David Stoll, El Norte or Bust!, Rowman & Littlefield, 2013, 281 pp., $32.95.
Why are all those unaccompanied minors coming here from Central America? El Norte or Bust! is an eye-opening–even astonishing–account of how indigenous Guatemalans live, why they come north, and what happens when they do. It was written before the latest wave of minors, but casts a pitiless light on the motives and methods of Central American peasants who take huge risks to get into the United States.
The author, David Stoll, is a far-far-left anthropologist at Middlebury College in Vermont. He would love to think of indigenous Guatemalans as noble creatures, faithful to ancient Mayan traditions, but he is too honest to paint them in false colors. These people are materialistic primitives, both gullible and exploitative, who treat women like cattle, and are incapable of building a modern society. Studying their antics may be great fun for academics, but these are obviously not people we want in our country.
Prof. Stoll has been doing research in Guatemala since the 1980s. He reports that probably one of every nine Guatemalans is in the US, most of them illegally. In 2010, they sent home $4.16 billion, which was the biggest source of foreign exchange. This shower of cash has produced a wave of mugging, robbery, and kidnapping. Since the legal system is corrupt, angry mobs lynch suspected criminals, usually by burning them to death.
There is very little public trust, and the country is riven by clans and kinship groups. No one cares about the greater interest, and politics is “a conspiracy to plunder public resources.”
In short, the country is a mess:
[A]ll fourteen million Guatemalans are at constant risk from collapsing infrastructure, corrupt officials, and out-of-control criminals. More and more have concluded not just that their country does not function very well, but that it will never function very well, not least because it is inhabited by each other, so they would prefer to leave. The national desire to escape is why the country’s leading newspaper, Prensa Libre, covers the U.S. immigration debate in greater detail than many American newspapers do, and why Guatemalan peasants are often better informed about the latest crackdown than Americans are. The annual flow of remittances from the United States has become an anxiously tracked index of national well-being. New schemes to escape Guatemala receive prominent coverage, spark rumors, and enrich scam artists who, in exchange for hefty fees, offer foreign visas that never come through.
Prof. Stoll has written several books about Guatemala. This one concentrates on the remote village of Nebaj, which is populated mainly by Amerindians, some of whom do not even speak Spanish. Its 20,000 people are mostly poor, and would consider themselves lucky to own a cow, though almost all have cell phones. Nebajenses, as they are called, have traditionally been subsistence corn farmers, and the women are known for brightly embroidered blouses. Prof. Stoll warns that his findings may not apply to the entire country, but he suspects they do.
Thanks to potable water and vaccinations, Guatemalan death rates have plummeted, but Indians, who make up about 40 percent of Guatemala’s population, still have six or seven children per woman. The population of the Nebaj area is an estimated five times greater than at the time of the Spanish conquest, so there is not enough land to go around. Everyone there has seen images of the United States on television, and is greedy for motorcycles, new houses, big-screen TVs, and money to splash around.
Curiously, one of the most durable signs of Western influence is Evangelical Christianity. As many as 60 percent of Nebajenses are Pentecostal, and Prof. Stoll writes that Christian music blares from boom boxes, adding to the already terrific din of people and motorbikes. Aid officials are disconcerted to find that these descendants of the Maya follow the religion that lefties despise the most, but Prof. Stoll thinks that “meeting several times a week to a tuneful beat and going into a mild trance” is probably harmless.
Traditional life in Nebaj was turned upside down by three things: a guerrilla war, the foreign aid that followed, and the United States. In the 1970s, a Marxist group set up a revolutionary force called the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, and some of the Nebaj locals joined up. The Guatemalan army came and burned whole villages in reprisal. After the fighting ended in 1983, the Nebaj area become a Mecca for foreign uplift artists of all sorts.
Everyone especially wanted to help the Indians. There were other indigenous areas that suffered as badly from the fighting, but Prof. Stoll thinks Nebaj got more than its share of aid because of the fancy blouses. Foreign aid whetted appetites for everything money can buy, and had the unintended effect of helping pay the coyotes who smuggled Nebajenses to America.
Prof. Stoll estimates that remittances from the United States probably doubled the cash income of Nebaj. Many of the Nebajenses who went to the United States in the 1990s did well, and came home flush with cash, but the riches were not equally distributed: “Garish mansions and cement high-rises tower over the traditional adobe homes and red-tile roofs.” People with dollars bought up farmland, and land prices spiked. All this provoked intense envy, and sent more Indians scampering north, just the US economy crashed in 2008. The result has been catastrophe for many Nebajenses, most of whom had borrowed heavily to pay the coyotes who took them north.
