The last time I mentioned crime and cruising prominently in a trip report was two years ago in 2006. I generally avoid the topic of crime and cruising in our trip logs. People feel very strongly about the issue and it can be just as dicey as politics and religion.
Some folks get defensive and heated, or at a minimum become uncomfortable when an opinion different from theirs is strongly voiced. I guess that has happened to all of us at one time or another.
Whenever I encounter a strong opposing opinion, it challenges me to step back and examine my beliefs in earnest. It’s a lot like after-dinner cigar smokers having a great time when all of a sudden an oncologist sits down and joins in the conversation: the proverbial party pooper.
Back in 2006, while preparing to enter the danger zone of Venezuelan waters for the first time, I wrote about being surprised to discover that the cruising community is so divided in the way they cope with challenges of entering locales that present significantly higher risks to cruisers.
And the surprises still keep coming.
Just when I thought I had a pretty good feel for the crime and cruising topic, we came upon Guatemala in 2008.
Melissa and I have now been all the way around the entire Caribbean and are back in U.S. waters. It’s time for an update, this time solely about cruising and crime. Not just bland statistics mind you, but also a look at how different cruisers behave, especially when emotions and conflicting opinions clash.
In this edition, I am diving head-first into a “thorny patch” surely to be skinned-up in the end, but so be it. It’s long overdue if the truth is to be told.
The best part: after this report I will never have to mention the overall subject of crime and cruising again. And that’s the way I want it. By doing a thorough job and getting this very unpleasant task out of the way once and for all, the crime subject will not seep through the cracks of otherwise fun trip logs in the future.
More importantly, this report will satisfy in earnest an unfulfilled, nagging responsibility to my fellow cruisers out here, and also those still dreaming of cruising one day in the future.
The issue of crime and cruising keeps circling in the shadows of my writing efforts like a big Bull Shark, stalking the fringes of my reports of happy cruising. Here and now, I aim to shine a bright spotlight on that damn "shark" of a topic, show him to you from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail, and be done with it.
Our incredible 2008 crime experiences in Guatemala finally brought this issue to a head. Before we go further, let’s examine two first-hand reports of two separate incidents on Guatemala’s Rio Dulce during hurricane season 2008: one of piracy and murder; and, another of piracy and aggravated assault.
Rio Dulce Piracy Incident One: August 9, 2008
Daniel Dryden is murdered aboard Sunday’s Child. His wife survives a punctured lung.
Here is Nancy Dryden’s account of the attack:
“On Saturday August 9, 2008 we were anchored in the middle of Monkey Bay on our sailboat, Sunday's Child. We motored to this location on Friday afternoon (August 8) from the El Relleno Marina (10-15 minutes away). All day, Saturday, we did 'boat chores'. Dan was in the starboard cockpit locker fixing corroded connections to the starter motor, and I scrubbed the green growth on the boat bottom using the dinghy.
I stopped around 6:30 pm while Dan put things away in the starboard locker where he had been working (lines, life jackets, fenders, etc.). When Dan was done, we enjoyed the clouds of the sunset. There was loud music with electronic bass coming from the north side of the river. We could not identify the source of the music. We preferred calmer music and went into our cabin below to hear our own classical music. We washed with a sponge bath and Dan wrapped a towel around himself. I put on a shirt and underpants. At 8:30 pm we were making a salad for dinner, and we heard a sound of something knocking into the hull.
Dan headed up to the cockpit to identify the sound, with me following right behind him. I heard him say "what the hell" as 4 men with straight-bladed machetes came into the cockpit and forced Dan back down the steps from the main hatch. As the intruders came down the steps it appeared that they injured Dan with a machete, possibly to his side. At the same time as the men descended one of them flicked off the cabin lights from the main switch-board, as if they were very familiar with boats. Then they used bright flashlights to see where they were going. It appeared that there were two tall and slim Latin men, one medium height Latin man with a solid build, and one small, possibly indigenous man, who tried to hide his face with his shirt.
Dan was forced down the isle, and I moved toward the starboard setee. Dan went to the V berth as one of the intruders came at me and poked me in the left apical region with a machete. My lung instantly collapsed, and I sat down on the starboard setee to hold the wound and focus on breathing. Whenever I took my hand off the wound, air would come out of it with a sputtering sound.
I heard Dan fighting one of the assailants with his curve-bladed machete, which he pulled from under the mattress of the V berth. At the same time the man who attacked me leaned forward into my face and whispered in Spanish "donde estan los dollares" as he held a flashlight in front of his face and mine. I told him in Spanish "no hay dollares solo quetzales, dollares es en el banco." Then I saw a tall man with curly hair (the man who had probably been fighting with Dan) raise his machete over his head and plunge it down in front of him. When the machete was raised I screamed, "no, no, no" and a third person rushed toward me with a pillow to cover my mouth and screams. He held the pillow on my face for a moment, until I stopped screaming.
My attacker then held an ice pick in front of my face and he repeated in Spanish "donde estan los dollares? Quieres morir?" and then he held the ice pick over my head. I closed my eyes and said quietly in English "Baba, Baba, Baba, Baba" my word for God, as I prepared to die, because we did not have dollars on the boat. The ice pick had a chipped red painted square wood handle and pick the size of a screw driver with a pointed end. I then heard two rasping gasps from Dan. My attacker again said in Spanish to me "donde estan los dollares." I tried to stand to go to the chart table where the quetzales were. I could not stand (due to shock and the wound) and the attacker tried to pull me to my feet with my left arm, but my legs were weak. Finally, I stood up and moved toward the chart table. I had to step over Dan's legs to get to the chart table. Dan was in the galley on his stomach, chest raised, arms spread, left arm caught by the sink cabinet and right arm on the refrigerator cabinet. His head was extended backwards and pressing against the oven.
