GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Luis Hernandez earned $22.50 an hour and shared a modern apartment as a construction worker in Salt Lake City, Utah, before being deported back to a tin-roof shack in a Guatemala City slum where tattooed members of violent street gangs lurk at every corner.
Broke and facing the reality of life back here after being arrested and flown home last month, he is among a growing number of illegal immigrants being deported from the United States, many with barely a dollar in their pocket.
With a scarcity of decent-paying formal jobs, deportees are also easy recruits for the gangs and drug traffickers that make Guatemala one of the most violent countries in Latin America.
“There’s work but it doesn’t pay well. The neighborhood is in a bad way because of the low salaries on offer,” said Hernandez, 30, who worked in the United States for most of the past decade, sending money to his wife and two children.
He was sent home with only a check for $10.21 that he has been unable to cash in Guatemala. Work in his grimy neighborhood tends to pay only a few dollars a day.
“If I don’t find a job that pays enough to support my family, I don’t know what I‘m going to do,” Hernandez said, as his children watched television in a nearby bedroom.
Caught crossing the border and nabbed in police operations, undocumented workers like Hernandez are deported on nine or 10 charter flights that leave each weekday, most bound for Central and South America and the Caribbean.
Their big debts to people smugglers and the fact they send the bulk of their pay home to family members means many deportees return poorer than when they left.
Roughly 12 million illegal immigrants live and work in the shadows in the United States, around two million of them from poverty-hit and disaster-prone countries in Central America.
As successive U.S. governments have responded to pressure to crack down on undocumented immigrants, the size and frequency of deportations has risen steadily.
In 2008 the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency sent home nearly 30,000 Guatemalans, a rise of 21 percent on 2007, and the figure is on course to rise again in 2009.
Still scarred by a 36-year civil war which ended in 1996, Guatemala is ill-equipped to deal with the thousands of people returning, jobless, to a shaky economy.
Crime rates are sky-high, with more than 6,000 murders last year in the country of just 13 million people. Mexican drug gangs, under pressure at home from an army crackdown, have moved into Guatemala and are seeking recruits there.
Easy money from being a cartel lookout, driver or hitman is tempting in countries where wages are pitiful.
Carlos Aguilar, 26, recently swapped the neatly clipped lawns of the Royal Wood Golf and Country Club in Naples, Fla. where he made $600 a week as a groundsman, for back-breaking work on his uncle’s coffee farm near the mountain village of El Bosque, where he is lucky to pocket $40 in a week.
Arrested after a decade in the United States and placed on a deportation flight with 90 other Guatemalans, he is finding it hard to adjust, especially having left his wife and children in Florida, where they are legal residents.
“Here there’s no way out and you’re worried about having enough money for food just to survive. But there it’s very different because each week you get your paycheck from work and the banks even offer you credit,” he said.
The deportations are also a blow to relatives who had financed the immigrants’ trips north.
Smuggling people to the United States can cost a small fortune. Many families take out loans for thousands of dollars to pay guides, dubbed “coyotes,” to smuggle relatives through Mexico and across the hostile border region.
As the U.S. economy cools, deportations rise and remittances fall, the return on those investments is falling.
In the first five months of 2009 remittances, which make up a tenth of the Guatemalan economy, fell nearly 10 percent year-on-year to $1.59 billion, spelling disaster for some.
In the town of Acatenango, 50 miles west of Guatemala City, 50-year-old grandfather Jose Santizo is about to lose the roof over his head after he mortgaged his house to pay coyotes to take one of his sons to California.
The $5,000 loan with a local moneylender accrues interest at a rate of 10 percent each month. But in the year since 19-year-old Juan left for California, he has had trouble finding work and sent home just $300 in August 2008.
“We’ll have to leave this place because I have nothing else to sell except this land,” says Santizo.
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Guatemala City; Editing by Phil Stewart