How migration works
Prof. Stoll lays to rest a few myths. It is not the poorest Guatemalans who come north, but the equivalent of the middle and upper-middle classes: “Guatemalan migrants are poverty-stricken [only] in relation to their rapidly-rising expectations.” They are certainly not fleeing government or insurgent violence, which ended 30 year ago, though they tell spectacular lies about imagined persecution if they think they can get refugee status. Nor does Prof. Stoll cite a single case of a Guatemalan who was fleeing crime; they all promise to come back after they make a bundle. As Prof. Stoll explains, “Nebaj seethes with schemes to acquire wealth,” and going north is a scheme that sometimes actually works.
At the time Prof. Stoll was writing, it cost a Guatemalan at least $5,000 in coyote fees to get into the United States. Where did households with an annual income of $1,500 get that kind of money? They borrowed it. Some mortgaged their houses or their land. Others borrowed from other Nebajenses, at the prevailing interest rate of 10 percent per month. Some of the money originated as “microcredits” at lower interest rates from government banks or aid organizations that thought they were funding small businesses.
Prof. Stoll found that coyotes are not an easy subject of study, but learned that it takes a whole network of them to get a Nebajense to Arizona. Specialties include smuggling Guatemalans into Mexico, getting them across Mexico to the US border, sneaking them across the border, and getting them to a safe house. The aspiring illegal pays $2,000 up front, and then has a family member pay the rest after he phones to say he has made it to the safe house. There is always the danger that coyotes will take the up-front money and abandon his pollos or “chickens” well short of the United States, but coyotes with bad reputations do not get repeat business.
There is so much money to be made in the coyote business that agents troll for customers and get a commission for everyone they sign up. Prof. Stoll finds that coyotes are not universally hated, since they provide a useful service. Coyotes, themselves, believe they are offering people the chance of a lifetime.
If Guatemalans are caught at the border, they lie to the Border Patrol and claim to be Mexican so they will be dumped back across the border rather than flown to Guatemala. Some coyotes offer as many as three tries to get across the border.
Most of the illegals are men, and once they are in the US, the idea is to send home as much money as possible, even if it means working long hours and living like an animal. Prof. Stoll writes that an immigrant might work one eight-hour shift at MacDonald’s, walk a mile to another MacDonald’s, and work another eight-hour shift. There may be four or more people to a bedroom, furnished with nothing but mattresses and a big-screen TV. Most of the men do not have bank accounts, and hate blacks, who sometimes rob them.
Prof. Stoll finds that Guatemalans prefer to work for whites, who usually treat them fairly. Koreans and Chinese exploit them ruthlessly, but the worst are their own people: “The ultimate in profitability is to turn one’s co-ethnics or co-nationals into a captive labor force.”
Most illegals get false documents, including a social security number. Often the numbers belong to real people. Prof. Stoll notes one case in which nine different Guatemalans were using the number of a man who was in prison. All wages registered to a social security number add to the benefits that are paid after retirement, so the prisoner was saving up nicely for old age.
Guatemalan illegals try to keep out of sight. Still, some are arrested for drunk driving, and they are used to living so noisily — “Americans live in silence,” says one — that angry neighbors call the police on them. Some come to the attention of authorities when they get a woman pregnant and discover to their horror that wages can be garnished for child support. An illegal who is deported before he has paid off the coyote debt is in a hole. In desperation, he may make another trip and dig himself a deeper hole. A Nabajense explains that if illegals die in a fight or a traffic accident, “The family expects money and gets a cadaver.”
Financing the trip
A lot of the money used to pay coyotes is diverted from “microcredits,” which were the favorite Third-World anti-poverty snake oil of the 1990s and 2000s. The idea was that peasants are brimming with entrepreneurial ideas, and stay poor only because they can’t get bank loans. For some reason, it was thought that most of these potential magnates were women, and that with loans of a few thousand or even a few hundred dollars they would start rabbit farms or restaurants. Part of the idea was that lending would go to “solidarity groups” of people who would not get any more money if any member of the group defaulted.
In 2006, the Bengali economist Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize as the godfather of this miracle cure for poverty. This was before it was learned that his Grameen Bank in Bangladesh had lied about high repayment rates and that borrowers hated “solidarity groups” because there were always deadbeats who shafted everyone else. “Solidarity groups” destroyed community instead of fostering it.
