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Navigating the Northern Triangle: Part 2
Episode 922nd October 2021 • Democracy! The Podcast • CEPPS Advisor Adrienne Ross, Fmr Deputy Asst Secretary Strategic Communications, US Dept of State, Journalist
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“I believe that corruption affects the whole country in every way. And when state money is not used in sustained public policy to combat poverty, inequality, malnutrition, or for entrepreneurship, the citizens of a country do not find options, and leave their country for lack of opportunities.” Congressman Nineth Montenegro, former Second Vice President of the Congress of Guatemala & Human Rights Leader.

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Irregular migration is a global crisis responsible for critical health, economic, security, and citizenship issues everywhere.  So, have you ever wondered about the so-called “pull-factors” that cause people to leave their homes and flee the Northern Triangle? 

In this episode of Democracy! The Podcast, we dive head first into the issue of immigration in Guatemala as we talk to a few people who have witnessed the problem first-hand.  We’ll visit with a couple of the consortium’s partners who traveled to the tiny border town of El Ceibo between Mexico and Guatemala, and hear more about their work strengthening Guatemala's government to alleviate the problem on its own.  

Plus, her husband was one of the 40,000 people tragically “disappeared” from the streets of Guatemala City in the 1980s.  Guatemalan Congressman Nineth Montenegro, former Second Vice President of the Congress of Guatemala, and a well-known human rights leader, gives a candid account of what she suffered during the country's conflict, and how it dramatically transformed her life into one of public service.  She shares her greatest wish for her country and even explains why some Guatemalans have come to love the infamous “coyotes”, when she sits down with Adrienne.  

Democracy! The Podcast is brought to you by the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS) with support from the United States Agency for International Development through the Global Elections and Political Transitions Award.  

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Follow CEPPS on Twitter

Democracy! The Podcast is hosted by CEPPS and Adrienne Ross. 

This podcast has been produced by the Consortium for Elections, and Political Process Strengthening through the Global Elections and Political Transitions award and is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development.

Opinions expressed here are those of the host and the guests and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the US Government.  This show is produced by Evo Terra and Simpler Media.



This podcast uses the following third-party services for analysis:

Chartable - https://chartable.com/privacy

Transcripts

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Hi, and welcome to Democracy!

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The Podcast that shines light on some of the darkest challenges facing the

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fight for democracy around the globe.

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"Democracy will and must prevail."

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[President Biden]

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This podcast is brought to you by the Consortium for Elections and

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Political Process Strengthening direct from Washington, DC with support

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from our friends at the United States Agency for International Development

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through the Global Elections and Political Transitions Award.

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I'm your host, Adrienne Ross.

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It's been twenty-five years since Guatemala's civil war came to an end.

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But since then, in this land of spectacular beaches, volcanoes,

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and ancient Mayan ruins, democracy has been challenged.

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Ahead in the second episode, Navigating the Northern Triangle,

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we'll hear from the former Second Vice President of Guatemala's Congress.

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Nineth Montenegro talks about what she endured during the country's darkest days,

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and what serving more than twenty years in Congress has taught her about democracy.

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But first, we can't talk about Central America without

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taking a look at immigration.

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Alix Lawson has more.

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Irregular migration is not just a problem in the Western Hemisphere.

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It is a global crisis that causes health, economic, security, and

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citizenship issues everywhere.

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But even further south than the southern U.S.

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border that people often think of for border issues, there are a couple

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of tiny towns that exist between Mexico and Guatemala where migration

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traffic has hit record numbers.

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The trail of migrants that come through these towns includes thousands of

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individuals who have been returned to their home country via planes and buses

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after failed attempts to reach the U.S.

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and Mexico.

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So far this year, more than 15,000 migrants have been sent from Mexico to the

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tiny jungle town of El Ceibo in Guatemala.

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Meanwhile, in Guatemala City, the Congressional Migration Committee

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has been working to improve oversight of all the Guatemalan institutions

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which touch migration issues.

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Those members of Guatemala's Congressional Migrants Committee

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have been getting steady support from one of the Consortium's partners.

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Today, we're joined by the Country Director from the International Republican

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Institute, Bernardo Rico, and his colleague, Julia Maria Rodriguez, who

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is the Program Manager on this team.

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They are both here now direct from Guatemala with more.

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You have recently returned from the border town of El Ceibo in Guatemala

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to see the facilities and talk with migrants and officials there.

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Tell us more about your trip.

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Who was with you?

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What did you find?

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And most importantly, why did you go there in the first place?

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Essentially, we went there to evaluate and to see how the

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returning migrants are being treated at that particular border point.

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What ended up happening was, up until recently even, that border point

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in particular was an informal one.

