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Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico

The following is a report on the conditions of the Guatemalan refugees, most of them of Maya Indian descent, who have fled the border regions of Guatemala over the last 18 months. Due to the sensitive nature of the data presented here, it is impossible in most cases to cite sources. However, the greatest effort has been taken to verify and cross-check this information, all of which has been gathered in the state of Chiapas, Mexico.

In the course of 1983, the situation of Guatemalan refugees in the state of Chiapas has changed, but it is not clear that their overall living conditions have improved significantly. In the areas that are currently accessible, food deliveries have increased both in volume and regularity. In general, starvation is no longer a critical threat. However, in the smaller settlements and the less accessible refugee camps, especially those deep in the Lacondon jungle, there is little news and no access is allowed to outsiders. In addition, in the central area around Comalapa and in the southern area around Tapachula, refugees are scattered and frequently hiding even from the Mexican authorities because they fear deportation.

Since early this year, Mexican authorities have increased their control over Guatemalan refugees by not allowing them to leave the camps without special permits. These permits are issued only in cases of severe health problems requiring medical attention outside the 50 km border area, or in the case of sponsorship by a Mexican employer, such as a plantation owner. Otherwise, refugees are sealed in "concentration camps," as one church aid worker described it. The authorities have also made the refugee settlements off limits to outsiders and have even harassed Mexican citizens attempting to help refugees.

Recently the official Mexican agency for Guatemalan refugee aid (COMAR) has become dependent on the Ministry of the Interior. Thus the agency in charge of handling all United Nations refugee aid has essentially merged with Immigration, an agency that has historically not looked favorably toward Guatemalans crossing into Mexico. As one church official charitably described it, "These officials don't understand the Guatemalan situation, and therefore they assume all refugees have come for economic reasons." (Reliable sources indicated that officials are assigned immigration duty in eastern Chiapas as punishment, in the manner of Siberia.)

The influence of Immigration on COMAR explains why the aid agency has made it difficult for refugees to live in Mexico. Church officials have characterized conditions in camps maintained by COMAR as "subhuman." According to numerous reports, even in the best of camps, COMAR provides about half the refugees' food needs. One former COMAR official explained earlier the year that they were intentionally making it difficult for the refugees so they would be motivated to return to Guatemala as soon as possible. "We don't want to create a Shangri-la in the jungle," he was quoted as saying.

The "jungle" is indeed no Shangri-la, yet reports make it clear that return to Guatemala is impossible. The inaccessible part of Mexico, bordering on the northwestern Guatemalan mountain regions of Huehuetenango and Quiche, is where the majority of the large camps are located (Chajul, Ixcan, Puerto Rico, Flor de Cafe and others). Refugees are still arriving, as they have for over two years, most of them in poor health and in various stages of malnutrition. Chajul, a camp that was overcrowded in February, received 150 new arrivals in September. It now has about 5,500 members. Ixcan camp has received 50 families in the last two months. Other camps in the area report similar increases, despite the Guatemalan army's attempts to close the border.

Many of these people spent weeks, even months hiding in the "monte" or hills before the Guatemalan army or hunger drove them into Mexico. Typically, they first flee to their corn fields when the army destroys their homes and those who remain in them. Often they remain some months in the area before the army returns and burns their crops, pushing them farther into the mountainous, uninhabited areas. There, they establish camps, where they subsist on roots and other wild plants until they are detected by the army and must flee across the border. When these people finally appear in the Mexican refugee camps, they are in such bad condition that most are in need of immediate medical attention. Some come to Mexico, as one refugee put it, "just to die." There are reports of groups still hiding in these camps in Guatemala.

Despite the attitude of Immigration, few of the many refugees interviewed expressed any interest in staying in Mexico beyond the time necessary to insure their safety. However, they are suspicious of the amnesty offered by the new Guatemalan leader. General Mejia Victores, and few have returned. One party that returned to Guatemala met up with an unusually kind group of soldiers who told them that they had orders to kill returning refugees, and that they must return to Mexico or die.

