53 people from Mexico and Central America died after being trapped inside the vehicle in the sweltering summer heat on the outskirts of San Antonio.

This past weekend, neighbours and family members gathered in Tzucubal to remember two of the Guatemalan victims: cousins Pascual Melvin Guachiac, 13, and Juan Wilmer Tulul, 14. Pascual’s childhood home buzzed with activity as his grandmother, Manuela Coj, worked alongside other family and friends to prepare food for people visiting to express their condolences.

“Our family is saddened by the loss,” she told Al Jazeera in her native Kiche language, speaking through a translator. “His dream was to finish his studies there in the United States. He wanted to leave a better future for his family members.”

The young boy had planned to join his father, who had been in the US for a year. But in the wake of the tragedy, his father returned to Guatemala to be with the family.

Down a narrow, unpaved road and along a footpath that passes through a cornfield, sits the home of Pascual’s cousin, Juan. His father appeared overwhelmed with grief.

“My sister and brother-in-law are in pain; neither can speak,” the victim’s uncle, Manuel Tziac, told Al Jazeera. “My nephew left just weeks ago. There is a dream that ended on the way. He died due to poverty.”

Searching for opportunities

Both families told Al Jazeera that they had not received any support from the Guatemalan government, which has been slow to provide information on the tragedy. The Guatemalan foreign ministry told reporters that it would continue to work with families and US authorities to identify the bodies.

The continuing flow of migration has highlighted a growing desperation in Guatemala, driving children to set off for the US in search of opportunities.

“The majority of children [from Tzucubal] go to the United States,” local teacher Cristobal Sipac told Al Jazeera, noting that children as young as 12 are deciding to migrate. “They finish 6th grade, but they do not want to continue studying, because there is no work here. So it is better to go there [to the US].”

Approximately half of Guatemalans live in poverty, with Indigenous communities particularly affected – a situation made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus crisis has had “catastrophic consequences in terms of wellbeing, because it is affecting prices at a general level”, Jonathan Menkos, an economist who heads the Central American Institute of Fiscal Studies, told Al Jazeera.

Most Guatemalans work in the informal sector, where wages are low. In Tzucubal, people earn up to 75 quetzals ($10) a day in the agricultural sector, local residents told Al Jazeera. For the minority who work in the formal sector, the minimum wage for non-agricultural work is about 3,000 quetzals a month.

At the same time, Guatemala has seen a sharp increase in the costs of goods and services; in Tzucubal, a pound of meat costs about 50 quetzals, residents say.

Critics say the Guatemalan government has done little to address the enormous migration wave. Congresswoman Andrea Villagran told Al Jazeera that the government appears “more interested in the remittances [migrants] send to sustain the economy”. Last year, the country received more than $15bn in remittances.

After the Texas tragedy, an activist in San Antonio confronted Foreign Minister Mario Bucaro about how the Guatemalan government would respond. The minister replied that Guatemala’s economy was “the most resilient” in the region.

Villagran called the timing of that comment “absurd”, noting that economic benefits do not trickle down to the people: “They [migrants] are the reflection of the great inequality.”