The trek from Central America to U.S. soil has always been perilous, but a massacre with many victims from one corner of Guatemala has shaken that country.
They leave behind homes, families, everything they have known, taking their chances on a dangerous trek north toward an uncertain future, driven by poverty, lack of opportunity and the hope of something better.
For most migrants who leave Central America, like those from the municipality of Comitancillo, in the mountains of western Guatemala, the goal is to reach the United States, find work, save some money and send some back home, put down roots, maybe even find love and start a family. Usually, the biggest obstacle is crossing the increasingly fortified American border without being caught.
A group of 13 migrants who left Comitancillo in January didn’t even get the chance. Their bodies were found, along with those of six other victims, shot and burned; the corpses were piled in the back of a pickup truck that had been set on fire and abandoned in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, just shy of the U.S. border. A dozen state police officers have been arrested in connection with the massacre.
The migrants’ remains made the return trip on Friday, March 12, each in a coffin draped with the Guatemalan flag, flown to a military airport in Guatemala City. A somber repatriation ceremony there, with an address by President Alejandro Giammattei, was shown live on national television. Relatives, friends and neighbors in Comitancillo watched the broadcast in their homes as they made final preparations for the arrival of the bodies and for the wakes and burials to follow.
At dusk, after climbing along the switchbacks that wind through Guatemala’s western highlands, the cortege of vehicles carrying 12 of the coffins arrived in Comitancillo. Community leaders and the victims’ families received the bodies in a ceremony on the town’s soccer field.
Above, neighbors stand on an outcrop watching the welcoming ceremony in a soccer field in Comitancillo. Below, seating was limited to close family members.
Some mourned from behind a fence, in the glow of an ambulance’s emergency lights.
It’s a common lament in Comitancillo: There is no work, there are no chances to get ahead. Farming is a main source of local income for the mostly Indigenous population, many of whom speak a Mayan language, but the fields of wheat, corn and potatoes that drape the nearby hillsides can only generate so much work.
As a result, some young residents seek jobs in the capital. Many more, however, set their sights farther away, in the United States. Mónica Aguilón, a community leader who serves as director of the municipality’s cultural center, estimated that some 80 percent of the Comitancillo’s youth migrate — “because there are no employment opportunities, neither in the municipality nor in the country.”
A significant portion of the municipality’s diaspora has settled in Mississippi, particularly in and around the town of Carthage, where some have found work in the area’s poultry processing plants. Other concentrations of Comitecos — as natives of the municipality are called — have formed in New York, Oklahoma and elsewhere. They send back remittances that support families, pay for the construction of new homes and sustain local businesses.
But getting there has never been easy, especially the navigation through Mexico’s lawlessness. Criminals, sometimes working hand-in-hand with corrupt officials, stalk the migratory routes, robbing, extorting, kidnapping and sometimes killing migrants.
Though many migrants from Comitancillo have been victimized en route to the United States, the municipality had never experienced anything even approaching the horror of the massacre in January.
“This was the worst case,” Ms. Aguilón said.
During the ceremony at the soccer field in Comitancillo, the Rev. Mario Aguilón Cardona, a local parish priest, demanded an end to violence against migrants in Mexico. “No more!” he said in a homily, according to The Associated Press. “No more violence against migrants.”
Above, nuns attend the welcome ceremony. Below, a cortege carrying the coffins of 12 of the victims arrives at the soccer field in Comitancillo.
Irma Yolanda Ximena Pérez, an aunt of Rivaldo Danilo Jiménez, 18, who was one of the victims, was comforted by a relative.
When the Friday evening ceremony was over, the victims’ families, traveling in small processions, carried the coffins home, some following rugged, dusty roads that branch out from the town center and lead to the hillside villages from which the migrants had departed only weeks earlier.
They crowded with friends into small houses made of adobe brick or concrete block for wakes that extended late into the night. Some of the deceased were buried on Saturday, others on Sunday.
