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After Decades of Civil War Followed by Neoliberal Reforms, Guatemala's Children are Fleeing Escalating Violence

Escaping a Failed State

by COSME CAAL

Gate 31 of the Tom Bradley International Terminal in Los Angeles is packed with white American tourists, volunteers and missionaries, waiting in little huddles. And there too are Guatemalans and American/Guatemalan children waiting to depart for Central America. Everyone chit chats. In English. In Spanish. In Spanglish. The tourists and volunteers pay us Guatemalans no mind. They exercise their civil inattention, a practice we Guatemalans consider rude and contemptuous. But no one really seems to care. We all want to go to Guatemala. I hear whispers and conversations about “dangerous Guatemala,” the incessant killings, and the deportations. Yet, here we are. Here I am, going home one more time as a transnational American.

Six hours later at the Guatemala International Airport, La Aurora, families jubilantly gather at the main gate. One by one Guatemalans get picked up by their families and go home. My ride is late. It is a chance for me to sit and observe. The white American tourists and volunteers huddle even tighter. Their faces reveal worry, even here at this very militarized airport, militarized for their safety. Their very presence is important for the Guatemalan government. They must be protected. They get picked up in a late model Mercedes Benz bus with tinted windows and an armed guard. There is a small placard on the windshield that says “Antigua,” the most secure city in the entire country. For two decades Antigua has been the main destination for white tourists from the United States and Europe. But between the airport and Antigua exists a Guatemala most tourists and volunteers never get to see. Especially white Americans.

Another world unfolds as soon as you walk out of the airport. A world buzzing with hard working people who live in perpetual fear. Extortion by well-armed and highly organized gangs is now a national problem. Most small businesses, corporations, and even sex workers and tortilla makers must pay up to these gangs upon threat of death. And there are many who refuse to pay, and even risk reporting them to the authorities. Murder is a common occurrence. Bus drivers are shot dead in broad daylight. Small storeowners or their relatives are shot on the spot. Body dumping has become commonplace.

Killing styles have become standardized. Incarcerated gang leaders dispatch two-men teams on motorcycles. The passenger is the shooter. Five to ten shots to the head and torso with a semi-automatic gun is the preferred execution method. According to the National Institute of Forensic Sciences 1,747 people have been murdered between January and May 31st of this year. Corrupt prison guards smuggle cell phones to organized crime leaders, along with any other tools they might need to guide the mayhem from behind bars.

Guatemala is...

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