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So it had only recently been made a formal crossing point, both out of

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Guatemala and back into Guatemala.

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It's in a very remote part of the Petén jungle.

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There's virtually no infrastructure.

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No electricity was there up until recently until they put in a diesel-driven

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generator by the Guatemalan government.

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It's pretty much no man's land.

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And what had been happening was, starting sometime in mid-August, a lot of returning

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migrants that were being returned from the United States and from Mexico were

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just being left on the Guatemalan side of the border with literally no help at all

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from the Guatemalan authorities or others.

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We accompanied the members of the Migrants Committee of the Guatemalan

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Congress to the jungle, actually the El Ceibo border, the president and

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secretary of the committee joined us, as well as members from the community

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that represent target municipalities due to their higher percentage of their

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irregular migration, mostly located in the Western Highlands of the country.

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You both talk a little bit about working with the Guatemalan

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members of the migrant committee.

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Can you tell us a little bit more about how your work led up to

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accompanying them to the border?

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Basically, we've been supporting this commission to address the

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main or key issues that have risen and have been expressed by

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Guatemala n migrants in the U.S.

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and Mexico, and here in the country.

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Those topics are related to the proposed reform to the

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National Council for Migrants.

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We supported the committee last year, since the new authorities of Conamigua

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were elected and we provided all the platforms and all the mechanisms for this

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process to be seen and to be followed by the Guatemalan migrants in the U.S.

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and Mexico and in the Western Highlands.

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Where we have most of our migrant citizens, there was a need to oversee

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what was going on, if there were articles to attend the migrants, if the

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government institutions have presence.

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So, what did you conclude from your own evaluations of the situation and

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what additional steps do you think the government of Guatemala should be taking

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to help migrants returned to the country?

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Obviously, the acute crisis is how to address and treat the returning migrants.

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One of the immediate first measures that was taken by the Mexican and

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Honduran governments, financed by the Mexican government, was to put these

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migrants on buses that were actually very clean and well-kept to return

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them, most of them, to Honduras.

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Part of the challenge that we saw there, and again, that day we were

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there, there was a lot of military and national police security, so we

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probably saw a little more unorderly process than is normally the case.

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So they would be processed.

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They would have to get off the bus on the Mexican side, walk across the border, get

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back on the bus after it was sanitized.

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Basically, many of them were disoriented, didn't know where they were headed.

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So they had little choice other than to get on that bus and be

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driven to the border of Honduras.

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What we found out later, talking to some of the UNHCR officials is that

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many of El Salvadorians asked to be dropped off somewhere in the middle of

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Guatemala so they could ideally make a return trip back to El Salvador.

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One of the main challenges even for attending the returnees is having any

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Guatemalan institution work efficiently by itself, and I think the challenge

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even to work together is even greater.

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Hopefully, what will happen, and I don't really want to be critical, but it really

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serves us just to look at how Guatemala has been really the laggard in all of

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Latin America in rolling out the vaccine.

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Actually, a country like Honduras is doing better than Guatemala.

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El Salvador, actually, despite the, kind of the challenges with that

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president, their vaccination levels are approaching that of the United States.

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This is even more the case in Honduras.

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When some of these officials are corrupt themselves and involved in corruption

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schemes, the most famous being La Línea from former President Otto Pérez

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Molina, which had to do with customs.

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And I'd say, just to emphasize what I think is the worst issue or the

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worst challenge in terms of building stronger, more resilient, transparent,

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democratic institutions, and the kind of corruption that gets in the way

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is that corruption that stems from organized crime and narco trafficking.

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Not everyone wants to talk about it, but it is probably the major

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issue in these two countries where 90% of the cocaine that goes to the

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United States touches Honduras and about 75% of that touches Guatemala.

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To put it also in a context of just how grave the situation is for any

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of these people who make this journey north to try to find a better life,

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and when I talk about those issues and the challenges they face, it's hard to

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argue with them that there's not a good reason for them to actually make the

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trek north, although it's dangerous.

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It really requires an approach by all governments, starting with Guatemala,

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El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and, of course, the United States.

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We talk about shared responsibility, but I think more needs to be

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done and less needs to be said.

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But it is super complicated.

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And it's hard.

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One of the many things that I think it's always useful to remind

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ourselves as each of these three countries is very different.

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So, the factors driving the out migration from them are often different.

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I would say, the lack of economic opportunity, particularly in a place

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like Honduras, along with the lack of rule of law, a very corrupted government,

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you take a country like Guatemala, and I think there are certain areas in the

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Northwest Highlands of Guatemala, where there is a lot of out migration, a lot

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of it being driven by not so much a lack of security, but more lack of economic

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opportunity, climate change driving the ability to sustain crops and livelihoods.

