Luis, The Adolescent Who Tried To Reach The U.S. Three Times

Luis Us Chávez had worked half his life in the fields, planting corn and cardamom, when he decided to go to the United States for the third time to pay off the debt his parents had contracted for his previous trips. After finishing elementary school, he had no choice but to work full-time in the fields, alongside his father, but he knew that many teenagers who migrated to the United States sent money to their relatives. “Mom, we owe money, I’d better go,” he once told his mother Doña Juana, who, worried, spoke to her husband to express her concerns over “el patojo”, as boys are known in Guatemala.

At the age of 16, Luis was already a child who had become a man who knew how to work the land to tend the coffee trees, take care of the cardamom, that exquisite seed that Guatemala exports to the Middle East, Asia, Canada, the United States and South America, where it is valued for gastronomy and some drinks. Despite the fact that he worked from sunrise to sundown, Luis saw that the money was not enough because they had to pay the interest on the debts contracted and the land was not enough to support the family.

In total, Doña Juana and Don Luis had had 12 children. The eldest was 37 years old and Luis almost a child who had finished primary school three years earlier and did not continue secondary studies due to lack of money.

At the end of November, Don Luis and Doña Juana had asked for a loan of two thousand quetzales (6,000 pesos) so that the teenager could try to travel to the United States, with a “coyote” from the region that for several years had transported dozens of men and women there.

In August, Luis had tried to reach the United States, but was detained in Mexico and deported. That time his parents spent three thousand quetzales (nine thousand Mexican pesos). Months before they had requested another loan for 2,500 quetzales (7,500 pesos). The 5% interest kept Luis’s parents in debt.

At the end of August, the Q’eqchi’ indigenous people had been angered by the drastic drop in the price of cardamom. Producers in the village of Zona Reina, north of the municipal seat of Uspantán, in the department of El Quiche, which borders the Lacandon Jungle in Chiapas, were devastated. “We are not going to be able to continue living like this, with these prices”, declared a producer. They were not the best years when compared to 2019, when there was a shortage of the product in India and demand grew in the Middle East, which allowed for a good income for the 350,000 producing families, including that of young Luis.

The fall in the price of cardamom continued to worry Don Luis, so when his son told him that he wanted to migrate again to the United States, he didn’t think twice and looked for a new loan of two thousand quetzales as an advance for the trip. They had relatives in Florida and Ohio who had pledged to support the young man to pay off the debt when he crossed the US-Mexico border.

Zona Reina, a community of some 1,500 Q’eqchi’ and Ixil indigenous people, remained forgotten for more than 60 years. The area was a combat zone for more than 35 years, between the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) and the Guatemalan Army, which left thousands of locals dead, towns razed and dozens more missing. Eight years ago, the area began to get roads, schools and some community medical centers.

A village near Zona Reina, San Antonio la Nueva Esperanza, lived hidden in the jungle, as a Community of People in Resistance (CPR) fleeing the persecution of military troops.

The area which is rich in biodiversity is located at about 636 meters above sea level, surrounded by tributaries that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, produces 250,000 hundredweights of cardamom annually that are then mainly exported to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, India, the United States, Canada and Brazil.

Even so, the Q’eqchi’ and Ixil indigenous people do not find the necessary income to feed their children, so they have no other option than to migrate to the United States. “Here it is very difficult to get ahead”, says a farmer. To build a solid house, an investment of between 200 and 350 thousand quetzales is required, but a farmer can only earn between 3,600 quetzales a month.

The locals who cannot raise the money to pay the “coyotes” travel to the Chiapas coast, a day away, to work on banana farms, harvesting papaya or coffee, where they earn about 150 pesos a day, with the right to a ration of food. Staying in Zona Reina implies looking for work in the region’s coffee and cardamom farms, where you can earn between 75 to 80 quetzales (150 to 160 pesos), from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m, without the right to breakfast and lunch, but the main problem is that when they talk to the boss, he tells them that there is no work “because we are already full”, says a local.

That is why the locals have no other option than to fall into debt with local moneylenders and start the trip to the United States, with the help of a “coyote” who, with a financing plan, can pay the 130,000 quetzales (326,000 pesos), with a down payment of ten thousand quetzals, and the remainder when the migrant is in the United States.

On Tuesday morning, December 7th, Luis said goodbye to his parents and siblings, to tell them not to worry about him, because he was “in good hands.” He took his backpack, where he kept underwear, pants, shirts, a jacket for the cold and accompanied by the “coyote” he traveled from the municipal capital of Uspantán, to the village of Gracias a Dios, in the department of Huehuetenango, where organizations that are dedicated to human trafficking gather men, women and children from Central, South America, the Caribbean and other regions of the world, to leave for the United States.

That same night of December 7th, the teenager had left Gracias a Dios, with a group of migrants from various countries who were being transferred to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, but the human traffickers made a stop in the vicinity at safe houses in Comitán de Dominguez and Teopisca.

It was the next day, December 8th at around 7:00 p.m., that Luis sent a WhatsApp message to his family, to tell him that everything was going well so far. “Mom, we are resting here.” Luis had become friends with a young migrant from Chacalté, Chajul, department of El Quiché, he had told his family.

At 02:00 a.m. on Thursday, 12 hours before the trailer accident occurred, he wrote again to say that he was waiting to be told when they should leave the safe house in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. “I’ll call you later to see what’s going on.” That was the last communication that Luis had with his brothers who were following the trip from Zona Reina. Before 2:00 p.m., the “coyotes” ordered the migrants to get into the trailer that would go to the municipality of Ocozocoautla and from there continue to Veracruz.

Minutes before 3:00 p.m., the truck overturned. Several hours passed before the news reached Zona Reina. The family wrote and called the young man, but he never answered.

It was not until December 13th that they learned that Luis’s body was in the trailer. Juana Chávez Bernal cried when she learned that her son had perished in a third attempt to reach the United States. The young woman who became friends with Luis confirmed that her fellow countryman was one of the 56 fatalities in the trailer.

The young woman who suffered some bumps and scratches explained the moment the trailer had the accident, all the migrants who were traveling seated were thrown out, ending up on the asphalt and earth. When she woke up, she saw the bloodied migrants crying out for help.

One year after the tragedy, the family of Luis Uz Chávez lives a double injustice, because no one has been detained for the trailer accident and they must pay the interest on the loans they received for 7,500 quetzales so that the adolescent could reach the United States.

Original version in Spanish at 
Translated by Schools for Chiapas.

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