In early January 2014, a fire broke out beneath the festering mountain of garbage that is Guatemala City's dump. The fire department half-heartedly tried to extinguish the inferno with water and suffocate it with bulldozers full of dirt, but it refused to go out, fueled by the chemical waste and toxic refuse deep below the surface of the trash pile. Seen from an airplane approaching the impoverished nation's airport, the acrid smoke billowing from the ugly gash in the center of the city looked like an open volcanic fault or the gates to hell.
Although the blaze on the surface of the trash heap was eventually extinguished and there are no open flames today, those who work in the dump say there are fires continuously burning deep within the trash pile, and while the firefighters continue to attempt to extinguish them, according to observers and residents they don’t have the right equipment to completely extinguish the chemical-soaked piles. The fire technically only burned for two days in January, but I've been told it smoldered within the garbage pile for a month before then.
Some 7,000 people work from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year in the dump—whole families spend their lives collecting plastic, metal, and old magazines from out of the trash heap to sell to recyclers. Around 1,000 of these guajeros, as the trash-pickers are called, are children, according to residents.
One elderly guajero told me he has worked in the basurero (Spanish for dump—it’s also the name of the neighborhood where the guajeroslive) for 50 years, but in recent years there has been an influx of people coming here to join him. Many families have been driven to the basurero by poverty brought on by the global economic crisis coupled with mismanagement on the part of the Guatemalan government.
The work they do is incredibly dangerous, and the pay is terrible. At the end of the day, the guajeros go home across the street from the dump to a warren of garbage-choked alleyways and shacks made from corrugated metal and old tarpaulins. Because of the barrio's proximity to the dump, the air is always thick with the foul smoke of the garbage fires. Even at noon on an otherwise clear day, the sky over the basurero is white with thick smoke and dust.
There are no current estimates of the level of air contamination in the neighborhood, but a 2012 survey by the University of San Carlos found that the average annual amount of particulate contamination in the air at a testing station less than two miles from the dump was 94 micrograms per cubic meter of air. By comparison, the EPA recommends a maximum annual level of just 75 micrograms per cubic meter. In other parts of Guatemala City, air contamination averages around 45 micrograms per cubic meter, and even that seems dirty to most people from the US. Residents of the basurero complain of chronic congestion, constant headaches, and high rates of asthma and respiratory problems.
“Our health is always worse,” said José, a local community leader, his eyes glassy and bloodshot. The only creatures that seem to thrive in the basurero are the thousands of vultures that constantly circle above the neighborhood.
The danger to the guajeros and their families is not limited to dirty air. People die from accidents in the dump “all the time,” one worker told me. Many of the guajeros are addicted to crack or powder cocaine, and there’s little in the way of formal authority. Portions of Zona 3, as the surrounding area is called, are reputedly under the de facto control of competing groups of narco traffickers, which can create a certain level of order and security, but the basurero itself is in a kind of no-man's land. “The government controls nothing” was how José described it.
“We asked for medical help, it didn't happen. We asked for security, it didn't happen. We asked for ambulances, it didn't happen,” José told me. He said that although there’s a clinic with doctors who visit regularly, there’s never any medicine there, and added that the community's single greatest need is new roofs for their huts.
Many adults working in the basurero cannot read or write, including Jose, and most families are illegally squatting on the land they live on, but the grimmest thing about the current situation in the slum is that for many of the people who came to the neighborhood from the countryside, moving here was supposed to be a step up from their former lives.
“Most of them have no school or very little school, maybe some elementary,” said Andrea Marroquín, the head of PR for Camino Seguro ("Safe Passage"), an NGO that works to provide education to children of guajeros. “They're looking for new opportunities here.”
The last major migration to the basurero occurred in 2009, shortly after the world financial meltdown. The crash came at the beginning of a process of land consolidation by the sugar plantations, and many poor people who had previously been tenant farmers found their livelihoods swallowed up in land deals. Moreover, those from the south of Guatemala generally have fewer relatives living in the United States, and so received less money from family members working abroad compared to the rest of the country.
Direct investment in Guatemala dropped 20 percent between 2008 and 2009 (it recovered the following year), and the bottom fell out of the economy. At the same time, the price of basic commodities began to skyrocket—the cost of providing food for a family in Guatemala grew 50 percent from 2007 to 2011. The construction jobs that many poor people had relied on disappeared, and remittances sent to Guatemalans from friends and relatives abroad plunged 10 percent from 2008 to 2009. Guatemala's rate of GPD growth dropped from 6.3 percent in 2007 to a low of just 0.5 percent in 2009. By then, the entire world was suffering the effects of a recession, and poor Guatemalans were hit especially hard.
