Category Archives: guatemala

Mexico’s Migrant Women, Trapped between Real and Imaginary Frontiers (ÁNGELES MARISCAL, EN EL CAMINO)

This article and its accompanying photos were published in Spanish under a Creative Commons License by En El Camino of Periodistas de a Pie on 3 June 2014 with support from the Open Society Foundations.

The English translation of this article has been made possible by an anonymous donation, gratefully received.

The translation of this article is dedicated to Patty Kelly, author of Lydia’s Open Door: Inside Mexico’s Most Modern Brothel. PT

Mexico’s Migrant Women, Trapped between Real and Imaginary Frontiers

Woman and Child, Mexico's southern border

Woman and Child, Mexico’s southern border

There’s a saying in southerm Mexico: Guatemalan women will do housework, Honduran women will be slaves in the bars or cantinas and the Salvadoran women are invisible. Migrant women are trapped between the physical frontier in Soconusco, Chiapas and the all-too-real yet blurry frontier where abuse, discrimination and stigmatization exist. In southern Mexico, these women aren’t anything other than what their origins – and society – has condemned them to be.

First Stigma: The “Servant” Women

Central American Woman, Mexico's Southern Border

Central American Woman, Mexico’s Southern Border

It is Sunday. Miguel Hidalgo Park in the center of Tapachula – about 275 kilometers from the border with Guatemala – is packed. Dozens of women, most of them young, almost all adolescents, show off embroidered, multi-colored garments with designs and fabrics typical of the neighboring country’s indigenous people. Taking each other by the hand, the Central American women walk round and around the central kiosk.

Some arrive early, their belongings in a suitcase or plastic bag. They sit on the flower boxes and there they wait. Rosa together with two other young women just this morning crossed the border between Mexico and Guatemala, using the bridge at the Tecún Uman border crossing. They paid Mexico’s National Migration Institute for the local visitor’s visa, permitted those who live along Guatemala’s border with Mexico.

This visa allows them to cross with some freedom in the border townships. But it doesn’t let them work in Mexico. It doesn’t escape their notice that business and work tie the residents to both countries and these links go back generations and filter across the frontier.

Rosa is sweating and tired. She has just sat down on a bench when an older woman who got out of a car approaches her. Talking together, they make a deal: 1,200 pesos per month (US$92) plus food. Sundays are days off, after she prepares breakfast for the family.

The woman begins to cross the park. Rosa says a quick goodbye to her friends and falls in behind the woman. Both get into the car. Rosa gets in the back, shy. She does not look up, she avoids eye contact. Long workdays await her as a quasi-slave where she has to sweep, clean, take care of somebody else’s children and make as if she were transparent.

The scene repeats itself in the morning, here and there in the park. In the afternoon, only the domestic workers who already have a job remain, enjoying their only day off.

Girls work here as well as young women. The Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center carried out a survey of domestic workers from Guatemala and found that almost half of those interviewed were 22 years old (49 percent). The other half were between 13 and 17 years old.

The Fray Matías Human Rights Center documented that the for many of the young domestic workers their expectation is to obtain funds that will let them return to their countries to continue their studies. Most only come for brief spells, but many remain trapped and return only occasionally to their native country.

There is no census or estimate about how many they are. They are a floating population and their work happens mostly out of sight, without a formal contract. Since colonial times, whether on haciendas or in homes, most of these women have naturalized the role of working as servants in the Soconusco of Chiapas

Alba has been in the Miguel Hidalgo Park since morning. She and her friends haven’t moved even though it’s been raining. Alba stands out a little more than the others. She says that she is 30 years old and that at the age of 8 she came to work in Tapachula. She is happy because they pay her 2,000 pesos per month (US$147). It’s hardly minimum wage even though her workday is twice as long as the 40 hours per week established under Mexican law.

On a regular day she wakes at 6:00, prepares breakfast, cleans, makes lunch, washes clothes, does the shopping, picks up the kitchen and irons. She has worked cleaning shops or restaurants. The pay is good, but they don’t give her a place to sleep.

