SANTA LUCÍA UTATLÁN, Guatemala — The local government worker guided the bank representative around the parcel of land in this rural village in Guatemala, describing the dream home he envisioned rising from the dirt. He pointed out where the kitchen would be, and the bedrooms for his family. To make it a reality, all he needed was a loan from the bank.
At least, this was what he told the bank official. In truth, he was looking for cash to pay a smuggler to take him to the United States.
The ruse worked, and the bank, Banrural, one of Guatemala’s largest financial institutions, — approved a construction loan for about $5,700. Days later, the government worker sneaked across the southwest border of the United States with the help of a smuggler.
This is “the easiest way of achieving the American dream,” said the 30-year-old government worker, who now lives in New York and works in construction. He allowed only the publication of his middle name, Yovany, for fear of retribution from the bank.
In recent years, Guatemala has seen record levels of emigration as people, some fleeing violence and many others looking for a way out of poverty, head north with hopes of crossing into the United States.
Some prospective migrants raise the necessary smugglers’ fees from relatives. For others, bank loans are the ticket out.
The largely poor migrants take loans against their only possession of value, their land, assuming burdens that for many become overwhelming and lead to a downward spiral of debt and despair.
Within this financing ecosystem, no entity may be more central, or making more of a profit, than Banrural, a private institution with ties to the Guatemalan government that has received money from the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID. Its green-and-white storefronts have popped up in even the country’s most remote villages.
Many migrants seeking to make it to the United States have taken out Banrural loans on false pretenses to help pay for their trips, according to migrants, Guatemalan government officials, smugglers, academics and a former Banrural employee.
Some, like Yovany, claim an intent to develop their property. Others say they want to buy a piece of farming machinery. But the money instead goes straight into the hands of smugglers.
“Illegal immigration from rural Guatemala wouldn’t be possible without Banrural,” said David Stoll, an anthropology professor at Middlebury College in Vermont who studies debt and Guatemalan society. “Banrural is the de facto financier of migration to the United States.”
Officials at Banrural said the bank was a strictly law-abiding institution dedicated to the development of Guatemala’s rural interior and was not complicit in any misuse of loans by borrowers.
“Banrural only finances activities accepted by law,” said Edgar Guzmán Bethancourt, the bank’s general manager. “Any violation of this provision is an activity not accepted in any way by the bank.”
In recent years, Guatemala has been among the single largest sources of migrants apprehended along the southwest border of the United States, with most of them coming from rural, predominantly indigenous regions of the country. A series of escalating policy and enforcement measures in the United States, and, in recent months, Mexico, have made illegal migration more difficult.
But analysts say smugglers have used the stricter enforcement measures as a marketing tool for their services. And they have raised their prices accordingly.
In some cases, smugglers in Guatemala are now charging more than $16,000 to escort an undocumented migrant to the United States. That is a vast fortune for rural Guatemalans who often earn less than $1,000 per year.
Still, the demand for such services, and for the loans to pay for them, remains high.
Óscar, a migrant smuggler based in Santa Lucia Utatlán, a mountainous region of western Guatemala, said people were increasingly willing to pay the smugglers’ soaring fees because they knew they would have a better chance of making make it to the United States than going it alone.
“They’ll pay whatever it costs to get there,” he said, declining to give his full name out of fear for his safety.
As it is in many other places across Guatemala, migration is part of the cultural and economic fabric of the community in Santa Lucía Utatlán. Migration to the United States has drained the village of about 40 percent of its population, with the outflow accelerating in the past decade, said Santos Augusto Yac Joj, the town’s mayor.
Most have crossed into the United States illegally, and their families, as well as the town’s economy, are dependent on the remittances they send back.
Majestic, multistory houses perched on the surrounding mountain slopes stand in contrast to the humble abodes that otherwise characterize the village, and testify to the potential rewards of migration. They belong either to migrants working in the United States who financed their construction with remittances, or to the increasingly wealthy smugglers who helped get them there.
Several members of Yovany’s extended family — including two brothers, several cousins and an uncle — have taken out loans from Banrural in the past decade to finance their smuggler-assisted trips to the United States. Like Yovany, they falsely told the bank they needed the loan for some legal purpose in Guatemala, like building an extension on a home or buying a piece of farming equipment.
Some poor Guatemalans lack sufficient collateral or bank connections to secure a bank loan. And so they resort to an underworld of private, unregulated moneylenders who charge usurious rates, according to government officials as well as borrowers.
In one common process, largely dependent on mutual trust, the borrower gives his or her land title to a money lender in exchange for the loan. In a kind of legal charade known as a “simulation,” the two will visit a notary and testify under oath that the borrower has, in fact, sold their land title to the lender.
If the borrower successfully repays the loan, the lender sells the lands back to the borrower in another simulation.
Otherwise, the land becomes the property of the moneylender.
Sometimes, however, a pact is struck between the lender and borrower alone, with no notary, and its success is based on honor alone. But residents say moneylenders have the upper hand in these deals and commonly use threats of violence to enforce the repayment schedule.
One migrant from Sololá, now living in New York, said he paid a smuggler $12,000 with funds from a moneylender. He still owes half the amount. He said his wife, who remained behind in their Guatemalan village, was routinely threatened to force repayment of the loan.
“They come to my house and threaten my children on the street,” said his wife, who withheld her name out of fear for the family’s safety.
Some in the country are trying to fight loan sharking.
Santiago Tzapinel, a member of an indigenous governing council in Santa Lucía Utatlán, said unregulated loan systems were “bleeding the people.”
His council, and other such indigenous groups around the country, try to support borrowers by teaching them their rights and talking to lenders on their behalf to negotiate better terms. In some cases, they try to compel the most exploitative lenders to release borrowers from their agreements.
But these efforts can barely compete against the migrants’ desperation to find a way north, no matter how costly.
“People are always going to come here,” Yovany said. “Immigration will not diminish.”
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