I sat down at the chart table, lifted the top and looked under it for the quetzals. I was surprised to see that they were gone. I then looked into the backpack where Dan's wallet and credit cards usually were and saw that the wallet and credit cards were also gone. I found no money, as it was already taken by the assailants. As I sat at the chart table a tall, muscular man reached over me and tried to pull the chart plotter from the shelf, but it was screwed down to the shelf. It seemed like some signal was given because the men very quickly exited the boat, leaving some of the things they had collected, like my jewelry case which I later saw on the refrigerator. A tall man exited from the pilot berth, and he had our hiking binoculars in his left hand. I heard a big splash and it sounded like one of the men jumped or fell into the water.
I switched on the cabin lights at the main switchboard and picked up the radio receiver and called for help on channel 68. I repeated my location to a responder on the radio. After about three minutes of focused breathing while sitting at the chart table, I heard a boat approaching and slowly climbed the steps to the cockpit. John from Monkey Bay came aboard and went below to help Dan. When John turned him over, Dan's head clunked on the floor. I gasped and John said ‘I don't think he felt it.’ I knew Dan was dead. I asked John to hand me my shorts since I was still only wearing underpants and a top and I knew I had to go to the hospital. As John helped me put my shorts on, Frank Jolly arrived. Frank went below and took Dan's pulse, and then returned to me in the cockpit and guided me to his boat. A nurse named Roberta James came on board and told me she would go with me to the hospital and help me. I couldn't easily get into Frank's boat, so he caught me as I fell forward into his boat four feet below. Roberta supported me as I sat in the boat on the way to shore and in the truck on the way to the hospital.”
Nancy was transported to a hospital in nearby Morales, a larger town about forty-five minutes inland from the river.
Dryden family members came to Guatemala to support Nancy as she recovered in a hospital in the nearby town of Morales. She made a speedy recovery. The link referenced above under the photograph provides information about what the Dryden family dealt with in the aftermath of the incident while trying to pursue charges against two of the perpetrators who were arrested.
It was a frustrating experience to say the least. After getting the run around from the Guatemalan authorities for weeks, Nancy was finally allowed to appear before a judge and give her statement. Thereafter, she and her family members departed Guatemala and returned to their home in Alaska. In the end, the arrested suspects were released.
Rio Dulce Piracy Incident Two: August 10, 2008
Michelle and Roy Parsons are gagged and bound aboard their yacht Dream Odyssey and robbed at gunpoint.
Here is Michelle’s account of their attack:
“At around 8:30 p.m., while eating dinner, watching a movie and running the generator, at least five men with machetes and a gun, boarded our boat and actually came right into the salon and stood behind me before we even knew they were there! We did not resist.
Before it was all over, they tied us up, gagged us, threatened Roy with a knife for the dinghy keys, took our money/credit cards, two laptops (with all of our charts, navigational guides and travel logs for the past four years, plus all of our photographs!), printer, watches, cameras, camcorder, DVD player, LCD-TV, phones, various chargers, radio/cassette player, our safe, etc., etc. They tried very hard to steal the dinghy and motor but were unsuccessful.
We estimate at least $17,000 worth of equipment was taken! Some equipment was damaged while ripping things out, but they did not otherwise trash or damage the boat and THANKFULLY we were not hurt! They were on board at least an hour.”
The Parsons granted me an exclusive interview that will be published in Latitudes and Attitudes magazine in 2009’s May issue. The article is included herein, later in the “Cruisers Speak Out” section and is a shocking account of how poorly the Parsons were treated by the local Rio Dulce society in the aftermath of the piracy attack.
These two, major crime occurrences involving cruisers happened in close physical proximity to us on the Rio Dulce. It threw the entire Rio Dulce boating society into flux regarding what should be done, if anything at all, about security on the Rio Dulce.
I had not planned it this way – to write an installment focused exclusively on crime. But, as I sat down and tried to get my thoughts together on drafting a “typical” Indigo Moon report on Guatemala’s Rio Dulce it quickly became wholly unworkable.
It was obvious that the overwhelming crime and risk controversies we endured in Guatemala could not be tackled in a routine report without those troubling issues obliterating the stunning natural beauty and extremely interesting cultural history of Guatemala.
I try to explain it to people by analogizing that Guatemala is much like a Bengal Tiger: fascinating, stunningly beautiful, and deadly dangerous if you enter its cage and let your guard down at just the wrong moment. Wait, Guatemala is the land of the Jaguar, so let’s picture that jungle cat instead.
Regardless, trying to put all of Guatemala on one plate is like attempting to appreciate the flavor of key lime pie with a whole bottle of Tabasco poured on it. It just won’t work. So, we’ll drink that blistering bottle of Tabasco now and save the tangy-sweet pie for later.
I will post a subsequent, independent trip report on Guatemala that focuses on all the good things there. But this report focuses on its dangerous features – features that have resulted in world-wide journalists deeming Guatemala to be one of, if not the most, dangerous of countries in the Americas.
Why are cruisers reluctant to focus on crime?
There has been very little emphasis in the Indigo Moon reports about crime risk for several reasons. For one, it’s a real downer; a bummer of a subject to unwrap and offer-up to family, friends and armchair sailing enthusiasts back home. Cruising web sites are supposed to be focused exclusively on fun and should not wander into subjects with an awful stench, right?
