The US government recently launched a messaging campaign in Guatemala to stop those in the country from entering US territory. The $750,000 effort is complete with radio, television, and billboard advertisements warning migrants of the dangers they could face on their journey north, including risky desert crossings and kidnappings by Mexican drug cartels. Despite the dangers, Guatemalans are persistent: one migrant paid a smuggler nearly $13,000 and trekked more than 1,200 miles to the border—to try for the sixth time to cross it.
If crossing the border requires substantial financial investment with little success, why are Guatemalans still trying to get into the US?
One reason lies in a parallel campaign launched by smugglers, whose messaging relies on Facebook posts and word-of-mouth advertisements. In a style similar to that of travel agents, smugglers offer different types of trips depending on how much customers can pay for the journey. Potential travelers are shown pictures of a charter bus traveling through the landscape, taking them far from the dangerous reality of the trip.
When considering the contrasting campaigns launched by the US government and Guatemalan smugglers, it is easy to see why Guatemalans resonate with the latter. More than a million of them lack electricity, 76% of the population in Guatemala’s western highlands lives in poverty, and 67% of children younger than five suffer from malnutrition. With little profit coming in from coffee, corn, and other agricultural products, many Guatemalans have few alternatives to crossing the border in search of a better life.
Life on the other side of the border is hardly an American dream for migrants, as shown by recent cases of family separations and deportations. But many Guatemalans still see the US as the land of opportunity—if they are allowed to stay. If not, many will simply keep trying.
U.S. Campaign Against Migration Goes Unheard,
or Unheeded, in Guatemala
CONCEPCIÓN CHIQUIRICHAPA, Guatemala — Six months ago, Liset Juárez’s husband packed a small bag, hugged their three children and said goodbye as he left on the more than 1,200-mile trip to the United States. It was his sixth attempt to try to cross the border illegally to find work.
The couple had borrowed the equivalent of nearly $13,000 from a friend to pay a smuggler for the trip. Ms. Juárez said her husband was aware of the dangers — unscrupulous smugglers, dangerous desert crossings and possible kidnapping by deadly Mexican drug cartels — but felt he had few alternatives in Guatemala, where he was deep in debt after his business failed.
“What can we do?” Ms. Juárez said two weeks ago, speaking through a translator. “We have to feed our children.” She declined to identify her husband by name, for fear he would be arrested in the United States by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Ms. Juárez’s husband was among the thousands of Guatemalans who have ignored a messaging campaign of billboards and radio and TV ads by the American and Guatemalan governments that warn against the dangerous journey to the United States.
Thousands of people, including entire families, have made the trek north seeking work and a better life from the western highlands of Guatemala — a remote, rural and impoverished area, with a largely Mayan-speaking indigenous population.
Over the past year, 42,757 Guatemalans traveling as families were either apprehended or otherwise stopped at the United States border with Mexico, according to Customs and Border Protection data. They accounted for nearly half of all migrants who sought to enter the United States with their relatives.
And the numbers have been on the rise. Two years ago, just under one-third of families stopped at the border were Guatemalan.
Interviews with dozens of people in Concepción Chiquirichapa, a town of nearly 10,000 residents with a vibrant public market, revealed that almost everyone has family — or knows someone with family — in the United States.
The reason for the diaspora is simple, residents said: extreme poverty.
About 76 percent of the population in Guatemala’s western highlands is impoverished, and 67 percent of children younger than 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition, according to the United States Agency for International Development.
Over one million Guatemalans in the region’s rural areas lack electricity. Many earn little to no profit from the coffee, corn, beans and other agricultural products they grow, given the steadily declining price of farm goods. Coffee production alone has dropped 6 percent since last year, according to the Department of Agriculture, and small farmers are unable to cover their costs.
Additionally, residents cited drug trafficking, widespread corruption in the local government and extortion by gangs as contributing to their decision to leave cities and towns in the western highlands.
“We have to create better opportunities for people so they can stay home,” said Víctor Manuel Asturias Cordón, who heads the National Competitiveness Program, or Pronacom, a Guatemalan government agency that promotes economic development.
“We also have to work on countering smugglers who have convinced people that their best opportunities to be successful lie in the states,” he said.
Alarmed by the influx of thousands of Guatemalans at the border, American officials have begun to search for more effective ways to stem the flow of the migrants.
In late September, Kevin K. McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, traveled to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — the three countries that make up the bulk of the migrants apprehended at the southwestern border. In Guatemala, he met with government officials and leaders of business and indigenous communities.
He said law enforcement alone could not stop the migration of tens of thousands of Guatemalans attempting to illegally enter the United States.
