Guatemalan village mourns two teens lost in San Antonio migrant smuggling tragedy
Relatives of the victims and other residents of the village of Tzucubal pooled their resources and traveled to Guatemala’s capital last week to confirm their identities. They now wait for the teens’ bodies to be repatriated so they can be buried.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in Plaza Pública, a publication based in Guatemala City. You can find the original Spanish language version here.
GUATEMALA CITY — After four hours in the Guatemalan ministry of foreign affairs, Manuel Jesús Tulul walked out, his face contorted with grief. He and his wife, Magdalena Tepaz Tziac, had confirmed with a photograph that their son, Juan Wilmer Tulul Tepaz, was one of seven Guatemalans — and 53 people total — who died last week in a sweltering-hot, unventilated tractor-trailer found in San Antonio. The vehicle was carrying more than 65 men, women and children.
“Yes, yes, he is dead.” Manuel Tulul’s words were barely intelligible after he had viewed photographs of his dead son, confirming that what before was a probability had now become a reality.
His wife clutched her chest and sobbed, unable to speak at all.
The couple had left well before dawn on June 30 from the village of Tzucubal, part of the municipality of Nahualá in the department of Sololá, about 100 miles west of the country’s capital. They were accompanied by Maria Sipac, who also lost a son in the Texas tragedy.
Their mission: to confirm that their children were among the deceased.
But they did not go alone. Twenty neighbors from their village and even residents of nearby municipalities accompanied them as a show of support and solidarity. All pooled their resources to pay for the journey.
“The thing is, we are like family, we are here to help and support,” said Alonzo Tepac, the deputy mayor of Tzucubal.
When news reached Nahualá that Pascual Melvin Guachiac Sipac, age 13, and Juan Wilmer Tulul Tepaz, age 14, had perished inside the truck in San Antonio, the village reeled with shock and anguish.
“Hearing this news was incredibly painful,” the deputy mayor said.
Nahualá has suffered additional losses: Two sisters, Karla and Griselda Carac, from the Colcojá district of Nahualá, drowned while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in a separate incident.
Ongoing conflict and zero opportunities
According to the country’s Secretariat of Planning and Programming of the Presidency, Nahualá reports that more than 2,500 of its inhabitants have emigrated to North America.
Approximately five hours away from Guatemala City, Tzucubal is a village of about 325 dwellings within the municipality of Nahualá. Tzucubal has a long-standing territorial feud with the neighboring municipality of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán. Tzucubal's inhabitants blame this perpetual conflict, coupled with the lack of employment opportunities, for the migration of children and youth.
The village’s boys, said teacher Antonia Ixtoz, have stopped attending school because they say it’s pointless: their families need money and they need to help their parents. They think studying is a waste of time since even people who have graduated end up going to the U.S.
Ixtoz has been teaching elementary school for 11 years in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán. One of her ongoing battles is trying to convince her 11- and 12-year-old students not to emigrate.
“I have a job and can only barely make ends meet, but I don’t leave because maybe I can convince a few children to stay here,” she said.
19-year-old driven north by desperation is missing
On May 9, Carlos Estuardo Tambriz Guarchaj left his home in Xepatuj, Nahualá, and headed for the border. That was the last time his family heard from him. On June 14, they alerted Guatemala’s ministry of foreign affairs about his disappearance.
“We know nothing yet, if he is dead or alive, or if he was picked up. There is some unofficial information that the Tucson morgue [in Arizona] is holding a body that could possibly be his,” said Manuel Tambriz, the young man’s father.
Carlos, 19, is the oldest of three siblings. He has a 16-year-old sister and a 10-year-old brother. Carlos decided to leave due to difficulties in his village. He studied science and literature in high school, but after graduating last year he was unable to find work.
Desperation drove him to start the journey north.
Tambriz also blames the historical conflict between Nahualá and Ixtahuacán as a major problem driving young people away.
“Sometimes the other municipality will surprise us with volleys of gunfire. It affects the kids psychologically. When they hear noise, they go inside the house and close the door and hide under the table,” he said.
On June 30, Tambriz and his wife, Elena Guarchaj, traveled to the capital to seek information about the whereabouts of Carlos, but there were no updates. They planned to return this week to provide DNA tests. Meanwhile, there is some hope but also a great deal of doubt.
“The days turn into weeks, the hours into days, the minutes into hours, the seconds into minutes,” Tambriz said.
Waiting has become a constant for the families of Nahualá. According to Congressman Manuel Tzep Rosario, president of the Congressional Committee on Migrants, the parents of the two boys who died in San Antonio will have to wait approximately two weeks to take possession of the bodies and make burial arrangements. The parents of the Carac sisters face the same timeline.
The parents of Juan Wilmer and Pascual Melvin must also await results of investigations by authorities in Mexico, the U.S., Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
So far, four individuals are facing charges for the deaths of the 53 migrants.
This story was translated by June Griffin Garcia.
Join us at The Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 22-24 in downtown Austin, and hear from 300+ speakers shaping the future of Texas including Joe Straus, Jen Psaki, Joaquin Castro, Mayra Flores and many others. See all speakers announced to date and buy tickets.
Texans need truth. Help us report it.
Independent Texas reporting needs your support. The Texas Tribune delivers fact-based journalism for Texans, by Texans — and our community of members, the readers who donate, make our work possible. Help us bring you and millions of others in-depth news and information. Will you support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation of any amount?