Moreover, risk and crime discussions are so utterly taboo in cruising pot-luck and sundowner gatherings that they rank as sacrilegious. Some cruising dreamers become extremely ugly and confrontational if someone mentions the real risks of cruising.
People back home sipping coffee and looking at gray winter days of snow and ice, all while reading dreadful local stories in their morning newspaper, prefer the cruising dream to appear as a Jimmy Buffett-inspired mirage where there is no pressure and everything is warm and wonderful. It’s the grass is greener syndrome on steroids.
There is certainly nothing wrong with dreaming about blue water sailing, beaches, bikinis, sun tans, and romance under the swaying palms. It makes people feel better. Feeling better is good. And it has made Jimmy Buffett a gazillionaire – he figured out how to bottle it and sell it.
Melissa and I have come to take notice of just how many movies end with a clever or against-all-odds escape from a gritty and grizzly cold world to make it to the iconic vision of Heaven on Earth: a balmy, tropical palm-laden beach (with or without sailboat). At least to some degree, we have been conditioned by Hollywood to believe that the Caribbean is the perfect destination where all of the rich, lucky, and clever people of the world wind up.
It is also commonsensical that pure dreamers amongst us have a natural tendency to keep anything bad about cruising in the dark and simply opt not to talk about it or acknowledge it. “I’m just not going to think about that right now” is a very common strategy.
Sure, some destinations in the Caribbean live up to the peaceful paradise we all dream of. But there are other destinations that are much more dangerous that they appear to be at first blush. The natural tendency for cruisers is to keep such negative information in the dark.
But, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brandeis once said “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
It’s time to fling open the drapes on crime and cruising. Things got really bad on Guatemala’s Rio Dulce in 2008 and I am not willing to gloss over the experience like a good little dreamy cruiser should.
Thus, there is most-likely something in this report to grate on most all readers, one way or another. Like a trial judge faced with a very complex case involving legitimate cross-claims, if all parties to the suit are not outraged by the court’s ultimate ruling, the court has failed to do a good job.
The report includes several, graphic eye-witness accounts of grisly murders in Guatemala and it is very disturbing.
The next trip report, after this one, will be back to fun as usual: a journey through the unparalleled jungle beauty of Guatemala. It is one of the most beautiful and mysterious destinations in the entire Caribbean.
But as for this report, well . . . it’s as revolting as it is gripping.
Warning: Reading Actually Required
Making matters even more unpalatable for some of you, this report is useless unless you actually take the time to slow down and read it thoroughly and think about it.
The subject matter is deadly-serious and complicated. It cannot be effectively glossed-over or skimmed. Nor can you come to your own conclusions unless you withhold comment until you have read all of it and digested it. For example, if it is your personality to scream at the television during Presidential Debates instead of listening carefully and ruminating, then you will probably not get anything useful out of this report.
I promise you this: if you do read the report, you’ll probably be stunned by what you learn about Guatemala’s history and the current state of affairs there. Also, you’ll be surprised at how cruisers deal with risk.
Most important, you’ll know much more about the often secret dynamics of cruising and crime in general. You will be better informed and better equipped to deal with the challenges of visiting places like Venezuela, Colombia, Guatemala, St Lucia, St. Vincent and other “hotspots” that flare up in significantly dangerous ways.
Ok. Enough of all that. You’ve got the picture. Let’s Roll!
II. THE EVOLUTION OF CRUISING AND CRIME RISKS
The act of cruising has not changed. Right now, as you are reading this, somewhere in the U.S.A. someone is untying a sailboat to head out on the adventure of a lifetime. And they are just as excited and in awe of their undertaking as famed solo-circumnavigator Joshua Slocum was when he set sail back in 1895. And they should be. It is truly a defining moment in one’s life.
Perhaps the new cruisers are not planning a circumnavigation, nor out to obtain “bragging rights” against all the competitive-type cruisers who love to measure themselves against others. No matter what their plans, large or small, the new cruisers are very excited about visiting foreign lands and exotic ports, even if it just a wonderful hop to the Bahamas and back.
Whether your destinations are near or far, the dream of cruising is precisely the same as it has always been: a constant.
But the character of many destinations continues to change. There is an ever-widening gap between the blissful expectations of dreamy-eyed cruisers and the harsh realities of a more-violent world. Cruisers’ down-island expectations are not keeping pace with seriously increasing risks in several locales.
In the late 1800’s Joshua Slocum encountered “pirates” in the form of island natives in loin cloths armed with spears and perhaps bow and arrow. Fast forward. In 2008, pirates are not just paddling dugouts. Instead, fast boats, automatic weapons, radios and cell phones give the Pirates an upper-hand against sailboats and ships alike. It’s a new age.
Piracy has finally hit the mainstream news and the general public is becoming aware of some of the major hotspots in the world such as the Straights of Malacca near Singapore where very bold gangs actually run out to sea in small boats and take control of huge ships underway.
But the fact is that piracy is not limited to far away places on the other side of the world. The Caribbean has well known piracy hotspots too, such as coastal Venezuela, coastal Colombia, St. Vincent and St. Lucia in the Eastern Caribbean, the Mosquito Coasts of Nicaragua and Honduras, and now Guatemala’s Rio Dulce.
All cruisers, by nature, still want to visit every port and see all the sights. That is why we are all out here instead of back home on a fluffy sofa watching reality television.