“I’m here to listen and learn the issues you are facing so we can work together,” he told a group of Guatemalan officials at a center where migrants return after being deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Mr. McAleenan also toured several projects funded by the Agency for International Development, including a coffee processing facility in Guatemala City and a farm in Quetzaltenango, the largest city in the western highlands, where new variants of corn and other vegetables are being produced.
Meeting with several indigenous leaders at a round table in Quetzaltenango, Mr. McAleenan said he understood that most people leaving the region were trying to find work.
But he reminded them that illegally crossing the American border is a crime, and warned of smugglers who have misled desperate migrants by assuring them that they can remain in the United States if they arrive as families.
“There is no ability to stay in the United States if you bring a child, and there is no ability to stay if you are pregnant,” Mr. McAleenan said. “We need to continue to provide accurate information so they won’t make this dangerous journey, where they face physical and sexual assault.”
The United States is projected to spend more than $200 million on projects in the western highlands over the next few years to create jobs and reduce poverty, officials said. And it has sought to deter illegal immigration by harshly cracking down on border crossings this year — including with the now-defunct and widely condemned practice of separating migrant children from their detained parents and other relatives.
But the lure of a better life in America remains strong for many Guatemalans.
In the town of Cajolá, a 20-year-old woman who identified herself only as Onelia said she had attempted to illegally cross the border into Texas at least three times — twice in Laredo and once in McAllen — before being deported back to Guatemala.
Onelia works at the Asociación Grupo Cajolá, an organization set up by a former migrant named Eduardo Jiménez to keep local residents in Guatemala by providing them with jobs. Since July, Onelia has processed honey at the organization; other women make indigenous clothing to sell.
There is a day care in the basement for children whose mothers are working upstairs. Their fathers have mostly migrated to the United States.
Onelia said she enjoyed her work, and earned a decent salary. But in November, she said, she plans to again set off for the United States.
“We know about the risk and we know how hard it is,” she said. “But we still want to go.”
The messaging campaign, however, has largely gone unnoticed.
Nine billboards in Guatemala’s western highlands area, paid for by the American government, warn potential migrants about the dangers of the trip north. Officials said they have also placed advertisements on radio and television with additional warnings, at a total cost of about $750,000.
Across Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the American government is spending about $1.3 million on the campaign.
But interviews with more than a dozen people in the Guatemalan highlands’ largest city and several small towns showed that few residents have seen or heard the warnings. Many of the people interviewed said they would not be persuaded to stay anyway.
A parallel, and far more powerful, messaging campaign by smugglers is resonating by word of mouth.
Residents said they see daily advertisements by the smugglers, or coyotes, promising to get them to the United States. On at least one community radio station in Quetzaltenango, smugglers regularly offer to transport and help finance northbound travels for migrants.
Smugglers are also active on social media. Some have promoted their services on Facebook, offering to take migrants anywhere in the “American union.”
Most of the advertisements are couched in language similar to that of a travel agent. Migrants are offered different types of trips, based on how much they can pay. And many are guaranteed three chances to cross the border for the cost of their trip.
The ads feature pictures of charter buses, offering an image of a trip that is far different from what most migrants will experience as they make the journey on crowded buses and on foot from Guatemala to the border between Mexico and the United States.
At the urging of American officials, the Guatemalan government has begun offering rewards to people who turn in smugglers. But getting people to do so has been a struggle.
“No one will turn them in, because within the community they are not seen as bad people,” said Dora Alonzo, 27, who runs an organization in Quetzaltenango to keep children from trying to migrate to America. “But everyone knows who they are.”
Ms. Alonzo said her father and a sister migrated to the United States with help from smugglers. Her father returned to Guatemala eight years ago, after spending seven years in the United States. Her sister lives in South Carolina, she said.
She would not name the smugglers. But she said the American government’s plea for Guatemalans to remain at home is unlikely to be effective. The promise of a good life in the United States, she said, overrides the risk of the trip.
“That is the way to have a house and a car,” she said.
Mr. McAleenan, the Customs and Border Protection commissioner, said it was too early to judge whether the new messaging campaign — in Spanish and indigenous languages — had worked.
“We have to give it some time to see whether it’s effective in reaching that audience and creating that deterrence,” he said.
Back in Concepción Chiquirichapa, Liset Juárez said her husband finally made it to the United States after nearly a half-dozen tries.
He plans to stay three years. With the money he makes as a laborer, she said they plan to pay back their debt, and save up to open another business.
Asked if she plans to join her husband in the United States, she shook her head no.
“I can’t abandon my children,” she said. “I have three children I have to sustain here.”