Photo Essay

  • Protesters angry over allegations of voter fraud burn tires, blocking the highway, before setting fire to the mayor’s office in Palin, Guatemala, in 2008.
  • The 2007 presidential election in Guatemala was one of the most violent since the country’s civil war ended in 1996. Guatemala is a major hub for Colombian cocaine as makes its way to the United States. Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the world. This photo was taken in 2007.
  • A view of the landscape in San Pedro Jocopilas, Guatemala, in 2007.
  • An overpass in Guatemala City, Guatemala, in 2007.
  • The scene where a taxi driver was shot to death by a 16-year-old in Ciudad Mixco, Guatemala, in 2013. Young people are disproportionately affected by gun violence in Guatemala, part of the Northern Triangle of Central America, which is currently one of most violent regions in the world.
  • People pay their respects to family members during Day of the Dead celebrations in Santiago de Sacatepequez, 2007.
  • Gang graffiti is prevalent in Zone 6 of Guatemala City, where gun violence is an epidemic that affects youth from all walks of life.
  • Michael RenŽ Coyoy Hernandez, 14, was shot six times by teenage perpetrators who drove by on a motorcycle and opened fire on him. His body is seen here in Guatemala City, in 2013.
  • Guatemalan police and the Bomberos Municipales attend to victims of extortion after two young men, who were later caught by the police, extorted a woman and her daughter for money in Guatemala City, in 2013.
  • A security guard armed with a shotgun in Guatemala City, Guatemala, in 2013.
  • A 10-year-old boy receives medical attention from a fireman after he was shot in the hand, in 2013. The boy was an innocent bystander at a shooting that took place at a wake for another teenager that was killed two nights before. The Guatemalan police, PNC, believed that all the shootings were gang-related.
  • A supporter of presidential candidate Otto Perez Molina, of the Patriotic Party, waits for his arrival before a rally in Santa Cruz de Quiche, Guatemala, in 2007.
  • Deportees meet with their families outside of Guatemala’s airport, in Guatemala City, in 2007.
  • MS13 gang members flash their gang signs while handcuffed, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, in 2007.
  • A young man gets help from the Bomberos Municipales after a night of drinking, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, in 2013.
  • Street children sniff glue to get high in Guatemala City, Guatemala, in 2013.
  • Edwin Aroldo Lalimayr, 19, seeks support from his church, Ministerios Hechos de Guatemala outside of Ciudad Mixco, in 2013. The church helps homeless men and women who abuse drugs and alcohol by providing them with showers and meals on Sundays.
  • Edwin Aroldo Lalimayr, 19, at his church outside of Ciudad Mixco, Guatemala, in 2013.
  • A MS13 gang member lies on a bed in Guatemala City’s Roosevelt Hospital after being injured in a prison fight, in 2007.
  • Masked protesters take to the streets of Palin, Guatemala as black smoke rises behind them, in 2007.
  • A patient waits for treatment at Guatemala City’s Roosevelt Hospital after he was beaten and robbed, in 2007.
  • Boys between the ages of 10 and 17 are deported back to Guatemala City, Guatemala, by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in 2007.
  • A boy under the age of 15 returns back to his homeland of Guatemala after being deported from the U.S., in Guatemala City, in 2007.
  • The church, Ministerios Hechos de Guatemala, outside of Ciudad Mixco, helps homeless men and women who abuse drugs and alcohol by providing them with showers and meals on Sundays. This photo was taken in 2013.
  • A coffin near the city morgue in Guatemala City, in 2013.
  • Members of a citizen security group patrol the streets of Guatemala City’s “Barcenas” neighborhood, carrying shotguns and machetes, in 2007.
  • Supporters of presidential candidate Otto Perez Molina, of the Patriotic Party, wait for his arrival before a rally in Guatemala City, in 2007.
  • An armed citizen security group member stops to look at a car, which its members recently shot up during a drive-by shooting, in Guatemala City, in 2007.
  • A local street kid is stopped by a citizen security patrol member in Guatemala City, in 2007.
  • A view of a Catholic church in Santa Cruz de Quiche, in Guatemala City, in 2007.
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Legacy of bloodshed hangs over Guatemala

Almost two decades since the end of Guatemala’s brutal civil war, the bloodshed from the conflict still taints the day-to-day lives of the people who live there.

The pervasive violence, perpetrated by gangs and enabled by corruption, is uprooting families and becoming one of the central factors driving Central American children to seek refuge in the United States. As the American government attempts to get a handle on the situation at the United States’ southwestern border, the root causes behind the massive migration remain.

“The violence is everywhere,” said photographer Carlos Javier Ortiz, who has documented the poverty and crime in the region with his project El Sueño. “It’s something that hasn’t really escaped the country since the civil war.”

Guatemala has been wracked by violence for so many generations that those leaving now are the great, great grandchildren of the first victims of the country’s civil war, which lasted for 36 years. More than 200,000 civilians were killed in a conflict that is so entrenched that a former dictator only went on trial for genocide last year, accused of killing and disappearing more than 1,400 Mayans during the 1980s. And though peace treaties formally ended the wars by the mid 1990s, the legacy of bloodshed still holds strong.

Ortiz has photographed the conditions on and off over the last several years to help explain why children are fleeing from their homes – on their own – on a treacherous journey through Mexico. Guatemala is just under the size of Pennsylvania, but it is home to more residents than any other Central American country. Its population is about 14.5 million.

Massive income inequality favors the country’s wealthiest earners while more than half of Guatemala’s population lives below the national poverty level.

Gangs have assumed control of major neighborhoods, in some cases entire cities. Meanwhile organized crime has infiltrated the judicial system and influenced public offices, an issue so widespread the United Nations set up an agency called the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.

“You can kill with impunity,” Ortiz said. “For the most part, life is cheap.”

Guatemala’s southeastern neighbor, Honduras, has reigned for the last three years as the deadliest county in the world. Guatemala routinely ranks within the top five murder capitals around the globe, with a murder rate that is still on the rise.

Kids are fleeing from the country in droves. Over the last five years, the number of Guatemalan minors caught along the U.S. border has increased 11-fold. More than 12,000 Guatemalan kids have tried to enter the U.S. since October – many more are expected by the end of the year.

“Kids are living in danger from gangs and the gangs extort people for money because the economy is crap and there is so much corruption,” Ortiz said. “It’s all a chain reaction.”

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