But statistical crime data, and political and social unrest in certain locales, proves some ports are becoming significantly more risky these days. Instead of acknowledging it, tempering the dream, and altering behavior to meet the changing conditions, some cruisers instead choose to romanticize, minimize, rationalize and desensitize.
All sorts of mental gymnastics can be mastered: “we won’t let a few isolated incidents change our behavior” and “we refuse to lock our boat – we didn’t come out here to live under lock and key like we did back home” and, a favorite: “there is no risk out here; after all, nothing has happened to me.”
It is not a fun moment of clarity for romantic cruisers when realty smashes in and proves that, unfortunately, some of the places in the greatly anticipated Carefree Caribbean Paradise are tremendously more dangerous statistically than the cities they departed in the U.S.A.
There is no better place to start to examine all of this than to take a hard look at Guatemala’s Rio Dulce and what is evolving there. It is a prime example of what happens when romantic cruising dreams grapple with realities of increasingly risky destinations.
III. GUATEMALA: DYNAMITE COMES IN SMALL PACKAGES
Before we move on, I want to impress upon you just how small Guatemala is. As a United States native, I am still guilty of overlooking the important role that geographic scale plays in the assessment of social unrest, crime and risk.
I can look at a map and readily comprehend that certain countries like Guatemala are physically tiny compared to the U.S.A. and the islands of the Eastern Caribbean are mere molecules when compared to the U.S.A.
Even so, I tend to subconsciously evaluate other attributes about tiny countries as if they are the same massive size as the United States.
Crime and risk are precisely the types of subjects that are easy for me to wholly misinterpret if I allow “big U.S.A. thought” to apply to tiny countries.
In the United States it is easy to declare with absolute certainty that within its three-and-a-half-million square miles there are still wide expanses of sparsely populated countryside and still thousands of “Mayberry” small towns where true big-city-ghetto crime statistics simply don’t apply.
There are quite a few communities where the majority of the population is comprised of educated, literate people who have learned and attempt to adhere to the Ten Commandments, generally speaking. Some municipalities even have monuments delineating the Ten Commandments.
In short, it is quite possible to physically distance yourself from areas with high concentrations of violent crime in the U.S.A. simply because the territory is so vast.
In Guatemala, there is no such “elbow room” or striking differences in population density. Guatemala is a very small space. It is highly populated in rural areas and it is unusual because the majority of the nation’s population does not live in the big city. Although that ratio is reported to be shifting, right now more folks live in the “country” than in the city. And there is only one big city: Guatemala City.
Thus, the majority of the population blankets the rural areas. The Civil War (1954 to 1996) drove thousands up into the mountain jungles and some villages can only be reached by hiking for days. It’s a strange juxtaposition. Guatemala gives one the unusual sensation that it simultaneously very rural and very populated.
To provide scale, let’s look at some numbers.
These are the areas of various locales in square miles:
Try and keep these perspectives in mind when reading this report about crime and violence in Guatemala. Violence and crime are never far away occurrences in Guatemala. The severe violence of Guatemala is nationwide.
See, I said "nationwide" and you immediately thought of a huge area again. Stop that. “Nationwide” in Guatemala means something much more compact and concentrated than you are used to thinking about. Forget about Mayberry versus New Orleans, or Lake Woebegone versus Manhattan.
And don’t even think about slicing Guatemalan urban areas into thinner baloney as can sometimes legitimately be done in the U.S.A.
For example, the stunningly dangerous New Orleans resides in small pockets such as the Magnolia Street Housing Project, reputed to be one of the most deadly and violent housing projects in the entire United States (it closed after Hurricane Katrina). One source claims that the Magnolia Projects were single-handedly responsible for New Orleans’ overall dismal murder statistics.
In contrast, it has been said that you can be killed anywhere at anytime in Guatemala, as we will see later in this report.
Guatemala City is comprised of several “zones” with Zone 1 being the oldest. Zones such as 14 are new and modern. Zone 1 is notorious for being very dangerous, but no matter where you go in Guatemala City, or the rest of the country for that matter, shotgun toting armed guards are always close by and seem to be everywhere you look.
For example, on the way to a new, modern shopping mall in Guatemala City (complete with a multiple screen I-MAX theater), our taxi drove by an adjacent Mercedes Benz dealership and it was surrounded by private armed guards with pump shotguns and bulletproof vests. It was freakish and looked like a SWAT team was dealing with a hostage situation, but it turned out that it was just business as usual.
Anyway, when reading this report, keep things in perspective geographically and do not make the mistake of imagining the violence in Guatemala is compartmentalized to the same degree it often is in the U.S.A., or larger Latin American counties like Venezuela and Colombia.
All that said, before we can take a hard look at how well cruisers are dealing with today’s risky cruising destinations, we must first establish what it exactly is that they are dealing with. In the next section, we will first gain an understanding of the level of risk that tourists and cruisers experience in Guatemala. Then, later on in the report we will examine increasing risks in other destinations throughout the Caribbean.
IV. GUATEMALA’S ONGOING LEGACY OF VIOLENCE
To even begin to comprehend the gravity of violence issues in Guatemala one must be cognizant of the foundation upon which its current climate of lawlessness rests.
Timely news reports and investigative writings on past and present social climates in Guatemala both ultimately lead to the same irrefutable conclusion: Guatemala has been an extremely violent country for half a century and it is still extremely violent today.