“I like working in homes more,” she says, although she recognizes that she doesn’t always have her own place to sleep, like now, since she is working in a house in Colonia Solidaridad (a neighborhood inhabited by lower middle class people from Tapachula). Every night she sleeps on a mattress in the space between the kitchen and the dining room.

  • What do you do on your day off?
  • I help with breakfast and then I come to the park.
  • Do you go out to the cinema or a nearby beach?
  • No.
  • Why?
  • It pains me to say… the people look at us and they don’t like us being there, probably because of how we dress.

Alba says that in her country she could earn a little more money doing the same work. She prefers to stay in Tapachula because, she says, “in Guatemala there is a lot of violence.”

In Miguel Hidalgo Park, Tapachula

In Miguel Hidalgo Park, Tapachula

Santiago Martínez Junco, training coordinator for the Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center explains that under Mexican law the Guatemalan domestic workers are in a system of quasi-slavery.

“The worldview of society in the region – which stigmatizes how people look – puts a mark on migrant women. If you are Guatemalan your niche is domestic work, cleaning, or agriculture. Honduran, Salvadoran and Nicaraguan women are preferred in sex work, or to attract customers in snack joints and restaurants,” he says.

The work of the Guatemalan women has been made invisible because it happens in the private sphere. This situation makes them highly vulnerable.

There are no contracts. There’s no justification when somebody is fired, a strategy often used so as to not pay wages. Sometimes they are charged for food and the average salary is between 1,200 to 1,500 pesos per month (on average, around US$100), and for about 72 hours per week.

Coupled to that, he says that society encloses them or excludes them from everyday life and places where they can meet.

“Most domestic workers don’t know anywhere but Miguel Hidalgo Park and the streets that they take to get to work. For example, people from Tapachula asked the authorities to build the Bicentennial Park because the place was “filled with chapines” (a name given to people from Guatemala). And it’s not like they can go to other places, but society pushes them out, excludes them and they feel social pressure.”

At the end of the day – confirms Santiago Martínez – they have to live in the same feudal situation that’s existed and continues to exist in this region, used exclusively as servants, not allowed to develop in other areas of work.

On Sundays, when they go for a rest in the Miguel Hidalgo Park, the Fray Matías Human Rights Center tries to make them aware of, and train them in, their rights, Martínez says.

“We tell them about their labor rights. We give them workshops in some techniques that they choose. We work dynamically so as to strengthen their self-esteem, so that they can take on their rights… sometimes we go out together in the city, go for walks to nearby places so that they begin to shed their fear and so they feel safer.”

Stigma Number Two: The Fantasy Sellers

Her body gyrates on the stage against the sonic backdrop of an accordion, trumpets and drums. Rhythmic and sensual – can a sound by itself be sensual? – the sound of cumbia accompanying the dancer while she takes off her clothes.

Under the stage at low tables, other women press their bodies to the punters, drink with them, some dance fending off the hands of those who have paid, telling them they are here “just to dance”, keeping them away from sex. In a different space on the same stage, some play billiards with the locals, exaggerating how they play to accentuate the curves of their bodies.

The owner of the place, a fifty-year old woman originally from the southern Mexican border lets us look around and speak with the dancers in their dressing rooms. She insists: in this nightclub there is no sex trade “here we just sell fantasies.”

“Many men only want to see them undress, dance with them. Mostly they speak with the catrachas (Hondurans) because they say they are the prettiest. But we also have dancers from Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Most don’t even have sex. They just want to spend some time distracted from their daily lives.”

For sex, she says, other places exist.

I go to stage rear. Pinned to the door of the room filled with mirrors where the women arrange themselves are the house rules: how many times one has to dance and strip on stage; the number of beers the women need to drink with the punters (200 per week minimum). This activity is called fichar (literally, to sign up). The owner argues from each “sign up” or beer, half of the earnings goes to the women.

