Behind the walls of export-processing zones in Mixco and Villa Nueva on the outskirts of Guatemala City, apparel workers assemble, sew, label, inspect, and iron millions of garments, packing them in cartons bound for the United States. For more than 30 years, Guatemala’s maquilas have been a hub of the global economy; but lately, these plants have been the center of a much darker story.
They’ve become the prime targets of the maras, gangs of criminals that are flourishing in this Central American nation.
Terrorized workers at one large maquila in Mixco with nearly 5,000 employees are required to pay a “tax” of 20 quetzales ($2.50) every two weeks—2 percent of the average monthly salary for a worker who earns $250 a month—or face beatings or worse. After one worker refused to pay, according to one employee interviewed for this story, “He was found dead on a street near the industrial park, killed by a gunshot to the head.”
Maquilero workers are not the only victims of Guatemala’s gangland economy. Small business owners, street vendors and transit workers have all been the targets of mara protection rackets. Since 2006, according to Guatemala’s Procurador de los Derechos Humanos (Office of the Human Rights Prosecutor), 617 bus drivers and 199 assistants have been murdered when they refused to pay protection money to racketeers. Transport workers, who carry cash on board, are among the most endangered in the country.
According to a 2010 survey commissioned by Guatemala’s Comité de Asociaciones Agrícolas, Comerciales, Industriales y Financieras (Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations—cacif), 14 of Guatemala’s 34 professional associations have reported extortion attempts against their employees.
Gangsterism is apparently reaping huge profits. Luis Gómez, of the Gremial de Empresarios del Transporte Urbano (Union of Urban Transport Employees), estimates that gangs can earn up to 11 million quetzales ($1.4 million) each year from extortion activities.
And the endemic violence associated with gang activities is one of the prime reasons why Guatemala has the highest murder rate in the world. In 2012, according to UN statistics, the rate stood at 34.2 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.
The extortion economy victimizes the poorest Guatemalans. Many are targeted when their directors refuse to pay taxes to maras. And unlike their bosses, workers can’t afford the services of a private security company.
At the same time, extortion-related violence may be linked to efforts to repress labor unions. Labor activists say that attacks against trade unionists cannot simply be attributed to a breakdown in state security. They accuse employers of actively working with the police or the maras to shut down unions.
José Gabriel Zelada, director of the Centro de Apoyo al Desarrollo Local (Center for Studies and Support for Local Development—CEADEL), an NGO that assists maquila employees in Chimaltenango, claims that maquila bosses sometimes gather employees thought to belong to mara organizations and threaten to fire them if any unions are formed. Then, “it’s up to [the mareros] to see what they have to do [to keep their jobs],” Zelada says.
After former Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz’ 1954 ouster, 2,000 Guatemalan trade union leaders were forced into exile. Since then, the labor movement has been a key target of state repression, its members facing systematic killings, forced disappearances and torture. A decade after the 1996 Peace Accords, the country still had one of the lowest unionization rates in Latin America, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).
As of January 2013, at least 64 trade unionists had been murdered in Guatemala since 2007. In February 2012, Miguel Angel González Ramírez, a member of the Sindicato de Trabajadores Bananeros de Izabal (Banana Workers Union of Izabal—SITRABI), was shot dead with his child in his arms by unknown assailants.
Though killings still make headlines, much of the union suppression in Guatemala these days is more subtle. According to a 2008 report by Guatemala’s Office of the Human Rights Prosecutor, maquila owners sometimes opt to close factories where unions have formed and then re-open their maquila under another name and in another place.
As a result, very few unions have emerged in Guatemala’s apparel sector, and even fewer have succeeded in sustaining their union activities.
Meanwhile, impunity for crimes against trade unionists—and crime in general— remains a major problem in Guatemala. According to figures from the Policía Nacional Civil (National Civil Police—PNC), 95 percent of all homicides committed between 2008 and 2010 were not prosecuted.
Those who do end up behind bars are imprisoned in deplorable conditions, where criminal bosses continue to exert control.
