27 Jun

Some though not all of the content of this post is also in the photo-essay, Coffee in Guatemala

Early evening, an hour or so before reuniting with Annie for my last two days, I wander north west from Antigua´s Parque Central. After half a mile the roads steepen as bourgois villas give way to the grander homes of Guatemala´s elite: huge bungalows in acres of garden cooled by breezes from the hills and phalanxes of sprinklers that keep temperate shrubbery flourishing, lawns an emerald glow. Twice I exchange a “beunos tardes” with armed guards and – having seen, the night before, migrant workers and families bed down at the bus station – am minded of Palestin­ians queuing at standpipes while Israeli settlers enjoy pools of sparkling blue set in lawns like these.

The next morning at seven thirty I’m back at my chic  coffee bar. At the stool he’d occupied the previous morning, and sporting the same outfit of slacks, pressed shirt and Teamster cap, retiree Dave sips his americano. Born in Malaya to British parents in the forces, he was raised in Kuala Lumpur then Belfast then Bournemouth. As a young man he emigrated to Canada for a lifetime of fork lift truck driving. “Life’s been good”, he says in his soft North American drawl. “Steady work … health benefits… pension … pay good enough to vacation here every year. It helps to be in …”  – he taps the side of his cap – “the biggest union in the world.”

I like Dave. He’s that rare thing, a good talker who can also listen. The day before we’d covered a range of subjects: from Asia to England’s boring soccer performances, from the best way to learn Spanish to the virtues of grape seed extract in making immodium super­fluous to travel require­ments. Today he has a paper spread in front of him. “This place is unbelievably corrupt”, he tells me, roughly trans­lating a page three story on a police chief – to my surprise a woman – fleeing the country, wanted allegedly for organising death squads. Is it political, I want to know. (If so, has she upset someone further up the food chain?) Dave shrugs; more likely criminal, he thinks: contract killers for hire. “Here you can have an entire family taken out for 500 bucks, no problem”. He mimes the spray of machine gun fire but there’s nothing childish or braggadocio in his manner. In any case I’ve heard similar from other sources.

He turns to a story on the facing page. The search is on for a successor to the leader of a UN team to investigate mass graves across the countryside. The previous boss quit in the face of death threats: “in this country you take them very seriously. Ninety-six percent of all murders go unsolved”. Assuming, I suppose, they’re  investigated at all. Women and children are especially vulnerable, he says, machine gunned or macheted in broad daylight on busy streets for reasons unfathomable. A rationalist, I seek motives however perverse but Dave’s not so sure. “A lot of people tell you it has to be drugs …”

(Guatemala has become an important transit country for northbound cocaine. Besides the regular machinery of distribution there are thriving opportunist markets on both coasts for distribution and domestic consumption of shrink-wrapped kilo packages that bob ashore when a boat has to jettison cargo in the face of stop and search vessels. The USA recently decertified Guatemala as a “friendly nation” in its so-called war on drugs.)

“… but it doesn’t have to be drugs at all. It can be anything or nothing. And this country despises women.”

I haven’t begun to investigate that, though Annie is scathing of the attitude to women of Latin Americ­an men. But I know this much. When wars stop, people don’t suddenly forget how to kill. In the UK of the forties and fifties the death penalty came to be applied less frequently, with a narrowing subset of murders now designated capital. The one thing that would see you swing – as Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis found to their cost – was killing with a fire-arm. It’s impossible at the end of a war for the state to gather back all its guns (what of those lifted from the dead?) and the UK Government, faced with a black market awash with cheap shooters, was sending a clear signal.

Civil wars are particularly barbarous, and the issue of arms by definition uncontrollable. Add in highly porous borders – see, for example, the straight lines that denote arbitrary cartographic decisions as to how the jungles of Northern Guatemala, Western Belize and South East Mexico should be allocated – and you get the picture. Plus, of course, nations built on the slaughter of indigenous peoples tend to be highly attached to their constitutional right to bear arms …

Eight days ago Annie and I ascended an alarmingly steep and flimsy wooden staircase to the top of Tikal’s Pyramid Five at a fortunate moment. For ten minutes we had the top almost to our­selves, allowing me to set up camera and tripod and move freely from side to side on the narrow stone ledge as I cherry picked the best angles. The only other person was an American married to an official at the US Embassy in Guatemala City. A friendly and courteous man who asked about my photography, he was happy to speak of the security aspects of working in one of the world’s most dang­er­ous cities. “We’re under strict rules”, he said. Officials and their families were never to stray beyond narrowly drawn boundaries. In the event of robbery they were to surrender valuables immediately. “You do what they say. The only exception is when they try to get you into a car. If they do that you resist, because it is not a kidnapping; they’re going to kill you.” The most common cause of gringos getting killed in Guatemala, he told us, is misunderstanding. “They don’t respond fast enough and the robber panics.” Like Dave in the coffee bar he mimed the firing of a weapon, but this time it was a single shot. To the head I guess. Or maybe the heart. Either way, I have one more reason for not returning to this country until I’ve learned some Spanish.

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