GUATEMALA CITY — As tens of thousands of Guatemalans try to make their way to the United States every month, a much smaller group of Central Americans escaping violence and persecution have ended their journey here, seeking refuge in a country from which others are fleeing.
Until recently, they were an aberration. That may soon change, and the prospects are not good.
Last month, the United States and Guatemala signed a "safe third country" agreement, with plans to send thousands of Central American asylum seekers to Guatemala - one of the poorest countries in the Americas. For the tiny refugee community already here, it was an absurd proposition - and one that turned their experiences into a litmus test for Guatemala's capacity as a safe haven.
Some have struggled to feed themselves while they waited for legal status. Others endured frequent threats and watched as their neighbors were murdered or attacked.
"We arrived here more than a year ago, and we're still waiting for help. We don't have work permits. We are still waiting for the asylum people to get back to us," said Carolina Chavez, 29. She fled to Guatemala last August with her husband, Cesar Arauz, 32, and their 3-year-old son, Jourhen, after being attacked by Nicaraguan security forces for participating in an anti-government protest.
In the past year, Guatemala has received 226 asylum claims. Of those, not a single one has been processed, according to the government. The country's asylum agency has eight employees.
Between October 2018 and July, about 300,000 Salvadorans and Hondurans traveled through Guatemala on their way to the U.S. border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. Even if only a fraction of them are sent to Guatemala to apply for refuge, it would increase the number of asylum applications here by a large multiple.
It is a challenge impoverished Guatemala is not prepared to handle, said Alejandro Giammattei, the country's newly minted president-elect. "If we do not have the capacity for our own people, just imagine other people," said Giammattei, who has been critical of the safe third country agreement.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) typically helps asylum seekers pay for their first three months of rent, but then they are left largely on their own. Without work permits - and even with them - they often fail to find jobs. That has left some homeless or only able to afford apartments in Guatemala City's most dangerous neighborhoods, known as zonas rojas, or red zones.
Most of the asylum seekers interviewed by The Washington Post said they felt safer here than in their native countries. Those threatening them at home had not followed them to Guatemala, they said. But finding work and shelter - and receiving formal asylum status - was so difficult that they faced a range of new threats after arriving.
Most could think of only one solution: to leave Guatemala. In recent years, a large number of asylum seekers have abandoned their cases before they were resolved.
For several months, after their U.N. stipend ran out, Chavez and Arauz stayed in an unfinished apartment building without a door on the edge of Guatemala City. One night, their neighbor, who was also squatting in the building, was murdered. They could hear the screams through the wall.
The couple moved out the next morning. Eventually, they found a room they could rent for about $100 per month. But to afford that expense, the family sometimes goes days without food.
"What we see here is that asylum seekers and refugees are basically ignored. They are not given what they need to live with any kind of dignity," said Juan Luis Carbajal, who helps run the Ministry of Human Mobility, which works with UNHCR to provide for the country's pool of asylum seekers.
One of the men who came to Carbajal's organization was a Colombian man who was shot in Guatemala City - by associates of the gang he had fled back home, he claimed. Others have had to move every few months to evade threats of violence.
When he heard about the prospect that the United States would start sending thousands of asylum seekers here, Carbajal was aghast.
"The idea that these people can find refuge here is a lie," he said. "Even with a small group of refugees, we've seen the government's inability and unwillingness to help. What happens when that number skyrockets?"
Jose Antonio Guardado, 60, was the former interim mayor of a small municipality in El Salvador called Mejicanos. He says he refused to cave to the demands of local gangs - as a politician and when he worked at a microfinance organization. The gangs responded by killing members of his family, one by one. By 2016, two of his children had been murdered and another had been kidnapped and was never seen again.
"I knew I needed to leave, but I didn't know where to go," he said. "I'd seen the stories about how dangerous it is to migrate to the United States, all the people dying in the desert. So I decided to stay here."
Since arriving here in 2017, Guardado has struggled to find a job that would help him afford food and rent. He and his son, Jahdiel, 23, who later joined him, were bombarded with threats, accused both by civilians and government officials in Guatemala of being members of MS-13, the very gang they fled.
"We're going to kill all the Salvadorans," a young man told Jahdiel when he was working the night shift last month, he said. Jahdiel works as a private security guard.
Eventually, Guardado found work selling cemetery plots. He and Jahdiel share a one-bedroom apartment on the edge of Guatemala City. Guardado writes an unpaid column for a local newspaper called "La Hora," enumerating the ways in which Guatemala mistreats its tiny refugee community.
His most recent column, published on Aug. 3, ran with the headline: "The Government of Guatemala Violates the Human Rights of Migrants." He addressed the safe third country deal and the promise that Guatemala would be able to handle the influx of asylum seekers.
"Migrants are not guinea pigs to be used as experiments," he wrote.
Guardado often wears his refugee identification card around his neck, ready to show proof of his legal status to anyone who asks. He has been stopped multiple times by police, he said, who told him, "That thing isn't valid here."
The United Nations is concerned about how Guatemala's refugee agency would handle a sudden surge of new cases.
"There is clearly a lot of work that remains to be done for Guatemala's asylum system to be able to provide full protection and inclusion for asylum seekers. The related institutions have only had to deal with a very limited number of asylum seekers to date," said Giovanni Bassu, UNHCR's regional representative for Central America. "The country has, however, made progress in a number of areas, including granting asylum seekers the right to work."
Officials at the Guatemalan asylum agency said they had not been informed about how the agency would adapt to a surge in cases.
"We do not have details of the agreement. The authorities have not yet informed us, therefore we do not know how it would work," said Alejandra Mena, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Acting U.S. homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan told The Post earlier this month that the agreement would be "a phased and measured approach to implementation that will not overwhelm Guatemalan resources and will be supported by U.S.-funded international organization capacity."
One 31-year-old Honduran asylum seeker, who requested anonymity because he fears for his safety, described how he had bounced between sleeping on floors and shelters since fleeing, after receiving death threats from a Honduran gang in 2016.
His first landlord in Guatemala tried to sexually assault him, he said. After 14 months, he received a work permit, "but whenever I apply for a job, people look at me like, 'Oh, you're Honduran, you must be a gangster.' "
DHS officials have said the policy would begin with the return of single men, before single women and families are included in the plan. Privately, U.S. officials say they think that many Central Americans will choose to return home instead of applying for asylum in Guatemala.
"If the government can't make it work for 400 people, how are they going to do it for 25,000?" said Carbajal.