In Guatemala again for the first time in 8 months, I sense the grip organized crime has on streets and minds. It seems the violence of the 30-year civil war didn’t disappear with the 1996 peace accords, but metamorphosed into a far more ambiguous, fearsome mayhem.
The sides in this war are unlikely to meet at a table.
The week began with what one daily headlined, “A Diabolical Tidal Wave:“ In coordinated attacks, in various public corners of the capital, hitmen murdered the director of one prison, sub-director of another, and on a heavily trafficked thoroughfare, two prison guards transferring a prisoner from one site to another. Passers-by were killed too, or wounded in the sprays of gunfire, some from AK47s.
A few days later, outside the home of the country’s Chief Prosecutor of Organized Crime Rony Lopez, a police agent protecting Lopez’ family challenged two men, who answered with 9mm bullets. The agent died on the spot, and the killers escaped.
U.S. Ambassador Stephen McFarland and Carlos Castresana, head of the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity, appeared with a drawn-looking Lopez to show support. But the prosecutors and prison-keepers of Guatemala must know the crime lords have them in their sights.
The crime web catches ordinary Guatemalans too, notably through extortion. Bus company owners are expected to pay monthly to keep their drivers from being murdered; over 80 were killed last year, and the killing continues. Passengers are at risk. Drivers’ murders can take place by automatic weapons fire from a car running alongside the bus, or even a grenade.
Many extortion rings are run from prisons by cel phone. A good friend explained how it worked at their house: a call comes once and tells you where to leave money. If you don’t, another call comes, advising “we know” where children go to school. My friend’s large family now lives without a telephone at home out of terror of another call.
Reactions to the atmosphere of precarious living range from the poignant to draconian. At a conference given by photographer Jean-Marie Simon this week in the capital, the packed room intently watched troubling wartime slides from her classic book, Guatemala, Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny. Afterward, queries about the cycle of violence showed frustration, as if some questioners were asking themselves, “What can we do?”
Former President Alvaro Arzu, now the mayor of this city, the biggest in Central America, believes he has an answer. Democracy is not it.
“Behind a mask of tolerance and freedom of opinion,” Arzu said in a speech Sept. 10, are values in today’s society -- such as democracy -- considered unquestionable, just as ideas about religion were in the Middle Ages. He suggested a “civic military” model of education to regenerate the country’s institutions.