“In 2009 and 2010, the economy was very slow, and these people probably rely on day-to-day labor,” said Araceli Martinez, an anthropologist at Universidad del Valle de Guatemala. “What they have left is the city, and where in the city? The slums.” Once they arrived in the basurero, recent migrants found themselves without skills and community networks they had previously relied upon to get work. Migrants tended to cluster together with others from the same town or region, further reducing their ability to access labor markets in Guatemala City. As a result, the only work they can find is picking through the dump’s immense mounds of garbage.
For those who have moved to the basurero, the work is a way “to live the day,” Andrea said. “It's all about perspective. They don't see the health problems, and for them [trash picking is] an income.”
Yet once people arrive in the basurero, they rarely find a better life. Lacking an education and never earning enough money to save a nest egg, families get stuck in the slums, where they don’t have access to the city’s social services.
“Even if you move from a beautiful, clean town in the country… the perception is that moving to the city, even to a slum, is moving up,” Araceli said. “But it's only an illusion.”
It falls to private charitable organizations to provide basic services in the neighborhood. Camino Seguro tries to help by providing education to children and food to families in addition to adult tutoring, but it doesn’t have nearly enough resources. “After they finish school they come here… we try to keep them in a safe space,” Andrea said. The children receive tutoring, regular checkups, and meals. “None of our kids have malnutrition,” Andrea told me, “and that's a success for us.”
Guatemala City's notorious street gangs, the maras, have far more power than NGOs n the basurero. On a good day, a guajero earns around 40 Quetzales ($5). However, the gangs regularly extort the workers for about half of their daily earnings, often leaving them with as little as $2.50 for an entire day of back-breaking labor.
The maras also prey on unattended children, recruiting them into extortion schemes and other illegal activities. “This is a red zone,” said Andrea. “It's called a red zone because there is a lot of crime down here and gangs. And so, if you live in another zone, you don't want to come here for anything.
“A lot of people know what's going on… but there are more who just don't have any idea,” she added. In general, people simply try to avoid getting in trouble, and “even when they know what's going on, they don't do anything.”
The police have a presence here, but they do little to maintain order or protect the community. Rape, theft, and child abuse are extremely common, according to people in the neighborhood.
“The police are bandits,” José told me when I visited him. He pointed to a patch of dirt near a dingy tienda selling chips and soft drinks. “A man was killed right there,” he told me. Police officers with shotguns stood barely 50 yards away. “They did nothing,” José said, indicating the cops.
The officers stationed at the enormous green gates of the basurero are ostensibly there to prevent unlicensed workers and children from entering the dump—they have clipboards with lists of ID numbers—but large gaps in the wall and the thundering parade of garbage trucks allow guajeros to sneak in and out relatively unhindered.
“There are no records of how many people work there,” Andrea said. “We have had reports of kids still working there.”
When I visited the dump in an attempt to document conditions there, I was turned away at the gate by police and told I couldn’t take pictures without a special permit from the city—a predictable result given the way the authorities have stopped information about the basurero from getting out.
Guatemala's press has largely failed to cover the humanitarian crisis in the neighborhood. What coverage there has been focused on the efforts of the fire department to control the blazes that periodically break out there—and reports do not mention, as José did, that the fire smoldered for a month prior to the arrival of the fire department. There’s very little attention being paid to the ugly conditions of day-to-day life in the basurero. José believes that “the government pays journalists not to write about the dump.”
In any case, it wasn’t very difficult to dodge the police at the gates. I was able to photograph the gates of the dump from a moving car, and the city's public cemetery is perched precariously above the cliff wall of the dump—the vast hell-scape can be hazily seen through the smoke.
The public cemetery is where the vultures perch in between dives into the pit. It’s a massive city of mausoleums where families rent shelves for the bones of their ancestors. In the past, if a family failed to make the annual $25 payment to the cemetery, the bones of their relative would be exhumed by the graveyard’s management, and, according to some, chucked off the edge into the dump.
When I was there leaning out over the edge taking photos, I saw a relatively new SUV with “Social Services” blazoned on its side was parked at the cemetery gate. Vans like that are relatively common all over the city, but not in the basurero. Even the dead have better access to services than those laboring in the dump below. The scale of the dump is immense, and the pit is surrounded on all sides by cliffs, creating a suffocating, enclosed feeling. The effect is of a fetid mass grave, and the guajeros lurching from garbage pile to garbage pile look like the living dead.
Follow Benjamin Reeves on Twitter.