Through September there were reports of aerial bombings in northwest Guatemala just across the border from Mexico. Aerial surveillance of the refugee camps in Mexico by Guatemalans is regular, about every three days. Late in September the decapitated bodies of twenty members of the Ixcan camp were discovered, just across the border in Guatemala. Government spies are said to come from Guatemala, posing as merchants. One spy recently got drunk and boasted that the army was planning to kidnap and kill church aid personnel. Refugees asked the aid workers to leave the next day, fearing for their lives. With such violence occurring in Guatemala and the constant presence of the Guatemalan army patrolling close to the border (and occasionally crossing it to attack refugees), it is hard to have any faith in the new government's invitation to return.

No one knows how many refugees there are in Chiapas. COMAR and the UNHCR observer say 37,000, while the church estimates about 45,000 for the approximately 70 camps that are located in the jungle and the Comalapa areas, and another 50,000 in the Tapachula region (up from less than 20,000 at the beginning of the year). These figures do not include those who are in small settlements or hiding in Mexican settlements, nor does it calculate the large numbers who have left the border area, many precisely because of the lack of sufficient food and work opportunities.

These displaced people have created other problems outside of the scope of this report, and along with other Central Americans have become the new Mexican "wetbacks," without proper documentation and in constant danger of deportation. One recent report indicates that between 80 and 100 Guatemalans are deported each day at the two Tapachula border crossings, Talisman and Tecun Uman. Complaints by local residents about the large quantity of bodies in the border river indicate that many of these deportees are killed soon after they enter Guatemala. Tapachula is a difficult area for refugee information, because many cross the border posing as agricultural workers seeking employment in the Soconusco coffee plantations. Overall, however, it would seem conservative to estimate that there are 100,000 border refugees in the state of Chiapas, that is, within 50 km of Guatemala.

Sickness is still a problem of the refugees in the border area. As malaria has come under control, dengue fever, a disease that can be fatal and for which there is no vaccination or chemical cure, has again appeared. Currently there is an epidemic of measles and of bronchial pneumonia, which has both contributed to and exacerbated malnutrition. One seven-year-old boy arrived at the Comitan hospital weighing 7 kg - only a few days after a three-year-old weighing 3 kg arrived. Infants and children make up over two-thirds (if the seriously malnourished. Diarrhea and fever are the common health complaints, followed by various kinds of malnourishment and trauma-related maladies. Many young children suffer serious psychological problems related to their flight from Guatemala. The most common symptoms of children four years old or younger are lack of speech, inability to concentrate, lethargy, self-abuse and inconsolable rage.


Xalbal, Huehuetenango, was a community of Indians originally from the Jacaltenango region of Guatemala. They were attacked on the 4th of January by the Guatemalan army. Sixty-two were killed, according to a witness. The 260 survivors went to hide in the mountains because they did not want to abandon their lands. But finally, after more than four months in hiding, they were forced to flee because of the systematic patrolling of the area by the army. In mid-May they began to arrive at the refugee camp Puerto Rico, leaving behind the cooperative community they founded 12 years earlier. They left fields of corn, coffee and cardamom that yielded an average income of 2-3,000 queztales per family per year. "We were just about to get ahead," said one cooperative member. "Now we are with our hands folded, doing nothing."

The man explained that his father was an anticommunist and a member of the MLN (a political party of the extreme right). On the 17th of March, 1982, the army came to his father's settlement of Cuarto Pueblo, and even though he showed them his party affiliation, he was tortured and killed with all his family and neighbors who had remained there. The son came to the community afterward to see what had happened.

With tourniquets they killed the children - two years, nine months, six months. They killed and burned them all. That is why we don't believe in their politics any more. Like the case of my father, would they respect his card? Well, what they cut open his heart, and they burned him. This is pain that we shall never forget. We want to return to our towns but not until we see changes. Now, if [the Guatemalan government] say there is a change, it is better we should stay right here. Better to die here with a bullet and not to die in that manner, like my father.

He added that the army killed, in all, 200 people in Cuarto Pueblo.

I asked this man what he would like to communicate to the people of the United States. He responded energetically, despite his fever.

I would tell them all that we have seen, and tell them that it is better that all the aid to Guatemala be suspended, because it isn't fair that they should go on massacring us. Yes, with this aid they are helping, but helping just the big people, those with money. As for the poor people, the rich are thinking, "Better we should finish off this raza [race culture]." But we don't want our race to be terminated. It was our ancestors who first occupied this land, not those other people. It is us that they want to put an end to, so that they can end up with our land.