As set forth in articles below, the main features of Guatemala’s current plight include: a spectacular national murder rate; a virtually non-existent criminal prosecution rate; an ineffective police force that is not trusted by the citizenry; an inept and overwhelmed judicial system; and, a skyrocketing cocaine smuggling industry controlled by powerful crime organizations. Corruption is rampant on all fronts.
Sources reveal that powerful organized crime families, reputed to be a dozen or more in number are reported to operate in ways resembling the Italian mafia. Guatemala has been divvied up into territories and these organizations purportedly control the whole of Guatemala.
In mid-2008, an outspoken Guatemalan newspaper, Prensa Libre, actually published a map of Guatemala delineating all of the organized crime territories and included photographs and names of the heads of each family, including the family that allegedly controls the Rio Dulce and its surrounding areas.
It is also widely reported in the media that organized crime has infiltrated all levels of Guatemala’s government. In late 2008, listening devices and hidden cameras were discovered in the President’s offices and even within his residential areas.
The private militias of organized crime are said to outgun the Guatemalan Armed Forces and private armies “handle” problems. Murder is the methodology.
Such vigilante activity is not limited, however, to the ranks of organized crime networks.
The general citizenry of Guatemala also routinely undertakes self-help justice in the form of murder. In both rural and urban Guatemala, citizens do not involve police, nor even consider redress through police and the courts. Instead, if an issue alarms a neighborhood, township, or village, its citizens have no qualms about forming a lynch mob.
But, they don’t bring a rope -- they bring gasoline. Or perhaps phosphorous; it is the stuff that matches are made of.
The alleged suspect is covered with phosphorous or gasoline and burned alive as the crowd watches. This type of execution is believed to cleanse evil spirits from the soon-to-be-dead suspect.
Thus, the term “cleansing” is used as shorthand for these accepted-practice vigilante murders in Guatemala. And while burning people alive is customary, the lynch mob might just club or chop a suspect to death if nobody can find a cigarette lighter.
A good number of gringo and expatriate boaters who permanently live on the Rio Dulce categorize the cleansings as “frontier justice.” Some say that Guatemala is a Wild West and contend that these murders are perfectly necessary and efficient under the circumstances.
And more: a handful of gringos I met on the Rio Dulce go beyond a mere pragmatic view of these murders. They have become absolutely intoxicated with the concept and relish it with a John Wayne swagger.
In truth, however, when all hype, semantics and popular rationalizations are stripped away, the end result is pretty simple: cold-blooded murder, not justice, is a current component of modern Guatemalan culture. Guatemala appears to have become desensitized to murder. A human-rights social-conscience has not yet evolved in Guatemala. “Thou Shalt not Kill” has been obliterated.
But all these attributes are merely symptoms. A more compelling issue looms: how did such a stunningly murderous culture develop in Guatemala?
At the forefront is a history that includes a shockingly genocidal thirty-six year civil war that ended in Guatemala only 12 years ago.
During that war, hundreds of thousands of people were murdered or "disappeared." They don’t know exactly how many, but hundreds of thousands were killed and the massacre has now been flatly categorized as including genocide against indigenous Mayan Indians. Over four hundred fifty peaceful villages were wiped out and tens of thousands fled to Mexico and beyond.
What happened to spark such catastrophic violence?
Well, the short answer is that two tremendous forces became aligned in Guatemala: 1) United Fruit Company’s financial interests; and; 2) the United States’ anti-communism Cold War interests.
When these two tremendous powers combined, a deadly synergy sparked an explosion of bloody conflict in Guatemala that lasted thirty-six years and is, in reality, still ongoing.
The aftermath of the civil war includes unresolved issues that boil. Some say that the civil war has not ended at all, that nothing has changed at all, and that the government is still engaging in genocide albeit more discretely. Current reports as of February 2009 indicate that things are getting even worse.
It takes effort and time to begin to understand Guatemala and there is no better place to begin than with The Octopus.
United Fruit Company, Communism, and Civil War
Nicknamed El Pulpo (The Octopus) for having it “tentacles into everything,” United Fruit’s beginnings are found in Costa Rica, where in 1871 Henry Meiggs contracted to build a railroad there. Meiggs’ young nephew, Minor Keith, was involved in the project too. The railway project was difficult. As a sideline, Keith dabbled in cultivating bananas along the railway in 1873.
Bananas proved to be tremendously profitable. By 1900, United Fruit was the predecessor to today’s multinational corporation. It built the railroads in Latin America. It owned the “Great White Fleet” of ships that transported bananas and other cargo to the port of New Orleans.
Bananas were marketed as the first fast food and touted to be as important as milk to growing children. Also, entertainer Carmen Miranda, with her banana costume, inspired the invention of Chiquita, the beautiful banana lady logo we all loved as kids.
The banana trade was making millions and most of the crop landed in the Port of New Orleans. Louisiana has often been called a Banana Republic. I had no idea that the popular slur is actually based in fact.
Sam Zemurray, nicknamed “The Banana Man” came from New York to make his start as a banana trader on the New Orleans docks. He ultimately owned a large part of United Fruit and eventually sold out for a reported 33 million in company stock, thereafter retiring in a rural Louisiana Parish north of New Orleans. The Louisiana town of Zemurray, Louisiana, is named after him and his famed Zemurray Gardens are now a tourist attraction.
Wielding tremendous power over a monopoly that controlled the entire shipping infrastructure of Central America, parts of northern South America, and the entire central Caribbean basin, United Fruit was the largest employer in Central America and the Colombian areas of South America. For all practical purposes, United Fruit owned Central America, particularly Guatemala. It even owned and operated the Guatemalan postal service.