In 2008, Prof. Stoll counted no fewer than 23 different banks and non-profits offering microcredits, within a few minutes’ walk of the center of Nebaj. They lent money at 18 to 30 percent a year, which was an irresistible rate for people used to paying 10 or even 15 percent a month. Some Nebajenses borrowed from four or five different agencies, and walked out with tens of thousands of dollars. Much of that, of course, was spent on immediate consumption, but a lot of businesses were started too: Prof. Stoll notes that every conceivable business has now been started 10 times over, and there are not enough customers for any of them. Naturally, some Nebajenses borrowed at 18 to 30 percent a year, lent the money at 10 percent a month to people who wanted to go north, and tried to live off the spread.
It is hard to collect on microborrowers who don’t feel like paying. Also, aid organizations want to help poor Third-Worlders, not foreclose on houses. Nebajenses soon learned that microcredits didn’t always have to be repaid, and borrowed all the more. Why did any Nebajenses keep on borrowing at 10 or 15 percent a month? Some seem to have been more comfortable dealing with a cousin or neighbor they could get to at night in an emergency, and others wanted to avoid any transaction the tax authorities might learn about.
This system tottered along until the crash of 2008. Newly-arrived illegals could not find work. Illegals already in the country lost their jobs. Loan payments stopped. Faced with massive and embarrassing defaults, some of the foreign-aid lenders tried to get money back by foreclosing. That was when they learned that the same property might have been pledged to four different lenders, that many land titles were hopelessly clouded, and that Nebajenses were so used to stiffing lenders that they raised mobs to stop foreclosures. Property prices had collapsed anyway, so the collateral was not worth much. By 2012, there were a lot of shattered dreams in Nebaj, a lot of out-of-work coyotes, and a lot of aid organizations that were much poorer but apparently no wiser.
The people who run foreign aid programs in Guatemala are cut from the same far-lefty cloth as Prof. Stoll, so he tries to be nice to them, but they are clearly mooncalves. They show up believing all sorts of mush about “Mayan wisdom, harmony between genders, respect for nature, and consensual decision making.” Prof. Stoll adds that “because they are Native Americans, international donors would like to believe that they are guardians of the earth, keepers of ancient wisdom, and faithful defenders of their culture.” The uplift artists also have an openly political agenda that might surprise taxpayers back home: They hope that “with the help of aid projects, the Nebajenses would recover their vocation as a revolutionary vanguard . . . and help the Guatemalan left win elections.”
Aid bureaucrats share “the still widespread assumption that Native Americans are better persons than the rest of us, that they have a strong cultural disposition to place the interests of the group ahead of the interests of the individual, and that they are inherently communal and unselfish, at least until corrupted by Western civilization.” Indians have learned to tell the donors exactly the sort of Mayan nonsense that will make the money flow, but “inherently communal and unselfish” they are not. Aid projects set in motion what Prof. Stoll calls the “ruthless subterranean competition for the spoils of office,” and aid projects become self-enrichment schemes and patronage machines. If the uplift artists ever tumble to how ruthlessly materialistic and competitive their darlings are, they blame it on neo-liberal capitalism or right-wing oppressors. Prof. Stoll confesses that he, too, once had similar illusions.
Aid is like a drug, and Prof. Stoll finds that Nebajenses have become “accustomed to crafting their problems into aid appeals.” It’s all mysterious and magical, and they end up believing that “someone else–wealthy foreigners or maybe God–will rescue their children from being paupers.” Many can’t tell the difference between aid and a swindle.
Smooth talkers come to town, claiming to represent organizations with fancy names and intimate connections abroad. Instead of irrigation systems or new roofs, which is typical aid-industry fare, they promise something even more mouth-watering: a pile of money. However, there are various expenses that must be met before the money arrives, and the suckers are fleeced and strung along–sometimes with evenings of fervent prayer–for as long they stay gullible. Prof. Stoll writes of one hoax that promised brand-new houses; at least one man tore down his old house in anticipation of the new one that never came.
Although some swindlers are run out of town or lynched, some probably believe their own baloney. Prof. Stoll has found what he calls a cargo-cult conviction that big checks materialize simply as a result of Western bureaucratic rituals. The magic of aid seems to encourage belief in more ancient kinds of magic.
