You’re not hearing about Guatemala’s biggest issues

Photo: USAID

August 15, 2021

By Jon Orbach

While there’s no shortage of coverage on the root causes of migration from Guatemala and its neighbors from an American perspective, the country’s most urgent causes for concern hardly get the attention they deserve from Western press. From missing vaccines to climate change, here are five pressing stories you may have missed.

Anti-Progress Politics

Photo: Reuters

When U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala in June, her words caught the headlines: “Do not come,” she told migrants. Another story, meanwhile, did not gather as much attention: The U.S. also pledged to work with Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office to stem corruption.

Nor did the fallout get much press. Not even two months later, the U.S. cancelled that cooperation. In late July, Guatemala’s Attorney General fired a U.S.-backed anti-corruption prosecutor. As the former prosecutor fled for his safety to El Salvador, Guatemalans had flashbacks of when a successful U.N.-backed anti-corruption agency (CICIG) was dismantled in 2019 after it got too close to prosecuting the last president.

For Guatemalans, the prosecutor’s case evoked déjà vu, and thousands of indigenous Guatemalans, sick of corrupt governments dictated by organized crime, coordinated a strike that blocked major highways and demanded the resignation of President Alejandro Giammattei and his attorney general — a movement that garnered little attention in Western press.

“Corruption” is an oft-cited catalyst for migration from Guatemala, but political hopelessness may be a more accurate diagnosis. With dissent so fiercely quashed, prosecutors, protestors, activists and others trying to improve Guatemalan society have been targeted time and time again for their efforts.

In fact, they’re getting attacked and murdered at alarming rates. In 2020, 15 human rights activists were murdered and more than 1,000 assaulted, according to a watchdog group Udefegua.

When society isn’t allowed to improve, citizens become understandably hopeless.

“People’s vision of the future, and a sense that things are not going to improve is actually a key driver of migration,“ said Rich Brown, a journalist who’s written extensively on Guatemalan politics. “I’ve interviewed lots of people from Guatemala and Honduras who were fleeing or had fled their countries, and each individual has their own reason for migrating. But whether it’s health bills, gang violence, extortion, lack of opportunity, hunger or lack of education, their sense is that their base problem is not going to get any better over the near-medium term.”

With the government in such a sorry state, many feel there’s little recourse but to either overthrow the entire system or look elsewhere for opportunity.

¿Dónde están las vacunas?

Twitter: alebarrios116

Where are the vaccines? That’s what Guatemalan protestors were chanting in July before right-wing president Alejandro Giammattei issued a state of prevention (restricting public gatherings) and banned protests for 15 days in the name of quelling the spread of Covid-19.

In early April, Giammattei and his government signed a contract to buy 16 million Sputnik V vaccine doses, half of which they paid for in advance, for a price of almost $80 million. This in theory could help 8 million people, but due to alleged shipping delays, only 960,000 have been seen in the country. While the contract has reportedly been renegotiated, the remaining vaccines’ whereabouts are still a mystery.

Guatemala has four times more Covid-19 cases and deaths than its neighbor El Salvador and only 2% of its population is fully vaccinated — far below Central America’s 11% average. Many Guatemalans are desperate for relief. Countries like the United States, India and Israel have donated vaccines, and those are the ones that are getting into people’s arms, not the paid ones.

“We’re so grateful to other countries who have helped us, but it’s so weird how most vaccines have come from donations and not from the only contract they signed,” said Jeanelly Vásquez, a journalist at Guatemalan daily La Hora. “The creepiest thing about the contract is that nobody, except President Alejandro Giammattei and Health Minister Amelia Flores, knows what the document says.”

Many Guatemalans have resorted to heading to other parts of the continent, such as the United States and Tapachula, Mexico, near the Guatemalan border, to get vaccinated.

“If the vaccines had arrived on time, my grandmother would be alive. #WhereIsTheMoney” | Photo: ruda_gt

People like Amanda Mendez are unhappy with the government’s handling of the pandemic. “If the vaccines had arrived on time,” she tweeted in Spanish, “I wouldn’t have been crying to my friend and his parents today.” She wants things to be better for her country.

Like many other chapínes, she had Mexico, not Guatemala, to thank for her inoculation.