At its peak, United Fruit owned eighty percent of the arable land in Guatemala but only cultivated twenty percent of it. The term “arable” is derived from the Latin word “arare” which means “to plough.” Arable land is that which can be used for growing crops.
United Fruit’s only reason for owning so much of the land was to prevent competitors (or anyone else for that matter) from farming it.
Meanwhile, the indigenous people of Guatemala were starving, working for the giant corporation earning pennies a day under the most terrible conditions imaginable, and spending those few pennies at United Fruit’s company stores.
In light of the extreme poverty, it was only a matter of time until basic human rights movements sprang up, and in the 1950’s the politics of Guatemala began to evolve more toward securing better working and living conditions for its people.
To counter such movements, powerful men at the helm of United Fruit were allegedly more than willing to exploit “Cold War fears” to categorize basic human rights movements in Guatemala as “communist uprisings.”
During this time, in the mid 1950’s, Allen Dulles was on the Board Of Directors of the United Fruit Company. It just so happened that Allen’s brother was Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State under President Eisenhower.
Foster Dulles was famous for his aggressive stance against communism around the world and he was the perfect person to enlist in any war on alleged communism anywhere in the world, much less at the United State’s doorstep in Central America.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, and the turn of events that ultimately caused United Fruit’s “scorched earth” reaction, was the Guatemalan government’s declaration that it intended to “buy” back some of the land that United Fruit was holding in order to return it to the people to be farmed.
One critical error was made by the Guatemalan government, however. It declared that it could buy (seize from a business standpoint) United Fruit’s property at its mere tax value (pennies on the dollar), instead of fair market value.
That offended United Fruit’s business sensibilities to the point of sending it into scorched earth mode.
More fatal, the pennies on the dollar buy-back tactics proposed by the Guatemalan government were perfectly susceptible to being couched as nothing more than a thinly-veiled communist agenda intent on seizing private property.
Secretary of State Dulles was a key player in protecting United Fruit from this alleged communist land expropriation and Dulles had the power and mind set to promote the CIA-led Operation PBSUCCESS that overthrew the new, democratically elected but allegedly communist government of Guatemala.
There was another less-publicized group involved as well. The extremely tight-knit and ultra-wealthy tiny upper class of Guatemala. -- a handful of families who profited immensely from, and supported, United Fruit’s efforts. They were also opposed to any and all human rights movements, obviously to be funded at their expense as well.
There are some who go as far as to claim that there never was a communist threat in Guatemala and that the entire civil war was a complete fraud perpetrated by conspirators comprised of United Fruit and the Guatemalan upper class. The mission: keep the rich extremely rich by keeping the poor stupendously poor.
But, there is evidence that there were at least some legitimate communist overtones to the Guatemalan human rights movements of the 1950’s. It is reported that General Che Guaviera (“El Che”), THE Icon of Latin American communism and part-architect of Cuba’s communist regime, was operating within guerilla forces in Guatemala. at one point in the 1950’s. Thus, claims that there were absolutely no communist efforts in Guatemala cannot be supported either.
The more you read, the more that it ALL seems to be true to some degree and that the most likely landscape leading up to the Civil War included both pure human rights issues and communist ambitions working within the human rights movements. When all theories are viewed simultaneously, it becomes apparent that competing theories are not mutually exclusive.
Guatemala's Civil War can be best described by borrowing Winston Churchill’s famous quote about Russia and adding two additional words: “it is a blood-soaked riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
In Guatemala I saw disconcerting messages that were not seen anywhere else in the Caribbean. For example, the “welcome message” in graffiti on a wall one block from the Emperial Palace and the Cathedral in Guatemala City: “Long Live Chavez! Kill all the Yankees!”
There is obviously still a lot of friction in Guatemala.
Here is a brief overview of Guatemala’s troubled past, derived from wikipedia.com:
From the 1950s through the 1990s, the U.S. government directly supported Guatemala's anti-communist army with training, weapons, and money. In 1954, Arévalo's freely elected Guatemalan successor, Jacobo Arbenz, was overthrown by a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) orchestrated 1954 coup d'état.
Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas was installed as president in 1954 and ruled until he was assassinated by a member of his personal guard in 1957.
By the mid 1960’s anti-communist right-wing paramilitary organizations, such as the Mano Blanco (White Hand) Anticommunist Secret Army (Ejército Secreto Anticomunista), were formed. Those organizations were the forerunners of the infamous "Death Squads" that murdered tens of thousands more.
Military advisers of The United States Army Special Forces (Green Berets) were sent to Guatemala to train anti-communist troops and help transform its Guatemala.’s army into a modern counter-insurgency force. A tiny country smaller than Louisiana had the most sophisticated army by far in Central America.
The 1970s saw the formation of two new guerrilla organizations, The Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) and the Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA). Those groups conducted counter-attacks against army forces. Attacks also included urban and rural guerrilla warfare, mainly against military figures and some of the civilian supporters of the army.
In 1979, the U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, ordered a ban on all military aid to the Guatemalan Army because of the widespread and systematic abuse of human rights (murder and genocide).
In 1980, a group of Guatemalans (Quiché Indigenous Peoples) took over the Spanish Embassy to protest army massacres in the countryside. The Guatemalan government launched an assault that killed almost everyone inside. Then, a fire consumed the building. The Guatemalan government claims that the activists set the fire and immolated themselves.
The Spanish ambassador, who survived the fire, disputes this claim, claiming instead that the Guatemalan police intentionally killed almost everyone inside and then the police set the fire to destroy the evidence of their acts.