Inside the dressing rooms the fantasy for sale outside crumbles. Before going on stage Melani rushes down some beef soup and a soft drink. She says that she has not eaten all day because she’s having problems with her partner, who is jealous of her. And because he doesn’t get along well with her kids, all of whom are under eighteen.

She is 23 and she has three children. She says that she had to leave her country in 2009 because of “problems” with her previous partner. “He got involved with the Maras and well, you know, there’s a lot of violence in my country… I had to leave.” Melani left her children with her mother for a while. But when she got established in Tapachula, she brought them to live with her.

Her front teeth look decayed. She has visible scars on her calves, some of them recent. When she sees me notice them she pulls on her skin color Lycra, and on top of that she puts the clothes she will take off, piece by piece, on stage.

“He hits me because he is jealous of the clients who look at me. (He worked for a spell as a barman in the nightclub where she works.) But this is how I support my kids, how I support him. What does he want? That I work depending on a shop? They don’t even give us jobs in shops because they say we steal. And when they do give us jobs in stores the pay is miserable. I said to him, you hooked up with a Honduran. This is the life of a Honduran woman. It’s just that there they treat us well and pay us better.”

Everyday Melani confronts the stigma of being a “catracha”, a pejorative term tagged to the women who come from her country, who are seen as expert lovers. Her physique gives her away – broad hips, long legs, svelte waist – and does not let her fade into the background. “If I get into a taxi, the driver wants to grab my legs. If I work in a store, the owner wants to mess with me,” she laments.

In the dressing room’s neon light, the dancers put on their make-up, their long wigs, struggle into Lycra and clothes adjusted for cellulitis, a fat stomach, scars and stretch marks left by motherhood. Once on stage, its semi-darkness helps them.

Luis Rey García Villagrán, activist and defender of the rights of sex workers, confirms that in Tapachula alone – the largest city of the border region known as the Soconusco – there are more than 15 tolerance zones and around 200 centers where they can practice prostitution openly and in private: voluntarily or through networks of people involved in sexual exploitation.

Villagrán represents the Centro de Dignificación Humana and he thinks that this activity is taking place with the permission of society and government. “Here in this region any 5 year old child has seen that in front of her house, at her school, on her daily walk that there’s a snack joint, a bar, a brothel and a cabaret. I have seen Central American women enter and leave these places. This situation has become natural and has enslaved women in this activity.

Migrant women have become part of daily life in Soconusco. The population lives with them. Locals, including public servants visit the places where they work. As to their migratory status, they are only asked about it when there is an attempt to extort them.

Stigma Number Three: The Women Who Will Do Anything

Aidé runs a rooming house located 10 streets from the center of Tapachula. This means she charges rent or lets out rooms with a plastic roof for those who request her services. Most of the residents are migrants without legal status in Mexico.

On arriving at the meeting with Aidé, I bump into a dozen migrants and their guide who are stuffed into one of the rooms. She is not intimidated. She says the migrants will leave the place in one or two days. Someone will come to pick them up so they can continue on their way.

She has been in jail accused of trafficking in people for the purposes of sexual exploitation. After three years inside she managed to get out.

“I had just been deported from the United States and I needed to continue sending money to my two kids who were still in El Salvador. A friend contracted me to manage a bar. The place wasn’t mine and the only thing I saw was that the servers did not get their money. If the girls want to mess with the clients in the rooms that’s their problem. It’s their way of earning a living. Nobody forces them.”

Aidé – instead of the bar’s owner – was arrested during a crackdown. Some of the women working in this bar located in Ciudad Hidalgo were minors. However, after a few days they were deported to their country of origin and nobody faced criminal charges for people trafficking. That’s how Aidé regained her freedom.

“When I got out I tried to cross to the United States again. But I couldn’t. They returned me again and that’s where you find me now, trapped in this place, without the power to move forward and without the power to return to my country,” she narrates with a grim countenance and brusque gestures that contrast against her clear, lovable eyes, her curly hair and petite figure.

