SAN CRISTOBAL DE TOTONICAPAN, Guatemala — Dressed in a bright orange shirt, Francisco Gomez yells and uses his arms to vigorously direct the myriad souped-up buses at the crossroads known as Cuatro Caminos, or Four Roads.
This is the busy roadway one local called “the last adios” — where every day hundreds of Guatemalan migrants from the country’s impoverished western highlands begin their 1,000-mile-plus journey to the US border.
Despite recent moves by the US and Guatemalan governments to warn migrants against making the perilous trek, Cuatro Caminos — a muddy sprawl of lean-to barbecue-chicken shacks and wandering, emaciated dogs — has never been busier.
“Nobody cares what the government does,” said Gomez, 51, who has been directing bus traffic here for the last 20 years. He begins work every day at 6 a.m.
“The migrants come from everywhere at all hours of the day and night,” he said, keeping his eyes fixed on the zooming buses and taxis and directing passengers loaded with sacks and backpacks into the right vehicles. “It will never stop.”
In addition to locals who board buses for the three-hour ride to Tapachula and other towns on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, migrants from El Salvador and Honduras also converge here to change buses that will carry them north.
For the last year, the Guatemalan government has created a series of TV, radio and social-media ads to persuade migrants to stay home.
But the flashy ad campaign is no match for the word of mouth spread by smugglers, known as coyotes or “polleros,” Spanish for chicken farmers or herders.
Although the polleros charge $3,500 to $13,000 per person to take migrants on what is often a harrowing journey on bus and foot through jungle and desert routes often used by drug gangs, the demand for their services has never been more intense, said Gilberto Escobar, a local reporter who has covered migrants.
“Coyotes live in the local communities, and they don’t need to advertise because people seek them out,” he said. “Everyone knows who they are.”
Last week, the US Department of Homeland Security announced a host of initiatives to help the Guatemalan government address migration and people-smuggling. At a joint press conference in Guatemala City Tuesday, acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan said the two countries would cooperate to “combat the scourge of human-trafficking,” announcing that Guatemalan authorities with US aid had busted a $10 million ring operating in Huehuetenango, a city two hours north on the Pan American Highway.
Guatemalan prosecutors and National Civil Police arrested nine people who hid Central and South American migrants at a “stash house” in Huehuetenango before taking them through Mexico to the US border.
Both governments said they would also step up border security in Guatemala to stop the flow of migration that has overwhelmed US Customs and Border Protection agents on the US southern border with thousands of people streaming in from Central America every week.
“You’ve got to come through Guatemala, so if we can create a border-security situation that’s more robust on the Guatemalan border with Honduras, the Guatemalan border with El Salvador … that’s going to disrupt this cycle,” McAleenan said at the press conference.
DHS personnel will also work as “advisers” to Guatemala’s National Police to crack down on human-smugglers in Guatemala, according to The Washington Post. “At least several dozen DHS agents and investigators” will be deployed to the Central American country as part of the plan, the newspaper reported, citing an anonymous source.
But in the impoverished rural areas of western Guatemala, the lure of earning even minimum wage in the US is strong, local residents say. Many expressed skepticism that government initiatives would hold them back.
Many leave for economic reasons, returning to build homes and start small businesses. Those who manage to stay in the US send money back home to their families. Last year, Guatemalans living abroad sent home more than $9.2 billion, equivalent to 11 percent of Guatemala’s GDP.
“Nothing is going to stop people from leaving,” said Elmer Aguilar, 30, who spent 10 years as an illegal immigrant in Houston. “There is no work here for anyone.”
Aguilar said that when he returned five years ago, he had saved enough money in the US unloading trains to build a brick and stucco bungalow in the nearby hamlet of San Andres Xecul. In Guatemala, he said, he earned the equivalent of $8 a day working farmland, but in Houston, he could command $15 an hour and often worked up to 18 hours a day.
“It changed my whole life,” he said about his time in Texas.
He said he returned because it was difficult to live alone in the US without extended family.
As for the message the government is sending to migrants to stay home, he is not sure anyone will listen, because Guatemalans generally distrust their politicians. And with good reason.
A UN-backed panel found massive corruption at every level of government in the country, including the judiciary. The country’s president, Jimmy Morales, expelled the UN investigators this year, when his family became the subject of the probe.
And then there is the economic incentive to try to enter the US, which trumps the risk of getting caught and exiled, Aguilar said.
“We go to get work, even if we are only allowed to stay for a couple of years,” he said. “If we get kicked out, we still bring money back.”
Still enamored with Houston, Aguilar has adorned his Guatemalan home with aluminum star-shaped window guards in honor of the Lone Star state.
“It’s a hard journey,” he said. “It’s dangerous and you experience everything from extreme cold to extreme heat to hunger. People are afraid, but they’re not afraid enough to stay behind.”