SAN ANTONIO, Guatemala Surrounded by green fields of potatoes, oats and corn on his small farm, Carlos Lopez recalled the decent money he was earning before last year,cultivating a different crop he referred to simply as the plant."
The plants,oneswith the bright red flowers, are worth a lot more than these other crops, Lopez said, wearing a blue baseball hat, sitting on a plastic chair behind his two-room,mud-splattered house.
Amapola, said Lopez, speaking the Spanish word for poppy.
SAN ANTONIO, Guatemala Poppies in a Guatemalan field in June 2018. Locals say narco gangs sometimes take advantage of impoverished farmers, encouraging them to grow poppies to seed the heroin trade.Nick Oza, USA TODAY Network
For years, Mexican drug cartels persuaded poor indigenous farmers in the western highlands of Guatemala to replace their crops with poppies. The plants produce a milky fluid used to make heroin, although farmers were often told the plant was used to produce medicine.
The Guatemalan government, under pressure from the United States, then came in and eradicated the poppy fields. With no other high-value crop to replace the poppies, and no program available to help replacefarmers' income, the crackdown shoved indigenous farmers such as Lopez and his familyback into poverty.
The loss of poppy revenue is just one of many reasons Guatemalans have poured across the border by the thousands into the United States. This year,more migrantshave come from Guatemala than any other country, as family members, unaccompanied children or single adults.
People are fleeing widespread government corruption, poverty and violence.Six in 10 Guatemalans live in poverty, and more than 50% of the country's poor are indigenous people, according to the World Bank. Twenty percent of Guatemala's population lives in extreme poverty. Indigenous communities are most affected by poverty, with 79% living in poverty, on less than $5.50 a day,and 40% living in extreme poverty, on less than $1.90 a day.
But some are also arriving because of thedangerous, profitable flower that wasforced intoand then ripped out oftheir lives.
Most of the Guatemalans coming to the U.S. are from the countrys western highlands, which border the southern tip of Mexico, according to experts who study the region. The area is known for its breathtaking scenery and volcanic mountains, including 13,945-foot Tajumulco, the highest volcano in Central America. It also has the worst poverty in Guatemala.
Salvador Alexander Juarez Velasquez oversees the National Police for Ixchiguan, Tajumulco and San Jose Ojetenam in the department of San Marcos.
The government's declaration of a state of emergency, called theestado de sito, was an excellent idea, the police chief said.The amapola created disputes, as farmers fought over water to irrigate their crops. The disputes sometimes turned violent, he said.
Now its more peaceful here, the police chief said.
But the peace came at a cost.By June, he was seeing it all the time:People selling everything and trekking north.
I dont really know how many families have left, but its a lot, said Juarez Velasquez. The poppy "was the main source of income for them.
We got rid of the drug problem, but replaced it with another problem, he said.
The region has long been neglected by the federal government, because it is the farthest away from Guatemala City, the capital, Juarez Velasquez said.
SAN ANTONIO, Guatemala San Antonio is a small village in the western highlands of Guatemala. Carlos Lopez lives there with his family.Nick Oza, USA TODAY Network
He said the region also has been completely overlooked for a long time by the powerful group of business owners who control most investment and economic development in Guatemala. He blames the neglect on institutional racism against the local indigenous Mayan people.
Poppy farming gave poor farmers an economic self-sufficiency they couldn't have found in Guatemala. That opportunity turned the green hills of the western highlands bright red, as poppy flowers spread.
With profits from growing poppy, neighbors pooled their money to buy cobblestones to pave the rutted dirt roads that were impassable every time it rained hard, Lopez, the farmer, said.
Then last year, Lopez said, everything changed. Police and soldiers sent by the federal government came in and cut down all of the poppy plants. Lopez and the other farmers in this region returned to growing potatoes and other crops.
Lopez figures he was making about 5,000 quetzales a year, or about $650, growing poppy plants on one 5,000-square-foot cuerda.That was three or four times as much as a cuerda of potatoes.
At one point, Lopez estimates, 75 percent of the six cuerdas on his farm were dedicated to growing poppy plants. He wasnt getting rich. But the money was enough to buy food, clothes, medicine and school supplies for his wife and their three young children.
The loss of revenue from growingpoppies was the main reason Lopez decided to leaveand join the huge wave of Guatemalans migrating to the U.S.
Because there is no work here. There is no income, Lopez said. And now they took away the poppy. These potatoes are hardly worth anything.
In June, Lopez planned to bring along one of his three sons to the U.S. He heard from others in his village who migrated earlier that "some sort of law" allowed parentstoenter legally if they arrived at the border with children andthatimmigration authorities would take them to whatever state they wanted.
Lopez also had heard that as long as these parents showed up for their immigration court hearings, they could stay in the U.S. and work while their kids went to public school for free, a bonus becausein Guatemala, attending school after sixth grade costs money.