According to the director of the national prison system, Eddy Morales, 80 percent of the extortion activity
in Guatemala is organized from within the country’s main prisons—“El Boquerón,” “Pavoncito,” “Infiernito Escuintla,” and the Zone 18 preventive detention center in Guatemala City. Prisoners buy access to their networks outside the prison walls by bribing prison staff to acquire phones—or even by gaining access to free wifi networks.
The authorities have tried to thwart these activities by installing security filters, but this has only underscored their powerlessness to control the criminal activity within.
It was from a prison in Chimaltenango that Hector, the 26-year-old secretary general of a local maquila union, received his first threatening phone call. (His full name and the names of other workers interviewed have been withheld to protect their identities.)
At the other end of the line, an inmate who called himself “Fox” threatened to retaliate if Hector refused to facilitate an extortion scheme in his 5,000-worker factory.
Before being incarcerated, “Fox” worked in the assembly line of the maquila and knew many of the workers and union members there, including Hector. “Fox” had contacted Hector because, as a trade unionist, he had the right to use a cell phone inside the factory—a privilege that made him the perfect entry point for the gang.
“I went to see the supervisor to tell him about the problem,” says Hector.
But soon, Hector was caught in the middle of a mara war for control of the factory’s extortion income. Though he eventually turned off his phone, he later found out that he’d been receiving more than 250 calls per day. Convinced that his life was in danger, Hector changed his bus-riding habits, stopped visiting his girlfriend, and began spending his days at the headquarters of the local labor federation.
Jorge, a 24-year-old maquila worker who helped form a union in 2008 to combat illegal overtime practices, also received death threats. When he came home from work on June 25, 2009, Jorge received a letter signed by “Mara Salvatrucha” warning that he would die if he did not pay 25,000 quetzales ($3,100)—a fortune for a worker who barely earned 2,000 quetzales ($250) per month.
The letter clearly identified the address of the building where Jorge’s union was meeting. It also contained threats to murder “all the members of the union” and Jorge’s parents and siblings “one by one” if he didn’t deliver the money.
Despite the alleged connection between anti-union activities and gang violence, the lives of maquila owners and management have also been jeopardized by mara activity. In 2003, the South Korean CEO of a maquila in Mixco was kidnapped by maras. Although the company paid the ransom, maras shot him and left him for dead. In Villa Nueva, two managers of a South Korean-owned maquila were burned to death and buried in the backyard of the factory.
The rising level of violence has triggered a backlash from employers. According to the Commission for the Verification of Codes of Conduct (COVERCO), a labor rights NGO, maquila employers in Mixco contacted local police officers to take up stations in the factory and crack down on illegal activity. One maquila director, who wished to remain anonymous, said there was no other way to prevent extortion in his factory: “The issue of extortion […] impacts us too. We try to combat the trafficking but we have no choice but to count on the police force.”
But even when employers make a concerted effort to combat gang activity, workers end up paying a price. The operations inside maquilas have led to union-busting by police under the guise of fighting against the proliferation of maras.
According to a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, one factory in Mixco dismissed workers who police officers had identified as gang members but laid off an additional 16 employees who had formally submitted paperwork to form a union. The human resources manager told these employees, in the presence of police officers, that their activities were illegal and forced them to resign. Eventually, the Ministry of Labor intervened and, after an investigation by COVERCO, the 16 employees were reinstated and human resources staff involved in the incident were fired.
Nonetheless, without major improvements in Guatemala’s justice system and in the enforcement of its labor laws, the Guatemalan labor movement will continue to face severe threats. Some proposed reforms—like giving one of Guatemala’s existing criminal tribunals the specific authority to hear cases on crimes against trade unionists—have yet to materialize.
“There is no political intent at the highest level of the state to take the issue seriously,” said Alejandro Argueta, a legal adviser to the Guatemalan labor m ovement. “The impunity surrounding these acts [comes from] the collusion involving employers, lawyers and public officials.”
In the meantime, Guatemalan union members will continue to face a difficult choice between staying alive and maintaining their livelihood. While Jorge eventually resigned from his position as secretary-general of the union, Hector remains, despite the threats.
“My mother told me to leave the union,” says Hector. “But everything has changed since I got involved in the union and it is impossible to go back [to the way things were].”