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Addressing the root causes in all three of these countries is certainly

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worthwhile endeavors in and of themselves or something that needs to happen.

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That's why people like Julia Maria and I are passionate

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about working in development and have worked in development.

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That said, many of these issues that drive out migration are outside of Honduras

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and El Salvador and Guatemala's control.

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There are changes in U.S.

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policies, policies that are more draconian that maybe limit migration

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policies that may appear on the surface more appealing for migrants,

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to actually give the impression that they can get in that drive migration.

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The other two kinds of contentious issues that I think are worth also addressing

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when it comes to migration that some people talk about, at least the first one,

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and that is the remittances they provide.

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So all of those hardworking Guatemalans, El Salvadorians, and Hondurans who

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live in the United States and other countries, in Spain, elsewhere, actually

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provide some of

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the largest amount of export dollars back to their countries by way of remittances.

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Then lastly, if you put yourself in a position of any one of these

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governments, often out migration, not only does it provide e xport revenue,

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but it provides a kind of release.

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It's a pressure valve release for those who actually need

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to or feel the need to leave.

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Do you think that it's possible we could see a more comprehensive

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approach from the Guatemalan government to help these migrants?

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Yes, in the long term, I do see the Guatemalan government coordinating

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an action plan to provide assistance to the Guatemalan migrants and

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to the Guatemalan returnees.

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Definitely, there are key institutions that are doing their best to coordinate

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efforts, to provide assistance, to create economic programs, to truly

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help returnees as it is to have better opportunities here in the county.

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Also, from the Congress there are strong actions being taken by the migrants

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committee, not just to oversee what the government is doing, but also

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to promote initiative laws that are oriented to help economic reactivation,

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to promote stronger democratic institutions, to promote transparency.

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But I do want to emphasize this is a long-term journey and I do

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see our country going this way.

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Do you see a chance for Guatemala to help Guatemalans in the future?

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Your average citizen is very much interested in helping

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their fellow man and woman.

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There are some good actors and well-intended individuals in politics,

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in the Congress, and even the executive branch and the judicial

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branch who want to help Guatemala.

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It's just a question of how do you really help Guatemalan institutions

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to become more effective and efficient and transparent to

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address these types of problems?

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I think the will is there to attend at least this particular crisis of returnees

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and it's probably a good opportunity for the Guatemalan government, going

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back to one of your original questions, having the opportunity to show up.

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They can work to solve this particular problem of returnees and making sure

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that they're treated well and fairly, humanely, but addressing the issues of

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out migration, the root causes, which I've discussed at length already as

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Julia Maria said, and I like to say, it's a multi-generational endeavor.

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Did you talk to any individuals?

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Could you tell us a personal story?

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We weren't able to interact that much with them.

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However, we did see some sad faces.

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They were really sad.

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They were worried.

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They had no money, no house.

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They didn't know what their destination would be.

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The buses took the migrant returnees to the border between Guatemala and Honduras,

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but there were many Salvadorians, for example, on those buses, and they didn't

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know how to get to their countries.

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One of the biggest results of our visit to the El Ceibo border is that the migrant

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committee coordinated a round table, which includes all the authorities that

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are related to the migration issues.

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The migrant committee asked for an action plan from Conamigua,

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which is the institution in charge of providing assistance to the

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migrant returnees since there was no action plan, no infrastructure.

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So I think asking for this action plan is the beginning of a long journey, but

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at least the first step has been done.

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What is the number one thing people should know about migrants in

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general, or Guatemalans specifically?

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I think Guatemalan citizens, especially the migrants, are looking for a

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better future, a brighter future for them and for their families.

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If you ask them if they do want to go to the United States, migrate to

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the United States, they really don't.

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But that's the only opportunity they see to help their communities, to

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help their families, and to have better economic opportunities.

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They are hardworking people.

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They are community people.

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They have principles and values.

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They are very kind people.

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I think we should all learn that migration is a right.

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We all have that right to migrate, and we should treat Guatemalans,

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Hondurans, and El Salvadorians as individuals with rights and with dreams.

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And that's what they are doing.

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My request would be somehow for this discussion, or at least the

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understanding of what's going on, to move beyond the international

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development professionals, the U.S.

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Embassy, other embassies, U.S.

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Congress to the United States citizens to try to understand why

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people decide to migrate, what is actually happening to them.

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So the question is how are we going to approach it without

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politicizing it in the United States?

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And irregular migration is somewhat different in terms of it's actually

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people, human lives that are being put at risk to try to find a better livelihood.