A table, two chairs, an individual bed and a booming television sat on a little piece of furniture barely fit in the room. A 10-year old child does not take her eyes off the television. She is the daughter of a friend who is staying with her while she is looking for somewhere to live.

“I am resigned to living here in Tapachula or in Cacahoatán or whatever’s nearby. It’s all the same. But working as what? Here, Salvadorans can’t work as domestics because the woman thinks we are going to steal her husband. We look for work as employees and the boss wants to mess with us. In the bars they think we are going to rob or kill the clients,” she says while she readies a small case filled with varnishes and instruments to do nails, a service she provides at home and also at a small beauty salon in the area. She thinks this job is one of the few she can do where they don’t discriminate.

The migrant women who live in southern Mexico live lives trapped between a physical frontier that stops them from moving freely and a real border produced by discrimination, abuse, and social stigma that erases them as people.

Angeles Mariscal

Text: Ángeles Mariscal, for Periodistas de A Pie

I am an independent journalist, founder of the Chiapas Paralelo website. I contribute to CNN México and El Financiero. I run the Colegio de Comunicadores y Periodistas de Chiapas (CCOPECH). To have the conditions necessary for a dignified life in the places we come from is a right, and to migrate when they don’t exist is also a right. It’s from that perspective that I cover the subject of migration.


Images: Moysés Zuñiga Santiago, for Periodistas de a Píe
A photojournalist from Chiapas interested in the struggle of indigenous communities and migration across Mexico’s southern border. I work with La Jornada, AP, Reuters and AFP. My work has been shown in New York University in 2010 and 2013. I traveled with young people like myself crossing the border in search of opportunity, taking personal stories with me that let me journey beside them. I do this work because of that; I want to make extreme situations of violence visible so that these situations don’t occur and people don’t die.

Translation: Patrick Timmons, for the Mexican Journalism Translation Project.

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons. The MxJTP has a Facebook page: like it, here.

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Missing in Mexico: “It’s not enough to hand over a sealed box then say, here’s your child” (Pablo de Llano, El PAÍS)

This article first appeared in El País on 17 February 2014. It has been translated without permission for the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP).

Missing in Mexico: “It’s not enough to hand over a sealed box then say, here’s your child”
by Pablo de Llano (El PAÍS)

–        Argentine forensic scientist, Mercedes Doretti speaks about the challenges in her work – her team collaborates with Mexico on unidentified bodies

Mercedes Doretti (Buenos Aires, 1959) has helped identify human remains in Argentina, Peru, postwar former Yugoslavia, El Salvador, and the Philippines. After more than thirty years of work she is convinced that governments must deal transparently with the families of the dead.

“Sometimes the problem doesn’t lie with the identification techniques, but in credibility. Sometimes there’s an overblown secrecy to the cases. And the relatives are people who have had the worst thing happen to them: to lose a husband, a son, a daughter. Obviously one wants to know what happened. How did they die? How were they identified? Words don’t suffice. It’s not enough to hand over a sealed box then say, here’s your child. Forensic identification is not an act of faith.”

Doretti, who helped establish the reputable Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, is in Mexico to work with the federal attorney general on the analysis of remains from three massacres of migrants, emblematic of the north of the country’s drug violence. Two massacres from Tamaulipas (in the same township in San Fernando 72 bodies appeared together in one grave in 2010, and in 2011, 193 bodies were distributed between various graves), and another massacre at Cadereyta in Nuevo León where criminals tossed cut up torsos from 49 people across a highway early one morning. Another area she is helping with includes the final identification of 13 young people murdered in Mexico City in 2013 after they had been kidnaped from a nightclub.

Just this week controversy has arisen over another northern Mexican case. Authorities in Coahuila state announced the discovery of narco-graves and, after several days of contradictory information that still has not been verified, the region’s victims called the search operation “a farce.”

In Mexico, the work is difficult but possible. It depends enormously on political will. 