The Perils of Strict Abortion Laws

A pro-life rally in Guatemala. Photo: AFP

Guatemalan teenage pregnancy rates are the highest in Latin America: One-fifth of Guatemalan mothers are between the ages of 10 and 19. One reason for this may be the country’s laws on abortion. In majority-Roman Catholic Guatemala, abortion is illegal unless the mother’s life is at risk, putting the legislation among the strictest abortion laws in the continent.

Such restrictions on what women can do with their bodies have deeply serious ramifications for women across the country. Taking abortion pills is a precise science, and when administered at the wrong time, they can put a woman’s health at risk. Of the 60,000 illegal abortions that take place annually in the country, according to NGO Women on Waves, which deals with abortion issues, the many who trust untrained professionals are putting their own lives at risk.

Those in rural regions, with less education, lower salaries and limited access to healthcare are most susceptible to unsafe abortions.

But risky abortion isn’t the only issue with a blanket ban: Those who don’t get abortions (but want them) suffer too. Since rape, incest and fetal malformation don’t qualify women for abortions, many live with additional trauma and give birth at young ages. Women who want abortions but don’t get them are often plunged further into lives of poverty, with more mouths to feed. It’s hard to quantify, but it can also be a driver of migration, as mothers search for better lives for their families.

Reliable statistics on the matter are hard to find, but about one-third of accidental pregnancies in Guatemala end in abortions, according to Even if the numbers aren’t exact, they show that banning abortion doesn’t lower abortion rates; it just increases the number of women’s lives at risk.

The Wrong Nutrients

BORGEN Magazine

The average Guatemalan is three inches shorter than the average global citizen. That remarkable discrepancy isn’t down to genetics; it’s due to growth stunting. Guatemala has one of the highest stunting rates in the world for children under five. Many Guatemalan babies, mostly because they can’t afford to, don’t get the nutrients they need — they often get enough food, just not the right calories. For that reason, Guatemala has the sixth-highest rate of malnutrition in the world.

Food issues, though, disproportionately affect the indigenous, according to the World Food Program: 80 percent face some sort of deprivation, be it of food security, nutrition, health or education. And in a country where close to half of people are indigenous, that’s a nationwide issue.

Lots of Guatemalans, including most indigenous chapínes, live in the countryside and rely on subsistence farming to survive. But with recent years’ capricious and evolving weather, the harvest yields less food than desired. That’s called food insecurity, and it’s a reality for a lot of Guatemalans. For example, it affects 352,000 people in the town of San Marcos alone — 30% of its population — according to the World Food Programme.

Some people choose migration over malnutrition, though that idea gets little attention.

A Hotbed for Extreme Weather Events

Photo: Andrea Godínez / No Ficción

In 2020, Hurricane Eta struck Guatemala. Hard. In the small town of Quejá, its hilly terrain and lack of structural integrity in its houses resulted in tragedy. Fifty-eight people died as they were submerged in mud. The mudslide followed an entire month of unprecedented rainfall, about which the Guatemalan government did nothing despite specific warnings from American agencies. The majority of those who survived had little choice but to return to the same flimsy ground from which they’d fled.

In many ways, what happened in Quejá, as local publication No Ficción reported, symbolizes a big part of the climate crisis in Guatemala: An uncaring government reacting late, leaving many needlessly dead. Quejá was but one of many towns devastated by Hurricane Eta, and it will almost certainly be troubled again soon.

Guatemala, a mountainous nation with many towns wanting in infrastructure, is among the 10 countries most susceptible to climate change and natural disasters, according to the World Food Programme. And it’s not always about instant deaths, like those caused by mudslides. Over the past three years, dry seasons have gotten longer. Subsistence farmers struggle to feed their families.

Central America’s Dry Corridor, on the Pacific coast, is particularly vulnerable to hunger and poverty due to its dependence on grain crops. “Poor soil conditions, over-exploitation of forest resources, degraded lands, small size of plots, and lack of access to credit, agricultural supplies and technical assistance,” the World Food Programme writes, “drive agricultural productivity and profitability further down.”

Naturally, when conditions don’t foster survival, there’s only so long one can survive. The solution seems obvious: head north.



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