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But that issue is not going away nor is the issue of illegal drug trafficking.

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Bernardo Rico, Julia Maria Rodriguez in Guatemala, thank

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you so much for being here today.

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With more now on the day-to-day democracy in Guatemala, former Guatemalan

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Congresswoman and leading human rights activist, Nineth Montenegro joins

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me from her home in Guatemala City.

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Nineth survived some of the darkest days in Central America.

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In 1984, her husband was shot and snatched by government security forces

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off the streets in Guatemala City.

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His case became one of the estimated 40,000 people disappeared during

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Guatemala's conflict, victims of the government's deliberate policy of terror.

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Nineth responded to the shock by creating one of the country's best

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known human rights groups, eventually introducing her own political party

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and serving many years in Congress.

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She's here now to share candid assessment of Guatemala's corruption and much more.

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Thanks to Maria Olga Escobar for helping us out with the English.

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For those who don't know much about Guatemala's darker days, can you talk a

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little bit about what life was like then?

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[Nineth begins in Spanish, then Maria translates to English.] There were

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circumstances in which it was very difficult, not only for freedom of

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expression, but also the freedom to move around every part of the country.

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The situation was very, very delicate.

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There was no political participation or position parties until the year

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1985 when the first transition to democracy took place.

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I say it first because even if it was civil government, we were in

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the middle of an armed conflict.

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And during this first civil government, forced disappearances

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and mortars continued.

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There was a very iconic case of twelve students who in 1989 were

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detained, later disappeared, and they were cruelly murdered.

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This is the context in which we worked at the time.

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What did it feel like to live in a situation like that?

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It was the eighties, at that time in Guatemala it was really scary for me.

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What happened to me was that my first husband was kidnapped, and for

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me, that was a horrible thing that happened to me, and that is the time

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when I decided to go to the street.

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So for us, it was very dangerous, very hard because we were demanding

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justice, but this corrupt structure was within the state of Guatemala.

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So for me, it was really dangerous and that changed my life completely.

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It changed your life completely, and you served in so many

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different capacities for Guatemala.

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And yet, if we fast forward to 2021, Congress still doesn't have a

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gender quota for women in Congress.

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How do you think representation for women in the congressional

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government is for Guatemala today?

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I see that more from a quota of power, we are suggesting parity in the process.

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Actually right now, we represent 51% of the whole population in Guatemala.

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So as women it's very important to participate in

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the decision-making process.

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We know, and as you all know, women, we see more pressure to do the work

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better and to be more qualified and to be involved in political processes.

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So it is, for us, very important to strengthen their knowledge, their

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capacity, their empowerment, so they can apply to these jobs, so they can do

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it technically and efficiently as well.

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Right now, power of quota is not our goal, it's more parity.

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As for me, I finished my work in Congress two years ago, and I think

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the involvement of women in the political process has improved.

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Now we see in the ministries that women are participating more and more, but we

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still have far to go in this process.

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The current Guatemala president's administration has been the target

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of a lot of criticism and protests.

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Most recently, the attorney general ousted Guatemala's top anti-corruption

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prosecutor, which landed him on the United States' Corrupt and Undemocratic list.

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You yourself have been a longtime fighter for transparency and

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anti-corruption practices.

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What do you make of the streak of corruption we see throughout

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the administration right now?

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Once elected the board of directors of the Congress, and in the same

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pattern as the other board of directors in the Congress that are corrupt.

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It just represents how weak the institutions are and how the

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lack of ...in word of mouth.

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So for us, that has been - that's very hurtful to the country.

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Also, I want to state that today, the Guatemalan society has a lot of fear.

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They don't go out in the streets because they are really

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fearful of what can happen.

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The pandemic, COVID, affected a lot of the Guatemalan society.

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The economy dropped.

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Today, their society is more interested in restoring their neighbor and restoring

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all the things that they have to manage as families in this society, rather

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than go to the streets and criticize the government institutions, and also

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to fight for combating corruption.

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So for us, it's very damaging to the democratic process of Guatemala.

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Also, I think we're living dramatic moments in Guatemala in which

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the state has been captured.

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But this is not something new.

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It is a process that comes from many years ago, even during the

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armed conflict and the mafia linked to organized crime was created.

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But today I think there is a more direct participation of mafia and organized

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groups that finance political campaigns.

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And not only finance political campaigns, but also have direct

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participation in some elected offices.

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At this moment, the people are on edge.

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And when people are on edge, they are apathic.

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Obviously, no matter how much the situation is hidden,

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this is not going to change.

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And it's very possible that this is how we will end this government.

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How do you see the problems of corruption contributing to the mass

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immigration we see leaving Guatemala?

