COLONIA QUINCE DE OCTUBRE LA TRINIDAD, Guatemala — In this village at the base of the Volcano of Fire, there’s a simple explanation for the surge in migration to the United States, and there’s a complicated one.
The simple explanation is that on June 3, 2018, the volcano erupted, killing hundreds of people in minutes and rendering a patch of Guatemala uninhabitable. Many of the survivors, with nothing left, headed for the United States.
But the more complicated story is the one that residents here discuss before leaving — a history in which the United States is intimately involved. It’s the story of how Guatemala’s indigenous communities have been displaced and dispossessed for more than a century — sometimes fleeing U.S.-backed soldiers, sometimes ferried in caravans funded by U.S.-backed aid groups.
It’s the story of how La Trinidad came to be relocated to the base of an active volcano, with the assistance of the United Nations, the United States and the Guatemalan government.
More than 250,000 Guatemalans — at least 2 percent of the country’s population — have migrated to the United States in the past two years. Of those migrants, analysts say, a disproportionate number are indigenous. More than two decades since this country’s civil war, which pitted Guatemala’s military against its native communities, the exodus points to one of Latin America’s starkest inequalities. It points to places like La Trinidad.
“We’ve been migrating for 100 years,” says Simeon Camposeco Aguilar, a 56-year-old coffee farmer here. “Sometimes it feels like this community is going to keep moving forever.”
Camposeco’s son migrated to central California two months after the volcano erupted. It continues to rumble every fifteen minutes or so, sending a plume of smoke into the air and shaking the ground.
“It’s normal! It’s normal!” Camposeco reassures outsiders. That’s what the residents of Trinidad told each other until June 2018, when lava flowed toward them at 150 mph.
The Guatemalan government published a declaration this July: “The community is not appropriate for urban development,” officials said. The recommendation? “Total evacuation.”
Now, it was up to Camposeco and other community leaders: Could they find a new place to live in Guatemala, an alternative that would stop the flow to the United States?
A centuries-long search for land
The 249 families of La Trinidad are the descendants of Jakaltek and Mam indigenous groups, survivors of the Mayan empire, conquered by Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries.
For hundreds of years, they were pushed and pulled across their own country, first as indentured servants near the Pacific coast, mostly for lighter-skinned landowners of European descent. Finally, in the 1940s, they moved to the Guatemalan Highlands, where families farmed rented plots, the closest they could get to ownership.
In 1954, President Jacobo Árbenz promised land reform that would allocate property to the country’s indigenous peasantry. But the United States saw the democratically elected Árbenz as a communist threat. Boston-based United Fruit, Guatemala’s largest employer and landowner, lobbied Washington to act, and the CIA helped overthrow him.
Tensions between the new, U.S.-backed Guatemalan government and indigenous groups mounted. By 1960, land access was at the center of a new civil war.
During the 1980s, the United States, worried again about communism, trained and armed Guatemalan soldiers who cracked down on indigenous groups. Between 50,000 and 100,000 indigenous civilians were killed during the 36-year war. The families of La Trinidad fled through the jungle for southern Mexico.
When a peace agreement was reached in 1996, the families were encouraged by the United Nations to return to Guatemala. “To return is to fight, not to resign,” became their slogan.
“But our original land had been taken by soldiers and other people,” Camposeco says. “So where were we supposed to go?”
The United Nations, with U.S. and European financial assistance, created Collective Return, a program that allowed indigenous returnees to select new plots of land where they would restart their lives. In the 1990s, donors spent $49 million on the program; the United States contributed $8 million. For people like Camposeco, it seemed a remarkable opportunity: For the first time in centuries, they could own land.
Camposeco worked with the committee that looked for land. The quest proved difficult. The government didn’t offer public land; instead, the committee had to scour the private market, within a limited price range. Much of the land was remote and inaccessible. Other options were infertile, or even closer to volcanoes than the Colonia Quince de Octubre La Trinidad.
