November 8, 2009

Dealing with violence in Guatemala City – one of the murder capitals of the world

Deportees who arrive in Guatemala City have to learn how to deal with the urban violence, especially gangs, guns, kidnapping, and extortionists. Depending on whose statistics you believe, Guatemala is either the second or fourth most dangerous country in Latin America, and among the top ten homicide capitals of the world. Although the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, ending the decades-long civil war, homicides have been on the rise since the end of the twentieth century in Guatemala City.

The homicide rate in Guatemala was about 53 per 100,000 persons in 2008, ten times the rate of the US. Evidence of this high rate of homicides is clear in the newspapers, which provide a more gruesome story each day. In a recent story, gang members allegedly shot the delivery driver bringing Chinese food to their car, because the owner of the restaurant failed to pay the extortionists. Stories of killings on public buses abound, and newspapers often link the killings to gang members and to extortion.

Many deportees recount to me that they are scared to ride on buses, especially at night, when buses are reportedly more dangerous. Others have no choice, and have to ride the buses to get to work each day.

Nearly all of the deportees I spoke to went to a family member’s house when they first arrived in Guatemala. Some of them are lucky, and their families live in fairly safe parts of the city. Others are less fortunate and have to live in places filled with gangs and urban violence. In these areas, deportees have to learn to navigate the streets of their new barrios to avoid unpleasant confrontations. Some are able to use the street smarts obtained in the US to get by. Others rely on the respect neighbors have of their families in Guatemala City to protect them.

Some of the reports on violence in Guatemala City may be overblown by sensationalist media outlets. However, the feeling that Guatemala City is a violent city is pervasive. In the three months I have been here, three people have recounted to me that a close friend or family member has been killed by violent means. My landlady told me that a friend of hers was killed, apparently in a robbery attack. One of my interviewees told me that her nephew was killed at his house by murderers who came to look for him. Another interviewee told me that her son-in-law had been kidnapped, and her daughter had died in a car accident related to the kidnapping. Two of my 35 interviewees told me that they had been shot at. Others reported witnessing violent crimes. My friend who works for the United Nations told me that she never walks the streets of Guatemala City, by order of her employers.

I do walk the streets of Guatemala City, but take the necessary precautions. I don’t carry around my laptop, camera, or ipod. I avoid walking alone at night. I sit towards the front of the bus. I call yellow cabs when I have to travel alone at night or to go somewhere I am not familiar with. I took off my gold wedding ring and don’t wear any valuable jewelry. When I have to walk through shady areas alone, I walk confidently, as if I am not nervous, so as not to attract attention to myself. When I need to ask directions, I select who I will ask. The fact that I take all of these precautions indicates that I do not feel completely safe in the city. At the same time, I am very glad I have walked the streets, as I have immensely enjoyed my time in Guatemala City. It just would not have been the same had I stayed indoors the whole time.

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