Climate change and migration in Guatemala: Second in our series

The Trump administration is making noises that it will re-focus U.S.-Central America Plan for Prosperity aid on security. But poverty and natural disasters are bigger contributors to migratory flows.


Department of Homeland Security secretary General John Kelly’s meeting with Guatemalan officials in February 2017 was, in public, a warning to Guatemalans not to risk migrating north. However, in private meetings with Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and Interior Minister Francisco Manuel Rivas Lara reiterated the U.S.’s desire to secure its southern borders. A fortnight after Kelly visited Guatemala, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield met with Morales and added his support for the judicial sector. Brownfield addressed citizen security, anti-drug operations and law enforcement

Plans for three new prisons and increased support for the Tecun Umán (Mexico) and Chortí (Honduras) border task forces were announced—to prevent “talented people leaving Guatemala,” and to “foster safe communities and a strong economy for all.”   Although the finance plans were vague, it was hinted that the money for this would either come from the Plan for Prosperity or public-private partnerships. Secretary Kelly was one of the authors of the Plan for Prosperity, which will send $750 million to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. There would be money for two new border task forces—Xinca (El Salvador) and one with Belize, a country that Guatemala still maintains a sovereign claim to.

Of the $209 million earmarked for Guatemala this year only $7.5 million has been allocated—to the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (or CICIG as it is more commonly known). Elsewhere, $125 million has been earmarked to projects in Honduras and $97.9 million in El Salvador. The suggestion is that Guatemala was a completely unprepared budget or administration-wise to absorb such a large assistance package. There are projects in the pipeline and USAID will be in charge of distributing the money.

Kelly also suggested that Mexico take on a greater policing role to stop the flow of migrants. More details will emerge from a meeting in Miami in June 2017 featuring representatives from the US, Mexico and Central America.

The reasons why someone migrates are complex and not a spur-of-the-moment decision. The Guatemalan government categorizes at least 85% of migrants as economic migrants, and even recent in-depth investigations have oversimplified the causes of migration to economic, violence or family reunification. A correlation of events in Guatemala and migratory flows proves the complex push factors at work in why Guatemalans leave their own country.

At a cost of $7,000 to $15,000 per person, migration is not something a family enters into easily. Although there are no statistics available for internal migration in Guatemala, the three departments that see the most migration are San Marcos, Huehuetenango and Guatemala. The first two departments border Mexico, while the addition of the department of Guatemala suggests initial internal migration before attempting to migrate to the United States.

Not only is migration costly, it requires a support network from origin to point of entry. In Guatemala, it has generally been departments in the east of the country that have sent more external migrants. Those in the west are more violent but people choosing to leave do so by internally migrating.

Internal migration increased substantially in Guatemala from the 1950s to the 1960s. The U.S.-sponsored coup in 1954 of democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz put an end to agrarian reform in the country—although judged by current standards the Arbenz government’s redistribution efforts were quite modest.

As a result of the political upheaval and loss of agricultural opportunities that followed, internal migration to the capital city spiked. In 1950 the population of Guatemala City was 285,000, by 1964 this had increased to 573,000. Guatemala’s civil war began in 1960; an estimated 1 million people were internally displaced, and 200,000 refugees fled to Mexico over the course of the 36-year conflict.

Natural disasters such as the 1976 earthquake that struck just after 3 a.m. on February 4, created over a million migrants. It killed an estimated 23,000, left 76,000 injured and destroyed approximately 258,000 homes, leaving 1.2 million homeless. The slow official reaction to the earthquake coupled with an increasingly violent conflict saw many Guatemalans, mainly from the Western Mayan highlands, choose to leave for Mexico.

Guatemalans did not just leave for Mexico. The civil war saw an estimated migration both legal and illegal from Guatemala to the U.S. of 13,785 in 1977 to a peak of 45,917 in 1989 before tailing off to 22,081 in 1996 when the Peace Accords were signed.   According to the International Organization for Migration, Guatemala, 400,000 emigrants were due to the Civil War. Of particular interest is the fact that migration accelerated after the Peace Accords.

The mid-1990s saw the beginning of economic migrants en masse as well as those escaping the end of the conflict. The 2000s were again mainly economic and the 2010s have been characterized by child migrants attempting to reach the U.S. to reunite with their families.

Current estimates of how many Guatemalans live in the U.S. range from 1.5 to 2 million. However, the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry (Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores or MINEX)the only government institution with contact with migrants abroad—estimates that there are 3 to 3.5 million Guatemalans in the US.

Interplay of natural disasters and migration

  • 1976 Earthquake

As described above, the earthquake of 1976—while not related to weather or climate change—demonstrated the impact that natural disasters can have on the fragile economy and living standards in Guatemala that can lead to out-migration, especially with a weak government. The earthquake left 23,000 dead, 76,000 injured, destroyed, 258,000 homes, leaving 1.2 million Guatemalans homeless. As mentioned above, an estimated 1 million internally displaced and 200,000 refugees fled to Mexico, due in part to the civil war and due in part to the destruction wrought by the earthquake.