The 13 victims from Comitancillo included ten men and boys and three women, nearly all in their late teens and early 20s.
Among them, Edgar López was something of an anomaly. Not only was he, at 49 years old, significantly older than the others, but he was not so much leaving home as heading home: Mr. López was trying to reunite with his wife and three children in the United States, where he had lived for more than two decades.
A band playing outside a house that Mr. López had built in Chicajalaj, a village in the municipality of Comitancillo, with remittances he sent back from the United States.
A funeral procession that carried Mr. López’s coffin from his house to his parent’s house.
Mr. López first entered the United States illegally in the late 1990s, settling in Carthage with his wife and daughter. He was deported soon after, but quickly turned around and headed north once again, successfully entering the United States for a second time and reuniting with his family.
In Carthage, Mr. López found work in the area’s poultry plants, and he and his wife had two more children, both American-born, said the Rev. Odel Medina, the priest at St. Anne Catholic Church in Carthage, where Mr. López was a parish leader.
But in 2019, Mr. López was detained again by immigration officials during a raid on the factory where he worked. He was held in detention for most of a year, trying to fight deportation.
He stayed in touch with Reverend Medina. “He was always trying to organize groups to pray and have faith and keep strong,” the priest recalled.
Mr. López finally lost his legal battle, however, and was deported to Guatemala in 2020, Reverend Medina said. Desperately missing his family, he decided in January to try his luck again and migrate north for a third time, the reverend said.
Last Saturday, relatives attended a wake for Mr. López in his parents’ home. The funeral service was held in a church in the village of Chicajalaj, the construction of which he had helped fund by raising money among the Guatemalan diaspora in Mississippi.
Above, relatives held wake for Mr. López. During a procession, below, carrying Mr. López’s remains to the church and then to a cemetery, his cousin, Sebastián López, 75, clutched a framed portrait of his dead relative.
Mr. López’s daughter, Evelin López, left a can of Coca-Cola, a favorite drink of his, as a tribute inside his tomb. It was her first trip to Guatemala.
In the home of Santa Cristina García Pérez, 20, another massacre victim, family members had adorned an altar with framed photos, flowers and a bottle of water — so that Ms. García’s spirit did not suffer from thirst on its journey to the next life, her father, Ricardo García Pérez, explained.
Before she migrated, Mr. García said, his daughter had been living for three years in the city of Zacapa, on the other side of the country, holding a series of low-paying jobs, including as a house cleaner and as a saleswoman in stores.
One of 11 siblings, Ms. García hoped to make enough money in the United States to cover the cost of an operation for her one-year-old sister, Angela Idalia, who was born with a cleft lip, her father said.
She wanted to save Ángela Idalia from what she thought would be a life of ridicule, relatives said.
Ms. García had hoped to make it to Miami, where a friend was living, “but unfortunately her life was cut short on the way,” her father said.
“The saddest thing in life,” he continued. “There’s no explanation.”
Relatives gathered at the mass for Ms. García and two other victims, Iván Gudiel Pablo Tomás and Rivaldo Danilo Jiménez, all of them from the village of Tuilelén.
Below, Ricardo García Pérez and Olga Pérez Guzmán de García, Ms. García’s parents, during her wake.
The killings have stunned the community, spurred a wave of international media attention on Comitancillo and an outpouring of financial support for the victim’s families. Among other acts of largess, donations from nearby communities in the region and from the Guatemalan diaspora have paid for Ángela Idalia’s first surgery to repair her cleft lip and have enabled the García family to build a new house.
Yet local residents predict that despite the massacre, migration from Comitancillo to the United States will not ebb.
Residents said that President Biden’s election and his promise of a more humane approach to migration policy had inspired many young Comitecos to set off for the United States in the past few months. Many others are thinking about leaving soon, residents said.
The options for employment in Guatemala are too scarce, Ms. Aguilón said, and the lure of possibility in the United States too great.
“For us, it was a very big blow,” she said of the massacre. “But this won’t prevent the people from migrating.”