A small crowd has gathered on the grass outside Guatemala City’s airport. They wait patiently, milling about outside the gates. Suddenly, a plane appears in the sky and sinks behind the wall. It’s the sign that everyone has been waiting for – one of flights filled with men, women and families deported from the United States that land daily.
“I’m here to meet my brother. He called us yesterday saying that he was coming back today,” says Azucely, a young woman with one child resting on her hip and another playing at her feet.
Her brother had been in the US for five years, she says, when he got caught without papers. The police held him in custody for months before deporting him – at first, he didn’t want to sign the deportation order. Azucely herself went through the same ordeal only a year before.
“I had been in the US for nine years when I was deported, all the time without papers,” she says. “I have three kids born over there. I left Guatemala when I was young, only 14. My mum took a bank loan to send me. She did the same with my brothers too.”
Azucely and her family are far from unique. Their experiences are part of a common narrative among young people from the region, who are migrating in ever-growing numbers. The Central American immigrant population in the US has nearly tripled since the 1990s, and now makes up the fastest-growing segment of the US Latino population. One and a half million Guatemalans live in the country today – about a third have no papers, according to the Pew Research Center – and one million from Honduras. Many go with the intention to work and save money for a couple of years; others to settle down and create a whole new life. But many stories have a much more sudden end – with deportation and a one-way ticket to whatever country issued their passport. Since 2001, four million migrants, mainly from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, have been deported.
“Each week, between nine and 14 flights land here, full with people. Most come with nothing at all. We give them juice, bread and beans. They can call someone in their family,” says Mario Hernández from Asociación de Apoyo Integral al Migrante, a local migrant support group.
He stands under a modest shelter right inside the airport walls. A big sign says: “Welcome to Guatemala. You are with your people in your country”. There’s a phone on one of the tables and a poster from a shelter home in the city where people can sleep if they have nowhere to go.
“Some people have spent all their lives in the US. Others haven’t even entered the country. They got caught trying to cross the border. And they get sent to Guatemala City, where most have barely been before. They come from villages in the mountains, poor rural areas where life is completely different,” he says. “People live in very hard conditions there and earn almost nothing at all.”
Guatemala and its neighbours Honduras and El Salvador, known as the Northern Triangle, share a raft of social and economic problems that force people to migrate. In spite of the fact that Guatemala has the largest economy in Central America, it has the highest levels of inequality. More than half of Guatemala’s population lives below the poverty line, a figure that fell to 51 per cent in the five years to 2006 but rose again to 53.7 per cent in 2011 according to the World Bank; in Honduras the number living in poverty is 65 per cent, and in El Salvador nearly one in three. Few safety nets exist for the poor and there’s little social justice. The World Bank recently called upon the government of Guatemala to raise taxes and to ensure more public spending on education and health.
“Then there’s the violence. A lot of drug cartels have invaded the region and they are recruiting people. And the maras, the gangs, are getting stronger. Instead of joining, people think ‘I better leave’,” says André Lascoutx, who also works for Asociación de Apoyo Integral al Migrante.
The situation has worsened since the last decade. Major crackdowns in countries like Colombia, and the war on drugs being fought in Mexico, have pushed the drug cartels to operate elsewhere, concentrating smuggling shipments through Central America. The US State Department estimates that 87 per cent of all cocaine-smuggling flights departing South America first land in Honduras. At the same time, the region has seen a rise in state-sanctioned violence. Guatemala still struggles with the legacy of a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 and in Honduras, the 2009 coup that brought down elected president Manuel Zelaya has left society increasingly militarised. “The state is employing the military in more and more places. The public hospital [in San Pedro Sula] is guarded by the army now. They have masks and guns there, but not the most basic medicine. And there’s widespread immunity, especially with violence against women: 95 per cent of all cases [of sexual violence and femicide] are never solved,” says human rights lawyer Karen Mejia in San Pedro Sula.
In 2012 Central America overtook Africa as the most violent region in the world. Last year the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranked Honduras as the most violent country in the world, with a rate of 90.4 “intentional homicides” per 100,000 inhabitants; Guatemala was ranked fifth with 39.9 murders, based on data gathered from government authorities in 2012. San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in Honduras – an industrial hub with tropical surroundings and a laid-back atmosphere – was recorded as having 187 murders per 100 000 inhabitants, more than any other city in the world outside a war zone. The global average is 6.2 murders per 100,000 inhabitants; across Central America, the average is more than 24 murders per 100,000.
“People don’t have access to health and food. The hospital here has absolutely no resources. Gangs tell young children they will kill them and their families. This causes people to migrate,” says Lidia de Souza, a Brazilian nun who works with other nuns and social workers helping returnees in San Pedro Sula airport.
The airport is south of the city, near suburbs like Chamelecón and Ciudad Planeta, known as zonas rojas: red, no-go areas. Daily flights arrive just like in Guatemala City: one in the morning and one after lunch. Lidia de Souza and her colleagues can see the arrivals through large windows opening up towards the runway. Men and women, sometimes children, come walking towards the building. They arrive with untied shoes, shoelaces confiscated as a suicide prevention measure.
Adrian Peña Carratero, a father of two, dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt, collects new shoelaces from one of the staff. He steps out to the midday heat and gets on the bus taking people to San Pedro Sula’s bus terminal. He sits down in the back, takes out a couple of photos of a woman: his wife, who is still in the US.