The Guatemalan refugees are in a difficult position in Mexico. Their future is uncertain. Officials fear that they will stay and become citizens. Under the Mexican constitution, a child born in Mexico has rights to citizenship, and to bestow it upon his or her parents. For this reason, Immigration currently does not allow refugees to register births in Mexico. Furthermore, Mexico cannot provide refugees with land, given the severe land shortages and current population growth. Offering property to Guatemalans could spark major political difficulties for Mexico's ruling party. Finally, the Governor's office has complained - unofficially - of pressure from the US State Department to control "subversive activities" that are supposed to be linked to Guatemalan refugees in the area. Both US and Guatemalan claims that refugee camps are "staging areas" for guerrilla activities in Guatemala, while not backed up by evidence, continue to make these unfortunate victims unwelcome in Mexico.

The new Immigration policy that prevents refugees from leaving the camps in search of work has also created new tensions between the Guatemalans and the local Mexican peasants. Most of the border area camps are on ejido lands- lands claimed by peasants in cooperative communities.

When the first refugees began to arrive, these Mexicans welcomed them into their communities and provided them with food and shelter. Many groups, especially other Indian ejidos, provided them with work opportunities and land on which to plant. However the rapid growth in the refugee population has caused at least one ejido community to take back the land they had once allowed refugees to farm. Rapid deforestation was one reason cited. Another reason, according to the refugees, is that land use gives the refugees certain claims to the land. The locals rear, like Immigration, that refugees won't return to Guatemala. This attitude is encouraged both by Immigration policy and the radio announcements from Guatemala claiming that there is peace, that land and freedom await those who return, and that those who do not return are remaining in Mexico because they are guerrillas.

While refugees are rarely convinced by these announcements, many Mexicans are. The initial solidarity they had felt for the refugees has been undermined by job scarcity and a fear of losing their hard-earned land base. In addition, with the border nearby and Guatemalan army incursions a common occurrence, Mexicans sometimes perceive their beleaguered guests as a hazard to their own safety. These problems could be resolved if the refugees were installed in areas farther from the border and allowed to work outside the immediate ejido.

Most refugees do not view return to Guatemala as a sane option at this time. Solutions need to be developed which both allow for the impermanent nature of the refugees' stay in Mexico but at the same time acknowledge that they might be there for some time. One idea currently being pursued by the church and CARGUA, a private aid group, is the development of crafts in the refugee camps. This would provide income without threatening the local population. While reinforcing the ethnic identity of the refugees, craft production would also provide Mexico with unique products for export.

Guatemalan refugees in Mexico face continued and possibly increased suffering as aid declines and there remains no productive alternative to take its place. Unemployed, undernourished, unwanted and isolated from the world, the race and culture of these dispossessed Indian farmers, who have survived centuries of colonial domination in Guatemala, face eventual extinction if conditions don't improve.

This report is a last minute update regarding the Guatemala refugees in Chiapas, Mexico, including recent information gathered from the camps, recent newspaper articles from Mexico and other sources. Greater detail is offered on the southern region, and a brief analysis is offered at the end.

On the 17th of October, a news team from Texas went to Ixcan, one of the largest refugee camps in the jungle. Three days earlier 503 new refugees had arrived from Huehuetenango, to add to the over 5,000 in the crowded Settlement. Interviewed on camera, the Maya refugees told of terrible ordeals in their homeland, but profusely thanked the Mexican government for its generous help and kind treatment.

Upon leaving the camp, one newsperson was slipped a note written by a refugee. In the note, the author accused the Mexican army, the Immigration officials and COMAR of theft, intimidation, rape and death threats. The note said the refugees were virtual slaves, and that life in Mexico was hardly better than that in Guatemala. On-camera praise of Mexico resulted from a fear of reprisals.

Meantime, in a four-part article (10/21-24), a Mexican newspaper reported that the southern border area (Tapachula and Motozintla) has for (our months been under the control of an Immigration official who is attempting to eliminate all refugees in that region. The official, Javier Salazar Salazar, stated that his duty was to "clean the border area of foreigners."

