Living Dangerously

Portraits of Daily Violence

by | Dec 3, 2010

A cartoon: In the first frame, a man points a gun at a woman in a car and says,

Cartoons by Alfredo Morales

Miguel Pinto is 10 years old and yet he talks weapons like a connoisseur.

A motorcycle speeds by the car in which he is traveling and he notices that one of the two riders is carrying a big gun. ”Was that a Kalashnikov?” he asks eagerly. The adults in the car gasp, not only at the biker’s driving with what looks like a machine gun, but at the kind of knowledge that a 4th grader absorbs from living in Guatemala, one of the most violent countries in the world.

Not too long ago, a United Nations diplomat called Guatemala a “paradise for assassins.” That’s because the numbers of dead bodies pile up as high as the rate of impunity, which stands between 97 and 99% (the exact percentage has actually become a subject for heated debate amongst Guatemalan authorities). Just for you to imagine how pervasive violence is, consider that last year alone, 6,500 people were murdered in this country. That is almost 2,000 more than the total of U.S. soldiers and coalition troops killed in Iraq since the beginning of the war.

In such an environment, the borders of what can be considered “normal” keep blurring. Violence is everywhere and people learn to live with it in ways that can be delirious, terrifying and sometimes even downright funny.

First of all, the news you hear in Guatemala will make your jaw drop. You wake up to the radio in the morning to learn that yet another dead woman was found in the city, hacked up in little pieces inside an abandoned suitcase. The radio anchor then reports that a 13-year-old boy—a gang member—was arrested after shooting a mother of two at a local market. And if that is not enough to make you want to stay in bed, the interview will do the trick. The young and sassy killer brags how this is his eighth hit and that he charged 100 quetzales for the job, a little more than 10 bucks. So now you can start a promising day, knowing exactly how life is trading in the Guatemalan market.

No wonder people have a tendency toward becoming paranoid. Some blame the media for spreading pessimism. Well, they do have help. Lots of it, actually. Word of mouth, the most effective and powerful means of communication, reinforces the scary perception that every time you go out in the street, you are being thrown into a game of Russian roulette.

Whenever someone you know becomes a victim, be it of a car theft, an “express kidnapping” or a shooting, you start wondering when it will be your turn. The sight of two guys on a bike can send chills down your spine, since this is the method of choice for professional hit men or “sicarios.” You wonder if the man sweating at the bus stop under a big jacket is hiding a gun. You end up carrying a “give away” purse with some cash, a pair of Chinese sunglasses and stale makeup. Going out with nothing at all just might annoy the robbers—and they can be really nasty if they get upset.

Surviving an attack on the streets of Guatemala City can depend on something as fickle as the mood of criminals on a given day. Pediatrician Edwin Asturias knows that at first hand. He was walking near the hospital where he works, when an SUV with dark windows started following him on a lonely street. A young man jumped out of the car with a gun in his hand and demanded everything: cell phone, money, watch. Asturias obeyed quietly. The SUV driver ordered the assailant: “Now kill him.” “But why?” asked Asturias, “I have done as you told me.” There was a long pause. Asturias felt the barrel of the gun pressing on his stomach. As a doctor, he began to imagine extent of his hypothetical wounds and guessed he would not make it back to the hospital alive. But the driver blinked and decided to let him go. When Asturias walked away, his legs were shaking. He noticed the metal of the gun had ripped his shirt.

Some victims are not as passive. Time and again you are told not to react, but fellow journalist Patricia González could not stand to have her sister´s brand new Suzuki Sidekick jeep robbed. She had just stopped at a gas station to fill up the tank when she saw a gun pointing at her face through the window of the car. She did not think; she just followed her gut. And her gut told her to fake some kind of nervous fit: she started trembling, rolling her eyes and spitting foam. It worked. The robber got scared and left.

Just as violence corrupts the very concept of “normalcy,” corruption itself twists the dynamics that develop between people, cops and thugs in unimaginable ways. Take the case of what happened in engineer Alejandro Viau´s neighborhood near downtown Guatemala—a mostly blue-collar neighborhood where one-story painted buildings house small mom-and-pop shops. A car repair garage which the locals suspected of modifying stolen cars stood only a block away from his house. The owner ran his operation undisturbed until he accepted a stolen car that had belonged to a congressman. An arrest order was issued, but the garage owner ran away before a police patrol came looking for him. The squad car stationed itself in front of the shop on a permanent basis. After a few days, the fugitive’s mother thought it would be a good idea to fraternize with the cops, and she started giving them typical Guatemalan snacks. Word spread that the food was very tasty and soon other cops began to drop by. The lady opened a small diner out of her own kitchen, and every day at lunch locals would see four or five police patrols parked in front. After a few months the fugitive came back, and now he helps his mother in the diner.

Guatemalans smile at stories like these, but when violence hits them close enough, there is nothing to laugh about. A few weeks ago, the news director of one of the main radio networks and a good friend, Felipe Valenzuela, was shot in the head. In a country where hundreds of journalists and activists have been murdered, tortured or disappeared, an attack like this one can raise old ghosts. It was not clear if Valenzuela had been a victim of common criminals or if he had been targeted because of his profession. We were all hoping for the first hypothesis because otherwise, the bullet that pierced his jaw was in fact a bullet to all of us and to all that has been gained since the end of the civil war.

As the news circulated, colleagues, activists and political figures flocked to the hospital. The waiting room was filled with long faces that would not lighten up, not even as doctors assured the visitors that Valenzuela had been extremely lucky and that he would recover with no long-term physical damage. People would just sigh and shake their heads, until someone cracked up: “so now we can really tell Felipe he has a hard head.” And people smiled again because they wanted to cry.

Fall 2010 | Winter 2011Volume X, Number 1

Dina Fernández is an anthropologist and a journalist. She has worked as a reporter, editor and as columnist for more than fifteen years. She was a Nieman Fellow in 2002, writes a bi-weekly op-ed article at elPeriódico and co-hosts a TV news show “A las 8 y 45” on Canal Antigua. She also serves as the Chair of the Board at the Soros Foundation in Guatemala.

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