The best land belonged to the descendants of European settlers. It was not for sale.
In May 1998, the committee visited a coffee plantation two hours outside Guatemala City. The soil was rich. It was close to a main road. It was perfect, but for the Volcán de Fuego — the Volcano of Fire.
The committee knew little about volcanoes. Members asked neighbors and officials. Everyone said the same thing.
“They told us, ‘Yes, it’s active, but it has never produced a dangerous eruption. It poses no threat,’” says Carlos Montejo López, 64.
Paula Worby worked on Collective Return with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
“With coffee under production, volcanic soil and a great location, at the time we all thought the group could do very well," she says.
In fact, the volcano had produced enormously deadly eruptions at least twice, in the 1840s and in 1936. Those eruptions were documented by Guatemalan volcanologists, whose work was kept in the national library. But officials didn’t unearth the data before the families moved.
“At that point, a few years after the war, such risk assessments were not a priority,” says Julio Sánchez, a spokesman for the government’s disaster management agency.
So in October 1998, a deal was signed, for about $2 million in donor funds. The families returned from Mexico, crying and holding signs: “The people of the fields return to their country.”
They held a lottery to divide up the land. They named the village for the day they arrived: 15 de Octubre.
A permanent home, or more migration?
On a cool morning in September, Camposeco sat down in a wide concrete meeting hall, wearing his best button-down shirt. The town has one main road, a clearing in the brush that points like an arrow to the mouth of the volcano.
Fifteen months had passed since the eruption. Camposeco looked out at the crowd. He thought of the faces that were missing.
Magdalena Pedro’s daughter was cleaning houses in Louisiana. Jesús Ramírez’s husband worked at a restaurant in Los Angeles. Camposeco’s own son was on a farm in California.
All had left the village after the government declared it uninhabitable.
Now, Camposeco was on another committee — “indigenous representatives,” they called themselves — trying again to find a home for the people of La Trinidad. They had identified a new tract of farmland, called Finca el Prado, about 60 miles away.
The stakes were high. If La Trinidad didn’t relocate to fertile land, it would mean more migration. In other words, the end of the community.
“Of course I’m nervous,” he said.
Most of the attendees now lived in a camp for internally displaced people, about 15 miles away, created after the eruption.
There they were tired of living in the tiny huts. Their children were getting sick. They had no jobs and little to eat. Some were ready to accept the square, concrete homes in a housing project in Escuintla that the government would soon offer.
One woman wiped away tears and stood up.
“We’re getting tired of waiting,” she said.
Camposeco looked at her, and then at the ground.
He was one of the community’s most revered figures, a man who attended school until third grade, who fought with the rebels against the U.S.-backed Guatemalan troops. He had lived and worked in the United States himself in the early 2000s, picking strawberries in California. Now he was trying to decide how he felt about his own children migrating.
What mattered most, he said, was that they come back soon.
He took a deep breath and stood up.
“We’ve been migrating for years. I know we’re all tired of this.”
The audience was full of people on the verge of leaving Guatemala.
In their own words
“We’ve been migrating for 100 years. Sometimes it feels like this community is going to keep moving forever.”
Simeon Camposeco, a 56-year-old coffee farmer
“With coffee under production, volcanic soil and a great location, at the time we all thought the group could do very well.”
Paula Worby, former program officer, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees
“I don’t know how you would delineate between specific cases and an entire indigenous population — because the entire indigenous population has been repressed by governments that we have supported.”
Doris Meissner, former commissioner, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service
“Sometimes the windows rattled. We learned to sleep through it.”
Eleodoro Jiménez, 40, had lost more than half his coffee crop when the volcano erupted. His income plummeted from $3,000 in 2017 to $500 this year. He didn’t want his two daughters to risk their lives migrating, so the plan was for him or his wife to travel alone.
