Dispatch from Guatemala

(By: Areli Palomo)

I had been trying to reach Doña Mari for days; she is a woman that sells food in a port located in the pacific side of the Guatemalan coast. I met her a year ago when I was researching places that are used by Central Americans and by people from other parts of the world to avoid getting caught by Mexican authorities when crossing this country’s southern border. Traveling by improvised boat along the coastal border shore was proving to be more effective than trying to get into the Mexican territory by land. I arrived to this place following the trail of the many migrants that travel by sea, but I went too far from the costal border zone. I was already a little bit lost. However, I ran into something more interesting. This wrecked port was a violent place with a rachitic, almost anemic, agricultural and fishing economy. It was an insolent exploitation of natural resources. A failed development project filled with families with relatives in the United States, people migrating constantly to the US, and a crazy American with a surf school in one of the most dreadful beaches on these shores. Yet the place had something. This is a space where one can see international migration as a result of the structural violence caused by neoliberal policies. I was in a modern pressure-cooker that produces the kind of refugees that no one wants to recognize.

I met Doña Mari in one of these violent ports that are full of fishermen, merchants, smugglers, peasants, gangsters, and drug dealers.

She had been sick for three months, so she had not been able to go to the United States with her relatives who had already “sent for her”. I remember her words quite well: “Since you left, things have gotten worse… the people here can’t stand the situation… even the small businesses in the market have been extorted. It is being closed at three o’clock in the afternoon. There is no fish, there is no work, and you can’t even sit outside on the street at night to take some air. It’s getting too hot…”

Because I was doing my field research in El Slavador and I was already in the Central American region, I decided to go check on Doña Mari. The situation in the town was as she described. The difference is that there are other places that where there is still something to be done –even if it is to live pettily. Not in this port. This is one of those places in which the possibility of subsistence is, quite simply, running out. The sugar cane industry has polluted the rivers and the estuaries that surround the town and fishes are no longer an abundant resource. In the sea, only those who own small boats and the big fishing ships can still get something out of the sea, but fishing with nets and trammels at the sea shores is not enough anymore, not even to eat, much less to sell.

The local fishermen walk for one or two hours — a little bit less if the have a horse — looking for shrimps, fishes, crabs in far away and less crowded estuaries and portions of the vast sea.

Some time ago, some local fishermen began to steal shrimps from the shrimp-farm companies around town that have monopolized and polluted rivers and estuaries. For a while, they managed to steal and sell the shrimp that they robbed until they got caught. The private security of the farm killed some of them. Others were tortured and imprisoned. That’s the story told by those who came out of jail.

A lot of the youngsters who live here belong to the town’s strongest gang, the barrio 18. One of them tells me, nervously, how many of them have fallen into prison or the grave. None of them were older than twenty-three, only the ones who are dead. “There is no way out, even if you want to… better to leave this place”. That is what he told me before saying goodbye.

Once, in this port, there was a sumptuous project to build an artificial basin. It ended up being an outstanding failure, a millionaire fraud, and an outraging international scandal in which even officials from the International Organization for Migration (OIM) were involved. In the end, the result was that “the sea withdrew” as one of the local fisherman explained to me:

What happened here is that when they built the basin they didn’t realize that the sea current carries tons of sand. So, part of the basin is like a wall, so the sand started to gather there and it gathered and it gathered… so that is why now the pier is all dry and it’s part of the beach.”

Doña Mari was lying on her bed. She was telling me that around three o’clock in the afternoon the local market closes. “They left cell-phones to those that have stands (or small shops) there, they think they have money, the market has already been burglarized three times during daylight… no, you see… do you remember when you were here that there were still people on the street at ten or eleven o’clock at night? Not anymore, not anymore, at eight o’clock, you’ve noticed, there’s no one on the street. That is why I’ve told my sister that I’ll do it, I’ll leave, but what about my house? What do you think?”

It didn’t take me long to answer: as soon as you get better, just leave Doña Mari.

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