The quiet Mayan Tz’utujil city of Santiago Atitlán has long been a destination for tourism, even during the darkest days of Guatemala’s thirty-six year internal armed conflict. Tourists are drawn to the picturesque Lake Atitlán and the indigenous traditions of the city. But in recent years, it has been damaged by the pandemic and, despite a reported return to normality, migration is on the rise.
“We have about three people who have gone to the United States,” said Juan Manuel Ramierez, a local evangelical preacher. The progressive in an interview in April 2022.
It shows that migration from this city to the United States of America was rare fifteen years ago. Now, he says, it has become routine.
“In the times of [internal armed] only a few people are left in the conflict”, adds Ramierez. “But the pandemic came to affect the economy, so there are people choosing to go to the United States.”
Diego Sapol, a local academic researcher, explains that migration from the community has increased in the last two years. “There are a lot of people looking for a way to get that money to go to the United States to find an opportunity,” Sapol tells him. The progressive.
“The lack of employment has affected a lot [of people],” he says. “There are some families who sometimes don’t even have enough for their children’s education, food or health care. So they move to the United States and give their children a decent life.”
Current cost for one coyote, or migrant guide, from Santiago Atitlán is currently about 125,000 Quetzales, or more than $16,000. Sapoli himself has been approached about migration, but he has no interest at the moment.
“I thought about going many times,” says Sapol. “Many times I thought it would be better to go [to the United States] to look for an opportunity.”
Due to inflation, the cost of living has increased throughout Guatemala. But as costs rise, daily wages have hovered around fifty or sixty Quetzales per day (between $6.50 and $7.75).
A similar phenomenon is occurring just a short boat ride away in the municipality of San Pedro la Laguna, also a Mayan community. Since the start of the pandemic, people from San Pedro have sought to reach the United States to find opportunities.
The city is located on the western shore of Lake Atitlán. It is popular with tourists in the alternative spiritual movement and with retired soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces. But this has never contributed to the development of the local economy, and worse, the presence of tourists has forced many local residents to leave their markets.
“Tourism only benefits certain groups,” says Sapol. “Mostly people who own lakefront spaces.”
The tourism industry in these towns with mostly indigenous full-time residents has done little to develop the community. For example, opportunities for young people remain limited. This situation is particularly severe for residents who have higher levels of education, as there are few job opportunities.
At least three of the victims of the tragedy in San Antonio, Texas in June 2022, where fifty-three migrants died in a trailer, were from villages located in the Atitlán basin.
“Many times I thought it would be better to go [to the United States] to seek an opportunity.’
The region has also seen the concentration of land in the hands of foreigners looking to profit from tourism. However, despite this, the Guatemalan government continues to promote tourism as a means of economic development.
“The model, the style of economic growth, is completely exhausted,” says Jonathan Menkos, director of the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies. The progressive. “And no amount of tourism inflows or foreign direct investment can compensate for that style of economic growth that doesn’t generate enough employment or enough conditions to sustain people.”
One of the few opportunities in the region is to meet the demand of tourists for drugs. The presence of drug and narcotics culture in the community contributed to the city being listed as a red zone for US peacekeeping volunteers, according to participants in the US program.
“There are many children, there are young women and there are mothers [and] old men who are [selling drugs] due to the lack of employment”, says Sapol. “The same [economic] Necessity forces them to do things that are crimes.”
In the face of this image of being a drug destination, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Tourism of Guatemala launched an international campaign entitled “Taste Guatemala without drugs”. But the lack of oversight and regulation around the lake has created a destination where impunity reigns.
“What hope is there in the country when you rule over a band of thieves.” [the country]?” Juan José Hurtado, the director of the immigrant defense association Pop No’j, tells The progressive. “When what [these thieves] to do is to persecute people who try to do right; when what is seen is an increase in prices and that the basic cost of living is increasing, and with people struggling to survive.”
In addition, violence and extortion caused by the economic crisis are constantly increasing. This means that starting a small business for many is almost impossible.
“[This] it is a country that offers no future for anyone,” says Hurtado. “There is no hope in Guatemala and hopelessness is an issue that forces people to leave.”