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Indigenous refugees in Guatemala caught between COVID-19 and a volcano

‘We are not here because we want to be.’

A view of the Fuego volcano erupting from the entrance to the 15 de Octubre La Trinidad community in Guatemala on 27 August, 2020 James Rodriguez/TNH
A view of the Fuego volcano erupting from the entrance to the 15 de Octubre La Trinidad community in Guatemala on 27 August, 2020. The residents, Indigenous civil war refugees, felt they had little choice but to return to live at the foot of the volcano.

Recent eruptions on the Caribbean island of St Vincent have led to fears of COVID-19 spreading among evacuees. But in Guatemala, a community of Indigenous civil war refugees has chosen to return to the foot of an active volcano rather than endure similar concerns.

“We are not here because we want to be,” Estuardo Lorenzo told The New Humanitarian of his family’s return to 15 de Octubre La Trinidad. “The COVID-19 virus forced us back here. We honestly don’t know if we’re going to get out of here alive because of the volcano, but we’re here because we need to eat.”

His village is named after the day in 1998 when hundreds of Indigenous families driven into exile in Mexico by the Guatemalan military during the 1960-1996 civil war were resettled under the Volcán de Fuego, or Volcano of Fire, 40 kilometres southwest of Guatemala City.

What seemed like a good plan at the time turned to disaster less than 20 years later: In June 2018, Fuego erupted. La Trinidad was spared, but nearby San Miguel Los Lotes was not. The official death count was 190, but local groups said thousands were missing and put the toll several times higher. Regardless, it was Guatemala’s deadliest eruption since 1929.

”It was like rotten eggs or something like cat pee,” Lorenzo’s 16-year-old son, Wesles Lorenzo Camposeco, told The New Humanitarian, recalling the smell of the volcanic gas. “My eyes turned red. The more I inhaled, the more my throat hurt. I saw my little brother almost suffocate.”

As the area was then declared “high-risk” and “uninhabitable”, it looked unlikely his family would ever return to live under the frightening rumbling of the Fuego volcano, which routinely spits out clouds of debris and ash.

However, by April 2020, less than two years on from the disaster, they – along with most of the 240 other families evacuated from La Trinidad – were back again. Unable to find enough work in the nearby town of Escuintla due to the pandemic and worried about the spread of COVID-19 in the squalid, overcrowded shelters provided to them by the government, they felt desperate enough to return.

Since late December, explosions at the volcano have resumed.

“Sometimes, I’ll be eating or studying and hear an explosion,” Lorenzo Camposeco told The New Humanitarian in January. “I run outside to check on the volcano. When it’s raining, I worry about mudflows that may run down the volcano at any moment. The rumbling is louder and more frequent than before. I have trouble sleeping at night.”

On 19 March, Guatemala’s Institute of Volcanology issued an alert that Fuego was erupting up to 11 times per hour, with moderate flows of pyroclastic material, rocky debris, and water running down the volcano towards La Trinidad and neighbouring communities. A subsequent alert a month later showed a reduction in activity.

Neither temporary nor safe

Immediately after the June 2018 disaster, the La Trinidad evacuees were housed in schools and gyms in Escuintla before being moved into wooden shelters, known as ATUs, that were supposed to be a temporary solution.

Government food supplies to the shelters were suspended in December 2018, leaving the survivors to seek work or go hungry. When the coronavirus lockdown restrictions kicked in, most lost the service jobs they had acquired.

“When the pandemic began, it got even harder to find a job in Escuintla,” said Lorenzo. “The little savings I had were spent on [my daughter] Esperanza’s medical treatment,” he added, recalling how he looked everywhere for work: in the factories, in the fields, and at convenience stores.

In late 2019, a third of the families accepted a small single-family home in La Dignidad – a housing project next to the ATUs where other disaster survivors were being permanently resettled. The remaining La Trinidad villagers decided to stay put and hold out for land promised to them by the government as war refugees. In April 2020, due to the economic hardship and fears of COVID-19 infection in the cramped ATUs, 133 families decided to return to La Trinidad and try to live off their old fields of coffee, beans, and corn.

