How this quiet region in Guatemala became the epicenter of migration

A child's death at the U.S. border put a spotlight on the peaceful highlands, where more people than ever are fleeing for the United States.

Photograph by Natalie Keyssar, National Geographic
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In Yalambojoch, Catarina Gomez Lucas makes her family's tortillas every morning. In December, her brother Felipe died in U.S. custody after crossing the border with their father. Residents of their region of Huehuetenango are leaving Guatemala for the U.S. in record numbers.

Photograph by Natalie Keyssar, National Geographic
Editor's note: On July 26, President Donald Trump announced a “safe third country asylum” deal with Guatemala, forcing migrants passing through to claim asylum there instead of in the U.S. Previously, he threatened to impose a travel ban on Guatemalans.

Agustín Gómez was struggling under a mountain of debt when he decided to leave his minuscule village in the misty highlands of Guatemala and take his 8-year-old son, Felipe, to America late last year. Ten days later, after crossing into Texas, Felipe fell sick with the flu and a bacterial infection. He was taken to a New Mexico hospital, and died shortly after being released. It was Christmas Eve.

Back in Guatemala, Felipe’s 22-year-old half-sister Catarina comforted her sobbing father over the phone and cooked hundreds of tortillas for the wake. “I’m glad you guys are together so you can mourn,” Agustín told her. “I’m all alone here.” As the news broke around the world, she watched the social media chatter. Commentators were saying that her family had used Felipe as a pawn to get into the U.S.; that poor people like them shouldn’t have kids.

Felipe’s death put a spotlight on the tiny town of Yalambojoch, nestled in a mountainous region called Huehuetenango that has been pushing residents toward the U.S. border at a rate unparalleled elsewhere in Guatemala. And Guatemala has quietly become one of the top senders of migrants to the U.S.

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The plaza of San Mateo Ixtatan bustles in the early morning, as buses unload passengers, children walk to school, and wire transfers come in from the U.S. The town sits near a controversial hydroelectric dam, where dozens of activists have been threatened and some killed. Displacement and fear surrounding these projects are push-factors for immigration.

On the edge of town, chickens wander through a cluster of small wooden huts strung with laundry lines. “They don’t know how we live,” Catarina says on a chilly February morning, a few days after Felipe’s funeral. We’re sitting on stools in her kitchen, where she’s patting out corn dough and slapping the circles onto a stovetop. Smoke fills the room. “People giving these opinions have a better life. They don’t have to leave their families to survive like we do here.” She nods toward the property next door, where a gleaming white house looks transplanted from the Miami beachfront. The neighbors, she says, sent their two sons to work in the U.S. three years ago.

Northbound

The number of Guatemalans apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol jumped to 117,000 in 2018, a 75 percent increase from the year before. Migrants to the U.S. from the Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—now outnumber those from Mexico.

UNITED STATES

Main migration

routes

MEXICO

HONDURAS

Huehuetenango

400 mi

400 km

GUATEMALA

EL SALVADOR

U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions by citizenship, 2017—18

Mexico

155,452

130,454

Guatemala

116,808

66,807

Honduras

2018

77,128

47,900

2017

El Salvador

31,636

50,011

RYAN MORRIS AND MATTHEW W. CHWASTYK, NGM STAFF

SOURCES: MISSING MIGRANTS PROJECT, INTERNATIONAL

ORGANIZATION FOR MIGRATION; U.S. CUSTOMS AND

BORDER PROTECTION

Heading North

The number of Guatemalans apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol jumped to 117,000 in 2018, a 75 percent increase from the year before. Migrants to the U.S. from the Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—now outnumber those from Mexico.

UNITED STATES

San Diego

Nogales

Tijuana

El Paso

Ciudad Juárez

Nogales

Nuevo Laredo

Laredo

Monclova

Brownsville

Matamoros

MEXICO

Main migration

routes

GUATEMALA

Mexico City

HONDURAS

U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions by citizenship, 2011—18

Huehuetenango

400 mi

EL SALVADOR

400 km

300,000

250,000

200,000

Mexico

150,000

Guatemala

100,000

Honduras

50,000

El Salvador

0

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

RYAN MORRIS AND MATTHEW W. CHWASTYK, NGM STAFF

SOURCES: MISSING MIGRANTS PROJECT, INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR MIGRATION; U.S. CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION

For the past 20 years money sent from the U.S.—called remittances—has kept the town from starving and even allowed some residents to relatively prosper. But in recent years a trickle of migration has become an exodus. Crossing illegally into the U.S. is so common that nearly everyone in this small community—from the mayor to the school teachers—seems to have spent a few years working on American farms and construction sites. When they return home—by choice or force—they buy plots of land to plant coffee beans, put metal roofs on their homes, and send their kids to schools far away.

