Central America: notes from the road (Xeni)

Guatemala: Christo torturado
  • Image: snapshot of a religious poster in Antigua, Guatemala -- blood-soaked Christ. (Link 1, Link 2 / Xeni).

  • I'm in Central America for a few weeks -- in Guatemala right now following up on stories I reported earlier this year for NPR, and exploring others.

    Where I am right now, the coffee and wifi flow freely, wisps of smoke puff out of the volcan de fuego nearby, and all is well.

  • A quick skim through TV and the daily papers today (Prensa Libre, Siglo 21, and the like) shows several top stories as common themes. I'll recap them quickly here.

  • Much of what's in the news in Guatemala right now involves the upcoming presidential elections in September. TV and radio are saturated with campaign ads. Concerns over transparency and potential electoral fraud are high (not that we'd have any such worries in the US).

  • Crime is the dominant theme in the Guatemalan election campaigns, and it's a big problem here. Much of the current problem is blamed on drug trafficking and related gang activity -- Guatemala sits right in the middle of the trade path from South America to the US.

    A number of particularly violent attacks have taken place on public transportation in the nation's capital, Guatemala City, in recent weeks. People are asking if some of the attacks may have been orchestrated with political motives, because a climate of destabilization could help certain political parties running on a law and order platform. Billboards everywhere for one party promise "a strong hand" against crime. Some folks I've spoken with fear that this could presage an abandonment of human rights protections hard-won in peace accords after Guatemala's 36-year civil war. Link.

  • "El femicidio." The ongoing, growing problem of murder and violent sexual crimes against women. Nearly 600 killed in Guatemala in the past year, according to one source. Thousands of cases in the past few years, too few resources dedicated to investigating and punishing the crimes, and almost no criminal convictions.

    Amnesty International released a statement about the widespread violence against women in Guatemala recently, and this was covered in local papers this week. More here.

    Editorials in Guatemalan papers and conversations with people who work on this issue generally come down to this idea: the femicide epidemic is the direct, logical result of decades of impunity for human rights violations committed during the civil war. "The highest officials in our country got away with torture, disappearances, and murder for nearly four decades, and still walk among us as free men" one human rights worker told me, "of course impunity leads to more violence."

    I haven't seen the Canadian documentary film "Killer's Paradise" yet, but it sounds like a truly worthy project. The director, Giselle Portenier, has been following the story closely for years. Here's the film's official website, and here's the trailer.

  • Efraín Ríos Montt, the former head of a military regime responsible for some of the worst atrocities during Guatemala's civil war, is running for office again. Several Guatemalan papers ran op-eds this week from people who are basically asking (summarizing with some editorial liberty here): "WTF? How can this mass murderer be running for office again? Are we insane, that our country could even consider this -- when he should be in jail for war crimes?" Link to related item.

  • Police in El Salvador this week found the corpses of two young men identified as gay, and four (or more?) women identified as sex workers, in a house near the capital. The young people who died were tortured, sexually assaulted, then killed in particularly violent ways, according to news reports here. Some of the bodies were smashed, then half-buried under large rocks. Much discussion about the rights of gay, lesbian, and transgendered people, and of sex workers. I can't find the story online, but read it in a cafe this morning. It ran with a photo of the father of one victim, crying as he recognized the body of his child.

  • Reports of violence, break-ins, theft, death threats, and killings of human rights workers are on the rise in Guatemala: Link. Some of the most recent victims include people who work to protect the Mayan biosphere (an ecological protection zone), others who are working for the rights of indigenous farmers/peasants, and a group that provides legal support to people seeking justice on behalf of relatives killed in massacres during Guatemala's internal armed conflict.

  • Pollo Campero, the Guatemalan fried chicken franchise with an international cult following, is taking over the world. They're launching sites in China and Indonesia now, and this report says they've opened 600 sites in the past 7 years: Link. Overhead bins on the flights from Guatemala City to LAX are always packed with family-sized cartons of the stuff. To me, the stuff tastes like D-list KFC, but -- (shrugs).

  • Image above: from a series of Guatemalan street life photographs by Atlanta-based photojournalist Allen Sullivan.
    Sandra Guamux, 21, sits with her 5 month old son, Alfredo, at an abandoned gas station in Zona 4 of Guatemala City. About 20 otherwise homeless people live inside the station and most are addicted to huffing paint thinner to numb the cold and their hunger pains. Guamux said another baby was stolen from her five days after it was born last year, and she is convinced the baby went into an illegal adoption system. She said that the police told her they would not investigate the situation since she had no photographs of the child.

  • Adoptions: Guatemala is one of the top "sender" countries for foreign adoptions -- 4,000 Guatemalan babies were adopted by Americans last year. Guatemala signed on to an international adoption treaty this week, committing to bring adoptions under government regulation and make sure babies are not bought or stolen:
    Guatemalan law currently allows notaries to act as baby brokers who recruit birth mothers, handle paperwork and complete foreign adoptions in less than half the time it takes in other countries.

    But U.S. officials have urged Guatemala to tighten up the procedure amid concern brokers were paying or threatening mothers to give up their babies.

    Link. In some of the Mayan communities I've visited here -- extremely poor places where this is a big problem -- the phenomenon is known as "el robo de los ninos," the "theft of the children."
  • The virgin birth of a child to Cheney's gay daughter is totally weird news here. It's all over the tabloids. Guatemala is way Catholic, the Iraq war is extremely unpopular here, nobody likes Cheney, so this news is perceived as bizarre on many levels. Screenshot below.
  • Guatemala: big news

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