Guatemala is a small Central American country that is part of the “Northern Triangle,” which includes El Salvador and Honduras. In 1954, after 10 years of democratic governance, a CIA-backed coup installed Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas. His dictatorship was notorious for acts of mass repression, human rights violations, sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), and the use of death squads. While the world focuses on Syria and Iraq as source countries for people fleeing violence, large numbers of Guatemalans and other Central Americans, especially young people are forced to flee their homes.

Immigration Project Staff Attorney Rebekah Niblock noted that Guatemalans in downstate Illinois come to the United States to escape numerous forms of violence. She stated that in addition to gang and domestic violence, land-disputes and extreme poverty forced Guatemalans to flee to the United States. Niblock observed that these issues greatly impact indigenous populations, especially Mayans who often do not speak Spanish or English.


Map obtained from BBC World News

Guatemala has not fully recovered from civil war, which began in 1960 and raged for 36 years. Coups, assassinations, SGBV, and enforced disappearances were common throughout the civil war. Indigenous populations were subjected to extreme brutality during the 1980s in ‘scorched earth’ tactics conducted by the military. “There’s always war,” a former Immigration Project client and immigration advocate said when describing why he came to the United States. “If they know what I am doing they might kill me if I go back,” said our former client, who wished to remain anonymous, as he shared his experience of violence in the 1980s and offered insight into the current situation in Guatemala.

“Basically the military took over, they said there were four groups (anti-government guerillas), but we never saw them. They (the military) burned the village down that was close to my village. We worked in the fields and saw smoke. An old man staring out toward the smoke, he said, ‘they just burned our brothers and sisters,’ and it was true. The army got there the night before and spent the night in the bushes. They said there were enemies. They were waiting for them to come home. In the morning they gathered them (the villagers) and told them they were having a meeting. They put them in the church and opened fire. They burned the building down with them in it. There were rumors that before they burned the church down the soldiers raped all the women. But who knows,” he said. During the civil war at least 50,000 women were victims of violence and rape was used as a weapon of war, especially against indigenous communities.

“I don’t remember the year they came to my village. I was working the land when all of a sudden I was told to drop my weapon.” His ‘weapon’ was a small hand-made garden hoe. “They took us and tied our hands. There were more guys with us. They were actually the ones they (the military) wanted not me. I had been picked up accidentally. They lined the guys up and started to torture them. I didn’t see it but I heard everything. I can hear the screaming. ‘Oh God why is this happening?’ A soldier said, ‘Your God ain’t gonna be here to rescue you.’”

The torture went on for several hours as the soldiers searched the village for weapons and ammunition, but found none. None of the villagers were anti-military fighters. “They were all innocent,” our client recalled. The soldiers killed the men they had tortured. They stabbed them with their hands still tied behind their backs. In 1999 a UN truth commission found that 93% of all massacres, tortures, disappearances, and assassinations during the war were the fault of the Guatemalan military. In 2004 the UN found that though the war was over crime, social injustice, and human rights violations remained high, in large part due to rampant gang violence.

During the civil war Guatemalan asylee seekers faced many obstacles when applying for asylum, consequently immigration advocates and religious groups initiated a lawsuit known as the “ABC Lawsuit,” which claimed Guatemalan and Salvadoran asylee seekers were being discriminated against in 1985. The lawsuit was settled in 1990 and  resulted in the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), which allowed many Guatemalans and Salvadorans that fell within specified dates to apply for and receive asylum. Staff Attorney Charlotte Alvarez noted some older Guatemalan migration flows into downstate Illinois during the 1980s were able to receive permanent residency through NACARA. However, due to the time sensitive nature of NACARA, it does not apply to the thousands of Guatemalans currently fleeing to the United States.

Since 1990 the United States government has been able to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to foreign nationals who cannot safely return to their country due to situations such as natural disasters, armed conflict, and other extraordinary temporary conditions. TPS provides deportation relief and the ability to obtain work authorization. While El Salvador and Honduras, the two other corners of the Northern Triangle, have TPS status Guatemala does not despite multiple application attempts. Mary Meg McCarthy, Executive Director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, located in Chicago, wrote to the New York Times that Guatemala needs TPS status and all that truly prevents Guatemala from gaining it is “the will to act.”

When asked about Guatemala now our former client said, “I think our life is never free. The government is always up to something. The people do not want (hydroelectric) mines because it will make them sick. The government does not care, they want the mine and the money. No one cares about the about the people. So the towns try to stand up for themselves. They have their own leader and the whole town will be behind him. But because of this they will kill him.” Not all local leaders who resist the government are killed. Our client recalled the fate of another community leader. “They came and got him. I’m sure it was the government because they took him with a helicopter. They tied him to the frame underneath. He was accused of stupid stuff and he’s still locked up now. If people know the government is coming for a (hydroelectric) mine they go block the road, they’ll chop down trees to block the road. When they come they have machines and soldiers that just push them aside and they go through anyway.”

Conflicts between villagers, mainly indigenous subsistence farmers, and the government seeking to claim land for projects, such as hydroelectric mines, is not a new issue in Guatemala. 400 people were killed in 1982 and even more were displaced, tortured and raped for resisting government efforts to build the Chixoy mine. Despite widespread protests, internal displacement, and illnesses caused by pollution, the government still pursues its construction projects.

“Along with all this (government corruption) there are bad guys who’re organized. They go around and steal and kidnap kids. They’ll steal the young people to make them be with them. They steal girls to be with them or end up raping them. They’re very afraid,” our client explained about the current situation facing Guatemalan youth.

According to the UN, Guatemala and other Central American countries have come under the control of “sophisticated’ domestic and international organized crime groups. Since 2008 the UNHCR documented a massive increase in people from Central America fleeing gang violence. Young males often flee because local gangs threaten to kill them if they do not become gang members. A surge in violence against women is why many Guatemalan women and girls come to the United States. The UNODC found that Guatemala has the third highest rate of female homicide, whereas it ranked sixth in the world for overall homicide rate. According to Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Aldana in a statement to BBC News, “The difference in Guatemala between the murder of a woman and of a man is that the woman is made to suffer before death, she is raped, mutilated, and beaten.” While courts were set up to address femicide in Guatemala their capacity to address the problem is very limited.

The UNHCR found women who flee Guatemala were taking contraceptives before the journey because the risk of rape from the men, or ‘coyotes,’ paid to transport them from Guatemala to the United States is so high. However, many women felt they had no other option as those who tried to relocate within Guatemala were followed and harassed by gang members. These conditions directly contributed to the flood of unaccompanied minors into the United States in 2014. With ongoing corruption, limited capacity, poverty, and persistent gang violence Guatemalans will continue coming to the United States.

“Some kids have family up here,” our client says about the children coming to downstate Illinois. “Their mothers and fathers are here (in the United States) so they don’t get the same love (in Guatemala) as they would from their mother and father. These kids are 16, 17, girls and boys, they realize there is no life for them in Guatemala or the United States. They are not sure if they can stay, because they might get sent back to Guatemala. I’m not sure if they would die, but some will.”

“I tell them to pray to God. That maybe one day when we die maybe we’ll have a place in heaven,” is what our former client turned advocate tells the children and their parents who come to the United States and face risk of deportation. The Immigration Project will continue to assist unaccompanied Guatemalan youth and undocumented immigrants in downstate Illinois, but without action comparable to NACARA or TPS it remains an immense legal challenge.


By Hanna Tarbert