The same crushing cycle of migration and deportation is repeated across Huehuetenango: At the U.S. border, migrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America now outnumber Mexicans, propelled in part by the gang violence that’s turned El Salvador and Honduras into warzones. But while those countries dominate the news cycle, the top sender of migrants in the region is Guatemala. More than 116,000 were known to have crossed last year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol—a quarter of total apprehensions and more than Honduras and El Salvador combined.

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Environmental conflicts have been a push-factor for immigration in the region. Spray painted on a central building in this tiny town in the mountains is "San Mateo Ixtatan, No to the hydro and to mining!" A few hours after this photo was taken, soldiers came in to occupy the town in a move some thought was tied to the controversial hydrodam.

Of the country’s 21 regions, the most people going to—and being returned from—the United States are from Huehuetenango. More and more residents of this region, pressed against the border with Mexico, are taking out loans and making the treacherous trip north. Each deportation means another debt to a smuggler to pay off—and motivation to try again.

The surge in Guatemalan immigrants last year baffled U.S. officials, who sought an explanation for the climbing numbers, particularly the high rates of migration from the country’s relatively peaceful highlands. Its residents, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol analysts deduced last fall, were running from hunger. In Huehuetenango, more than 70 percent of the population is chronically malnourished and three-quarters are impoverished. They also live with the scars of a 36-year-long civil war, and gutting corruption that makes it impossible to get ahead.

In particular, a drop in coffee prices to all-time lows and decreased production, due in part to five years of coffee rust fungus outbreaks, has turned farming into subsistence living. For many families, the harvest is just enough to make tortillas, beans, and rice to eat. The going rate for a day of labor is $9. And so the only way to move up in life—to buy some land, build a house, and open a small business—is to take out a $4,000 loan from family and friends and pay a smuggler for the 1,200-mile journey to the United States. Those who fail or get caught return to Guatemala with a crushing debt. They must decide: do they sell their home and land, or attempt the journey again?

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Nine students were missing when classes resumed this January. They are "for sure in the U.S.," says the school's director. Kids here gaze out of a classroom window. The fresh paint of the purple home in the background is a tell-tale sign of remittance money at work.

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Students burn garbage in the field outside their classrooms in Yalambojoch. Attendance has been dwindling, director Miguel Domingo Lucas says, as parents take their children to school. "I think it’s extremely dangerous, the journey," he says. "I know the parents and they still consider it favorable to go there than to stay here."

“In Guatemala, the economy has increased, but inequality is huge, particularly in indigenous communities. You see living standards only comparable with regions in Africa,” says Jorge Peraza, chief of mission for the Central America office of the International Organization for Migration. “If you are a young person, say 16 years old, you don't have options to study or work where you are. You have a friend or uncle or dad in the U.S. and they tell you they’ll find a job when you’re there. Of course you’ll decide to migrate.”

Brightly painted public buses careen along switchback roads that wrap around mountains on the six-hour drive from traffic-clogged Guatemala City to Huehuetenango City, the regional capital. Two hours, a sharp right before the crossing into Mexico, and another two hours farther is the quiet village of Yalambojoch. A permanent mist clings to the smattering of homes, containing a population of barely 1,000. The morning soundtrack is a shrill buzz of electric saws, and at dusk, the amplified broadcast of the town council meeting. Hints of the U.S. dollar are everywhere: in carved decorative birds and columns adorning blue and purple stucco homes; in stores stuffed with chips and refrigerated soda. In places like Yalambojoch, the only way to escape poverty is to go north.

When elementary school began this January, director Miguel Domingo Lucas took note of five kids missing from classes. During the first three weeks, as students chanted verb conjugations and ate oatmeal in the courtyard of the school’s low-slung yellow buildings, four more disappeared. Miguel knew exactly where they went: el norte. Fueled by rumors that asylum claims were easier with a child, twice as many Guatemalan families were apprehended at the border in 2018 than the year before. Miguel expected only half the entering class to graduate this summer.

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When Pascual Bautista returned to Yalambojoch from the U.S. he bought this piece of land. He was one of the first people to go from the 1,500-person community, and many soon followed.

A similar drop in attendance affected the town’s only middle and high school so dramatically that it simply didn’t reopen in January, when only 18 students returned of 45 from the year before. “The problem,” says Per Anderson, the schools’ Danish director, as a light earthquake shakes his outdoor picnic table, “is that youth here only see the United States.”