As a result of this incident, the government of Spain broke diplomatic relations with Guatemala. This government was overthrown in 1982. General Efraín Ríos Montt was named President of the military junta, continuing the bloody campaign of torture, disappearances, and scorched-earth warfare.
The country became a pariah internationally.
In 1982, the four Guerrilla groups, EGP, ORPA, FAR and PGT, merged and formed the URNG, influenced by the Salvadoran guerrilla force FMLN, the Nicaraguan FSLN and Cuba's Government. The URNG became a major force in Guatemala.
As a result of the Army's scorched-earth tactics in the countryside, more than 45,000 Guatemalans fled across the border to Mexico. The Mexican government placed the refugees in camps in Chiapas and Tabasco.
In 1992, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a Guatemalan Mayan woman, Rigoberta Menchú, for her efforts to bring international attention to the Guatemalan government-sponsored genocide against the indigenous Mayan population of Guatemala.
The Guatemalan Civil War officially ended in 1996 with a peace accord between the guerrillas and the government, negotiated by the United Nations through intense brokerage by nations such as Norway and Spain. Both sides made major concessions. The guerrilla fighters disarmed and received a portion of land to farm.
According to the U.N.-sponsored truth commission the ("Commission for Historical Clarification"), government forces and state-sponsored paramilitaries were responsible for over 93% of the human rights violations during the war.
During the first 10 years of the war, the victims of the state-sponsored terror were primarily students, workers, professionals, and opposition figures, but in the last years they were thousands of mostly rural Mayan farmers and non-combatants.
More than 450 Mayan villages were destroyed and over 1 million people became internal and external refugees. In certain areas, such as Baja Verapaz, the Truth Commission considered that the Guatemalan state engaged in an intentional policy of genocide against particular ethnic groups in the Civil War.
In 1999, U.S. president Bill Clinton openly declared the United States was wrong to have ever provided support to the Guatemalan military.
The above short-summary of the civil war is but a miniscule scratch on the surface. The entire story would fill many books, spark ferocious debate amongst historians and experts, and is surely beyond the scope of anything that can be produced here.
Two Good Sources Of Baseline Information about Guatemala’s Violent History
ONE: "BANANAS!: How the United Fruit Company Changed the World” by Peter Chapman
This book does a good workmanlike job of walking a reader in a straight line through the complex and multi-layered history of United Fruit Company. One review is as follows:
“In this gripping exploration of corporate maneuvering and subterfuge, Peter Chapman shows how the importer United Fruit set the precedent for the institutionalized power and influence of today's multinational companies. Bananas! is a sharp and lively account of the rise and fall of this infamous company, arguably the most controversial global corporation ever – from the jungles of Costa Rica to the dramatic suicide of its CEO, who leapt from an office on the forty-fourth floor of the Pan Am building in New York City. From the marketing of the banana as the first fast food, to the company’s involvement in an invasion of Honduras, the Bay of Pigs crisis, and a bloody coup in Guatemala, Chapman weaves a dramatic tale of big business, political deceit, and outright violence to show how one company wreaked havoc in the ‘banana republics’ of Central America, and how terrifyingly similar the age of United Fruit is to our age of rapid globalization.”
TWO: "When the Mountains Tremble"
This award-winning 1983 film documentary stars Guatemalan Nobel Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchú.
The film is actually a mosaic of independent film segments randomly collected by filmmakers Pamela Yates and Newton Thomas Sigel as they infiltrated both the Guerilla Forces and the opposing Armed Forces of Guatemala, all as the civil war raged.
These unbelievably courageous filmmakers literally became a two-person army of guerilla filmmakers, risking their lives day after day to provide the outside world with an unprecedented view into the darkest corners of Guatemala’s conflicts.
And it is shocking. Everyone needs to see this movie and appreciate the severity of the human rights violations that took place. It is astounding.
Watch the film. Then watch it again with the Director’s Commentary feature switched on. The filmmakers explain that the structure of the film came to be by needing "glue" to hold all of their film segments together. Nobel Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchú became that glue. She appears between various sections of footage to convey her personal experiences and observations in a way that helps to enhance the film and perfect transitions between incongruent film segments.
I had the precious opportunity to chat casually with a local Guatemalan who suffered the Civil War as a child right on the banks of the Rio Dulce. When asked about the movie, he remarked: “Yes, it is all true, but that was nothing; things went on all the time that were much worse than anything in that film.”
He went on to describe being terrorized as a child, often captured and held by the police for no reason at all, and then being luckily released. Some were not so lucky. There was always a fear that death was just around the corner. That type of traumatic psychological conditioning is impossible to forget. He went on to report that at least one family member fled to avoid a second term in the Guatemalan Army and has been gone for twenty-seven years.
In the end, it is simply unfathomable. How in the world could bananas lead to all of this?!
Here are some images that demonstrate that, within Guatemala and the other Banana Republics, the banana evokes quite a different emotion than what was aimed for by United Fruit’s marketing departments in the U.S.A.:
When Will Peace Come To Guatemala.?
It is now 2009. Not one single key issue of the Guatemala Civil War has been fully resolved. Without resolution, there can be no peace. Tension remains extremely high in Guatemala. Recent 2009 elections were marred by violence. The war may have ended on paper, but in the city, on the highways, and in the rural villages, Rule of Law has not been achieved at all. Therefore, the road to true peace is severely obstructed.
