Guatemalan Ambassador: Violence Not the Cause of Children's Exodus

Disputing the notion that violence is a major reason for the recent surge in the exodus of Guatemalan children to the U.S. border, the Guatemalan ambassador to the United States cited three factors that draw them northward: a desire to be with their parents, a lack of opportunities at home, and the aggressive recruitment of smugglers who guarantee parents that they will receive their children.

Appearing on the Univision Sunday talk show "Al Punto", Ambassador Julio Ligorria rejected host Jorge Ramos's suggestion that the children were fleeing increased gang violence. While gang violence may be a major push factor in the flight of children from El Salvador, Ligorria said, Guatemalan children are fleeing primarily from areas in the north of Guatemala, far away from the eastern part of the country where gang violence has been concentrated.

"So violence is not the reason," Ligorria said. "It's essentially a matter of lack of opportunities, of trying to reach the American dream, but also to achieve family reunification. Many of the parents of these children are in the United States, and the children go to find them."

Ligorria also cited the role of smugglers, known as "coyotes" in the crisis. "The coyotes are taking advantage of the circumstances and conditions," he said, observing that they guarantee parents the safe delivery of their children. Ligorria said he is not certain how much the coyotes charge but that he has heard figures between $5,000 and $7,000 per child.

Ramos and Ligorria did not discuss an issue that has become one of the most controversial aspects of the border crisis: the widely reported assertion —made by many Central Americans who have been detained by the Border Patrol and placed in shelters — that the U.S. policy of "catch and release" is inducing many people to head to the U.S. border.

Ligorria said Guatemala has a three-pronged strategy to confront the crisis: reintegration of children who are returned to Guatemala, education of parents and children about the dangers of the journey, and protection for children and parents provided by a consular corps that has just been authorized to increase the number of consulates to 12.

Guatemala now has 10 U.S. consulates — in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Phoenix, and Providence.

Ligorria said that with the new consulates, Guatemala's consular representation in the United States will be exceeded only by Mexico, which has some 50 consulates in the United States.