Guatemala: a shattered dream with a silver lining

06-05-2010 Feature

Hugo Leonel wears a prosthetic foot following a desperate escapade with a train. Many disabled Guatemalans, like Hugo, are now benefiting from technological support provided by the ICRC.

  ©ICRC / C. Godoy    
Hugo receives his new prostheses    
©ICRC / C. Godoy 
Hugo's first steps. 

©ICRC / C. Godoy 
Hugo with an ICRC prosthetic specialist. 


Twenty-two-year-old Hugo is from San Antonio Suchitepequez, a small town on the Pacific coast of Guatemala. He is the youngest of eight siblings, all of them agricultural workers.

At age 15 he “felt strong enough to do any kind of job " and decided to embark on a journey in search of better opportunities. He left for Mexico. On his way there, he encountered several Central American travel mates who were following the same dream.

In order to avoid a migration checkpoint, Hugo and his companions needed to board a moving train, commonly known as the ‘death train’. It was a dangerous undertaking, one that would have lifelong consequences for Hugo.

" The others were tall and just ran and jumped onto the train. I was only able to grab the lower section of a ladder and the train dragged me along. I thought I was going to die,” says Hugo, reliving the scene. " Then I just felt a strong pull that threw me to the ground. "

" I lay next to the tracks and could barely see the train. I stood up and when I tried to walk I fell to the ground again. That was when I realized the train had run over me. I looked down and saw that my foot was smashed. I didn’t feel anything immediately but a moment later I was screaming with pain. "

His travelling companions reported the accident in the next town and migration officers picked Hugo up and took him to the public hospital in Tapachula. Here he was received by Olga Sanchez Martinez. " She looked after me from beginning to end, " remembers Hugo fondly. " She took me to her shelter, Jesus el Buen Pastor, and healed my foot. "

Hugo was eventually measured for a prosthesis, which took two years to arrive. All the while he lived in Olga's shelter, never lacking for anything and helping with the shelter's chores.

At 17, he returned to his home town and began the difficult search for work. He also had to start looking for a new prosthesis as, according to Carlos Delgado, specialist for the ICRC's Special Fund for the Disabled, he was outgrowing the original one.

His story earned him the sympathy and consideration of many people, which led to jobs in construction, agriculture and, thanks to the Mayor of his town, a job keeping the local cemetery clean.

When asked about the need for his prosthesis, Hugo answers: " Without it I cannot get around and finding work becomes very difficult. With my prosthesis people see me as a complete person " .

Hugo’s search for a new prosthesis took five years, one of the biggest obstacles being the prohibitive cost of a replacement. Working in rural Guatemala on a minimum wage – just 7 USD a day – and where social services are not adapted to people with disabilities made it impossible to afford it.

Despite this, Hugo left his contact information in various places and eventually received a call from AGREL, one of three institutions supported by the ICRC in Guatemala making prostheses using polypropylene.

With some hesitation, Hugo attended his first appointment, taking leave from work and making the three-hour trip to Capital City. A month and a half later he received his new prosthesis.

Hugo's story is one of the few in Guatemala with a happy ending. His disability was resolved with a donated prosthesis, which might guarantee him a stable future. But this is not the reality for the majority of Guatemalans with some kind of disability, many of whom live in sometimes extrem e poverty.

To help the many Guatemalans with disabilities, the ICRC provides technical support to three Guatemalan organizations – AGREL, CADEG and HIIR – as well as donating the materials and components necessary to make prostheses.

Through increased use of polypropylene technology, which is both cost-effective and versatile, the ICRC and its Guatemalan partners aim to guarantee access to prostheses to more people with disabilities. In this way, the happy ending to Hugo’s story will not prove to be an isolated case and more people will be able to receive the support they need.


ICRC Special Fund for the Disabled

The ICRC Special Fund for the Disabled (SFD) supports physical rehabilitation centres in low-income countries. The services provided include production of prostheses and orthoses, and the provision of wheelchairs and crutches. Created by the ICRC in 1983, the SFD:
  • helps bridge the gap between the ICRC’s withdrawal from a country and the moment the government or local institutions take over full responsibility for maintaining formerly ICRC-assisted rehabilitation centres;
  • supports centres that have not been assisted by the ICRC, using the technology and technical expertise developed by the ICRC to improve the quality and sustainability of rehabilitation services;
  • works closely with the ICRC to help governments or local organizations develop a national capacity to maintain physical rehabilitation services in the long term.

  • Most SFD activities are managed from three regional bases, in Africa (Ethiopia), Asia (Viet Nam) and Latin America (Nicaragua).