The dump of Zona 3, located in the same-named district of Guatemala City, in a ravine next to the central cemetery, is the country’s largest dumpsite. Used as a dumping ground since 1950, the area receives about 3,200 tons of waste per day (about 70 percent of that organic waste) from the capital and 13 other municipalities .
It is estimated that waste picking at Zona 3 provides a source of survival and income for about 2,000 families, the majority of them living in poverty. According to figures of a 2015 study, the site is frequented by about 3,000 waste pickers, so-called “guajeros”, who live from collecting food leftovers and selling recycled materials such as metals, plastic bottles and paper . Particularly the crisis in 2009 led to the arrival of migrants from the countryside who came to the city in the hope to find work, and now live day-by-day from waste picking, often in small huts on squatted land near the dump. Thus, the NGO Safe Passage, which provides nutrition and education to children in the neighborhood, estimates the number of waste pickers to be even around 5,000 . Many of them have spent their whole life at the dump - which comes with strong social stigmatization - but are nevertheless proud of being a guajero, at a place where their parents or grandparents have often arrived as early as in the 1960s .
Waste pickers work at two parts of the dumpsite: the upper part, where trucks deposit arriving garbage in a plane area, and the lower part in the ravine, called “la mina”, where remaining recyclable materials accumulate in enormous garbage mountains and are extracted under hazardous conditions – partly even in the riverbed with alluvial mining methods. Waste pickers are thus exposed to constant contamination, dust, bad smell, bacteria and toxic substances (such as gases, leachate). They face high risks of illnesses such as respiratory, infectious and gastrointestinal diseases as well as circulation and heart problems; also incidents of poisoned food have been reported . Waste pickers report that deathly accidents happen all the time, that violence, including rape, theft and child abuse, is common, and that the area is controlled by mafias (such as MS-13) while authorities do not protect the community, leading to the constant presence of threats and fear in the community. As a consequence, people are afraid to speak about the situation to outsiders or the media . One case that however attracted public attention was the assassination of Guatemalan actor Victor Hugo Monterroso who was found dismembered in the dumpsite, supposedly killed by people linked to gangs in a dispute over control in the area. Monterroso had previously appeared in movies about violence and insecurity in the country and been doing research and interviews in la mina for over six years in order to produce a documentary .
Related to the precarious security situation, there is strong work segregation and hierarchy at the dumpsite. At the official entrance, arriving trucks are (usually) controlled by security guards of the municipality, which after incidents in 2005 set up operational hours, banned children and pregnant women from entering the site and required waste pickers to get authorization and sign a form to confirm that they carry all responsibility taking up the risks at the site themselves. However, many waste pickers, including children, now enter the site through clandestine entrances . Garbage is dumped at the end of the ravine, but occasionally also directly down the slope – which causes regular accidents. Some guajeros have agreements with truck drivers (often paying them, or the mafia, who controls them), allowing them to access garbage exclusively. Collected materials are piled up at one side of the dump area, from where they are directly sold to private recycling companies – a business that is also largely controlled by mafia. As waste has become increasingly profitable, a number of recycling businesses have popped up in the surroundings of the dump, and some of them even stop trucks before arriving at the dump in order to filter out the most valuable materials. Thus, less and less recyclable waste arrives at the dump through the involvement of new actors . For guajeros that implies an income loss of about 50 percent compared to the situation a couple of years earlier, according to the 2015 study . While on a good day, they can still make around 40 Quetzales (~ 5 US$; and even more in la mina), they are now regularly extorted by the mafia for up to half of their daily earnings . In addition to this income loss, recycling is now taking place under worse conditions and under greater competition, which especially affects those who do not have arrangements with truck drivers and have arrived more recently to the site, as old-established groups often claim certain waste for them. This has also led to an increase in threats and violence against and among waste picker groups .