“I have everything over there, I’ve lived there most of my life. I have nothing here. My two sons, I’m thinking about them. They’re starting school next week, and I don’t know how they will get up in the mornings when I’m not there,” he says and looks out the window.
Carratero doesn’t know if he will stay in Honduras or try to get back to the US. Many of the deported do. If they can, to take the chance once again. Like Luz Guevara, a girl in her 20s in the front of the bus.
“I want to go back, that’s where the opportunities are. But at the moment I don’t know anything. I didn’t even make it into the US, they caught me right at the border. Going back again costs a lot of money,” she says.
Guevara talks about going with the “coyotes”, traffickers who bring migrants from Central America through Mexico and over the US border. But it’s expensive. Around US$6,000 (Dh22,000) to go from Honduras, a little bit less, $5,000, from Guatemala. The trip is dangerous, not least for women. Amnesty International estimates that at least six out of ten are sexually abused. “We notice that with the deported women. Sometimes when we ask if they need phone calls, anything, we see that they’re scared. They’ve been abused, often raped. It’s very tough for women,” says André Lascoutx at the airport in Guatemala City.
Most coyotes cooperate through informal networks and travel certain routes, handing over the migrants to other traffickers. There are numerous paths leading through mountainous Guatemala and the desert in northern Mexico. But at a few key crossing points, the routes converge. Like Tecun Uman and Ciudad Hidalgo, two small cities on either side of the Suchiate River separating Guatemala and Mexico, where many migrants cross each day.
There is an official border crossing – a bridge traversing the stream of muddy water – but it’s much less busy than the other, informal, crossing located only 10 minutes away. Two makeshift docks have been put up on either side, launching off hundreds of improvised rafts made of inner tubes and wooden boards. During the day, locals use them to cross over for cheaper shopping on the other side; at night, all kinds of things are smuggled across, including migrants going north.
“I’m going, but this time only to Mexico. I will stay in the capital and find work there. I was in the US before, working in construction. But they sent me away because I had no visa. It’s impossible if you’re from here,” says a young man with a backpack and a cross hanging around his neck, looking out over the river.
Many of those manning the boats, and the taxi bicyclists taking passengers back and forth to the dock, speak with Honduran and Salvadoran accents – they are migrants who have stayed behind instead of going home. A man with short grey hair, thin legs and only one eye works on the riverbed, loading green plants onto a raft. His name is José Paiz, he says with a distinct American accent – he spent 10 years in the US without papers, but then had an accident which cost him his eye and forced him to leave the country. A bit farther upstream, outside an improvised tent made from plastic tarpaulin, sits a woman with bare feet and worn clothes: Maria Magdalena, a mother of four who left Honduras with the intention of going north to find work. But this, she says, was as far as her money took her.
Lidia de Souza says that being sent back and treated like criminals exacts a heavy toll on the migrants emotionally. She describes how the practice of deportations has grown in recent years. It was in 1994 or 1995 that they first started noticing commercial airplanes coming to Honduras with migrants from the US, she says.
“At first there was no migration department, so people from the airport had to help them out. But the numbers were small back then, maybe 2,000 to 4,000 per year. Now, it’s 10, 20 times as many.”
Back at the airport in Guatemala City, more people have gathered to wait. Eventually the heavy gates open with a click and families move closer in expectation. A young man in uniform lets the people waiting on the other side out, one by one. When Azucely’s brother finally appears in the trickle of deportees, their mother starts to cry. She hasn’t seen him in five years. As the family walks away, Azucely says that they are going home to their village in Guatemala’s south-west.
“I don’t think we will try to go back another time. There are so many police in Mexico now, and it’s dangerous crossing the border. Also, mum says no. It’s too expensive – and we’ll only get sent back again.”
Economic migrant or refugee?
In 1996 the US policy of “expedited removal” allowed for rapid-fire deportations of migrants at the border. In 2103, Human Rights Watch looked at US Customs and Border Protection statistics from 2011 and 2012, and concluded that 81 per cent of all Honduran migrants were deported immediately, without sufficient screening.
Deportation without adequate screening to determine a refugee’s legal status goes against the principle of non-refoulement enshrined in a 1951 convention under international law that prohibits the return of refugees to countries where they might face persecution. In June last year, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees expressed similar concerns, arguing that migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador should be treated as refugees fleeing conflict given the levels of violence that they face at home. The UN refugee agency cited particular concern for an estimated 60,000 unaccompanied minors expected to cross the US border, mainly from Mexico.
In Children on the Run, a UNHCR report published in July last year, it said: "Most of these children are promptly returned to Mexico after no more than a day or two in the custody of the US authorities, making it even more difficult to obtain a full picture of who these children are and why they are coming to the US."
In response, the US administration called child migration a “humanitarian crisis that requires immediate attention”. At a meeting with the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in July, the US President Barack Obama asked for help to deter the children from leaving their homes, calling the situation a “shared responsibility”.
Deportees convicted of illegal entry, who repeatedly attempt to cross the border, face increasingly harsh penalties under US law, according to Human Rights Watch. Its report said: “While the maximum sentence for a first-time misdemeanour entry conviction is six months, the sentence for illegal re-entry is enhanced by every prior criminal conviction, up to a maximum of 20 years for a prior aggravated felony conviction.” As one criminal defence attorney stated: “There’s a class of people doing life sentences on the instalment plan.”
Jenny Gustafsson is a Sweden-born freelance journalist living in Beirut. Her work has appeared in The National, Al Jazeera, UN publications and magazines worldwide.