"They say this way you don't have to risk going through the desert," Lopez said. "With this law, they are letting us enter."
No such law exists. In reality, U.S. immigration authorities, as ofSept. 9,had released more than226,400migrant family members acrossthe U.S.because of a lack of detention capacity to hold them even temporarily, reinforcing the false perception that undocumentedparents with children were being allowed to enterthe U.S.and remain.
Lopez said he still hadnt made up his mind which son to bring. At first he said the second oldest wanted to go. Lopez leaned down and scrawled the 12-year-old boys name in the dirt: Yeyso Deybi.
But Lopez said he was leaning toward bringing the oldest son, 15-year-oldSaudy Fernando. The youngest, 8-year-old CarlosJr., was too young, Lopez said.
His plan: Find work in the United States andthen send some of his earningshome to his wife, Marcilina, 33, and their remaining two children.
Lopez's story partially explains the unprecedented wave of Central Americans migrating to the U.S., and crossing the border illegally to seek refuge.
Through August of this fiscal year,Border Patrol agents have apprehended 811,016 migrants. Of those about a third were from Guatemala.
Most of the migrants from Guatemala are arriving as families or unaccompanied minors.
Through August of the current fiscal year, the Border Patrol apprehended 457,871 migrants arriving as family units, a 406 percent increase from the previous year. Of those, almost 40% came from Guatemala, the largest share of any country.
Another 72,873 unaccompanied minors were apprehended by the Border Patrol through August, 40%of them from Guatemala.
The western highlands mostly indigenous Mayan population also has been hurt economically by climate change-induced drought, said U.S. Rep. Norma Torres, a Democrat from California who was born in Guatemala. The drought has especially hurt coffee crops, forcing farmers and laborers to look for work in the U.S. to feed their families, Torres said. She founded the Central America Caucus in the U.S. House to address the root causes of migration.
Coffee is one of the crops that grow there, and those types of jobs have sustained families but coffee rust, the disease that has affected the crops in the region, has really caused a lot of these farmers to go under and some of those jobs are no longer available because of the impact of the weather patterns there and this disease, she said.
She blames Guatemalas federal government for perpetuating the regions deep-seated poverty by failing to respond to the needs of the rural indigenous Mayan population. The area also bore the brunt of Guatemalas 36-year civil war, which killed more than 200,000 before ending in 1996.
A two-tiered system exists in Guatemala, where the indigenous population is looked down upon and they are marginalized.So when there is no access to justice, when there is no access to very basic infrastructure or jobs that is what folks from these reasons are citing as the reasons they are leaving, Torres said.
Most of Guatemalas problems driving illegal immigration tothe U.S. stem from deeply entrenched political corruption, she said. But the Trump administration, she said, looked the other way when current Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, facing corruption allegations of his own, tried to shut down a U.N.-backed commission established in 2006 to battle corruption in the country. Morales' term ends at the end of 2019.
We have empowered these very corrupt leaders by not holding them accountable for the things they are doing or for what they are not doing, Torres said.
The Guatemalan governments neglect of the western highlands has made it easy for criminal organizations and drug cartels from neighboring Mexico to move into the area, said Adriana Beltran, director for citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America.
As you get closer to the border, there is also the lack of real state presence in these areas, so you have a greater presence of criminal organizations that are just able to take over these regions. That includes cartels, Beltran said.
Supported by funding from the United States, the Guatemalan government has in recent yearstried to stamp out poppy production in the western highlands.
Guatemalan authorities reported seizing 80 hectares, or nearly 200 acres, of poppy plants during the first 10 months of 2018, according to a March 2019 report by the U.S. State Departments Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
In February 2018, Guatemalan soldiers and police officers destroyed 31 million poppy plants worth $105 million in two municipalities in the department of San Marcos, according to Dialogo, a U.S. Southern Command-website covering U.S. military cooperation and collaborationin Latin America.
Guatemalan soldiers and police eradicated 10 million poppy plants worth $33 million in 23 communities in the department of San Marcos during a mega operation that took place between July and August 2018, according to Dialogo.
One of those communities includes San Antonio, where Lopez lives.
"Here there is nothing," Lopez said. "And there in the United States, there are opportunities to work."
But his plan hit a snag.
In June, under pressure from the Trump administration, Mexico began aggressively intercepting and deporting Central Americans caughttraveling toward the U.S. without documents.
Lopez heard about the crackdown on the newsand interpreted it to mean that the U.S. had closed the border to parents arriving with children.
"That's what we heard, that they've closed the border and they aren't letting people enter," Lopez said. "That's what I want to know. Is it the same as last year or have they shut the border?"
He decided to put his plan to travel to the U.S. on hold. As of September, he was still in Guatemala.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 602-444-8312. Follow him on Twitter @azdangonzalez. Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.
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A dangerous red flower is driving record numbers of migrants to flee Guatemala - USA TODAY