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The Exodus of Guatemalan Migrants

Andrea Villagrán is a McCain Institute McCain Global Leader and has served as a member of the Parliament of the Republic of Guatemala since 2017. The youngest congresswoman in Guatemala, she is currently in her second term, having been reelected in 2020. ]She has stood for a legislative agenda in favor of the fight against corruption and the strengthening of democracy. 

Pascual Melvin Guachiac Sipac, a 13-year-old Guatemalan, was one of 51 migrants who died in an abandoned truck in San Benito, Texas on June 27[1]. Melvin decided to migrate by himself; his dream was to get out of poverty and continue his studies to help his family have a better life. This is the drama of thousands of Guatemalans who daily decide to migrate, forced to leave the country run by poverty and violence; especially from a government that does not provide guarantees for a dignified life.

Guatemala has a population of 16 million people, with the largest economy in Central America (nominal GDP) and the highest rates of malnutrition and poverty in the region[2]. Migration in Guatemala has structural causes that give rise to extreme poverty and the large inequality gaps in which the population lives. The main reason is corruption, as the enrichment of powerful groups at the expense of the State (which have benefited from privileges) leadis the country to extreme authoritarianism and dictatorship throughout its political history, making way for organized crime, drug trafficking and gangs. This has prevented Guatemala from maintaining a strong democracy – institutions are even co-opted by criminal groups. The diversion of public resources makes it impossible to provide guarantees of access to education, health and food security. Insecurity and violence are provoked, and thus, there’s little confidence to generate investments and expand sources of employment.

The Guatemalan Migration Institute reported 63,520 Guatemalans were returned in 2021. The United States Customs and Border Protection Office shows a more alarming figure: 283,035 Guatemalan migrants were detained at the U.S. border in October 2020 to September 2021. Contradictorily, Guatemalans who have migrated due to lack of opportunities, are the ones who contribute strongly to the country’s economy. In 2021, the total remittances were $15,295 million, representing a significant part of Guatemala’s GDP and surpassing the national budget ($14 billion). Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, remittances have increased 25% compared to previous years. This should not be seen as an achievement for the State; it is, on the contrary, the failure of the system because it is the effort of thousands of Guatemalans who found it necessary to migrate because their country did not provide them with opportunities for a decent life.

The actions of the State of Guatemala should focus on strengthening and guaranteeing the human rights of the population and consolidate democracy, which require access to justice, basic services, transparency and the eradication of corruption. A country that guarantees what is necessary for its inhabitants, migrating is a matter of choice, not survival.

The dramatic exodus experienced by Guatemalans who seek to migrate to survive, exposing their lives, destroys life projects and fragments the community. It is necessary to have a political class determined to leave private interests aside and superimpose the interests of the nation to achieve the desired development. Public and political ethics is fundamental. The new generations, especially young people, have the challenge of change this reality. As long as impunity continues in the country, corruption will continue to claim lives and dreams like Melvin’s.


[2] In Guatemala, 4.6 million people are at risk of food insecurity.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Andrea Villagran
Publish Date
August 17, 2022