The words of a family member of a disappeared person from Coahuila in an interview with this newspaper reflect the problem of the authorities’ lack of credibility. “If they tell them they are ours, we won’t accept it. We need proof. They can’t just hand them over and act as if the problem is solved.”

Questions about Mexico’s disappeared surged from 2006 to 2012 as a result of the strategy of the full-on assault against drug traffickers. The government confirms that 70,000 citizens died during that period, with about 25,000 of those fatalities unidentified. Add to those 26,000 unresolved disappearances.

Doretti thinks that Mexico confronts a complex challenge, and gives the Argentine example up by way of comparison. “We went through a similar situation, with a very high number of disappeared people. We had to construct a national databank of disappeared family members and an exhumation program that lasted many years. All of this implied that time strengthened the process. The work is difficult but not impossible. It depends enormously on political will.”

Besides the specifics of Mexico’s situation, the Argentine forensic scientist talks about the regional program developed by her team. The Borders Program (Proyecto Frontera). She is building a network of databanks along the American migration corridor, from originating Central American countries to the biggest destination, the south of the United States, passing through Mexico, a huge space along the way.

The databanks require shared labor between public agencies and NGOs in every country. They collect information about the disappeared by interviewing families and taking DNA samples. Doretti explains that an inter-regional system for information sharing does not exist. The network they are building began to operate in 2011. They have added 633 cases and identified 67 migrants.

Her team has an inter-regional identification plan for migrants

Her ambition for Project Borders is that it have the wherewithal and sufficient support to resolve the current situation. Most migrants who disappear without trace vanish forever into a black hole of general lack of interest and institutional inefficiency.

The forensic scientist stressed that these problems don’t just occur in developing countries but also in some poorly resourced local communities in the United States.

She gives the example of Brooks County, Texas, where in 2012 they found 127 migrants’ bodies. The county has no morgue. They failed to identify the bodies as a result, and buried them in a grave. When people found out what happened, protests began and a few months ago Brooks started to send its bodies to another county with a morgue.

Many other Texas counties continue in a similar situation to Brooks: each unidentified body gets thrown down a hole and it’s there a person’s story finishes. A person who traveled thousands of kilometers in an attempt to grow and thrive and who once had a name.

Journalist Pablo de Llano reports for El País from Mexico. You can follow him on Twitter @pablodellano. This story first appeared under the title, “No basta que te entregen un cajón cerrado y te digan acá está tu hijo,” available at:

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons.


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Bittersweet Welcome: The Ceaseless Cycle of Deportations from the US to Guatemala (Alejandro Pérez, Plaza Pública)

Last year ended with a record 50,000 Guatemalan migrants deported from the United States -- many will try the journey again. (Photo Credit: Sandra Sebastián, Plaza Pública).

Last year ended with a record 50,000 Guatemalan migrants deported from the United States — many will try the journey again. (Photo Credit: Sandra Sebastián, Plaza Pública).

This article first appeared in Plaza Pública, a Guatemalan digital newspaper on 3 February 2014. It has been translated without permission for the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP).

Bittersweet Welcome: The Ceaseless Cycle of Deportations from the US to Guatemala
By Alejandro Pérez (Plaza Pública)

The tide of Guatemalan deportations from the United States is not dropping. What choices do returnees have? What attention do they receive? Public agencies, businesses and migrant organizations search jointly for alternatives but nothing seems enough to change the situation that made them first risk their lives in search of work.

IT is a daily occurrence at the Guatemalan Airforce base (FAG): around a hundred people are packing their belongings into red sacks. Some board a small bus waiting in the courtyard. The luckiest – the smaller number – waits for a relative or friend waiting outside to meet them. Others wait for a city bus that will take them closer to their destination.

The group begins to disperse. The crowd forms everyday, every morning, but midday will pass before nobody is left.

Inside the hall the travellers had occupied minutes before, workers from the General Migration Directorate (DGM), the Social Welfare Ministry and the Attorney General’s Office (PGN) pass through collecting paper bags. They organize the seats, clean the floor, and play the marimba, all the while waiting for the next plane.

