Postville Deportees Push for Change in Guatemala

Postville Deportees Push for Change in Guatemala

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Editor's Note: Three years after the raid on a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, a group of workers deported to Guatemala are organizing for change in their hometown.

SAN JOSÉ DE CALDERAS, Guatemala — In September 2008, Marco Tulio Guerra was deported to Guatemala after three years working as meatpacker in Postville, Iowa. He returned to a village largely unchanged from when he had first left: no paved streets, a dilapidated drainage system, no public transportation, and the closest hospital 10 miles away.

“It’s the largest village, but it’s also the most abandoned,” says Guerra, 45, of his native San Jose Calderas, or Calderas for short, which lies just 60 miles from the capital, Guatemala City. “When everybody was in Postville, there were plenty of jobs; the remittances stimulated the local economy, and now, there is nothing.”

In 2008, Guerra was among some 390 undocumented immigrants arrested at the Postville meatpacking plant Agriprocessors. Of these, 290 were Guatemalan, 127 of whom eventually returned to Calderas. Immigration authorities in Guatemala report that nearly 160,000 Guatemalans have been deported from the United States since 2004.

While the impact of these deportations on the Guatemalan economy is more evident in villages like Calderas, remittances from the United States benefit 4.5 million people nationwide (30 percent of the population), according to data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNICEF.

For Guerra, life in Postville wasn’t easy, but together with his son and daughter, ages 17 and 20, Guerra says the three were able to send home upwards of $1,000 per week, much of which went toward paying down the $19,000 debt owed to traffickers who initially got them across the border. The money also helped pay for food, medicine and other expenses.

Today, Guerra and his wife make barely over $500 a month collecting wood to sell or leaves that they turn into fertilizer. It’s a steep drop from what he had been earning in the United States and even less than what he had earned prior to leaving. He also suffers from back injuries he says he received during his arrest.

Growing Isolation

Guerra’s return to Calderas came nine months into the presidency of the left-leaning Álvaro Colom, who took office in 2008 with a promise to ameliorate conditions for the nation’s poor. His successor, former General Otto Perez Molina, won in a runoff election last week.

“You don’t see much propaganda here,” he says, in reference to the absence of campaign posters around Calderas. “Because people are beginning to wake up. They don’t believe [in the politicians] anymore.”

Indeed, as Guerra notes, little has changed for Calderas residents in the years since he first left.

Polluted water, the result of an un-kept sewage system and no trash disposal, is making people sick. Last August, two adults and five children died in Calderas due to lack of medicine and transportation to the nearest hospital, 10 miles away over unpaved roads.

According to the government, 96 homes were built in the municipality by January 2010, while nearly $3 million went for health services in the area. None of these projects reached Calderas, however, which boasts just one two-room clinic that staffs one nurse five days a week and a doctor three days a week. “They see at least 50 patients a day,” says Guerra.

Federal support for the residents of Calderas finally came last year when the National Coordinator of Migrants in Guatemala (Conamigua) contacted Un Techo Para mi País (A Roof for My Country), a local organization that works to provide homes for low-income families, on behalf of the deportees. The group helped bring improvements to 37 homes in Calderas, which has also seen two new paved roads in recent months.

Last August, Conamigua also requested an appointment with the U.S. Consulate to request help for 11 children born in the United States to Guatemalan migrant families that have since returned to Calderas. “We are still waiting for a response,” says Fernando Castro, spokesperson for Conamigua.

In the meantime, Guerra and the other deportees, with the help of Conamigua, have begun organizing the Association of Deportees from Postville, which will be listed as a major donations recipient and thus will not depend on government largesse.

“We want to prevent people from needing to migrate, particularly due to the dangers in Mexico,” says Guerra, alluding to organized crime gangs there that prey on migrants like himself. The latest figures indicate that at least 200 people have been killed since August 2010.

Looking North

According to IOM, some 330 Guatemalans leave the country every day, most trying to reach the United States. Elected public officials, meanwhile, have done little to counter the view among Guatemalans that leaving the country is a necessity.

During the 2011 campaign, none of the 10 presidential candidates included immigration issues in their platforms, although all touched on the need to increase support to rural communities like Calderas. For Guerra and the other deportees, that may not be enough.

Guerra, along with two family members, made the 2.1-mile trek to the nearest voting station on Election Day in September to choose a new mayor for the municipality, San Andrés Itzapa, something he says he couldn’t do when he was in Postville.

By January, Guatemala’s new president—and San Andrés Itzapa’s new mayor—will take office. Neither has managed to raise the hopes of Calderas residents, however. Guerra says that many of them still hold out hope of “returning to the U.S. to provide for their families.”