Guatemala: a tiny country with a big crime problem


Editor's note: This article is part of "Underworld: a global crime blotter," a semi-regular series covering crime and punishment around the world.

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — A few strokes after 7 a.m. on a recent Friday, Jesus Alfonso sat in the photo department of El Periodico newspaper office, waiting for what in Guatemala has become the inevitable: a heinous crime. 

“Not just a murder. We don’t cover all the murders. We can’t. It has be more serious,” he said, sitting on a wobbly office chair and clicking through email on one of the three Macintosh computers in the shoebox-sized office. “Besides, if something was going to happen today, it would have happened by now.”

But in Guatemala, a tiny country with a big crime problem, murder is always in the offing. So, a few minutes later when his driver, a young man with gelled hair and an oversized smile, barged through the door, saying, “They just killed a bunch of bus passengers,” Alfonso didn’t exactly leap to his feet.

He paced for a few minutes, considering it. He talked to one of his photographers, who barely looked up from his tamale breakfast to hear the details.

Alfonso arrived at the scene 30 minutes later. The old school bus turned public transport had three windows shattered in that unmistakable spider web gunshot pattern.

Ten people wounded in the shooting were already taken to the hospital. Five bodies lay inside. Alfonso elbowed past a few firefighters at the edge of the crime scene, approached the bus, raised his camera and went to work.

In most other countries, such a scene might be considered front-page news: An armed attack on a public bus on the country’s busiest highway. In Guatemala, bus attacks and other violent crime scenes occur with such frequency that journalists often debate about which to cover.

The May massacre of 27 farm workers at a cattle ranch in the rural Peten region by an arm of the Mexican Zetas drug gang highlighted just how violent Guatemala has become. With drug traffickers increasingly setting up operations to push cocaine north to the United States, street gangs fighting for territory and a failing justice system, Guatemala has become one of the most violent countries in the world.

It has roughly as many residents as the state of Pennsylvania, but 1,000 percent more murders — 6,684 last year, according to the country’s forensic science institute. Even neighboring Mexico, for all the publicity it receives, is far safer: Guatemala’s murder rate is about four times higher.

The photographers and reporters who cover crime describe it with a term borrowed from Mexico, “la nota roja,” a red — or bloody — take on sensationalistic journalism.

The most dedicated nota roja reporters hop from crime scene to crime scene. “With 16 murders a day and seven or eight of them in the metropolitan area, it’s not hard to get to a story,” said Esteban Biba, 23, who writes, photographs and edits an average of three crime stories a day for Nuestro Diario, a daily dedicated to nota roja.

Biba, who has covered nota roja since he was 18, figures he covers hundreds of murders each year. A few hours after leaving the scene of the bus killings, Biba covered the murder of a 17-year-old who was shot to death while playing in the street with friends.

These days, in a push to be first to the scene — even before the police in some cases — he relies on Twitter. “If something happens in a neighborhood, sometimes a citizen will send a tweet. So I watch for that,” he said.

Reporters are also notified of crimes by fire departments — which run the ambulances and paramedic services — that compete with each other. “They all need to justify their budgets, so the more crimes they can respond to, the more publicity they get,” Alfonso said.

Indeed, on a recent visit to the municipal fire department in Guatemala City, a department spokesman with an oversized moustache pleaded with reporters not to cover a story. “What, it’s nothing. Someone just dumped a skeleton in the street. That’s not even a crime,” he said. “If you wait, I’ll get you something good.”
Fights between rival fire departments have broken out at crime scenes, reporters said.

Despite the high crime rate, attacks on journalists are rare in Guatemala, compared to neighboring countries. The International Press Institute’s annual report on press freedom found that 32 of the 102 journalists killed in the Americas last year were reporting in Mexico or Honduras. One Guatemalan journalist was murdered and a second died in a volcanic eruption. A local TV presenter was found murdered there last week, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Still, the threat is always there, journalists say. Doriam Morales, also a photographer at El Periodico, knows it well. In October 2008, her husband, a graphic designer at the paper, was on his way to work when an assailant riding in the back of a pickup truck shot an arrow through his heart.

“There are times when you get to crime scenes and the people that did it are still nearby,” said Mariela Castañon, who covers crime for La Hora newspaper. “Those are the moments that you wonder if something is going to happen. "

“This crime scene is pretty average,” she said, referring to the bus killings.

As she spoke, firefighters began pulling the bodies from the bus onto a white board stretcher: A man in a denim coat; a 25-year-old teacher with a white shirt turned half red; a 17-year-old student; and two of the alleged killers, who were shot by an armed passenger.

Paramedics covered the bodies in white tarps and lined them up behind the bus to be taken to the morgue. A group of Mayan women, relatives of one of the victims, huddled together, crying. A daughter rested her head on her mother’s shoulder. As the crowd began to disperse, children from the elementary school next door peaked through holes in the green metal door and asked for details.

Asked if covering so many crimes has affected him, Alfonso stood for a moment, and tugged on his baggy black T-shirt and pursed his lips. “I remember some of them. One time at a prison riot, some gang members decapitated other prisoners and they were walking around with the heads in their hands. I remember that because it was really unusual,” he said.

“But your memory isn’t a camera. It doesn’t document every case. You end up without much memory of what happened, even from something the day before. And after years, it passes through your mind like the wind.”

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