Communities in western Guatemala received health care as part of a U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) development assistance campaign with the support of the Guatemalan government. The humanitarian aid exercise took place February 13-15, 2018.
Members of SOUTHCOM’s Joint Task Force Bravo (JTF-Bravo), headquartered at Soto Cano Air Base in Comayagua, Honduras, deployed to the municipality of Nentón, on Guatemala’s border with Mexico. Elements from the 5th Infantry Brigade of the Guatemalan Army joined the 66 doctors and services members from the JTF-Bravo team. JTF-Bravo also received support from the Guatemalan Ministry of Public Health and Social Services, the Ministry of Defense, and the Secretariat of Public Works of the First Lady of Guatemala.
The purpose of the exercise was to provide health care to low-income residents in remote areas, while also training service members and health professionals to respond to potential natural disasters in the region. The medical brigade provided free health care services to more than 1,500 people.
Vital medical services
“Of course, [local residents] were very happy,” Guatemalan Army Colonel Oscar Pérez Figueroa, spokesman for the Guatemalan Ministry of Defense, told Diálogo. “But, most of all, they were very grateful [...] because it’s not every day that they get these services.”
In addition to basic medical and dental services, residents of Nentón and nearby communities also received classes on preventive medicine and dental hygiene, as well as important information on preventing common illnesses and diseases. Medical specialists offered services in pediatrics, obstetrics, and otorhinolaryngology. The help also included medicine, antibiotics, vitamins, and various supplies, such as canes.
“For us, these services are important because local residents have urgent medical issues that can rarely be treated as they should be. There are people who’ve never been to the doctor because these services don’t exist,” Col. Pérez explained. “Extracting a molar, doing vision exams, distributing vitamins and deworming medicine, and even promoting children’s hygiene, such as tooth brushing and getting haircuts, help us change people’s conditions. Without U.S. service members’ help, it would be nearly impossible to achieve this in these communities.”
Each day of the campaign, hundreds of people gathered near Finca La Trinidad public school, which served as a medical center for U.S. and Guatemalan specialists. Children and adults patiently waited for their turn to get the needed care and for doctors to see them.
“The people of Nentón began lining up at 6 in the morning in front of the school so that they could get these kinds of treatments,” Col. Pérez said. “There are housewives arriving with their four children to have teeth extracted. And there are even adults who came to have a tooth pulled.”
For authorities in the department of Huehuetenango, the assistance was a blessing received with joy. The joint effort, they stressed, builds trust between the locals and service members.
“We’re delighted to have these young fellows in our municipality, helping our local people,” Rudy Gordillo, mayor of Nentón, said. “I’m grateful for all the efforts made to improve the health of our community because we need it. To see our people getting this kind of assistance is a most welcome sight for us as local authorities.”
According to the United Nations Development Programme's 2016 Regional Human Development Report for Latin America and the Caribbean, in Guatemala, three million people live in extreme poverty, lacking basic necessities such as food, potable water, sanitation, and education. The most recent data from Guatemala’s National Institute for Statistics, according to its 2011 Rural Poverty Map, indicated that more than 67 percent of the Huehuetenango population lived in poverty.
“Huehuetenango is a vital region to work together on these projects, given the poverty of its people and the scarce medical services available there,” said U.S. Army Major Sergio López, a representative for SOUTHCOM’s Overseas Humanitarian Disaster and Civic Aid (OHDACA) program in Guatemala. “That’s why basic services were brought into this department. I’ve seen lots of cases, and there is a lot of need there,” he told Diálogo.
The combined U.S.-Guatemalan exercise has been held every year since 2012. In 2017, people of the southern department of Chiquimula, which borders Honduras and El Salvador, also benefited from the development assistance campaign. Communities are selected according to the scarcity of health care services.
“This helps us work together with other entities to improve the environment, making it more trusting and cooperative,” Maj. Lopez concluded. “We focus on humanitarian aid to provide basic health care so that people will have what they need for their well-being.”