COMITANCILLO, Guatemala — Forty percent of the unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. come from Guatemala. To really understand why so many want to leave we traveled to a town in the Western Highlands, a mountainous region located six hours outside the capital that not only exemplifies the root causes of migration, but the violent end many risk just trying to find a safe and stable life.
Nestled into the lush green and picturesque mountains of Western Guatemala, you’ll find the quiet town of Comitancillo.
It’s here that we met 70-year-old Dona Angela, who was tending her few goats she hopes to fatten and sell – her only source of income – in order to care for her grandchildren.
Angela is a widow who lost her husband to alcoholism, which runs rampant in these parts where life is not easy.
In her community’s small village square, the mostly indigenous population mostly speaks the ancient Mayan language of Mam. Farming corn and potatoes on the nearby hillside is the main source of local income. But it’s just not enough for many to survive. Unemployment and malnutrition define the desperation of daily life.
Finding a job in the United States seems for many the only way to survive. We’re told that every year, 80% of the youth from Comitancillo risk the perilous journey north to try and realize a desperate dream.
But this past January, that dream turned into a nightmare. Thirteen young people from Comitancillo in their teens and early 20s who set off to the U.S. were massacred in Mexico along dangerous drug smuggling routes, their bodies shot and burned beyond recognition just shy of the U.S. border. Twelve state Mexican police were arrested for their murders.
Angela’s only son was among the dead.
She says he sent texts along the dangerous routes to her other children assuring them he was safe. Then the texts stopped coming.
In a nationally televised address, President Alejandro Giammattei presided over a somber repatriation ceremony as the bodies were returned to the capital city. Grieving families in Comitancillo held ceremonies of their own on the town’s soccer field where Dona Angela’s son Zurdo once played.
Angela held a wake in her home where an alter celebrated Zurdo’s young life.
Community leader Monica Aguillon advocates for families like Angela’s, but says the government of Guatemala does nothing to support them.
Luckily, Angela has some running water, a kitchen to cook in and limited electricity. She eats mostly corn and beans, eggs and sometimes chicken, when they grow big enough.
The kids in the town long to learn, but right now are out of school due to COVID-19.
Conditions here remain primitive by Western standards. Angela bathes in an ancestral bath. Water from the river is poured on hot stones producing steam. She uses herbs to pat down the body. They come to bathe every Wednesday.
It’s a family affair and one of the few reprieves from the hardship here. It’s also one of many heartwarming signs of resilience and generosity of spirit among the people who long for a better life.
At the town cemetery that overlooks all of Comitancillo, you’ll find five of the 13 youths who were massacred buried. Angela often comes here to light a candle for her son. She prays, she says, not just for her lost child, but for all the children of Guatemala.
Despite the horrific massacre, people here say it won’t deter others from braving the journey north, that the options for any kind of a future here are scarce and the lure of the American Dream is too great, no matter what the danger.