  • Hurricanes Mitch, Stan and Tropical Storm Agatha (1998, 2005, 2010)

The three major recent hurricanes/storms that hit Guatemala (Stan, Mitch and Agatha) increased dislocation and economic insecurity and became significant push factors. After Agatha came a massive increase in unaccompanied children. In 2011 4,059 border apprehensions of children from Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras) countries were recorded. By 2012 it was 24,000, in 2013, 39,000 and 69,000 during the “child migrant crisis” of 2014 through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas alone. As numbers of Mexican children caught decreased by 28% between 2009 and 2014 according to a Pew Research Center investigation, there were increases in child migrants from El Salvador of 707%, Guatemala of 930% and Honduras of 1272%.

Hurricane Mitch affected 14 of Guatemala’s 22 departments. It caused severe floods and mudslides leading to 268 deaths, 106,000 were evacuated, 110,000 were victims and 178,000 remained in their homes at risk. Flooding destroyed 6,000 houses and damaged 20,000 others, displacing over 730,000 people. Thirty seven bridges were destroyed, 840 miles of road were affected by flood water and in total Mitch caused an estimated $748 million worth of damage. The cost to export goods, especially fruit and vegetables was reported $444 million for the period 1999-2000.

In terms of deaths, Hurricane Stan in October 2005 was the most deadly. At least 1,500 died in Guatemala many in the Mayan village of Panabaj, near Lake Atitlán. Heavy rains dislodged mud on the Volcano Tolican overlooking Panabaj, causing a massive mudslide that covered the town in an estimate 20 to 40 feet of mud. The weather conditions meant emergency services took two days to arrive, by which time the site was declared a graveyard by the mayor. At least 400 died but the lack of accurate records means the death toll was estimated at 1,400 and could be closer to 2,000.

The storm effectively cut off the south-west of Guatemala from the rest of the country because a bridge at El Palmar, Quetzaltenango was destroyed. This left the department of San Marcos fending for itself.   At least 35,000 homes were destroyed and nearly 500,000 were affected by Stan. The repair costs to Guatemala were estimated at $988 million.

Tropical Storm Agatha hit Guatemala with the strongest rains in 60 years. Initially it was welcomed as it swept away ash from an eruption from Volcano Pacaya that had covered coffee plantations. However, after flooding and landslides caused by 36 hours of rainfall, 172 Guatemalans died, 101 were left missing and 148 injured. According to CONRED, 344,814 people were affected, with 98,000 left homeless. Twenty-four bridges were destroyed and 19 damaged.

It was the wettest tropical cyclone to make landfall in Guatemala with at least 14 inches of rainfall on May 29 2010 alone, worse than Hurricane Mitch. The estimate for rebuilding was set at $475 million.

Guatemala is still recovering from these disasters, especially its infrastructure. Many of the temporary Bailey bridges erected during the hurricanes are still in use. The department of Escuintla, which produces sugar cane and bananas amongst other foodstuffs was connected to the rest of the country by one bridge. There has been little investment in road infrastructure in Guatemala for 20 years save connecting Guatemala City with the tourist city of Antigua.

Hurricane Mitch caused losses estimated at 4.7% of Guatemala’s GDP according to the World Bank and Stan was responsible for costs reportedly 3.4% of GDP. Tropical Storm Agatha and the eruption of Volcano Pacaya accounted for a 4.1% GDP loss and legal migration from Guatemala to the US increased by 43.5% in 2010-11 after Hurricane Stan and after Agatha the increase was 0.05%.

Preparations for the Future

The Guatemalan Constitutional Court revived the Migration code on April 28, 2017 that had been stuck in legal limbo for years. It establishes rights for Guatemalans inside and outside the country, replaces the Dirección General de Migración (General Office of Migration) with the Guatemalan Institute of Migration, integrates the National Immigration Authority, headed by the vice president and includes five state agencies. In addition, it creates the Guatemalan Migratory System and establishes protection procedures for unaccompanied children.

A National Strategy for the Prevention of Irregular Migration was launched on March 6, 2017, headed by the First Lady, Patricia Marroquín de Morales. Part of its work is to use the education and skills acquired by returning immigrants to boost the economy. It will recognize courses passed by returning migrants from the U.S., accrediting technical knowledge and aiming to improve employability. However, it retains a charity-based ethos.

The 2019 election will see the first attempt at including votes from Guatemalans registered abroad.

Whats lacking?

In Guatemala, there is still an absence of an institutional structure to design and implement a comprehensive migration policy, both to prevent the events that generate massive emigration, and to serve the populations that have already been expelled. There have been programs and attempts to solve specific needs like providing passports abroad but no real public policy.

Here are the issues:

Leadership: Both the National Council for Migrants (CONAMIGUA) and National Migrant Commission (a legislative committee in Guatemala’s Congress) are currently without elected heads. CONAMIGUA’s incoming secretary (a beauty queen, supporter of Donald Trump and his visions of a U.S.-Mexico wall) and vice secretary were elected in Guatemala’s Congress but the Constitutional Court refused to validate their appointment. The National Migrant Commission’s ambassador Claus Marvin Mérida was dismissed on April 13, 2017.