Another threat comes through the permanent risk of garbage slides and fires, which over the past years has caused several tragedies, which would sometimes even go unnoticed as there is no real supervision over the site . The dumpsite lacks designated cells to contain waste and leachate treatment, and waste layers are not fully covered nor compacted. The lack of control and technical supervision of the dump by the municipality has been criticized by studies, but until recently has not led to any improvements. That, altogether, makes the garbage mountains prone to collapse and especially in periods of rain that causes regular garbage slides. Moreover, irregular fire breakouts occur through the often high temperatures and accumulation of methane gases in the garbage mountains .
In 2005, a massive methane fire in Zona 3 lasted for weeks and affected residents throughout the capital, after the burning of trash had gone out of control. Waste pickers were not able to work and had to wait outside the dump without having anywhere else to go. One of them, who had been there for 50 years, stated: "We have to fight so they won't close the dump, fight with tooth and nail. Thousands of us eat from here."  In 2008, two garbage slides within one month buried two garbage trucks, killed ten people, and left at least 17 people missing. In 2012, in a repetition of the events, four people died. [12a] In 2014, a woman was killed by a truck . In 2016, again four people were killed in an enormous garbage slide, and about 60 people remained missing . Surviving waste pickers reported to the media that they did not hear a supposed alarm by the dumpsite management, and that: “All of us here know the risk we run, but [we must return] because we need to, and we cannot find another job” . While the municipality has been talking about closing the dump for a long time, a waste picker’s statement highlights that with the lack of other options to make a living, even qualified people are working on the dump: “If they no longer want any citizen among the garbage, then find a way to give them a job. There are graduates working here. My mother met a girl who graduated on a Saturday and that same day came to work and was buried” . While the community lamented the lack of effort of official rescue workers in finding surviving people, a waste picker leader waiting outside the gates during the rescue operations also stated: “We cannot do anything, and if we want to continue working in order to eat, we cannot make a scandal” . In 2018, another waste picker became killed in an accident [12b].
While there seems to be no formal organization of waste pickers of Zona 3, there is an association of recycling businesses in the neighborhood as well as about ten NGOs working with the waste picker community, most notably through education and support to families in order to prevent children from having to work at the dumpsite – for example the mentioned organization Safe Passage, Camino Seguro and Creamos, a social entrepreneurship initiative that aims to help people to generate alternative incomes from manufacturing .
The possible closure of the dumpsite has been a political issue for more than a decade and residents of the area have repeatedly demanded action from the municipality. They moreover denounced dangerous driving practices of garbage trucks . In 2016, Guatemala’s Ministry of Environment requested the closure of the dumpsite, but the search for an alternative location turned out difficult as, according to Guatemala City’s mayor, no other municipality wanted to have a new dumpsite in their territory. A year later, the municipality started to conduct consultations to weigh alternative ways to manage the site, so that Zona 3 could remain open in the near future . In 2019, the Guatemalan Human Rights Prosecutor entered into dialogue with the municipality to advance the closure . Guatemala’s mayor finally announced that the dumpsite could serve for 15 more years through ongoing infrastructural improvements, which also include methane capturing to generate energy. According to the plans, some of the sections would become closed over the following years, while another part of the area could be used to extend the lifetime of the Zona 3 as a landfill.  In 2020, the Ministry of Economy considered the installation of a US-financed recycling plant by 2022 in the metropolitan area, saying it would create about 5,000 direct and indirect jobs, come with a capacity building for waste pickers and combat the country’s problem of illegal dumping .
This text was among others informed by a 2018 monitoring report of WIEGO’s “Protecting the Human Rights of Recyclers in Latin America” project, which aims to improve the conditions of waste pickers by documenting working conditions from a human rights perspective in order to influence legal frameworks and, in addition, report human rights violations to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Two short documentaries have portrayed the situation of waste pickers and residents of Zona 3: the Oscar-nominated 2006 production “Recycled Life” and “Ciudad de Guatemala: la Zona 3 y su gente”, released by RT Actualidad in 2017.