The wait wasn’t too long. In less than half an hour, another white plane from World Atlantic Airlines, filled with Guatemalans deported from the United States, lands on the runway. After a few minutes, the plane’s involuntary passengers start to walk in a file towards the FAG offices. Now, they walk as if they are free. Before leaving the plane, officials had removed the plastic handcuffs required for travel. Every day, these planes arrive with greater frequency. Before 2009 they used to arrive once a week. Now they land about two or three times a day, three or five days a week. The hardening of migration policy and the heightened controls on the U.S.-Mexico border — coupled to the constant flow of undocumented migrants — has meant that in less than a decade the number of Guatemalans deported by air has risen from 4,483 in 2005 to 46,898 last year.

Among them is this group, the latest to touch down on Guatemalan soil.

The first instructions the migrants hear on entering the FAG building have to do with calling the meeting to order, taking a seat, and paying attention. When the festive notes of the marimba die down, the migrants are given a paper bag with a sandwich, a cookie, and a boxed juice. As much as possible they must pay attention to the welcome party of officials. If they can’t, they at least have to be silent for the immigration authorities’ ten-minute presentation informing them of the necessary paperwork before their departure.

The group is only made up of men. Some of them have the features of children, but others are more than 50 years old. Accents from the east of the country, speaking in Maya, these are two signs that give away their origins.

“Welcome.” That’s the official message authorities try to convey with posters in Maya and with a talk that, even more than the formal instructions, carries motivational tones. But even that is not enough to change the despondency and evident frustration on some of their faces.

One of them is Silvino Chávez Esteban. He spent two months in prison in the United States after he was caught in Texas after having crossed the border.

In addition to the regret he felt at not having been able to even secure work, Chávez felt uncertain about his mother, Mercedes Esteban. The 60-year old left Guatemala six weeks ago with her two youngest grandchildren, taking the same route as her son in order to reunite them with their mother, Chávez´s sister.

Mercedes Esteban crossed the Río Bravo, and then was captured. The U.S. authorities removed her grandchildren, sending her, like her son, to a prison to await deportation. A fifteen-day stay meant her prison time was briefer than that of her son. Mother and son eventually succeeded in reuniting, only not in the United States. Instead, they met up by coincidence in the FAG’s offices after being deported: Mercedes had arrived on the earlier flight.

Although Chávez accepts he’s going through a rough patch, he also mentions he feels less worried now he knows his mother is safe.

Mercedes also found reasons for calm. Not only did she meet up with her son, but she also has news that U.S. authorities found the grandchildren’s mother. Although they are in custody, U.S. immigration authorities won’t deport them, and won’t separate them.

Looking for Work

The migrants’ reception complements the “Welcome Home” program, which begins to function the moment the deportees leave the hall. The program focuses principally on supporting each of them, trying to change the economic situation of the returnees with aid, training, and work contacts.

Guatemala’s National Migrant Council (Conamigua) runs the program. It had its start at the end of last November. Earlier it functioned as the Program for Repatriated Guatemalans run by the International Organization for Migrations (OIM), financed by United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The original program had four spheres of activity: assistance to returnees, psychosocial assistance, economic reintegration and the prevention of human trafficking. The program ended when it was meant to, in July 2013. USAID financing dried up, something that impeded renewal of a similar project. Deported migrants were left without support until Conamigua picked up the project.

Over the course of the four months without OIM help, Guatemala’s migration agency and other institutions continued receiving returnees. But the deported went straight to the street, with most officials ignoring their plight.

The idea of continuing with the lapsed program came from the Association for Migrant Support (AIM), explained one of its members, Jorge Hernández. Former OIM staffers make up AIM, and they coordinate their work with Conamigua.  According to a study about Guatemala’s migrant policies, edited by Claudio López for a civil society migration group, between 84 and 92 percent of adults who migrate to the United States do so for work, or to improve their economic situation.