There is not one overall presidential commission on migrants, just a succession of organizations that compete with the Foreign Ministry (Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores or MINEX).

Budget: Health and education already struggle to secure sufficient state resources. In that bureaucratic struggle, migrants are not viewed as politically powerful. Thus, their share of the national budget is not sufficient for effective policy. The budget of MINEX as a whole is Q399 million ($54.43 million), of which roughly Q64 million ($8.73 million) goes to consulates in the United States.   For Guatemala to have an effective migrant policy it needs to address the needs of migrants, internally, externally (those on the way to the US) and those that live abroad—ninety two percent of Guatemalans that live abroad are in the US. Currently, Guatemala struggles to integrate returning deportees, leading to a migrant cycle as returnees—disconnected from their home communities—seek to return to the U.S. at the earliest opportunity.

Lack of preparedness: Current government plans do not address the problem from an historical perspective, acknowledge structural failures of the country, or recognize the multiple factors driving migration. As natural disasters are a driving factor—in addition to the economy and security—the government and international partners need to pay greater attention to disaster preparedness and response. Part of that demands paying particular attention to including all ethnicities in the design, development, implementation, and evaluation of climate change/natural disaster related effects on economic insecurity, food security and dislocation.

Projected Consequences of Inaction

The refusal to investigate why rural people migrate only makes those areas more vulnerable to future migration.

The government insists that the majority of migration is for economic reasons; this ignores reasons that generate instability and the multiple factors often behind the motivations. These include but are not limited to lack of access to education, health services or infrastructure, political instability, social unrest, territorial invasion, industrial misuse of land, climate change, urban violence, intrafamily violence, and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender, among others. It also ignores the simple historical correlation between natural disasters, dislocation and migration.

Within Guatemala, if the multiple causes of emigration are not addressed, people will continue to seek escape valves to other countries.  Outward migration from Guatemala will increase.  Primarily this will remain in the United States although it is possible Costa Rica becomes more attractive, a country that traditionally Nicaraguans have migrated to.

If development assistance programs from the international community – including the United States – fail to address the multiple push factors driving migration, that too will stimulate external migration.  Extreme weather conditions threaten jobs, housing and food security.  However, assistance programs have attempted to assist in traditional ways. USAID’s plea for creative, non-traditional pitches for the Plan for Prosperity money is an acknowledgement of past performances of these programs.

What should be done?

The Central government insists on treating migration through charitable work. The only migration strategy that has been announced by the executive in recent years has been placed in the hands of the Secretary of Social Works of the First Lady. (Sosep). Addressing the causes of migration through better policy, preparedness and cooperation with communities and international donors is not charity work.

  • Adapt and apply the Migration Code. This would create a new National Migration System, consisting of:
  1. A new immigration authority (set of government institutions that will create public migration policy);
  2. A new Guatemalan Migration Institute, which implements all migration policies;
  3. And The National Council of Attention to the Guatemalan Migrant (CONAMIGUA). Under this system, CONAMIGUA, which has become a political appointment, could lose functionality.

Currently both CONAMIGUA and the National Migrant Commission do not have their respective leadership.

  • Strengthen and modernize the state to invest in historically abandoned, rural areas. This should include public-private partnerships to develop and generate employment in rural areas, such as reported plans for intermediate cities across Guatemala. Intermediate cities are not a new idea; for example France implemented this plan in the 1950s. Colombia is the most recent example in Latin America. Work has already started on this by modernizing regional airports around Guatemala such as Puerto Barrios, Retalhuleu, Izabal and Escuintla.
  • Work with international donors, especially the U.S., to develop a collaborative approach to assistance packages that seek to address the multiple causes of migration. This should include improving state social programs in education and health, youth employment, and an expanded conditional cash transfer program. Doing this though requires re-focusing the current law-and-order plans for assistance and granting greater ownership of the Plan of Prosperity package to local authorities.
  • The U.S. government should maintain a development-focused strategy for its comprehensive Central America policy, avoiding the temptation to securitize its program. Focusing on security will miss the main causes of outmigration and the likely increasing role of extreme weather. At the same time, returning the “baddest hombres” to countries without the infrastructure to receive them is potentially disastrous. Although Guatemala is building three new prisons, the prison system is 300% overcrowded with over 50% of inmates awaiting trial. El Salvador is already seeing new gang cliques appearing named after US cities. Deporting gang members to the Northern Triangle was a policy failure of the mid-1990 Clinton administration.
  • The Guatemalan government, together with international donors and financial institutions, should seek to develop a comprehensive climate adaptation program that would pull from the Environmental (MARN), Agricultural (MAGA), Infrastructure (CIV) ministries and CONRED to identify at-risk areas—geographic and sectoral—for climate change and ways to address them and develop a rapid response mechanism for events like hurricanes, floods, mudslides and droughts to mitigate displacement and insecurity that could lead to migration.
  • Overall the state needs a comprehensive vision for the future of Guatemala, both in terms of migration and how to create the conditions to prevent the migration flow to the US.

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