The Guatemala City Dump

Dump in Guatemala

By Paul Kvinta

We stand at the edge of a steep ravine, and our tour guide, Fredy Umberto, encourages us to study the scene below. “Welcome to Guatemala,” he says. “This is the reality of my country.”

Beneath us, for as far as the eye can see, thousands of people swarm over and around endless mountains of garbage. They’re up to their knees in the stuff, searching, sorting, collecting. Vultures circle overhead. This is the Guatemala City dump, and our mission group – Sue Curran, Jennifer Korte, Tom Polyak – watch the scene for a long while. There’s a certain rhythm to the chaos, a particular ebb and flow. A big yellow dump truck rumbles up. People jockey for position. The truck unloads. Folks dive in. Then it happens all over again.

This is hell on earth.

The 3,000-some people toiling here are called “guajeros,” and they spend their time rummaging for plastic jugs, glass bottles, aluminum cans, anything reusable they can sell to companies and earn maybe a dollar a day. “Poor people from the rural areas want to go to the big city for the good life, the city dream,” explains Fredy. “Well here it is.” He points out a tanker truck that is discharging the contents of port-o-cans not far from a group of people. He also mentions that the national cemetery – the perch where we are standing – pitches bodies down the ravine if families don’t pay the annual $50 mausoleum upkeep fee. Finally, he draws our attention to a river that flows from the dump and disappears around a bend. “People like to say that what’s happening in the dump isn’t their problem,” he says. “But it’s everyone’s problem because that river flows through the rest of the city. The garbage, the bodies, the sewage from that tanker truck, it all flows through the good and bad neighborhoods alike.”

The guajeros live in tin shack communities bordering the dump, sprawling neighborhoods built on former landfill with unlikely names like “Liberty” and “Hope.” After we visit these, our tour ends in a place called Safe Passage, the non-profit organization that Fredy works for and that Forever Changed International recently partnered with. We tour the organization’s flagship programs, two schools that serve 500 children of guajeros. Here there are manicured gardens, internet labs, delightful playgrounds, and lively classrooms. We listen as a girl plays the piano, and we watch several kids line up for lunch in the cafeteria. This place is very much an oasis.

Our group delivers 130 bags of school supplies to Fredy, and he is grateful. “We are providing an education here, yes,” Fredy says. “But more importantly we are providing food and love. That’s why the guajeros send their children. Here they are treated with love and dignity.”


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