Category Archives: Latin America

Feeding the Beast: Guatemalan Migration

November was a monumental month for United States immigration policy as the Trump Administration made great strides in fulfilling campaign promises to curb immigration. Off-hand remarks by President Donald Trump to reporters during a cabinet meeting revealed he was ending the Diversity Visa Lottery Program which has granted residency to 50,000 immigrants every year since its inception in 1990. The move comes as a response to the New York City terrorist attack of 31 October, in which 8 people were killed as a truck barreled through a busy pedestrian walkway. The vehicle was driven by immigrant Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, an Uzbek that received a Diversity Visa in 2010. Just ten days after the Saipov attack, the State Department announced it would put an end to the Central American Minor (CAM) program, which aids children and young people. CAM, which granted refugee status to some 1,500 minors and eligible family members from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador since 2014, ended within 24 hours of the announcement. Additionally, Democrats in Congress are threatening a shutdown over the elimination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, yet another measure to protect minors seeking refuge in the United States. Though unilateral initiatives like these may temporarily reduce the rate of legal immigration from volatile regions, they will do nothing to alleviate the economic and security pressures that cause migration in the first place.

Small Countries, Big Problem

Despite the relatively small size of the countries involved, Central American immigration is a significant issue for the United States. In 2015, 3.4 million Central Americans resided there, representing 8% of America’s immigrant population. Of that group, approximately 85% arrived from only three countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—the area known as the “northern triangle” of    Central America. Guatemala, the closest of the three and the one through which all Central American immigrants must pass, was the largest source country in the region, accounting for 27% all Central American immigrants to the United States in 2013. The rates of immigration have risen steadily in recent years as the economy in the northern triangle deteriorates. United Nations data from 2010 suggests more than half of Guatemalan emigrants left for economic reasons (33.1% to improve their employment conditions and 22.8% to obtain employment). Other top motivators include family reunification (12.3%), and to a lesser extent, concerns about citizen insecurity (2.9%). Poor economic conditions influence the decision to emigrate; lack of access to transportation, basic nutrition, and a level of income that makes it impossible to support families all influence the Guatemalan exodus. Tragically, the less-educated are more likely to make the journey, but less likely to have a real understanding of the risks involved or to have marketable skills that would help them earn more money in the United States. The problem is most pronounced among men; a staggering 47% of male Guatemalan emigrants have only an elementary school education level or less. Unfortunately, ethnicity also plays a factor. The demographic most likely to undertake the journey north is the country’s indigenous poor who account for 41% of the total Guatemalan population.

guatemala migration
The rate of increase in Central American immigration to the US is steady but nonetheless alarming. Data from US Census Bureau American Community Surveys (ACS) in 2006, 2010, and 2015, and Campbell J. Gibson and Kay Jung, “Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-born Population of the United States: 1850-2000” (Working Paper no. 81, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, February 2006).

Bilateral relations with the United States are consistently among Central America’s most important foreign policy concerns. But those relations have soured over the past year as populist anti-immigration policies suggested Latin American immigrants present a direct threat to safety and security of American citizens. However distasteful the generalization of Latin Americans may be, the region has earned a reputation for instability since the mid-twentieth century. During the internal armed conflict of Guatemala (1960-1996), violence, political instability, and persecution led a large percentage of Guatemala’s population to seek asylum or refugee status in Mexico and the United States. Following the 1980s and the end of the conflict, political and economic instability subsided, but organized crime, gang violence, and the secondary effects of drug trafficking increased. The causes of Guatemalan emigration may have changed but the exodus continued.

Beauty and The Beast

Guatemala, thanks to its geography and various microclimates, is known as the land of the eternal spring. It is a country with fertile land for agriculture and is rich in coveted trade exports such as coffee and spices. Guatemalans enjoy access to both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, as well as a rich modern and ancestral cultural heritage as the center of the Mayan empire. What makes Guatemala’s situation tragic, however, is the paradox it presents. As is common in Latin America, a colonial past set the conditions for an elite-dominated society with weak institutions. When Guatemala achieved independence in 1821, lands were distributed between criollo families—those of full Spanish descent—endowing them with considerable political power and creating an economic and political class whose descendants manage the country to this day. This elite-dominated political system consistently fails to sustainably exploit the country’s resources, or squanders them through corruption and mismanagement.

