Abandoned: gangs in Guatemala replace families – photo essay

小号ince she arrived in Guatemala City a few decades ago, she has lived in the same humble home. Between bare concrete walls and under a tin roof, she raised three children. Now Berenice is raising her 15-year-old grandson since his mother left for the US and his father was murdered.

The teenager’s mother sometimes sends some money but “money cannot replace a mother”, Berenice says.

The boy has begun to hang out with gang members in his neighbourhood and has started to commit crimes, such as trafficking in marijuana. Berenice does not see herself as able to keep her grandson out of trouble any more.

Thousands of Guatemalans attempt to cross into the US each year. 在 2019, 关于 285,000 were detained by border police, according to US government data – the highest number of people from any country. But migration affects not only those who leave, but those who stay. Thousands of children and adolescents in the Central American triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are growing up without parents.

According to a recent report by the Inter-American Development Bank, half of migrants leave their children behind, handing responsibility for parenting to grandparents or older siblings. In some cases, children end up alone on the streets.

Faced with loneliness and abandonment, many young people look to gangs to replace family they have lost. Gangs offer them security and the chance to be part of a group.

According to the InSight Crime foundation, gangs are social as well as criminal organisations: they seek to create a collective identity, a place of protection and support for members.

A gang member would kill to defend their “neighbourhood” or any of his gang “brothers”. Over the years, these gangs have made the region one of the world’s most dangerous.

关于 80% 的 3,578 killings recorded in the country in 2019 were attributed to gangs in a country with a population of just 18 million. 去年, the department that covers Guatemala City and the surrounding areas alone recorded 826 killings.

Despite numerous public security operations backed by different governments, gangs have continued to grow. According to various human rights organisations, rather than solving the problem, these operations have worsened the problem because they have no policy on how to reintegrate gang members back into society.

Gang violence is one of the main reasons why many emigrate, reinforcing a vicious circle. Berenice says: “It is the price of migration, but a child cannot grow up without his family. They left to make money but, in the end, we pay a high price.”