PANZÓS, Guatemala — The team of nutritionists looked at 11-month-old Dilcia Cajbon, her ribs visible through her skin, and they knew immediately.
“Severe acute malnutrition,” said Stefany Martinez, the leader of the UNICEF team, as the child was lifted onto a scale.
Like many in this rural stretch of Guatemala, Dilcia’s family was down to one meal a day. Storms had flooded the nearby palm plantation, the biggest source of local employment. To eke out what little the family had to eat, Dilcia’s mother had held off on giving her youngest child solid food.
As more and more Central American families arrive at the United States’ southern border, the municipality of Panzós offers a stark illustration of the deepening food crisis that is contributing to the new wave of migration.
This year, more unaccompanied minors processed by immigration agents are from Guatemala than any other country. Analysts and U.S. officials refer obliquely to “poverty” as an underlying cause of that influx. But often the reason is far more specific: hunger.
“What we hear is, ‘If I can’t get food on my table, what am I doing here?’ ” said Ana María Méndez, Oxfam’s Guatemala director.
Guatemala now has the sixth-highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world. The number of acute cases in children, according to one new Guatemalan government study, doubled between 2019 and 2020.
The crisis was caused in part by failed harvests linked to climate change, a string of natural disasters and a nearly nonexistent official response. Supply-chain disruptions then led to a spike in prices. The cost of beans in Guatemala went up 19.6% last year, according to the World Food Program.
In interviews with migrants preparing to leave Guatemala and others who have recently arrived in the United States, the majority mentioned food insecurity as a significant factor in their decisions to leave. In Indigenous communities in the western highlands, where a disproportionate number of people are leaving, the chronic child malnutrition rate hovers around 70%, higher than any country in the world.
“When we stopped working, we stopped eating,” said Guillermo Chub, from the village of Tinajitas in Panzós, who plans to emigrate in the coming months.
Chub said he lost his job on the palm plantation late last year when the Polochic River flooded, destroying the farmland on either side of it. The federal government sent food that lasted only one day. As his family reduced their daily meals from three to two to one, he decided it was time to head to the United States.
Panzós was one of the municipalities prioritized by the Obama administration and the Guatemalan government in 2015, when the United States tried to deter a previous wave of migration. President Barack Obama created a $1 billion aid package that was meant to tackle the root causes of migration, including food insecurity.
But the malnutrition rate here — and across Guatemala — has increased since that aid effort was implemented. The collective impact of hurricanes, droughts, an economic contraction and a government seemingly unconcerned with inequality has far outstripped any piecemeal development efforts.
“At this pace, it will require 100 years for Guatemala to eradicate chronic malnutrition,” said Carlos Carrera, the country director for UNICEF.
In a new report, the World Food Program predicts that 428,000 Guatemalans will have reached a “Phase 4” level of food-insecurity emergency this year — the highest before famine.
Aid groups are trying to prevent that. When the UNICEF team identified malnourished children such as Dilcia in Panzós last week, it gave the families packages of special supplementary food. But it would be up to the Guatemala Health Department to follow up on those cases, which, in remote parts of the country, was improbable.
Now, as the Biden administration prepares to launch its own $5 billion aid package aimed at reducing migration from Central America, U.S. officials are discovering anew how deeply rooted the causes are. Even as Guatemala’s gross domestic product has grown, its malnutrition rate has continued to rise. Last year, the pandemic thrust an additional 1 million Guatemalans into poverty, according to the World Bank.
In the department of Quiché, farmers said their harvests last year were devastated by a historic drought. The cost of fertilizer had risen. Movement restrictions during the pandemic meant farmers could not find day labor jobs to make up for those losses.
“We went days without eating,” said Juan Hernandez, 45, who is planning to leave his village of Xix in the coming days. “Sometimes we just shared tortillas.”
A smuggler is charging $15,000 to take Hernandez and his 19-year-old daughter to Florida, he said. He did not have a “single dollar,” but he would borrow the money at interest from friends already living and working in the United States.
With increasingly easy access to smugglers and the loans to pay them, many here now consider the risks of migration against a worsening standard of living. Even the country’s poorest people can secure the means of migration — albeit through predatory lenders and often exploitative smuggling networks. Many have friends or relatives who have made the trip successfully, sending WhatsApp messages touting their new jobs.
In Guatemala’s highlands, large homes paid for by those already in the United States — what some scholars call “remittance architecture” — are daily reminders of the upside of migration. But they’ve also created a new dynamic in rural Guatemala, where a growing divide has emerged between those mired in poverty and malnutrition and those, sometimes living just yards away, who have entered a kind of middle-class life through American wages.
“They say you get a job within two days to a week,” Hernandez said. “Some work in the fields, others in construction.”
In the northwestern town of Cuilco last year, an unprecedented snowstorm wiped out acres of cornfields, devastating the area’s labor market and its source of food in a single blow. Celso, 16, had a conversation with his father as the family of five struggled to piece together three meals a day. As the oldest son, he was seen as bearing responsibility for the family.
“We both decided that I should go to help,” he said.
Celso arrived in South Florida in January. He owed his smuggler $8,000, so he began cutting plywood at a construction site for $10.50 per hour, rather than attending high school. He’s studying English at night.
Other children had responded to that same calculus.
“I came because we didn’t have anything to eat,” 12-year-old Oscar told an Agence France-Presse videographer through tears last week after crossing the Rio Grande.
He walked along a dirt road with a group of other children and families, all seeking to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents.