RABINAL, Guatemala – Vilma Evelia Lajuj Valey comes from a village nestled in the lush, green mountains of Guatemala’s Baja Verapaz department. Where she is from, the roads are made of dirt and houses out of mudbrick. Water is sometimes scarce or contaminated with E. coli. Without money to go to university, she faces an insecure future in Guatemala, where work that pays even a basic wage is hard to come by.

We met through a colleague at the legal clinic in Rabinal where I am working this summer through McGill’s McBurney Latin America Fellowship, a program that supports projects that aim to improve the health and social conditions of poor and marginalized people in the region. The clinic – Asociación Bufete Jurídico Popular – focuses its practice on human rights, women’s rights and land rights, in this majority Indigenous area. Its work also includes pursuing members of the government from the civil war period for crimes against humanity and genocide.

During Guatemala’s civil war, Rabinal and the surrounding villages were some of the hardest hit, with thousands of people massacred or disappeared by government forces. The period between 1981 and 1983 ─ when the government tried to wipe out entire Indigenous communities like Vilma’s ─ was the bloodiest. Survivors and later generations are still coping with the trauma, trauma not only experienced by individuals, but also that perpetuated against their entire way of life. Even though the report of the Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification found that a genocide did take place, the government refuses to call the atrocities of the internal civil conflict genocide, making justice hard to attain. Former Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt was tried and convicted in 2013 for genocide and crimes against humanity, but the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned in the conviction later that year.

Personal security is always top of mind. “Cuidate!” or “be careful!” is the last thing someone tells you after you say goodbye to each other. Women must be extra vigilant – Guatemala is one of the most dangerous places for women, and the police are not trusted to protect them.

When you take all of these factors and conditions together, it is easier to understand why someone who is in their early twenties, in good health, would make the dangerous journey to the US-Mexico border to attempt to migrate. This is the complex context in which I met Vilma, in the tiny home in which she is renting a room in Rabinal. She is a member of the Maya Achi Indigenous community.

In the town of Rabinal, in Guatemala’s Baja Verapaz department. Photo by Ryan Hicks.

When I arrived, she was sitting on a twin bed in her bare bedroom, helping her nephew with his homework. This was not where she thought she would be after the last time she crossed the United States’ southern border in April 2018.

“I’m always asking God to give me the opportunity to go [to the US]. I have asked every night, because there’s no work here,” she said, sitting on the edge of the mattress.

She has crossed the border four times in the past two years. But every time she makes it across, the US border patrol catches her and flies her back to Guatemala.

“I suffered a lot in detention, in cold facilities with little to eat,” she says. “What is our fault? Our fault is crossing the border, but we have to out of necessity.”

Central American migration is in the spotlight lately because of the rise in the number of families and unaccompanied minors among the migrants over the past several years, as well as, most recently, US President Donald Trump’s much-denounced family separation policy.

Migrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) are fleeing complex humanitarian crises that have grown over decades. For this reason, the US has seen a surge in asylum requests from these countries. According the US Department of Homeland Security, more individuals from Northern Triangle countries sought asylum in the period between 2013 and 2015 than in the previous 15 years combined.

A group of immigrants from Honduras and Guatemala seeking asylum receive help at the bus station after being processed and released by US Customs and Border Protection, on June 21, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. AP Photo, by Eric Gay.

This human drama is unfolding a long way from Canada, but the foreign policy implications are not so remote. Canada has experienced various waves of Central American migration since the 1970s, waves whose timing depended on the stance of the US administration at the time. For example, Canada took in thousands of Salvadoran refugees during the 1980s at the time the United States was moving to deport them back to El Salvador, which was wracked by civil war.

More recently, the prospect of another influx of Central American asylum seekers has prompted the Canadian government to mount a communications campaign to dissuade them from attempting the trip.

But the movement of people from Northern Triangle countries is unlikely to abate. While arrests at the US southwest border were down in 2017, they are on track to rise this year. Data in the recent Migration Policy Institute report also suggests a steady increase in Central Americans crossing into the US without prior authorization.

As Ursula Roldán Andrade, a migration researcher at the Universidad Rafael Landívar in Guatemala City, said, “You have an economic situation that is difficult, where one feels threatened and you feel like you have no future. . .and that’s why people say they will migrate, no matter what the risk,”

Gang violence is another of the key drivers of the displacement, and nowhere more than in El Salvador and Honduras.

Gangs such as MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang are fuelling the escalating violence in those countries, establishing themselves in the communities. Although these days they are flourishing on the streets of El Salvador and Honduras, the gangs were actually born in the United States. The problem was exported from the US in the mid-1990s, when immigration reform made it easier to deport immigrants who broke the law. Central America was flooded with gang members who were strangers in their countries of origin.

“The gang phenomenon was exported to Central America at a time when those countries were not able to deal with that situation,” explains Sofia Martinez Fernandez, an analyst for International Crisis Group.

To give a sense of the scope of the problem, in El Salvador, there are 65,000 active gang members connected directly or indirectly to 500,000 more people. This translates into 8 percent of the population, according to a December 2017 International Crisis Group report. “Everyone has a relative or friend that’s a gang member. For sure they’ll know who is the gang leader in their neighbourhood. Especially poor people,” Fernandez says.

“Central America is really bleeding out right now,” she says. “These armed confrontations between police and gangs have put many families in the crossfire because…they suffer this abuse from gang members through extortion, attempts to recruit kids and even sexual abuse of their daughters. . .they’re all in constant war.”

Alejandro Hernandez, of the Canadian Association for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, says Canada could be playing a constructive role in decreasing migration pressure.

In the past 17 years, Latin America and the Caribbean’s cut of Canada’s aid has hovered from as low as 9 percent in 2001 to 17.3 percent in 2012, according to statistics from the Canadian International Development Platform. Last year, the region received 12.3 percent of Canada’s aid, with most of it going to Haiti and Colombia.

Outside Rabinal, Guatemala. Photo by Ryan Hicks

Historically Central America’s share of that aid has been low. Data compiled by the North-South Institute reveal that the bulk of Canadian aid between 2001 and 2012 was disbursed at the regional level, with Central America directly receiving a slim portion (2 percent).

Hernandez says it is time for Canada to step up and increase aid to the Northern Triangle countries so they can decrease corruption and improve health and education.

“The more money you put in human development, the more you reduce inequality and the less migration you generate as a country,” said Hernandez, who is also a Vanier scholar specializing in migration issues at Carleton University.

Helping Central American governments build strong institutions is a crucial piece of the puzzle, said Sofia Martinez Fernandez Martinez.

“You need a justice system that is independent, and a police system that can offer support for victims and implement law enforcement; a political system that doesn’t borrow money from criminal groups for campaigns,” she said.

Said Roldán, “If the conditions of communities start to become less unfavourable, we believe that people won’t be forced to leave.”

Vilma Valey in her home in Rabinal, Guatemala. Photo by Ryan Hicks.

Back in Rabinal, Vilma Valey works at the counter of a clothing store for C$5 dollars a day to pay back her debt. Like many migrants, she has borrowed thousands of dollars from family and friends to pay smugglers to get her across the border, assuming she’ll easily be able to pay it back once she is in the US. She currently owes $14,000.

Despite all the obstacles, she’s as determined as ever to make it across the border. She is already planning on trying a fifth time, in 2019. “I’m longing to go. I want to go again. Fear…no. I want to make it there,” she says.

Photo by Ryan Hicks.

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Ryan Hicks
Ryan Hicks is a law student at McGill University in Montreal, journalist and 2018 McBurney Latin America Fellow. He is a former Quebec political correspondent for the CBC and has reported from across Canada and around the world.

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