As with the OIM program, the Conamigua project has the goal of putting deported people in contact with businesses to help them find work; however, a scant number of deportees can actually obtain a job this way.

Hernández explains that for the past three years under OIM, only 85 people managed to find permanent work. “The businesses that hire ask for 80 percent English, and most don’t fulfil that criteria,” he added.

The AIM staffer’s explanation makes sense considering the types of undocumented migrant workers on the plane. Most of these deportees were caught just after they had crossed the border. They did not have the chance to learn the language or adapt to different working conditions.

The program’s dynamic relies on establishing contacts between deportees and businesses looking for workers. Conamigua and AIM have agreements with worker-hungry businesses: Centrarse, a Guatemalan center for social responsibility with 150 business members, Transactel, an outsourcing call center and Conexión Laboral, specialising in personnel recruitment. Conamigua’s stated results reveal a variety of discrepancies. Hernandez’s AIM confirms that, until now, no returnee has found a job through the “Welcome Home” program; but Alejandra Gordillo, its director, argues that about 10 people have found work. Gordillo’s claim has the support of María José Girón, Conexión Laboral’s director. But Hernández counters that the only way Conamigua’s statistics can be correct is if they returnees found work between July and December 2013, when neither OIM nor AIM participated in the process.

The Technical Institute for Training and Productivity (Intecap) also has an agreement with the program. The goal is to complement the deportees’ training in an area of their choice. It can be used to improve their level of English, or specialise in the work they learned inside the United States: mechanic, carpenter, construction, or whatever activity facilitates entry into the workforce.

There’s little agreement – according to AIM’s data – about the training. Only 125 deportees have chosen a training course through this entity. Gordillo argues that Conamigua has paid for about 500 training courses.

Intecap fails to dispel doubt about the discrepancies. According to Martha Pozuelos, head of client services at Intecap, Conamigua is the responsible data collecting institution. For this reason, Pozuelos declined to confirm how many courses Intecap has delivered, the numbers of migrants benefitting from them, and how much Conamigua has paid Intecap.

For some returnees training can positively affect their job search. But for others, like Silvino, a farmer from San Marcos who did not learn English because he failed to find a job in the US before he was deported, the trainings offer little benefit.

AIM has to wrestle with the problem that it cannot help the majority of deportees. AIM concentrates on migrants within Guatemala’s metropolitan area, both to create a solidarity network and for the necessary work contacts. But the number of repatriated city dwellers is low when compared to the remaining deportees: 35 to 50 per week, whereas more than 1,000 come from the rest of the predominantly rural country. However, Hernández says that the overall objective, as possibilities arise, is to extend the solidarity network and the work contacts into the country.

Young Migrants

Differences between deportees aren’t restricted to whether they come from inside the capital or from the countryside, whether they have been trained for employment, or not. The authorities are aware of a more significant difference:  one of their first questions concerns the presence of minors in the group.

“There’s nothing to be ashamed about. He’s being honest and he told us he isn’t 18,” explains the supervising migration official as a murmur runs through the group of returnees. The immigration authorities then  hand the youth over to officials from the Attorney General’s office.

Only one underage boy presents himself even though the faces of some others betray they are the same age or young than the separated youth.

The youth who came forward would have benefited more if he had admitted he was a minor in the United States. There he would have been entered the protection of the state. In the future, he would have had the possibility of requesting a U.S. visa.

Hernández explains that in most cases minors fail to come forward for lack of knowledge about their rights and peer pressure from the group. When they identify themselves in Guatemala, the advantage is that they are only under the protection of the Attorney General’s office until reuniting with their family. Even so, their return home is complicated – the adult who cares for the minor has to follow up with the Attorney General’s office – sometimes the minors try to re-cross the border. Some stay with their small group of prison or plane companions. The youth are the most animated. Smiles and jokes don’t betray the fact that a few weeks ago they were on the point of dying in the desert, spent a few days in a U.S. prison and have now been returned to the same situation that had made them leave Guatemala in the first place. Most now have more debts than when they left.