For many Guatemalans, the only option is to seek opportunities elsewhere—primarily in the United States. There is an unofficial but well known route that leads from Guatemala into Mexico that then disperses migrants to the many possible entry points along the southern border of the United States. The journey can be a nightmare of hardship and danger, but one that many are willing to endure—a harsh indictment of quality of life in Guatemala. The most infamous leg of the journey involves transport on “the Beast” or “the Death Train”, named for the countless lives and limbs it consumes as migrants attempt to board the moving train in secret. Once aboard the Beast, migrants are vulnerable to grave violations of their human rights throughout their journey. Rape, extortion, kidnapping, and murder are commonplace; committed not only by the illicit agents that traffic migrants, but also by corrupt federal and state authorities whose paths the migrants cross.

Guatemala migration
Worth the risk: migrants sit precariously atop “the Beast” as they make their way north in search of opportunity. Photo credit: https://es.panampost.com/ysol-delgado/2016/08/16/conozca-a-cinco-migrantes-hondurenos-mutilados-por-el-tren-de-la-muerte/

For the Guatemalan migrants that successfully reach the United States, there is no guarantee of steady labor or prosperity. They typically find employment in restaurants, hotels, construction, and as domestic employees. Meanwhile, the are routinely subjected to discrimination and exploitation as they struggle to make minimum wage or worse. Central American immigrants constitute the largest percentage of immigrants working in the service industry, mostly because they lack the education and skills for higher-paying jobs. Despite this, remittances sent to families and loved ones in Guatemala are a crucial part of that nation’s economy. International Organization for Migration (IOM) data suggests that economic prosperity in the United States directly affects poverty rates in Guatemala. For example, the poverty rate in Guatemala rapidly increased after the economic crisis of 2008 and peaked in 2011. Regardless of changes to current immigration policy, the fortunes of the United States and its regional neighbors are inextricably linked.

Shared Problems-Shared Solutions

Despite the cold stance of the current US administration towards Central American migration, there are initiatives in both the United States Government and the international community, particularly the United Nations, aimed at helping migrants. Any person that holds an irregular status can seek assistance through technology-based information applications such as “Ask Immigration” or “MigrantApp,” a pilot program of IOM. These applications provide information about government services and answer questions related to immigration matters without the need for a lawyer or consultant. Western governments also have development programs to help Guatemala’s judiciary deal with the high number of criminals being processed by the courts. Programs like this address the root causes of emigration by contributing to rule of law and civil security, but do not address the dismal state of the economy.

Migration in North America is a regional problem and though international measures do help, success requires an effective United States policy that addresses the causes of immigration, not just its symptoms. The current US administration’s attempt to stifle the flow of migrants at the border by reducing legal immigration simply ignores the cause of the problem and promotes the illusion that the United States can somehow insulate itself from its southern neighbors and their respective domestic shortcomings. For its part, Guatemala and the rest of the Central America must increase job opportunities, strengthen their justice systems, and control illicit networks. Initiatives should be accompanied by social and cultural campaigns to discourage corruption, end discrimination, provide education, and address inequality. The way for Guatemala and the United States to control the flow of migration from the region is to improve the quality of life of those who would be most likely to leave. Comprehensive regional initiatives that strengthen economies and bolster citizen security are the long-term solutions to curb Central American migration and to stop feeding the Beast.


Ligia Lee Guandique is a political analyst living in Guatemala City, Guatemala. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a Master’s degree in Political Science from Latin American institutions. Ligia also has experience working with human rights-based NGOs.

A Tale of Two Cities: Development in Latin America

Looking out upon the city from the top of a modern high-rise, one cannot help but note the contradiction. The urban sprawl of luxury apartments, malls, and cafés gives way to the eclectic but destitute clusters of favelas; the multi-colored and corrugated steel-roofed slums that dominate the periphery. The city is Rio de Janeiro, but it could easily be Lima, Peru, Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Bogotá, Colombia. This caricature of rich-meets-poor ambiguously describes nearly every major city in Latin America, a region in which a growing number of countries occupy the margin between developed and developing status.

The global trend of urban migration is particularly strong in Latin America, compounding development shortfalls for safe and adequate housing in capital cities. In Rio, for instance, 1.5 million people live in the favelas—about 24% of the population. There are over 1000 of these neighborhoods in the city, the majority of which are illegally constructed. Brazil is the region’s largest country, economy, and the presumptive regional hegemon, but like others in the region they struggle to spread the benefits of growth to all socioeconomic classes. Nearing the milestone of developed status, Latin America is starting to question exactly what developed truly means.

Development by the Numbers

The World Bank sorts countries of the world into four income categories: low income, lower middle-income, upper middle-income, and high-income countries. Half of the world’s countries fall into the two middle-income categories, which contain 70% of the world’s population and 72% of the world’s poor. All low-income and middle-income nations are eligible for Official Development Assistance (ODA)—the collective non-military aid, grants, and financial instruments intended to promote economic development and welfare—which totaled $142.6 billion dollars in 2016.

