MEXICO CITY – Among the thousands of mostly Honduran migrants in the caravan walking through southern Mexico, there are also Guatemalans. Though not as big a group, they too have plenty of reasons to leave home.
While Honduras and El Salvador have been riven by street gang violence, in Guatemala poverty and a lack of jobs is the main reason people flee their nation of 17 million.
Guatemala, which shares a border with Mexico, is also an inevitable transit point for migrants traveling by land from other Central American nations toward the United States. This time around, many Guatemalans joined the Honduran caravan, seeing strength and safety in numbers.
The U.N. International Organization for Migration, whose estimates are usually conservative, says about 1 million Guatemalans currently live in the United States. The Guatemalan government puts the number at 1.5 million.
The remittances they send home each year have become a mainstay of the Guatemalan economy, contributing about 11 percent of the country’s GDP. That is threatened by rising deportations: The U.N. agency estimates that U.S. deportations of Guatemalans in the first six months of 2018 rose 64 percent compared with previous years.
Here is a look at conditions driving Guatemalans to leave.
Guatemala is Central America’s largest economy, but one of the worst-off countries in Latin America by income equality.
About 60 percent of Guatemalans live in poverty, and that percentage is significantly higher among the indigenous majority. Many who migrate come from indigenous communities where Spanish is not the primary language.
Even for those with jobs, almost 95 percent earn salaries insufficient to meet a family’s basic needs.
Almost half of Guatemalan children under age 5 suffer malnutrition, and 23 percent are severely malnourished. Only one in four attends middle school or beyond; the rest drop out after primary school.
POLITICAL INSTABILITY AND CORRUPTION
Since 2007 a U.N. anti-corruption commission has been helping local prosecutors make headway against endemic government graft that has stymied aid and development efforts. Several top politicians and even ex-presidents have been charged, but current President Jimmy Morales has ordered the commission to leave the country, refused to renew visas of key staffers and barred its chief from returning to the country. That has elevated political tensions and discouraged investment.
VIOLENCE AND EXTORTION
Since 2015, Guatemala has seen its homicide rate drop to about 27 per 100,000 inhabitants, a level only slightly higher than neighboring Mexico and much better than in its Northern Triangle neighbors, El Salvador and Honduras. But law enforcement efforts have been blunted by the current administration’s political appointments.
And while murders have fallen, extortion by criminals and street gangs remains a stubborn problem; the rate of reported extortions is 43 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Violence has hit women particularly hard. The United Nations estimates that 83 percent of crimes against women go unpunished.