New American Story Project

Interview

What Kind of Life Do Children Have in Guatemala?

Amílcar Méndez Urízar
Human Rights Activist, Former Congressman in Guatemala, Recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy and the Carter-Menil Human Rights Awards, Guatemala

The thing which worries me most in Guatemala is how the gangs need to find and incorporate more and more adolescents and children all the time. They intimidate and threaten and follow them. First to make them commit crimes, and later to integrate them into the gang. If the children refuse, they kill them. That’s why, logically, so many mothers worry about their children so much.

“What kind of life do children have in Guatemala?” they wonder.

In my country as we continue to live through a series of crises the likes of which we are living through now, the fear and insecurity and terror will continue to grow, and the main victims will, in the end, be the children. Victims of an archaic, anachronistic, and unjust social structure. And this is serious, very, very serious for a country. We can say that this is now a failed state. Our institutions don’t function, and the justice system is more corrupt every day.

There is an international commission against impunity that was organized in Guatemala by the Secretary General of the United Nations to help with the system of justice and decrease our alarming 97 percent impunity rate. Of 100 reported serious crimes, only 3 go through a judicial process of some kind, 97 remain in the “to be investigated” pile. This impunity generates more violence…and the violence grows.

“What kind of future is there for my child?”

People are scared, so they look for a solution. They know that coming to the US, notwithstanding the risk they will take to their lives, is one way to fix this problem. Many mothers choose this option despite the risks to the lives of their children to arrive here undocumented. And so many die on the road or are taken hostage or they return them—it is real martyrdom.

Ten years ago, Ciudad Juarez was a news story for us with its violence and its crimes against women. But now Ciudad Juarez got left behind and in Guatemala it’s everywhere. To give you a little bit of context: beginning about five years ago we started hearing about women being murdered and decapitated, or with their legs and arms cut off. A very cruel act, right? It used to be in Mexico you would hear about such things, but Guatemala? No...

Children are growing up in a culture of death, in a culture of violence. All of us who live in Guatemala live with it. Some live it at a much higher level than others because they are even more vulnerable, less protected, but all of us are living without seeing. We go out on the street, and we are already afraid. Not because we objectively “see” someone physically, do you understand? But because the air we breathe, everything we see and feel is of great fear, great… terror. By necessity we have to phone home when we go out, “Have you arrived?” “Yes, I made it.” My adult daughter always has to let us know when she leaves the house and when she arrives at her destination. Because there is so much violence, so much insecurity.

However, the worst problems and the most difficult circumstances are lived by the people in rural areas, the families who are descended from the Maya: the indigenous people. Historically they have been marginalized. They have been excluded from everything… from everything—from justice, from basic services like health and education. The unemployment rate is alarmingly high, as are illiteracy rates.

The system itself functions so that the army and the so called “political parties” are the ones who do big business. Here’s the proof: a president in jail (former Guatemalan President Otto Perez). This is shameful. He entered office as president and left as a criminal, so did the vice president.

There have been so many opportunities in Guatemala, but no one has known how to take advantage of them. The class of people that is elected and administers everything is corrupt. They are involved in organized crime, including narco-trafficking, everything is a business, right? Everything is mercantilism: money, money, getting rich. Just like it was with our last government. In hospitals there’s no medicine and in the rural areas there are no clinics. And then apart from all that, there has been the proliferation of gangs who now use children.

Today Guatemala is the center of drug-trafficking. Why? Because the institutions all cooperate. For money. The security forces of the country reflect the state: instead of protecting the people, they are a threat to them. This has been historically true. A state which should protect its people, continues to threaten its people. We are threatened. We are stuck in a tunnel, and we can rightly say it is a tunnel so dark we don’t know what time it is or what hour the sun will rise. What do I mean? Uncertainty… uncertainty.

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