Arguing from the Immigration position that all refugees are competitors for Mexican jobs, Salazar has deported as many as he can. As he himself said, "Here in this area there are no least we don't let them manifest themselves as such. If they are illegal, they are deported. If they are finished with their work contract (on the coastal plantations) that allowed them to enter and remain in the country, they are deported. If they are not agricultural workers, they are deported. Here we do not permit refugees." The article also confirmed that 70-80 people are deported every day in the Tapachula border region, a figure close to that given by other sources.

One priest stated that there are 15,000 refugees in the city of Tapachula, most of them hiding in the houses of Mexicans who risk heavy fines for harboring them. Another 35,000 hide in other towns and rural areas of the region, in constant fear of deportation. Despite their tales of horror, since they are not recognized officially as refugees, no COMAR or UNHCR help is forthcoming. They must rely totally upon the charity of local residents and the churches. Last June in the town of Union Juarez, Immigration officials threatened any Mexican harboring foreigners with a 50,000 peso fine. The refugees decided to leave. Others have taken them in, but always at the risk of being discovered and fined.

In order to gain permission to enter Mexico, many refugees enter coastal Chiapas posing as temporary plantation workers. They are permitted to stay for up to 90 days. Some plantation owners only take workers who have been active Civil Patrol members in Guatemala, and many have "ears" or spies from Guatemala working for them as bodyguards or work overseers. Thus, Guatemala monitors its citizens and the Mexicans can be sure they are not importing refugees. The "ears" also prepare lists of those who have spoken against the Guatemalan army or have complained about working conditions on the Mexican plantations for Guatemalan officials. According to many villagers in Guatemala. Civil Patrol members are alerted when fellow villagers are on the list. The villagers say the Civil Patrols make sure the returning worker "disappears," and that his disappearance is blamed on the guerrillas.

Despite the tough line of Immigration and the network of "foreigner control" that it has helped to create people still come to Mexico. Immigration officials believe that 70% of the migrant agricultural workers stay, and the sheer volume frightens Mexican officials. All humanitarian concerns are put aside in order to prevent any solidarity between the Guatemalan and Chiapas Indians.

One method of alienating Mexicans from the refugees has been the birth certificate campaign. In the last few months, the government has required all Chiapas residents to have and carry their birth certificates. Immigration has established both fixed and mobile check posts, where officials constantly check people's papers to be sure they are citizens. Some inspectors have developed special questions to quiz suspected foreigners, inquiring about things that only locals would know. Anyone found without proper papers can be deported. There are multiple checkpoints in the Comitan, Motozintla and Tapachula areas, and a new Immigration office has appeared in the town of San Cristobal despite its proximity to the state capital. Men from migra (Immigration) stalk bus stations in many towns. Local residents are irritated and blame the refugees. This is a drastic change from the Spring, when most people felt great sympathy for the penniless refugees.

Recent reports from Guatemala confirm that conditions there are no better and, in fact, may be getting worse. Since Mejia took power, bombings have increased in Huehuetenango as well as in Quezaltenango and San Marcos. One camp doctor said, "Look, the day after Mejia took power, some refugees and I could see an Indian hamlet burning just across the border in Guatemala. No one that we could see escaped alive. Under Mejia, it is the same plow, just different oxen."

So while the new government in Guatemala has brought no change, the situation of refugees in Mexico is deteriorating. The joining of COMAR to Immigration within the Ministry of the Interior represents a conflict of interest between an assistance agency which must now report to a policing unit. This arrangement has also contributed to conflicts between Sr. Vallejo of Interior and Mr. Jambor of the UN High Commission for Refugees.

Mexico has no consistent refugee policy. While Mexico City politicians express their concern for political exiles in their country, and applaud COMAR's aid work for the encamped refugees, official behavior is less idealistic and more focused on the immediate problems and insecurities of Chiapas.

One of the many unconfirmed reports in Mexico suggests that the US State Department has put pressure on the Mexicans to control their southern border, which may further contribute to the deterioration of conditions. The impoverished Mexican government is building a network of refugee detention centers in the north, presumably to prevent Central Americans from passing into the United States. Improving control of the refugees serves to cut down their flow to the US. Mexico may not have a clear, consistent refugee policy as long as the White House continues to worry that vast numbers or refugees from Guatemala and the rest of Central America might come to the US.

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