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.”