Guatemala: Conditioned for Violence

January 20th, 2009

The black hatchback with tinted windows slowed in front of us on the boulevard. We were in the left lane and came upon it fast, breaking suddenly. Lu pulled around it to the right and as we came even, the car accelerated. We could hear it revving up as it past us and crossed three lanes to slow down on the right, allowing us to pass it again, this time on the left. It was 1 a.m. in Guatemala City, and tired as we were, Lu and I were completely alert.

I would be puzzled and annoyed in Seattle, but in Guatemala City, from what I understand, violence is right at the surface. People don’t just mess with you on the road, they kill you.

Coming almost directly from Cambodia, a place where “it’s safe until it isn’t,” to quote a fellow journalist working there, my impression–and this is purely my impression–is that Guatemala City isn’t safe. Especially when it isn’t.

It’s not that I’ve really seen anything; I mean, there are guards at the supermarket and the bank who carry handguns and shotguns. A lot of other stores do too. Middle and upper class neighborhoods, bound in razor wire and 15 foot walls, have the same; guys with body armor and shotguns, the short-barreled, pistol grip variety. I’ve also seen some with assault rifles standing around on street corners. Just watching.

The police too, in their extended cab pickups, have a variety of armament. AK-47’s, shotguns, pistols, body armor. In Cambodia it was rare to see a cop with a side arm. Last night I saw an unmarked heavy truck pass us on the highway. In the back, in the tarpaulin-covered cattle bed, stood a bunch of soldiers packed so tight it looked like they would fall out. It made me think of the civil war here in Guatemala and the counter-insurgency work the army did, something which amounted to political oppression and genocide.

But I haven’t really seen much here, and it’s not really that which bothers me. It’s Lu and Geno (pronounced haano). They grew up here in the ’80s and while Lu visits rarely, Geno comes back every year. She’s Guatemalan. It’s their paranoia and their stories which have me checking the side view mirrors, the pedestrians, and watching all the motorbikes.

Driving back from Antigua, 30-40 minutes away, Lu was telling me stories about her youthful party weekends in college; how they’d stay in whatever cheap motel they stumbled into after hours of drinking and flirting with guys. We were winding up the mountain pass–she told me she knew the turns almost by heart–and at one turn, rather off-hand, she mentioned how one of her friends was kidnapped on the road. The cars blocked her friend’s car and men with guns got out and took her. I asked how they knew the story; the girl’s passenger was left behind to tell. They never found the girl.

We went out the other night to meet some college friends of hers in an upscale strip mall, not unlike what you find in the States. It was packed with polished cars and as we looked for parking, one of the shotgun toting guards let us know where a free spot was. I can’t remember the last time I had a parking attendant adjusted his weapon as he waved me over. Later that night Lu mentioned the sister of one of the people I just met. She was killed.

“How do you say that gun,” she questioned, for English is her third language. “You know, it goes dat-dat-dat.”

“You mean an automatic assault rifle?” I responded.

“Yes, they filled her car with bullets,” Lu said. “They made a mistake because her car looked like a mafia’s car. It was a little over a year ago.”

The night I arrived at the airport, we approached a stoplight and Lu told me she’d lost her edge. She’d forgotten how to live in Guatemala City; Geno had already yelled at her for allowing a pedestrian to get too close to the car while pulling up to a light. If they get close, she said, it’s better to hit them and drive on in case they’re trying to carjack you. Sometimes, she said, they’ll come through traffic on a motorbike, one man armed with a gun, and they steal your money or your car.

The other night, after a wedding, we drove by an old military fort in the middle of the city. “So-and-so’s brother was killed here,” Lu and Geno said. It was after curfew and the soldiers shot him in his car.

In high school they never had snow days–it’s too warm there. But there was a war on and they had curfews. Sometimes the school bus driver would turn around mid-route as the other drivers radioed that the city was under lock down again. As a teen it was fun, but when she came back as an adult, and it happened again, she understood the gravity.

In college Lu never repeated the same route to school two days in a row. She also learned never to help someone on the side of the road; it was a regular car jacking scam. One night we came back to the neighborhood and a car was behind us. She pulled up to the steel gate and hit the opener, then quickly chastised herself. With a car behind you, the rule is to just drive by lest they catch you in a vulnerable moment.

Lu won’t go into the hills, a place I look towards longingly, and while in Antigua she struggled over whether to hike up to the cross overlooking town. Two foreign girls had been beaten, raped, and killed up there. Robberies were common. Even the guidebook advises against hiking alone and to ask tour operators about the security situation.

I didn’t personally see anything violent, beyond the excess of firearms, but maybe that’s just it. Everything looks normal until it’s not, and that is what has Lu on edge. We were talking about that after she told me one of her stories; it’s not that you read about it in the paper–well, you do–but it’s that violence happens to people you know. It’s immediate and seemingly random.

That night on the boulevard, as we passed the hatchback again, I looked at the driver’s window. It was up, so I relaxed a little–no one was going to shoot at us as we drove by. Lu needed to turn left but we continued a few more streets before swinging through the median and back up the boulevard to Geno’s neighborhood. I looked back; the car was now reversing in one-way traffic. Lu killed the lights and down shifted to make a turn. That way her brake lights wouldn’t show. And then, we were clear.

“I think I’m ready to go back to Seattle,” she sighed.

When we got to the house, Geno was late. Immediately Lu and Geno’s brother began dialing Geno’s friend. It was uncharacteristic of either Lu or Geno not to check in with each other, but as soon as the number was punched, we heard the steel gate and Geno’s unmistakeable laugh. She stumbled in, drunk, with a dripping keg cup still in her hand. She laughed.

Guatemala City is a rough town, from what I hear, but it seems people get by just fine. At least, maybe, better than during the civil war.

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