Juan Mateo from Acatán, San Marcos, is one of those who would have preferred the Attorney General’s office remain unaware of his age.

How old are you?


Why didn’t you identify yourself when they asked minors to step forward?

Because I didn’t want to (he responds with a shy smile).

Are you thinking about going back?

Yes. I just need to find a coyote (a guide across the border).

He refers to coyotes  because their initial high price comes with the offer to cross two or three more times if the migrant is detained and returned to Guatemala.

According to Conamigua’s data, the number of deported Guatemalan minors during 2013 decreased from 586 to 313 when compared to the previous year. That’s a 49 percent drop. However, Juan Mateo’s denial of his age when asked to come forward by the authorities shows that their figures could be incorrect.

Homeward Bound

“Each of you comes with a great gift. Do you know what that is?” asks the migration agency’s representative. “Life,” respond the recently arrived, in unison. “Life,” echoes the speaker. “You all know how many friends and countrymen you have lost along your journeys. But you are all blessed, for in a few hours you will be returned to your families.”

When the speeches end – the authorities manage to garner applause, smiles, an even a whistle from their audience – the rest of the welcome home ceremony is devoted to paperwork. One by one the returnees line up to hand in their details. Somebody announces an instruction: “If you gave a false name in the U.S., please try to remember what it was.”

Some take advantage of the wait by taking up the offer of a phone call. Others visit the office of Banrural – a bank that officially participates in the program to provide microcredits. But the recently arrived use the bank to change their dollars for Guatemala’s quetzals. The AIM director confirms that the bank in the building doesn’t offer microcredits. It is equipped only to change currency.

US Immigration authorities provide migrants types of footwear without laces. On re-entry to Guatemala their shoes are returned to them. (Photo Credit: Plaza Pública)

US Immigration authorities provide migrants types of footwear without laces. On re-entry to Guatemala their shoes are returned to them. (Photo Credit: Plaza Pública)

The group forms a line to receive their luggage: the red sacks carried by the same plane. The returnees can then change from their blue uniform Chinese slippers to dress in their own clothes, putting on their shoes – now with shoelaces – and again using belts to hold up their pants.

Some are ashamed of the bags. “Leave them there. If you don’t, people will know you got deported,” says one of the returnees before he exits the hall.

Migrant authorities emphasise that the deportees are "welcome" in Guatemala (Photo Credit: Sandra Sebastián, Plaza Pública.)

Migrant authorities emphasise that the deportees are “welcome” in Guatemala (Photo Credit: Sandra Sebastián, Plaza Pública.)

Outside, on the patio, Conamigua and AIM staffers register each case. Then they take the small bus provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a service that runs only on one route since it must serve the greatest number of people. Its destination: Huehuetenango. Along the way it drops off deportees from Chimaltenango, Sololá, Quiché, Quetzaltenango, and San Marcos.

If a deportee cannot find the means to get back home, thanks to an agreement between Conamigua and the Casa del Migrante they can stay in the capital while search out transportation.

Santiago Reina, a 45 year-old deportee doesn’t want to return to these hardships and lack of protection: “It’s fucked up when you travel through Mexico,” he says after he hands over his details.

For many in the group, this deportation is only a temporary setback on the way to fulfilling their need to work in the United States. They are stuck in a cycle: between risking their lives attempting to cross borders, or trying to survive in the place the airport bus will soon take them back to. While they wait inside the hall at a loose end, the officials put the marimba music back on. They begin to clean and prepare the building for the passengers on the next flight.

Reporter Alejandro Pérez covers migration and energy issues for Plaza Pública. Follow him on Twitter @bjandrop. This article first appeared under the title, “La agridulce bienvenida: el circulo incesante de las deportaciones,” available at: The full article in Spanish comes with a slideshow by Sandra Sebastián of the deportees in the welcome center.

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons.