Most people in Guatemalan farming towns like San Martin Jilotepeque have a relative or two living in the United States, giving them sympathy for the plight of migrants. But they now find themselves fearing an influx of Salvadoran or Honduran migrants after their government signed a “third safe country” agreement with Washington.
Such migration fears, poverty and corruption provide the backdrop to Guatemala's presidential runoff vote Sunday, which is generating little enthusiasm among a population embittered after witnessing a succession of presidents accused of graft and other crimes, and the expulsion of a U.N. commission that was fighting the impunity.
“I no longer believe them,” grumbled Efrain Morales, 49, as he listened to final campaign pitches from the two candidates: former first lady Sandra Torres and Alejandro Giammattei, the top vote-getters in the first round election June 16.
Recent polls show the conservative Giammattei with a modest lead in a race between two unpopular candidates. Giammattei received only 14 percent support while the center-left Torres received about 26 percent in a first round of voting with 19 candidates. Election authorities had barred some of the more popular candidates from running.
“In my town people are migrating. The young people are leaving at 15, 16 years old. Even if you try here, it's impossible, there's no work,” said Morales, an illiterate farmer, describing a situation in which there is so little hope in poor and isolated towns that the only logical decision is to migrate.
What is unique about this election is that migration to Guatemala itself has also become an issue. President Jimmy Morales on July 6 signed a pact with the U.S. that would require migrants, who are largely Salvadorans and Hondurans, to request asylum in Guatemala if they cross through the country — as they must if travelling land routes — before reaching the U.S. border.
While the government suggests the asylum seekers could find temporary agricultural work in Guatemala, it is hard to see why they would want such low-paid jobs.
But still the fear of other migrants persists.
Hector Hernandez, the mayor of San Martin Jilotepeque, recently spoke to the residents of the township's dozen or so hamlets over a loudspeaker, telling them not to rent rooms to foreigners.
“I don't want any of you letting unknown people in, renting them rooms or houses, renting is forbidden,” Hernandez said. “They want to come here to live, there are a lot of Salvadorans and Nicaraguans; they are all over the place.”
Hernandez argued the foreigners don't come to escape poverty, but rather to rob and extort money. Then he made a dark reference to the area's history of brutal mob justice.
“Here in San Martin, any outsider who comes here to rob, he will be burned,” Hernandez said.
It is hard to see why such an impoverished community would attract thieves. Efrain Morales admitted he has never seen a Salvadoran or Nicaraguan around these parts.
To other townsfolk, it is migration from their own country that is the issue.
But despite the importance of migration to the lives of San Martin Jilotepeque residents and the unpopularity of Morales' deal with Washington, Torres and Giammattei have barely mentioned the issue.
Congresswoman Madeleine Figueroa, of Torres' National Union of Hope party, says the town will get a new road if Torres is elected.
But Maria Morales, no relation to Efrain, has a hard time paying attention to the campaign promise. She's far more concerned about her daughter Flory Chapin and her granddaughter Hilda, 2.
Chapin, a single mother, left her two other children with Morales before heading north because she couldn't make ends meet in Guatemala.
“She called me last Monday, she said, `Mom, today is the day. I'm still on the Mexican side, but I am going to cross [the border] and turn myself in to Immigration,”' Morales said. “Since then, I haven't heard anything.”
San Martin Jilotepeque, like other towns in Guatemala, depends to a large extent on remittances, the money sent home by migrants living in the United States.
Two other town residents left for the U.S. with their children, and within two weeks they were in the U.S. That motivated Flory Chapin to try, her mother said.
“When my daughter saw that they got there, she left to try.” Now, Morales has nothing but doubts. “I'm worried, because I don't know what's going to happen.”