Much of their land had been destroyed by volcanic ash, so they added new plantations and crops. Within months of their return, however, hurricanes Eta and Iota hit in quick succession, devastating parts of their new projects.

Ada Camposeco, Lorenzo’s wife, said concern for their daughter, Esperanza, who had contracted an intestinal infection and then pneumonia due to the poor heating and sanitary conditions in the shelters, drove her decision-making as the coronavirus closed in.

”Everyone in the shelters was petrified,” Camposeco said. “I decided to return for the sake of our daughter. She has low defenses [to COVID-19], and there are four families in each shelter with only a thin wall separating them. The coronavirus could easily spread.”

But not everyone felt they could return.

Sitting on the worn, wooden stairs outside her shelter watching her three-year-old son as he played with a silver toy gun, María Méndez García, 23, said she didn’t consider going back to live under the volcano to be an option for her family, however tempting.

“I often feel like going back to La Trinidad and letting my son grow up playing in the fresh air, teaching‌ ‌him‌ ‌how‌ ‌to‌ ‌grow‌ ‌beans‌ ‌and‌ ‌corn,‌ ‌like‌ ‌my‌ ‌family‌ ‌has‌ ‌done‌ ‌for‌ generations,” she said. [But] when I go to visit, I hear the rumbling and… No. I am too scared of the volcano.”

Around her were the monotone rows of wooden shelters, next to a foul-smelling river where trash piled up on its banks. With no running water, families share bathrooms and a kitchen area. Despite the poor conditions, some 30 families have, like Méndez García, chosen to stay in the ATUs.

A look at life in La Trinidad and the Escuintla shelters

Security around the shelters has been a problem. Escuintla is one of the most crime-ridden towns in Guatemala, hosting branches of the Sinaloa Cartel and factions of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) crime group.

Méndez García recounted how a man had been found murdered in La Dignidad, just outside their cluster of shelters, two days earlier. She felt it supported their decision not to take up the government’s offer to be resettled in the housing project: “I told my husband: ‘Look at the kids in La Dignidad, hanging around with their cell phones all day. If my son was to grow up there, he might integrate with groups that are... doing bad things. I’d rather wait until La Trinidad gets a new place to settle. Let’s not give up on that dream’.”

A mobile medical clinic had been installed near the shelters until the government withdrew its humanitarian assistance in late 2018 after La Trinidad’s population was offered permanent housing in La Dignidad. ATU residents now rely on health services in nearby communities.

Meanwhile, the health ministry’s disaster management unit told The New Humanitarian in a written response that it was unable to offer health services in La Trinidad as the area “constitutes a danger to staff”, and “does not meet demographic requirements”.

Oxfam, which had been helping La Trinidad returnees to improve their evacuation plans and alert system, withdrew from the area in December 2020 due to a lack of funding.

Iván Aguilar, Oxfam’s humanitarian coordinator for Guatemala, expressed concern about the government’s capacity to respond to any new eruption, in view of what he described as a delayed response in 2018.

“The lack of interest in improving the alert system, and the underfinanced public institutions, means [the alert system] may all fall apart within a few years,” Aguilar said.

An endless search for land and a home

The residents of La Trinidad’s displacement story began long before the deadly eruption, way back in 1982 when their Mayan village in Santa Ana Huista – in the western region of Huehuetenango – was targeted by state repression, a massacre, and abductions.

With the Mexican border only about 30 kilometers away, some 250 families were able to flee the country, joining more than 100,000 other Guatemalans who crossed into Mexico at the height of the civil war.

Urbano Lorenzo Pérez, president and legal representative of La Trinidad’s Indigenous council, said it was painful to talk about their 16 years “moving from one area to the next” as war refugees in the southern Mexican region of Chiapas – different families put in different camps.

“Every other year, we had to pack our things and look for someone who could lend us a new plot for a while, as we were not allowed to buy land,” Lorenzo Pérez recalled. “I stayed in six different refugee camps, every time building my family’s hut just to dismantle it again before the next move.”

Lorenzo Pérez said they were aware that their scorched village in Santa Ana Huista had been seized by soldiers and others, and that they couldn’t go back. Still, they dreamt, at least, of returning to Guatemala.

