The western highlands of Guatemala have been ignored by the Guatemalan federal government for decades. The region, which borders southern Mexico, is home to many indigenous Mayan people and farmers. In a nation with a 79% poverty rate and a 40% extreme poverty rate, the western highlands is ranked as the most impoverished region of the country.
The poor farming region is historically defenseless to the influence of drug cartels, which forced local farmers to destroy their own crops in order to grow poppy plants. The red flowers are more lucrative for indigenous farmers than their typical produce, and in many cases, the cartels led people to believe that they were growing medicine. However, in reality, the poppy plants are a major factor in the mass production of heroin which finds its way across the border into American communities.
Due to pressure from the American government to deter the opioid epidemic, pressure was put on government officials in Guatemala City to take action against the production of drugs happening in their country. The government looked to end the crisis at its source by heading into the long-neglected western highlands and destroying all poppy plants. The flower that was forced onto indigenous farmers was taken from them just as forcibly, leaving the people of the region with a decimated economy and increasingly dangerous communities. With nothing left but their minimal possessions, Guatemalans of the western highlands have fled the nation in record numbers, making the trek up north for economic opportunity. In their country, there is no “American Dream” where one can work hard to achieve their goals. Guatemalan farmers have to try and operate in a system working against them, stacked up against the competition of global markets, all while being coerced by drug cartels to harvest a plant that has led to one of the largest crises in North America.
Certainly, the Guatemalan government made strides in deterring the drug cartels from producing the same quantities of heroin that they had in the past through military intervention in poppy farms of the western highlands. Yet, the end of one issue only created a new one. The American government’s appreciation for efforts to limit heroin production will be overshadowed by their frustration with rising numbers of immigrants flowing over the border onto American soil. A third of the 811,016 Border Patrol apprehensions were Guatemalans as of August.
Economic desperation is leading Guatemalans to make the only viable choice left, making the dangerous trek North through Mexico to the United States border. The Trump administration has attempted to deter such migration by militarizing the border and passing policy that denied refuge to any migrants who didn’t apply for refugee status in the countries they passed through. However, these stopgap measures will have difficulty preventing desperate people from making the effort to improve the lives of their families and come to the United States. They have no other choice.