Look at the mess we’ve got ourselves into just because we invited a gringo to eat some bananas
– Colonel Aureliano Buendia, in Gabriel García Marquez’s, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ –
Amongst all the colour of a chicken bus, and the decals of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and all sorts of Looney Tunes characters, another decoration which you often find is an American flag or an imperial-looking eagle.
(Talking of imperial-looking eagles, have you ever noticed how daft an eagle looks like from the font?)
American influence and culture is very strong here in Guatemala, and the two countries are intricately tied to each other through history.
Guatemala, along with the other countries of Central America, was a classic example of a banana republic, under the control of the United Fruit Company operating from its headquarters in Boston.
In 1954, a US sponsored coup by the Eisenhower administration toppled the best and most progressive government Guatemala ever had. By following a program of agrarian reform the president Jacobo Arbenz was believed to be succumbing to Communism. It was seen as a threat to regional stability as well as US interests, namely the activities of the United Fruit Company.
Today in Guatemala City, you can be shopping in Wal-Mart one minute, and the next eating in a McDonalds. Or Taco Bell. Or Wendy’s.
Now, that’s actually not at all surprising. You could say the same about many cities in the world. What is more surprising, however, is the determination of so many Guatemalans to leave their country and find a job in the United States.
In fact, so many Guatemalans are ready to risk everything to make the journey through Mexico and into the United States. Speaking with taxi drivers I managed to find out a bit of what the journey involves.
As I have mentioned before, the buses in Guatemala City aren’t particularly pleasant, so the white taxis that occupy the city streets are occasionally the better option. Unfortunately these taxis aren’t full proof either. A small number of them are stolen and then driven around by banditos looking to rob you.
Therefore, once in the taxi I’ve found that it’s best to start up a conversation with the taxi driver. That way, if they are trustworthy and give you a good price, you can get their number at the end of the journey, and call them for a guaranteed safe and cheap journey next time.
So, on an average journey, we start to talk. I tell him I am English.
¡Ahhhhhh! ¿Hablas Ingles? Yo vivé en los Estados Unidos por tres años. Houston, Texas. ¿Conoces?
Ahhhhhh! Do you speak English? I used to live in the United States for three years. Houston, Texas. Do you know it?
And when I ask why they are back to Guatemala…
I was deported
It’s a sad story that seems to repeat itself many times.
The other day, however, was slightly different. I was in a taxi heading to Oakland Mall in Zone 10 of the city. I was going to see the film ‘Gravity.’ Two astronauts have an accident in space and adventure ensues. Ironically, given the title of the film, George Clooney never quite seems to grasp the gravity of the situation, and he continues to crack terrible jokes as he drifts off into the cosmic nothingness of space to his certain death. And he does all this whilst listening to country & western music.
I didn’t stay to see if there was an extra scene after the credits roll. But I imagine he was floating past Mars, his helmet off, sipping on a Nespresso whilst laughing at his own comic wit and revelling in his own nonchalance. Space has never been so easy.
I highly recommend it, for Clooney’s performance alone.
Anyway, my taxi driver was called Gerson. He had recently been deported from the United States and was working his old job driving taxis in the city.
I asked him how many times he had been deported, and he told me he had been to the US three times, the longest of which lasted seven years. Most recently he had been detained for three months before being sent back to Guatemala.
I asked him if he planned to return.
¡Si, claro! En Enero. Soy coyote
Yes, of course! In January. I am a coyote
A coyote is probably the closest thing you can get to a professional illegal immigrant. These guys, most often from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador, get paid to guide other immigrants across Mexico to the US border, and then across the Southern California desert or other inhospitable borderlands.
Along the way they suffer countless dangers often with tragic consequences.
A popular way of getting up to the US border is by train. Unfortunately, said train isn’t exactly the Orient Express.
The freight train which starts in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas and ends on the outskirts of Mexico City is called la Bestia – The Beast.
Migrants climb up the train as it passes through southern Mexico and either find a space in compartments or on the roof. Gerson told me how people who fall asleep on the roof occasionally fall off, or get their arms and hands slammed between two carriages when the train comes to a halt. He himself has ridden it twice. On his most recent journey to the US border he went by bus, a much more expensive journey.
La Bestia recently made international news after a devastating crash derailed the train and left many migrants dead or injured.
The film ‘Sin Nombre’ tells the story of Honduran migrants and their journey aboard the train.
Once off the train, Gerson went on to explain the even greater risks from narcos demanding extortion or services as a drug mule. The most dangerous are the Zetas Cartel who have expanded from drug-dealing to involving themselves in human-trafficking and slavery.
Gerson explained that he usually takes his group up to the North-Western border town of Tijuana, before attempting to cross the desert that separates the US from Mexico, by foot.
He told me that the last time he undertook the journey, he did it in seven days, with no food, only water and Pepto-bismol.
Nos tratan como animales
They treat us like animals
It didn’t seem like things got much better once across the border.
And what did he charge for his services as a Coyote? 15,000 Quetzales. About 1,500 pounds.
We arrived at Oakland Mall. I thanked him and took his number.
I then went to see George Clooney and Sandra Bullock experience their own space migrant adventure. Drifting from space station to space station.
(The world that Oscar Martínez, a Salvadoran journalist, set out to report on five years ago is so violent, depraved and hellish, you can hardly believe he survived to tell the tale – an interesting book review in The Economist about journeys aboard La Bestia)