Poverty, drought drive Guatemalans north to US

World Today

Guatemala has overtaken Mexico as the main source of illegal immigrants to the United States. CGTN’s Franc Contreras 

The town of Joyabaj is located in Guatemala’s Mayan Quiche highlands. Including surrounding communities, the population here is about 100,000 people — but it’s declining.  

The town’s main fiesta was underway when CGTN’s camera arrived, but despite the festive atmosphere, hard times have fallen on Joyabaj.

According to U.S. statistics, Guatemala, home to some 17 million people, now sends more illegal immigrants to the United States than any other Central American nation. Joyabaj is the epicenter of that exodus.

“The state and national governments have no offices for helping the migrants who are returned to Guatemala,” said Mari Cruz Matzatzil. “We try to migrate with no documents and are returned. We leave bad conditions to go to the U.S. only to be sent back here where it’s even worse.”

The local economy is so bad that even the town’s mayor once fled Guatemala seeking better opportunities.

“I would look at my neighbors and relatives who were leaving and thought that maybe in the U.S. they could have a better life,” Mayor Florencio Carrascosa Gamez said. “With the salary I had here, it was impossible to support a family. That is why I decided to go to the United States.”

A four-year-long drought has devastated the agriculture economy, and food shortages loom.

The size of the plants in this cornfield tells the story of the drought in this part of Guatemala. Agronomists said by the middle of August, the plants should be about six feet high, but these are only about half that.

Soil management expert Juan Quezada shows us the main reason why people are fleeing the region.

“We are seeing almost a total loss of the crop here, and it’s like this across the entire region,” said Quezada. “Over the hill, the fields also have plants like this that are not producing any crops.”

The people here said without opportunities, they cannot make ends meet. For many who have families who are already in the United States, it’s yet another reason to go north.