The Guatemalan Peace Accords, signed in 1996, put an end to an internal armed conflict that lasted 36 years. They aimed to support the Mayan people in their economic and social development; however, there have been no significant advancements in the rights and material conditions of these peoples so far. Facing the inequalities of a system that only benefits the few, many Mayans migrate to places such as the USA seeking to improve life for themselves and their families.
This article shows how the COVID-19 crisis has revealed the healthcare and economic insecurities, visible in the lack of protection for returned migrants who could be infected. Finally, I review the spread of the virus in the Mayan Kaqchikel town of Patzún, which has impacted the mobility of both humans and agricultural products.
Border crisis and social tensions: risks for returned Mayan migrants
Under ordinary circumstances, forcible returns of migrants happen on a weekly basis. Between January and April this year, 12,159 deported Guatemalans involuntarily entered national territory by plane, and 9,928 by land routes. Many of them are Mayan people, who left in search of the American dream because of inequality and as the only strategy for personal and family survival.
The return of migrants in times of COVID-19 has further exacerbated Guatemala’s border and migratory crisis. Guatemala has weak healthcare measures, both for identifying new cases and protecting people, and official numbers do not reveal the number of returned migrants who tested positive. Many of them have been taken to and quarantined in their places of origin, where they have often been discriminated against by their own families and communities.
One of the most striking events happened on 15 April 2020, in the city of Quetzaltenango, in the west of the country. Residents threatened to burn down the facilities hosting 80 returned migrants and to attack migrants and workers because they believed they posed a danger for the health of nearby neighbourhoods. Following the threats and attacks by some residents, the migrants were transferred to the capital. Since then the COVID-19 crisis has continued to affect Mayan communities and to fuel social tensions. The Mayan K’iche’ Council of Quetzaltenango expressed their major concern as migrants return to their communities without any protective measures. The Council claims that there is no contingency plan, nor a community protocol to stop the spread of the virus, and that misinformation has increased violence and friction within the communities. At the same time, the Council points at the Guatemalan government’s lack of willingness to offer them an alternative and to recognise how much migrants have contributed to the country.
Throughout their ‘American dream’, migrants contributed to the local economy and received praise for providing for their families; but now they are despised and rejected by their families, community leaders and communities, who do not accept that many of them only came back indebted and with little more than the clothes they wear. However, in contrast with the lack of solidarity and mutual cooperation in light of the border crisis, other Guatemalan communities have chosen to fight inequality and state neglect with solidarity. That is the case of the Mayan Kaqchikel town of Patzún.
Patzún, the first town victim to the virus
Twenty-two days after the first coronavirus case was officially reported in Guatemala, the town of Patzún (one of the largest agricultural producers in the country, with a population of 58,000) was getting ready for the religious holiday of the Sábado de Ramos, the Saturday before Easter, when the priest blesses the houses. They could not imagine the tragedy that was about to come: one day later, the announcement of the first case of community spread of COVID-19.
Being the first case of community spread meant coming under the scrutiny of the whole nation, but the greatest concern was not knowing where it had come from. A day later, the President of the Republic confirmed the case, establishing a cordon sanitaire: a measure that bans the entry and exit of any inhabitant of the municipality, except for food and medicine transport. Residents were worried about the lack of information and the consequences that this could have for farmers aiming to deliver their products, as well as for other workers facing the incertitude of a virus outbreak.
Media outlets such as Nómada and Boletín Qatzij (edited by the Instituto de Estudios Interétnicos y de los Pueblos Indígenas, IDEIPI – ‘Institute of Interethnic and Indigenous Peoples Studies’) gathered information about the experiences of the town of Patzún. They highlighted the shortage of food, caused by the stigmatisation and discrimination against the population, as well as the farmers’ economic losses as they could not distribute their products in national markets. However, they also pointed to the importance of the support given by the communities to quarantined families on the basis of qawinaq (the bond between those who share the same language and have a shared past), and the work of Catholic and Evangelical churches that adapted the customs and traditions to strengthen solidarity and mutual cooperation.
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed once again the inequalities afflicting the Mayan peoples, who, after the broken promises of development made in the 1996 Peace Agreements, have fought poverty and exclusion with their labour in the fields and with migration. While some have received the returned migrants with violence and discrimination, other communities have shown solidarity and cooperation, core values of the indigenous peoples, in order to fight against stigmatisation and support each other under the ban on free movement to work and deliver their agricultural products. The state has failed the Mayan peoples; but collectivism, unity and hope overcome the misfortunes of immobility.
Saúl Aguilar has a B.A. in International Relations, with a specialisation in International Security from the University of San Carlos de Guatemala. He is interested in border studies and the cultural vindication of the Xinka People of Guatemala.