Once middle-income nations reach and maintain a per capita Gross National Income (GNI) of $12,745 USD or greater for three consecutive years (2013 numbers), they “graduate” from upper middle-income status to high income status, rendering them ineligible for ODA. Latin American ODA totaled nearly $5 billion dollars in 2016, but sable growth within the region over the last 25 years places countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico—those with large populations and high inequality—on a path to graduation from ODA eligibility.

development
The projected GNI growth (2015) will cause the majority of Latin American middle-income countries to graduate and lose ODA by the year 2030, based on OECD projections. Photo credit: https://www.oecd.org/dac/financing-sustainable-development/ODA-graduation.pdf.

The body that determines these categories is the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The DAC, in conjunction with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, meets every two to three years to refine the list of eligible aid recipients. Middle-income countries constitute 90% of Latin America, and by the year 2030, 80% of the region will no longer be eligible for ODA.

The first wave of this phenomenon hit the region in August when Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica graduated to high-income country status. The graduations come after a period of GDP growth  in the region averaging 3% between 2000 and 2015. In countries like Brazil and Argentina, next on the list of prospective graduates, poverty has decreased drastically since the turn of the century. According to the World Bank data, poverty in Brazil decreased from 12.3% in 2002 to 3.7% in 2014. Argentina’s poverty level fell from 14% to 1.7% over the same period.

But these indicators only reveal part of the story. The World Bank international poverty line is drawn at $1.90 dollars of income per day, or about $685 dollars per year. Inequality figures in the region are the highest in the world. The 2016 Gini Index—the measure of statistical indicators that assign a value to inequality—show Latin America occupying 13 of the top 25 spots for highest inequality in the world. The top 20% of the population still holds 57% of the wealth and it has the fastest growing number of billionaires in the world, numbering 151 in 2015, a 38% increase over the previous year. Given that context, reaching the $685 dollars per year milestone seems to leave much room for improvement.

Graduate to Cooperate

The steady loss of ODA will be Latin America’s next development challenge, and the millionaires and billionaires will not be the ones feeling the impact. Chilean government officials have already been vocal in their objection to the graduation process, arguing that the loss of ODA comes at the most critical point for developing nations. They contend that the process is one-dimensional and does not reflect the complex set of issues that countries in this category face in sustaining development. This is true, but many of the challenges come from within Latin American governments and cannot be solved with ODA. Tax systems are archaic and welfare programs, especially in a non-welfare state like Chile, are limited or not sufficient to bridge the gap of inequality.

development cooperation
ODA is used on a wide range of development themes. Chile relies on development funds for programs related to climate change, the effects of which are more pronounced in the Patagonia region of the south. Photo credit: https://visualizingclimatechange.wordpress.com.

The real implications for ODA graduation are unknown. The OECD lacks the requisite data to be able to predict how ODA graduation affects future development. Additionally, development assistance varies from year to year, is given at the complete discretion of the donor countries, and is subject to global foreign policy trends. A retraction in globalism, increases in terrorism and security concerns, and global migration and refugee flow will continue to influence the distribution of aid. As countries in the global south continue their efforts in development, relying on ODA cannot be the only strategy to sustain development.

One opportunity lies in increasing South-South Cooperation, characterized as a framework of collaboration across multiple domains between countries of the global south. South-South Cooperation focuses on the transfer of knowledge, technical expertise, and human capital—all critical components of development. This collaboration already exists in the region, but the programs are few, the level of institutionalization is low, and domestic and regional politics often hamper cooperation efforts. Unlike the regional bodies (like MERCOSUR and UNASUR) that have high levels of institutionalization with low output, South-South Cooperation is accomplished through existing, state-level institutions like a country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This allows them to engage in programs on a limited or enduring timeline, bilaterally or multilaterally, at both the national and sub-national levels.

Latin America—and the global south in general—must seek internal solutions for development. They will also need to find a way to better incorporate NGOs and the private sector, who have an increasingly important role to play in the global system. Regional economic leaders, such as Brazil, Chile, and Mexico, can accelerate the pace of regional cooperation initiatives and counter the loss of ODA over the next decade. Bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption make reforms difficult, but South-South Cooperation provides an existing framework and  support from the United Nations Office of South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC). A failure to reform and generate intra-regional development programs may not slow economic  growth, but it will threaten future social and political stability and undermine long-term regional security.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any  government or private institution.

Major Patrick “TISL” Parrish is the Blogmaster and editor for the Affiliate Network. He is a US Air Force Officer and A-10C Weapons Instructor Pilot with combat tours in Afghanistan and Libya. He is currently serving as an Olmsted Scholar in Santiago, Chile.