The legacy of Guatemala’s brutal civil war, which saw security forces target thousands of indigenous citizens in a campaign of sexual assault, torture and mass executions, continues to be felt today, with many communities still subjected to very high levels of violence. For indigenous youth, in particular, the presence of criminal gangs is a frequent source of danger – leaving many with no choice but to flee the country.
Raised by his mother and grandfather, Jorge C. spent much of his teenage years alternating between hiding out in his family’s small shack and working in the fields of his home in San Juan Ixcoy (Yich K’ox), in the department of Huehuetenango in Guatemala, where he cultivated and harvested potatoes. His home region of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes is the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America.

Like many other indigenous inhabitants of Guatemala’s Western Highlands, 19-year-old Jorge is illiterate and grew up in a multilingual household. His mother speaks both Spanish and Mam and washes clothes for a living.

Jorge, his brother, and his two sisters were raised by his single mother. He began working in the fields at age 12. ‘We are campesinos,’ he said. ‘I did not have the opportunity to continue in school because I had to help support my brother and sisters to survive.’ He earned roughly 350 quetzales (US$47) per week.

By the time he was 14, the local branch of the 18th Street gang targeted him. They wanted him, he says, to sell drugs. A friend of his had already joined and was serving as an informant of sorts, tipping off other members as to Jorge’s whereabouts and activities. At first, they acted as if they were trying to simply befriend him.

‘I am an easy target,’ Jorge said. ‘I am more vulnerable because I do not have a father. Where I am from in Guatemala, gang members hang out on the corners, often outside the school. They smoke drugs and sell them. One day they told me that we had to go to a bridge to pick up a shipment. I was confused … They gave me a backpack and said I had to sell drugs by the school.’ The bag contained marijuana.

Jorge tried to escape by running away. He was badly beaten.

Upon arriving home, he told his mother what had happened. She wanted Jorge to tell the local police. He refused. ‘The auxiliary police have a giant tank of cold water,’ he explained. ‘They will throw you in for 20 minutes at a time, and then drag you out and beat you. After they beat you, they will throw you back in again for 20 minutes, and then beat you again.’ Furthermore, he believed he would not be taken seriously. ‘The police don’t listen to us as indigenous people – they do not care about us.’

While Jorge’s community is impacted by narco-trafficking and gang activity, the population of the region – almost entirely by indigenous Maya, Mam and Akatek – has also long been subject to discrimination. During Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, when the military targeted entire indigenous communities indiscriminately in its brutal counter-insurgency, many of Huehuetenango’s inhabitants were forced to flee. The Guatemalan Truth Commission Report subsequently identified indigenous groups as victims of genocide perpetrated by the government. Across the country, 83 per cent of the roughly 200,000 wartime casualties were indigenous Guatemalans. In 1999, when a voluntary repatriation agreement was passed, tens of thousands of displaced Q’anjob’al, Mam and Chuj returned to Huehuetenango. There was little work to be found, however, leaving many in a state of continued insecurity and deprivation.

Today, more than two decades after the formal end of the civil war, the long history of indigenous exclusion continues: four out of five indigenous Guatemalans live below the poverty line, with limited access to health care, education and other basic services. The political disenfranchisement of the indigenous populations in Guatemala’s Western Highlands, though acute, is also prevalent across the country as a whole. For the 2016–20 legislative term in the Guatemalan Congress, only 19 out of the 158 legislators identified as indigenous, or 12 per cent, despite indigenous peoples comprising between 40 and 60 per cent of the total population. At the local level, this leaves indigenous youth like Jorge with little in the way of official protection when faced with violence or intimidation.

When gang members followed Jorge home from work in the fields, his uncle and grandfather took up their machetes to ward them off. ‘My family wanted me to stay hidden as much as I could,’ he said. ‘I stayed like this for around two months. When I finally began leaving the house, they grabbed me on the street and demanded to know where I had been … I refused to tell them. They started punching me, and that is when someone cut my hand.’ Afterwards, the teenager stayed inside for a year.

When he finally left his house, Jorge was seized by the gang again. ‘They threw me in the mud, and cut my mouth with a knife,’ he recalled. ‘It was a message: that this is what happens if you talk to the police. They told me that I could expect more beatings, if I continued to refuse to join them, and that next time I would suffer worse.’

Then 15, Jorge decided to continue working in the potato fields with his uncle, choosing to leave the house early each morning under the cover of night and returning after dark. He stayed inside the rest of the time. Eventually, he says, he made the mistake of going to a local store to buy bread. There he encountered his friend, who was a member of the gang. ‘He told me that if I continued to refuse [to join] the gang, then the main guy in charge was going to order that my hand be cut off,’ Jorge said. ‘I was very scared.’

When Jorge’s younger sister was raped by a gang member in retaliation for his refusal to join, he finally decided to flee. ‘I could not stay in Guatemala any more because the gang would never stop,’ he said. ‘Not only was I afraid for my life, but also my family.’

Jorge travelled north to the Guatemala–Mexico border and took a job as a farm worker. It was hard to find a job because of his age and undocumented status in Mexico. Six months after his arrival in Chiapas, the gang learned of his whereabouts. Strangers pretending to be family members came asking around for a young man with scars on his mouth and hand. ‘They went from house to house trying to get information about me,’ Jorge recounted.

His boss suggested requesting asylum in the United States. Jorge initially didn’t like the idea, but began to consider it. ‘The idea of going to the US scared me,’ he said. ‘I am a quiet and shy person.’

In early August 2017, Jorge arrived in Tijuana, and ended up at Casa YMCA, the city’s only shelter for under-age minors. Since 1991, the shelter has helped more than 59,000 unaccompanied migrant youth. According to shelter director Uriel Gonzalez, youth who pass through are able to come and go at will. A staff social worker helps under-age migrants understand their rights and their options. During Jorge’s month-long stay at the shelter, he remained inside, fearful of going out. He met a lawyer from the non-profit organization Al Otro Lado, who explained the US asylum process and agreed to represent Jorge pro bono.

In early 2018, Ramos helped Jorge turn himself in at the border between Tijuana and San Diego. His asylum application is pending. It will likely remain in limbo for years. His odds are slim. According to data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data-gathering organization at Syracuse University, almost 80 per cent of individuals who fled Guatemala and requested asylum were denied between 2011 and 2016.

‘I am begging for the protection of the United States,’ Jorge says. He is currently working as a gardener. He believes he will die if he is returned to Guatemala. ‘I called home to my mother to get news from home, and she told me that my cousin was killed this week by the gang. He was walking home on his way home from playing soccer. The gang beat him, tortured him, cut off his fingers, and then killed him. We are terrified … I do not think about the future any more.’