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I believe that corruption affects the whole country in every way.

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And when state money is not used in sustained public policies to combat

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poverty, inequality, malnutrition, or for entrepreneurship and citizens of the

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country do not find options, they leave their country for lack of opportunity.

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About three million Guatemalans live abroad, especially in the United States,

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and now the exodus of Guatemalans has grown so much that the largest number of

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people leaving the country are women and children fifteen and nineteen-years-old.

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It saddens me because the most vulnerable population is the one that

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suffers from the lack of opportunities that the state does not provide.

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There are more than two million school-aged children outside the school

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system, and 1.9 million preschool children also outside the educational system.

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And it's believed that there are around more than four million

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children and adolescents suffering from poverty and extreme poverty.

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This problem is multidimensional.

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Do you think that the Guatemala government should be doing more to help

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people who are fleeing the country?

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The migration crisis is a state crisis.

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It affects our national security, as well as the state.

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The role of the famous coyotes in these countries, the coyotes is for one

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people, and for many of the population is loved because they will provide

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these opportunities to leave the country and to be in the United States.

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But also, the coyotes have been linked to the criminal structures, to the guards,

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to the drug dealers, so right now that is a very dangerous situation that is

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affecting children, women, and youth.

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The coyotes will charge each woman, man, or adolescent that is leaving around

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$1,000 to go to the United States.

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That price is very expensive for a country that is living in poverty.

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If that person will return to Guatemala after being deported, they have

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invested this money in the coyotes.

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They have no home.

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No work.

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So the money that they have to give to the coyotes in order to stay in Guatemala,

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sometimes it will be his or her life.

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It is the state together with the private initiative and sectors of

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society who have to look for a solution.

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For me, this means fighting corruption, training people to learn to demand

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accountability from their leaders, learning to be a social advocate

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for the better use of resources, especially at the local level where

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many mayors' office do not respond to the need for access to information.

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With respect to the coyotes, this is a big problem because just as many

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people love, yes, love the coyotes because they move them to the United

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States, there are also some coyotes that have already been discovered

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to have links with drug trafficking and organized crime on the borders.

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In exchange for being allowed to continue to operate it, they run

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over people for those groups to use.

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The poor people who are fleeing the country end up being used to

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transport drugs or contraband, and they are even kidnapped.

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Another important point is that the coyotes have reached a point

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where he charges more than $10,000.

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People get into debt with banks, loan sharks, and sell their properties.

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If they manage to get to the United States, they will pay

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the debt after maybe a year.

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But if they do not get there, they are forced to pay.

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People are even killed because of the debt.

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That means a very dangerous situation for our country.

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What is your greatest hope for the future of Guatemala?

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My greatest hope is that one day we will go from being sleeping citizens to being

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citizens in the whole exercise of her own rights with comprehensive security,

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food security, job security, security in entrepreneurship, and honestly, personal

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security - justice, equality, equity.

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However, to be able to be citizens, it is first necessary to eradicate poverty.

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That people have access to education and having access to education gets

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them better opportunities for the future and those better opportunities

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for the future gets the opportunity to satisfy their base needs.

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And when they are satisfied, they can already exercise their citizenship.

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It seems impossible given the current situation, but I believe that we can start

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with more or less than 30% that represents the middle class, which can exercise its

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citizenship and start fighting against corruption and impunity through the

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supervision of how the budget is executed, demanding accountability, and training

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other people until the population is empowered to understand that public money

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comes from the taxes of the citizens.

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I believe that there is already a group of people to start training

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those people who live in remote places so that they can exercise their true

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citizenship that will really improve the conditions of the country.

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And at least in ten years, eradicate extreme poverty and later, all poverty.

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Accountability is the only tool that will help us at all against

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corruption to empower us as citizens.

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Thank you.

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Thank you so much for your time.

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We really appreciate you joining us today.

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Coming up on the next episode of Democracy!

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The Podcast, it's what every independent nation wants - democratic resilience.

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Find out what it takes to get a country like Sudan started on the path to

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prosperity and lasting independence.

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Then, stick around, NDI's President, Ambassador Derek Mitchell, shares his

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personal stories from the frontlines in the fight for democracy from Tiananmen

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Square to a Golden Lake Era in Burma.

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You won't want to miss it.

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That's all ahead on our next episode of Democracy!

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The Podcast.

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This podcast has been produced by the Consortium for Elections and Political

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Process Strengthening through the Global Elections and Political Transitions

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Award, and is made possible by the generous support of the American

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people through the United States Agency for International Development.

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Opinions expressed here are those of the hosts and the guests,

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and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the U.S.

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Government, and is produced by Evo Terra and Simpler Media.

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