The tiny farming community’s outsized roots in the United States started with Pascual Bautista and his brother. First, his brother headed north with a loan in 1997 and sent word of steady work and good food in America. Then he wired Pascual $4,000 to hire a smuggler—known as a coyote. After two years of work in a South Carolina poultry farm, Pascual returned to Yalambojoch at age 40 and built a modest home. Ten years later he wanted a little land, so he traveled to Illinois to work as a dishwasher. When he returned to Guatemala, in 2015, he bought a small farm next to a crystal-clear river beneath Yalambojoch and a pickup truck that could navigate the rocky mountain road leading there. He planted coffee, corn, pumpkins, and sugarcane and watched as one by one, all seven of his sons made the trip north.

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Gleaming new homes in this style are often built with money sent by relatives working in the United States. The sight of these homes throughout Guatemala is enough to inspire other migrants to make the journey.

Last year, nearly 18,000 people were deported back to Huehuetenango from the U.S. and Mexico. We find one of them, in the backyard of a small home in a rural village called San Francisco. Santiago Manuel Montejo has already been deported three times at age 28. He crossed into the U.S. in the fall with his 4-year-old daughter, who was detained separately from him for five months. Now, according to papers he retrieves, he’s banned from entering the country for 20 years. He works a construction job building remittance homes—mini mansions paid for by migrants living in the U.S. On $7 a day, it will take him decades to pay off a $10,000 smuggler debt—unless, he says, he tries another trip to the U.S. and is successful. “Who will lend me money?” he asks. “What people want here is the mortgage for our house or land.” His wife, Fabiana, looks concerned at the prospect of her husband borrowing money and being deported again. “If they catch him and then we don't have a house what will happen to us?” she asks.

Remittances are at work even on the most remote back roads of Huehuetenango: new homes with gated yards and reflective windows; American flags painted on storefronts and decorating gravestones. More than 10 percent of Guatemala’s GDP comes from remittances, totaling more than $9 billion last year, or around $25 million per day. Since 2014, remittances to Guatemala have increased every year by nearly a billion dollars. Huehuetenango is one of the top three receivers.

Where would the country be without this southbound flow of money? Francisco Roceal laughs, slapping his phone down near a plate of eggs at a hotel in Huehuetenango City, the regional capital. “There’d be another war. We’d have famine. There’s not a single family without someone in the U.S. I have a brother in Florida and cousins, too. This country would have collapsed without immigration. I can assure you of that.”

Sending money home

Ninety-seven percent of all remittances to Guatemala—$8.4 billion in 2017—are from Guatemalans living in the United States, according to the United Nations. This inflow of money has surged to a sizable portion of the nation’s GDP over the past decade.

Remittances sent to Guatemala

as a percentage of GDP, 1990-2017

15%

2017:

11.2%

12

9

6

3

0

1990s

2000s

2010s

RYAN MORRIS, NGM STAFF

SOURCE: WORLD BANK

Roceal is the political coordinator for CPO, which in Spanish stands for the Council of Peoples of the West. The organization was founded in 2005 to tackle an onslaught of mining licenses, oil exploration, and damming projects being proposed in Huehuetenango—all bypassing local approval process, says Roceal. Through the courts, CPO has frozen construction of these megaprojects, but in the meantime Guatemala has become one of the world’s most dangerous places to be an environmental activist.

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An unknown migrant strides with purpose in front of a gas station at the turn off to the small city of Soloma. Immigration to the U.S. is extremely common throughout the region of Huehuetenango. Just across the street, a truck unloaded the casket of a resident who was killed while working in Tennessee.

This has given Guatemala a unique profile within Central America: migration fueled by environmental conflict. In Huehuetenango, a trifecta of dam projects in an area called Ixquisís has caused a decade of simmering conflict between the region and corporate interests often with government backing. In December two environmental activists were killed there—adding to the 80 attacks in Ixquisís last year alone, according to NGOs. Roceal’s job, in part, is to tackle the factors—unemployment, bad harvests, corruption—causing Guatemala to bleed people, mostly from the indigenous highlands. And this fight for the land is increasingly one of them: both among those displaced from their land, and are threatened for speaking out. In the past few years, Roceal says, more than 30 of his colleagues on the environmental frontlines have fled the country in fear for their lives.

There’s a phrase some journalists use to describe working in the countryside of Guatemala: Macondo no es nada. Macondo is a magical town of surreal coincidences conjured up by Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But Macondo is nothing, they say, compared to the windy, mysterious highlands of Guatemala, where things happen in strange ways.

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At the wake for Mateo Perez Marcos, who died in an accident in Tennessee, his son, Gaspar, stands over the casket. The money he sent from the U.S. paid for a house and his children to attend school.

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Women wrap themselves in dollar- and flag-themed towels at the wake for Mateo Perez Marcos. As a band played lively tunes, the whole town dropped by to donate, pay their respects, and cook a feast in his honor.

