By RON NIXON
A memorial to migrants in Salcajá, in Guatemala’s western highlands, a rural and impoverished area. (Kirsten Luce for The New York Times)
CONCEPCIÓN CHIQUIRICHAPA, Guatemala — Six months ago, Liset Juárez’s husband packed a small bag, hugged their three children and said goodbye as he left on the more than 1,900-kilometer trip to the United States. It was his sixth attempt to cross the border illegally to find work.
The couple had borrowed the equivalent of nearly $13,000 from a friend to pay a smuggler.
Ms. Juárez said her husband was aware of the dangers — unscrupulous smugglers, dangerous desert crossings and possible kidnapping by deadly Mexican drug cartels — but felt he had few alternatives in Guatemala, where he was deep in debt after his business failed.
“What can we do?” she said. “We have to feed our children.”
Ms. Juárez’s husband was among the thousands of Guatemalans who have ignored a messaging campaign of billboards and radio and television ads by the American and Guatemalan governments that warn against the dangerous journey to the United States. Thousands of peopleseeking work and a better life have fled the western highlands of Guatemala — a remote, rural and impoverished area, with a largely Mayan-speaking indigenous population.
In the past year, 42,757 Guatemalans traveling as families were either apprehended or stopped at the United States border with Mexico, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. They accounted for nearly half of all migrants who sought to enter the United States with their relatives.
Interviews with dozens of people in Concepción Chiquirichapa, a town of nearly 10,000 residents, revealed that almost everyone has family — or knows someone with family — in the United States.
The reason for the diaspora is simple, residents said: extreme poverty. About 76 percent of the population in the western highlands is impoverished, and 67 percent of children younger than 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition, according to the United States Agency for International Development.
Over one million Guatemalans in rural areas lack electricity. Many earn little to no profit from the coffee, corn, beans and other products they grow, given the declining price of farm goods. Coffee production has fallen 6 percent since last year, the United States Department of Agriculture reported.
Residents also cited drug trafficking, widespread corruption in the local government and extortion by gangs as reasons that people are leaving.
“We have to create better opportunities for people so they can stay home,” said Víctor Manuel Asturias Cordón, who heads the National Competitiveness Program, or Pronacom, a Guatemalan government agency that promotes economic development.
“We also have to work on countering smugglers who have convinced people that their best opportunities to be successful lie in the states.”
The United States is projected to spend more than $200 million on projects in the western highlands over the next few years to create jobs and reduce poverty, officials said.
But the messaging campaign has largely gone unnoticed, although the American government is spending approximately $1.3 million on the effort across Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Interviews with more than a dozen people in Quetzaltenango, the Guatemalan highlands’ largest city, and several small towns showed that few residents have seen or heard the warnings. Many of the people said they would not be persuaded to stay anyway.
A far more powerful messaging campaign by smugglers is resonating by word of mouth. Residents said they see daily advertisements by the smugglers. On at least one community radio station in Quetzaltenango, smugglers offer to transport and help finance northbound travels. Some smugglerspromote their services on Facebook.
The ads feature pictures of charter buses, offering an image of a journey that is far different from what most migrants will experience.
The government has begun offering rewards to people who turn in smugglers.
“No one will turn them in, because within the community they are not seen as bad people,” said Dora Alonzo, 27, who runs an organization in Quetzaltenango to keep children from trying to migrate to the United States. “But everyone knows who they are.”
In Concepción Chiquirichapa, Liset Juárez said her husband made it to the United States. With the money he makes as a laborer, she said, they plan to pay back their debt, and save up to open another business. Asked if she plans to join her husband, she shook her head no.
“I can’t abandon my children,” Ms. Juárez said. “I have three children I have to sustain here.”