Bricks and Mortars

Guatemala's violence strikes home

By Lawrence Reichard | Feb 16, 2018

Before last week, I had been mugged a few times. But I had never been robbed at gunpoint.

I was walking in the beautiful countryside outside Comalapa, Guatemala, when two men passed me from behind on a motorcycle. They disappeared around a curve in the dirt road, and then one or two minutes later they returned. They parked about 30 feet from me, license plate facing the other way. They dismounted and pulled full-face knit winter hats down over their heads and faces. Definitely not good. And as they walked toward me, one of them pulled out a gun and cocked it.

They took my day pack, my iPhone, about $20 and my house key. I shouldn't have had my phone or the money with me. The so-called northern triangle of Central America — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — is the most violent place in the world outside of active war zones. When traveling there, carry only what you need.

As the two men left, one of them said, "Walk the other way, don't follow us."

The Comalapa police station was right on my way home, so I stopped there and reported the crime. But I had little to go on. Two men, late teens or early 20s; the driver and gun wielder taller and thinner than the other; black motorcycle with a red gas tank. I gave them my landline number, and they thanked me, but they seemed uninterested in pursuing the matter. Later on, friends told me the cops might be on the thieves' payroll. And they said police are often scared of gun-wielding criminals.

It took an hour or so for the incident to sink in. When it did, it hit hard. But a few shots of rum calmed me some, and as the days passed I slowly recovered and I started to think about leaving the relative safety of town and resuming my walks in the countryside.

Then last night, eight days after the robbery, I was walking down the largely dark street in front of my house when a young girl stopped me and asked me whether I had a phone with me. "No," I said, "I don't. Why?" She told me a man was being robbed and beaten right then in a house just a few feet away — she pointed to the house. Then two men of some heft walked up. I quickly explained the situation, and instinctively, without another word among us, we approached the house. But the robbers had already left. The victim came to the doorway of his house. He was half-crawling. He was pretty badly beat up, and he was clearly in considerable pain.

I asked him whether he wanted to go to the local clinic. He said no — he may have been worried about the cost of treatment. He said they had taken all his money, and judging from his appearance, his clothes and his house, the man could ill afford to lose any money. I offered him a shot of rum for his pain. He accepted, and I ran home and got a healthy shot of rum.

I ran back down the street to the man's house, and I was about to give him the rum when one of the two men there said to not give it to him. No ambulance, he said, would take the man if he had alcohol on his breath. Tough country.

Then the victim described his assailants. Two men, one with a gun, on a black  motorcycle with a red gas tank. The same men who had robbed me.

By this time a couple of cops had shown up, and I tried to tell them that the same men most likely had robbed me the week before, at gunpoint. But they weren't interested. They seemed much more interested in appearing to control a crime scene that was already under control, without doing anything actually substantive. Perhaps one reason Guatemala has such a serious crime problem.

At that point a crowd was gathering and there seemed little I could do, so I left.

Guatemala has a murder rate of about 100 per 100,000 residents. In other words, in any given year, one has a one in 1,000 chance of being murdered. Spread that out over an 80-year life span, and one's chances drop, arguably, to one in 12.5.

But it's worse in El Salvador, the most violent country in the world outside of active war zones. In the capital, San Salvador, the murder rate is 190 per 100,000, almost twice Guatemala's rate. That's almost 40 times the U.S. rate, but it's only about 20 times the Detroit and New Orleans rates.

According to The Economist, Latin America is home to 43 of the world's 50 most dangerous cities. The Economist attributes much of the violence in northern Central America to the region's status as a major transit point for cocaine traveling from Colombia, the world's biggest cocaine producer, to the U.S., the world's biggest cocaine market.

But absent from The Economist's narrative is the violence wrought by gangs, especially Salvadoran gangs, many of which coalesced in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the U.S., where the offspring of refugees from U.S.-sponsored wars in Central American turned to gangs for economic survival. Then, with draconian immigration laws that deport for mere suspicion of gang membership, large numbers of youth were, and still are, deported back to Central America, where, as in the U.S., gang membership provides at least some level of economic survival.

Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are heavily dependent on remissions from citizens living and working in the U.S. If the Trump administration deports large numbers of Central Americans, it will ravage these already ravaged economies. It will send even more Central Americans north to the U.S. And it is likely to multiply the number of robberies like those that befell me and my Comalapa neighbor.

Lawrence Reichard is a first-place Maine Press Association winner, freelance writer and activist living in Belfast.


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