Friday, August 2, 2013

Extortion, or the high cost of doing business - and why some people migrate

This is the story of a family in Guatemala. They could be from any part of the country that is poor, and for their protection I won't say where they are from originally. I can't tell you much about them, because they are still scared that someone from the "mara" (gang) that extorted money from them might come and find them. I also won't say where the extortion took place; the maras work by territory, and even saying the city, or the neighborhood where this took place, would identify the gang and thus endanger the people who spoke to me. I didn't seek them out, but was asked by someone who knows them to talk with them, and I think since that what I am about to say is very general and applies unfortunately to hundreds if not thousands of Guatemalan families who are preyed upon by extortionists, that they are not further endangered by my talking about their situation. Much of the population of Guatemala's major cities is made up of rural migrants who flocked there not because they were enchanted by the promise of bright lights, big city, but because their small land holdings were insufficient to provide sustenance for the family -- or perhaps they lacked land of their own entirely, whether as a result of having been swindled or robbed outright. During the war, peasants who fled the violence often returned to find their homes and land occupied by the military, their supporters, or the wealthy landowners who used the refugee flight as an opportunity to expand their economic and political power. Or they had no land because of earlier land grabs by elites, or because someone signed papers that they didn't understand because they were in Spanish.

So, this family couldn't make ends meet where they were, and so about 15 years ago they packed up their belongings and a few generations of kinfolk living in an extended multi-generational household and headed to a city, where they were able to open up some small businesses. Nothing major, just a few small stores in a neighborhood populated primarily by people very much like themselves -- poor folks with rural (and indigenous) roots. 

However, for small business people, it is not easy to make a living in the city. There is fierce competition from dozens of other people with similar needs and ideas -- every urban block, it seems, is now crowded with several small stores, mostly offering the same things: prepared foods, packets of soup mix, instant noodles, laundry soap, other sundries, maybe some individually packaged over-the-counter medications, and probably phone cards. But the biggest obstacle to a family gaining any kind of stability (success is a distant dream for most) is extortion. Most neighborhoods, or micro-zones within neighborhoods, are controlled by gangs that demand weekly payments from store owners as the price of doing business. On top of the weekly payments, the gangs ask for "bonuses" for Semana Santa (Holy Week), Christmas, and other times.  If the business owners fail to pay, the gangs tell them, they will kidnap their relatives or kill them (the business owners, their children, and so forth). So, most pay up -- at least up to a point.

This happened to a family I know, and during this trip I spoke to several members of the family about the extortions. They started several years ago, and went on for a period of nearly a year. The gangs started out by asking for 200 quetzales a week, and then "bonuses" of 1000 quetzales. Then they started to make more extravagant demands: 5000 quetzales (which the family managed to scrape together somehow), and then 20,000. This was beyond the means of the family to pay. At one point (I spoke to several different relatives and they had slightly different experiences), someone went to report the extortions to the police but, they told me, the police didn't seem to pay any attention or help them out. One of the relatives, an older man, was in his store when some gang members broke in and fired their guns.  He was not hurt, but has been in a state of shock since then. He walks with difficulty, and has had some other health problems that the doctors believe were caused by the attack. He hasn't really been able to work since then.

One of the women in the family was in one of the stores alone because her husband was away. The gang figured out where he was going and robbed him, and also went to the store, knowing the wife was alone, and demanded more money from her at gunpoint.  

The extortions just kept on going over a period of a year, and eventually the family decided that they couldn't make the payments and it wasn't worth risking their lives, and so they returned to the place they had left years earlier, leaving all the property (stores and residences) in the city.  So now they have basically nothing. They are in a small rural settlement outside a small town; their property is about 20 minutes by car from the nearest highway (a highway, in Guatemala, is a 2-lane blacktop -- a paved road that connects towns, and connects them by running right through them). So we are not talking interstates here. The road that leads up to the settlement where they live has only one small part that is paved -- and not really fully paved. There are two parallel concrete tracks, each about a foot wide, that run for about half a mile. However, the concrete tracks are badly broken in places, and so while they give the illusion of a better surface, they are really not much better than the packed dirt and rock that comprise the rest of the road.   They are scared, they told me, to go anywhere, because they fear that the gang is still pursuing them. They stay in the rural village for the most part, and rarely go into the larger town nearby; they are always fearful that there will be someone who works for the gang there who will report their presence and they will then be afraid for their lives.  Occasionally someone will go into one of the smaller towns, but they stay away from the larger towns. They have two telephones that they use for about 12 people (normally in a family that large, all the adults and most of the teenagers would have their own phones), and they are very worried about anyone having their number, because the extortioners would be able to reach them and figure out where they are and then come and bother them or worse.  