Zahorins are traditional witch doctors, many of whom are also swindlers. They promise riches to anyone who walks up to the rim of the sacred volcano Almolonga–so long as he makes regular payments to propitiate the spirits. Drinking in honor of the gods is a Mayan tradition, and drunks are easier to fleece. Some zahorins specialize in sleight-of-hand. They pretend to turn a small bill into two small bills, and then promise to do the same thing with a huge wad of cash. The sucker mortgages his farm at 10 percent per month and puts several thousand dollars into the hands of the zahorin, who disappears.
Prof. Stoll writes bemusedly about women who have been taken in by three or four different zahorin. He speculates that the wave of greed that swept through Nebaj when some people started getting remittances from America has made people easier marks for fraud.
“Because anthropologists defend the legitimacy of indigenous cultures,” Prof. Stoll writes delicately, “we have been slow to focus on the second-class status of Mayan women.” Second-class? Prof. Stoll gets more specific: “What women expect from marriage is drunkenness, brutality, and betrayal.”
Life is terrible for Guatemalan women and migration makes it worse. Prof. Stoll estimates that about half of the men who go north leave behind a family or a pregnant girlfriend. If a Guatemalan illegal finds a new woman in the United States, he stops answering his cell phone or sending money, even if he has a crop of children and a pile of debt. The wife has to decide whether to give up on him and try to scrape up another man. She may have to sell the house to pay off coyote debt, or may send a son or a brother north to start the cash flow back up–which requires yet more coyote debt. It is taken for granted that when a man dumps a wife he also dumps the children.
Few women make the trip north. Someone has to stay home with the children, and they are afraid of being raped by coyotes. A single woman who shows up among sex-starved Guatemalan men in America is likely to be raped or at least so heavily pressured for sex that she has to marry someone. She then gets pregnant, and can no longer work to pay off her debt.
There does not appear to be formal prostitution among the Indians, but many unmarried women have sex in the hope of money and favors. A common seduction trick is for a man to promise a girl he will take her to America for the dream life, and unload her after he gets what he wants.
Sordid behavior drifts north. Prof. Stoll writes of a girl who was married at age 11 or 12–which is not uncommon–to a man twice her age. He died, of causes unknown, and she took up with another man. At age 14, she got herself smuggled into the US, and had coyote sex along the way. She ended up in Florida, and gave birth, unassisted, in an immigrant apartment, bled a lot, and had to go to the emergency room. Her dead baby was found in the apartment, with a wad of tissue stuffed down its throat, and she spent 18 months in jail on murder charges. She got so much sympathetic media coverage that a judge threw out the case, and she was adopted by Americans, who sent her to high school.
Prof. Stoll thinks that having lots of children is how Nebaj women feel “empowered,” although most of them are bringing mouths into the world they can’t feed. They put children to work around the house and on the farm at about age 10, and most get very little education. Women still think that children will support them in old age, but Prof. Stoll sees nothing but poverty for everyone. He calls reckless procreation “a reproductive pyramid scheme,” but notes that none of the aid organizations pushes contraception.
Prof. Stoll wrote his book too soon to have anything to say about the latest rush for the border, but we can figure out what is probably happening. The local press no doubt reported all the high hopes for amnesty–Prof. Stoll notes that rumors of amnesty are always big news. Word got out that only minors from Mexico and Canada were being sent home without a hearing before an immigration judge that might not take place for years, and that in the meantime, illegals got free medical treatment and education. Coyotes drummed up flagging business by lying freely about permisos that are supposed to let minors stay in America.
All this has no doubt resulted in plenty of coyote debt. Most of these minors are young men in their late teens, and are probably under orders to get jobs as soon as they can. If they hit the jackpot and get amnesty, they will no doubt bring their families over as quickly as possible.
Where does all this lead? Prof. Stoll thinks that sealing the border is a violation of human rights, but he does confess to have lost a few illusions. He used to think that the biggest obstacle facing illegal Guatemalans was racist white folks. Now he realizes that it is their own people who milk them mercilessly and that there aren’t enough jobs for everyone who wants to come. He dreams wistfully of the day when the capitalist system comes crashing down, but is not so stupid as to think that would usher in utopia. He concludes in good, lefty fashion, by warning his readers that come the crash, Guatemalan subsistence farmers may survive better than urban Americans.
Prof. Stoll refuses to draw obvious conclusions, so I will: Indigenous Guatemalans are a miserable lot who have no business in our country; they come for one reason–to make money–and will lie and cheat to get here and stay here; the main thing foreign aid does is whet the appetite for more foreign aid; aid programs are run by dopes.
Prof. Stoll has written a very useful and illuminating book.