Guatemalan refugees began demanding a repatriation process in 1987. Another five years of negotiations with the government led to the so-called October 1992 accords, which allowed those who wanted to return to buy land with state funding.

The government spent almost $30 million on land purchases for the returnees and, in 1998, two years after peace accords to end the civil war were signed, the refugees from Santa Ana Huista were finally repatriated and resettled at the foot of the Fuego volcano.

The fertile, volcanic soil seemed like an attractive option to the community representatives, who, according to Lorenzo Pérez, did not understand the impending risk of eruption until the National Council of Protected Areas, a government agency, visited La Trinidad in 2015. 

“If any institution would have told us from the beginning that Fuego is an active and hazardous volcano, I don’t think we would be in the situation we are in today,” he said. 

READ MORE: The search continues

As they continue to push for a sustainable place to call home, residents of La Trinidad are negotiating with FONTIERRAS, a government fund established in the peace accords, to provide campesino war survivors with access to land. Lorenzo Pérez and other community representatives want to ensure they are not once again being placed in an uninhabitable area.

“We did not accept housing in Escuintla’s urban environment, because small-scale farmers constitute La Trinidad; we depend on the land,” explained Lorenzo Pérez.

After they turned down the government’s offer, a large plot allowing for cultivation where they could also resettle was identified in the nearby Santa Rosa department. But the land fell through in late 2019 when its owner died.

The search for an alternative tract was further delayed when President Alejandro Giammattei came to office in January 2020. Members of La Trinidad’s Indigenous authority were finally summoned for a first meeting with the new government last March.

But two days before a second meeting was expected with FONTIERRAS, the country shut down due to the pandemic. CONRED, the National Coordinator for Disaster Prevention, has since deemed La Trinidad uninhabitable, making it ineligible for public investment.

According to Ingrid Osorio, the general manager of FONTIERRAS, delays in finding a new home for La Trinidad’s population are due to legal challenges following the potential property owner’s death, as well as a freezing of negotiations during the pandemic.

Osorio told The New Humanitarian that FONTIERRAS was evaluating a new plot that has been approved by the community, adding that the agency has kept in touch with community representatives via phone and the internet on several occasions during the past year.

But Yosmari Hernández, a spokesperson for La Trinidad’s Indigenous council, said calls to the government relocation agency had gone unanswered and complained of a general lack of support.

“There has been no support or attention by any branch of the government during this pandemic,” Hernández said. “No one from the health ministry has come to the shelters, much less here in La Trinidad, as in theory this place is empty.”

Paula Worby, a former associate officer at the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) who was involved in mediating the repatriation talks during the 1990s, suggested it wasn’t quite that simple: “In hindsight it is easy to think, ‘Where were the volcanologists?’ But most of Guatemala is subject to natural disasters, and its overall population is at risk. The government has never had a good track record on disaster prevention and returnees were focused on finding quality land for their livelihood.”

According to Worby, the repatriation process – whereby refugees negotiated the terms of return with their own government – prompted high hopes that their families could have a better future.

“They ran up against long-standing problems of Guatemala that were not solved by the peace process: the inequality, the corruption, the systematic exclusion of Indigenous and rural people,” she said, adding that the government still fails to respond adequately to new displacements caused by natural disasters or structural inequalities.

Estuardo Lorenzo was only a few months old when the original families crossed into Mexico in 1982. Ada Camposeco was born in a Mexican refugee camp. Estuardo and Ada met while living in the same refugee camp, and arrived in La Trinidad together with the rest of the community in 1998.

While ash plumes darkened the sky above her, Camposeco said that when she looks at her children, it reminds her of when she was a young refugee in Mexico. It made her sad, she said, to think that they too lack a place to settle now, just like she and her husband did. 

“Sometimes my eldest son, Wesles, asks me why we are taking all these loans to recover our crops,” Camposeco said. “‘Because you are not going to end up like me, without education,’ I tell him. ‘We’ll use them to finance your studies. We are not supposed to let history repeat itself’.”

Additional reporting by James Rodriguez in La Trinidad. 

This work was supported by the National Geographic Society’s Emergency Fund for Journalists.


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