The road to the bustling little city of San Pedro Soloma passes a gas station with a statue of a young boy striding forward with a small backpack—an ode to the unknown migrant. That morning, we hit upon a moment of Macondo no es nada: A white van is transferring a box stamped “HANDLE WITH CARE” into a pickup truck. Inside, a casket holds Mateo Perez Marcos, a 44-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who died in a car accident in Tennessee the week before. His 16-year-old son, Gaspar, gazes shell-shocked at the scene. He never really knew his dad, he mumbles, who left when he was two.

The wake is that night, on the edge of a mountainside a two-hour drive away. The money Mateo sent back built a spacious but basic blue and white home for his wife and children. In the family’s yard, women oversee a dozen massive pots boiling with rice and beans. Inside, a band plays near the coffin. The room is plastered with pictures of Mateo: a wedding photo in front of a city skyline, him lounging on a sofa, him posing in front of a car. Coffee is served while someone takes attendance over a microphone. There’s no shortage of those who’ve made the journey north in this crowd. Baltazar Carmelo, a 27-year-old clad in a tan jacket, has been deported twice. He owes money lenders nearly $10,000 for the cost of those trips. Twenty-five-year-old Lucas Santiso has been deported three times since the fall of 2017. He’s almost $20,000 in debt. When asked who else had been deported, fingers point across the yard—him standing there, the guy near the tree, the one in the doorway.

“Why do we do leave?” asks Diego Lucas Morales, an older man in a red beanie, speaking softly. He points at the well-built homes perched on the mountainside. This lifestyle is only possible “because of the strength of those who go,” he says. There’s another reason: the fight for resources has reminded the population of the dark days of Guatemala’s decades-long civil war, when agitators disappeared and the military committed atrocities in rural towns. Today, at some of these resource flash points, the military has set up bases and announced a “state of siege,” which grants them additional control. Here, they’re very close to the dam projects in Ixquisís, where activists are dying. “People have the same fear now as during the war,” says Diego.

Early the next morning, sidewalk lines lead to the town’s money agents, where remittances are doled out from behind the counters. Soon after we leave, a Facebook post shows military trucks mounted with weapons rolling into the same plaza. Reached by phone, Diego says the soldiers were telling people they had come to build a road. A couple hours away, in a town called San Mateo Ixcoy, a local politician named Eva Maria Escobar ponders the news as she races to a meeting with the mayor. “They’re probably there because of the hydroelectric dam,” she says. A few years ago, she says, she went there to join a blockade of protestors. The military threw gas at them.

Eva Maria and her husband, Ricardo, are something of a power couple in their town, where they run a small restaurant tucked into a corner of the central plaza. She is one of the town’s six deputy mayors and he is running for the main mayoral seat. In 2004, just a couple months after getting married, they traveled to the U.S. For six years, the couple raised their four sons in Georgia before Ricardo was stopped by immigration and deported.

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American flags can be seen decorating the graves of those who lived in the U.S. Other symbols, like eagles, are common motifs even in the rural countryside of Guatemala.

Eva Maria had started working as a house cleaner at age nine, and wanted better for her children. Coming back to Guatemala shook that dream, but she was determined to do her best. She was elected as one of the city’s multiple mayors and Ricardo also got into politics. It didn’t take long for them to realize that their sons would not have the opportunities they’d dreamed of in Guatemala. In 2016 they made a choice: she would return to America with one of their sons, work and make enough money to send for the other three boys. He would stay home, run their restaurant and work on political campaigns to improve their town.

So Eva Maria made the journey through Mexico traveling in the back of stifling hot cargo trucks and sleeping in warehouses. When they got to the border she did what tens of thousands of Guatemalans are doing each year: she surrendered to the border patrol, hoping for asylum. Instead, she was deported and her son, who was born in the U.S., was sent to live with a relative in Georgia. She knows his life will be better there, she says. But for now, they barely speak. It’s too painful.

We're still talking late into the evening, long after the restaurant has emptied. “It’s not that Guatemala is poor,” says Ricardo, typing on his laptop at a plastic-covered table. “It’s that money is in a few hands. What really exists here is inequality.” Their three sons run in and out, grabbing snacks from the kitchen, doing math homework at the table, and playing on a visiting friend’s phone. “Everything I want to do is here,” he says. “I want this municipality to get ahead. It’s part of demonstrating there’s no need to immigrate.” Then he pauses. “At the same time, I did see the urgency in moving our kids.”

Natalie Keyssar is a photographer focused on class inequality, youth culture, and the personal effects of political turmoil and violence in the US and Latin America. See more of her work on her website, or by following her on Instagram.
This story was supported in part by the International Women's Media Foundation.