As I sat in their sparely furnished home, on the one chair that wasn't completely falling apart, listening to one after another of the adults tell me about the extortions, it was hard to not feel complete despair. Their situation seemed so hopeless, like the Sartre play, "No Exit". What remedy did they have? Reporting to the police or Ministerio Público would expose them to retribution -- the police, for the most part, are unwilling to take action against the gangs, and so for many people there is little to be gained by reporting extortions, threats of violence or actual violence to the police, and much to lose.  

There are very few jobs in the area -- no large farmers or maquiladoras that hire people, and thus  few opportunities for paid work. The town government hires a few people but those jobs go to people with political ties to whatever party is running the local government. The small businesses in town -- and this true throughout the country, not just in this area -- rarely "hire" people but mostly depend upon relatives. Some of the wealthier families hire domestic workers but there is not enough of an elite to provide jobs for all the indigenous women and girls who might want to cook, clean, do laundry or take care of children. So the "job market", for all intents and purposes, barely exists.

 One of the younger generation became frustrated with the lack of an "opportunity structure" in the rural area and so decided to go back to the city. S/he went to a different neighborhood, thinking that this change of location might shield him/her from the gang that had terrorized the family earlier, but this was a false hope, and s/he found her/himself pursued by the same people, and if I remember correctly, was attacked, and decided to leave -- leave Guatemala, that is, and make the long journey north as an undocumented immigrant, hoping that some relatives who had already settled in the U.S. would at least be able to give him/her a starting point for a new life.

They told me that they had been in touch with some of their former neighbors in the city, and that the price of extortions had gone up. Instead of 200 quetzals a week, the gangs were now asking 300 quetzals a week -- a 33% increase. They said they thought that the reason that it had gone up was that the gangs used to hit up the bus drivers for money but since there had been a switch to fare cards (because there was so much extortion and so many murders of bus drivers), bus drivers were no longer a useful target as they didn't carry cash. And so the gangs had stepped up the pressure on the small businesses.

There was an awkwardness to the conversations, because it wasn't clear what good talking to me was going to do.  I was talking to them at the request of one of their relatives who no longer lives in Guatemala, and I was in some ways just a messenger.  So their stories would leave Guatemala with me, but I couldn't quite tell them what would happen next. I felt kind of helpless to do anything that would materially change their circumstances.  The first time I visited (I had to come twice, as one of the people to whom I was supposed to speak had been on a rare trip into town when I came over), they apologized for not having prepared a lunch for me, saying they didn't know what I wanted to eat, but I assured them that I had just eaten (which was true).  The second time, just as I was getting ready to leave, one of the family members handed me a small carton of fruit nectar that they had obviously purchased to have something to give to me.  I felt awful, in a way, that they had spent money buying something for me (and something that I don't drink). I didn't want to insult them by not accepting it, but I also didn't want to take something that they had purchased and then not actually drinking it, so I thanked them profusely but as I was already walking to my car, I said that I really had to leave because I needed to take care of some business (which was true) and that I hoped that one of them or one of the children would drink it for me. 

 Most of them seemed tense, on edge, with an air of deep sadness but also resignation. Where could they go to escape from this weight hanging over them? Anywhere in Guatemala, they would fear that the gang would come find them. They lacked the resources to get the entire family out of Guatemala, and so in Guatemala they would remain, it seems. Driving away was troubling; whatever everyday dangers there are in Guatemala, I was at least free from what one of the men had described to me as being trapped and constantly worrying that someone was coming to get them. 

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