Tania Montejo, 25, was the only woman on the town’s leadership committee. Her sister in the United States was looking into temporary work visas for Montejo. If that didn’t work out, she had calculated how much a smuggler would cost.
Camposeco continued, a green baseball cap on his head, making eye contact with as many people as he could.
Leaders had identified a plot of farmland away from the volcano and were trying to persuade the government to buy it. The Ministry of Infrastructure and Housing had instead offered small homes in Escuintla, a city where farming would be impossible.
“We need to keep fighting,” Camposeco said. “We deserve land and we will get it.”
‘Then we realized we had to run’
A mural in La Trinidad tells the history of the community.
There are the smiling faces of the returnees from Mexico. There are the coffee farms and the square, concrete homes. There are the figures in modern Western clothes, native men and women who mostly stopped wearing their traditional trajes or speaking Popti as refugees in Mexico.
At the edge of the mural looms a cartoonish volcano, lava spurting upward, in the manner of the small, daily eruptions that posed no threat.
“We just grew up with it,” Montejo said.
“Sometimes the windows rattled,” Jiménez said. “We learned to sleep through it.”
The school never conducted evacuation exercises. There was no alarm system. Even those who farmed plots closest to the mouth of the volcano never worried.
Camposeco was at home that day in June 2018 when a dark cloud formed over La Trinidad, and a deep rumbling bellowed from the earth.
Debris flowed into the village, a river of volcanic material. Soot descended from the sky. Soon, the roads were blocked. The sky was black. He could barely see his feet.
“First we thought: ‘We can wait here.’ Then we realized we had to run.”
Rescue vehicles didn’t arrive for 12 hours. It took more than a day for everyone to get out.
But La Trinidad was lucky: No one died. The lava and other volcanic material crashed into nearby San Miguel de Los Lotes, where it killed about 500, most within minutes.
La Trinidad had become a stark example of how returnee communities had suffered. But other such groups have not fared much better.
In La Esmeralda, fewer than half the residents had electricity. People in Santa Amelia were so frustrated by conditions that scores abandoned the village. Indigenous Guatemalans have some of the lowest standards of living in Latin America.
Guatemala has a chronic malnutrition rate of 47 percent, sixth highest in the world. In the indigenous communities where returnees live, the rate is 70 percent.
Those communities are now at the center of Guatemala’s exodus to the United States.
“When you look at how some of these communities fared,” Worby says, “it is frustrating how some had to settle for a level of rural poverty they had hoped to escape.”
When migrants reach the United States, immigration judges rarely consider how their lives were affected by U.S. interventions. Some former U.S. officials recognize the role that the United States played in marginalizing indigenous Guatemalans, but wonder how that recognition would translate to immigration policy.
“I think that if we were living in different political times, tracing back these cases historically is something good lawyers and analytics could help develop,” said Doris Meissner, who was the commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration. “But I don’t know how you would delineate between specific cases and an entire indigenous population — because the entire indigenous population has been repressed by governments that we have supported.”
‘No one wants to keep moving’
The meeting ended. People returned to their homes, up the path toward the volcano, now hidden behind clouds.
Camposeco baked bread with his wife. He played with his grandson, Evan, and fed his dog, Victorino. The volcano rumbled. A plume of gray shot up.
He couldn’t stop thinking about the community gathering.
“They’re tired. I understand that,” he said. “No one wants to keep moving every 10 or 20 years. People want something permanent for their children.
“But honestly, I’m not sure this is going to work out.”
There had been discussions with the government over another land purchase, but nothing had been promised. Guatemala’s new president, Alejandro Giammattei, would take office in January. He had an Italian passport and little attachment to the country’s native community. He had suggested that indigenous land would be made available to foreign mining companies.
Camposeco’s phone rang. It was his son in California.
“How did the meeting go?” he asked.
Camposeco turned the phone’s camera on and smiled through the screen.
“It was good,” he said, feigning confidence.
“One day soon we will have our place.”