The police were not trusted by the people during the civil war. That is still the case today. Shockingly, some of the military leaders responsible for genocide during the civil war still remain in office in top Guatemalan government. The government refuses to release information necessary to investigate and prosecute war crimes and genocide.
That does not mean that there are not honest and dedicated people in the justice system fighting against all odds, literally putting their lives at risk and getting killed while attempting to bring justice to the people of Guatemala.
Massive obstacles remain. For one thing, the very structure of the criminal justice system is severely flawed. The police and courts have very little ability to act on crime independently. It was explained to me that, in Guatemala, the “State” does not prosecute criminals. The victim is the only party with legal standing to do so. Victims must swear out a complaint and testify or the case is dismissed.
Thus, the system itself begs for more . . . you guessed it . . . murder. The most straightforward path to avoid prosecution is to assassinate the complainant(s).
Thus, intimidation and murder is routinely used to silence victims who seek to prosecute criminals. Victims of crime who speak out find themselves under twenty-four hour a day armed guard.
All said and done, in today’s Guatemala, the preferred method of dispute resolution is vigilante murder. The message: it may be uncivilized but at least a real result is obtained.
There are millions of legally owned firearms at play in Guatemala and an estimated three million illegal guns more on top of that. Post-civil war, the country is knee-deep in guns.
Guatemala’s population, of just 14 million, is a “gun society.” Guns are everywhere you look. Even in Fronteras, the one and only tiny town on the rural upper Rio Dulce, pay attention and you see that a significant number of the men have automatic pistols and side arms in plain view.
On a crowded street, in broad daylight, I watched a man sit in an SUV and put a silencer on a pistol and hold it up and inspect it carefully. I have never seen someone put a silencer on a pistol before, in public or private.
Those who can’t afford a gun carry a machete, and that includes women who routinely carry a macahete for personal protection while walking.
I have read on the subject of Guatemala’s troubles for days, weeks, and months on the Rio Dulce while waiting out Hurricane Season 2008. You really must see a general sampling of what I found. It’s incredible.
Get your courage up! We have much more work to do. I implore you to keep plugging away here and read with me for a while so that you too will fully understand the current conditions in Guatemala.
Most important, it is paramount that you see these reports for yourself and not take my word for what is going on.
V. NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE: NEWS ARTICLES ABOUT GUATEMALAN VIOLENCE
If you “Google” Guatemala on the internet and add to it other search phrases such as murder, violence, drug smuggling, organized crime and the like, an amazing volume of horrific news pours out. Page after page after page of links to unbelievably grizzly news reports will flood your computer’s screen.
I sifted through a mountain of news. Below is a collection of information from various credible sources that should, when viewed in totality, give you a pretty good feel for the depth and breadth of profound violence in today’s Guatemala.
We’ll start with U.S. State Department travel warnings taken directly from their web site as follows:
A. U.S. Department Of State Guatemala Warnings
Safety And Security: Violent criminal activity continues to be a problem in Guatemala, including murder, rape, and armed assaults against foreigners.
The police force is inexperienced and under-funded, and the judicial system is weak, overworked, and inefficient.
Well-armed criminals know there is little chance they will be caught or punished.
Large demonstrations occur throughout Guatemala . Although most demonstrations are peaceful, they can turn violent, and travelers should avoid demonstrations.
In 2007 particularly virulent rumors of child stealing and of murder for organ harvesting have been reported in areas frequented by American tourists.
Guatemalan citizens have been lynched for suspicion of child stealing, three local women who allegedly facilitated foreign adoptions were attacked by a mob that accused them of kidnapping and killing a girl whose mutilated remains were found near the Honduran border.
In reaction to unconfirmed reports of babies being kidnapped in the El Golfete area of the Rio Dulce (near Livingston, Izabal), residents of small villages are mobilized and suspicious of all outsiders, including foreigners.
In 2007, two foreigners (including an American citizen) and a Guatemalan kayaking on a river were accused of stealing children and seized by a mob estimated at 500 persons. Although threatened, the individuals were not physically attacked. The incident occurred after the group talked and joked with a local boy on the river bank.
In Sayaxche, Petén, child stealing rumors escalated into mob action against a Guatemalan couple believed to be involved in child stealing. The husband was beaten and burned to death, and the wife threatened, but eventually turned over to the police. A local American resident was also seized and threatened with death when he tried to intervene with the mob.
A family of American tourists, along with several Guatemalan motorists, was held overnight at a road blockade in the same area for possible use as human shields. Mobs have also targeted police, resulting in delayed or ineffective responses by law enforcement.
Due to uncontrolled drug and alien smuggling, the Guatemalan border with Mexico is a relatively high-risk area.
The following recommendations will help residents and visitors alike to increase their safety:
Avoid gatherings of agitated people. Frustration over crime and a lack of appropriate judicial remedies has led to violent incidents of vigilantism, including lynchings, especially in more isolated, rural areas. Attempting to intervene may put you at risk of attacks from mobs.
Avoid close contact with children, including taking photographs, especially in rural areas. Such contact can be viewed with deep alarm and may provoke panic and violence.
Keep informed of possible demonstrations by following the local news and consulting hotel personnel and tour guides. Avoid areas where demonstrations are occurring.
Security escorts for tourist groups and security information are available from the Tourist Assistance Office of INGUAT (the Guatemalan Tourist Institute)
INGUAT may be reached by its toll free number within the United States at 1-888- 464-8281.
CRIME: The number of violent crimes reported by U.S. citizens and other foreigners has remained high in recent years. Incidents include, but are not limited to, assault, theft, armed robbery, carjacking, rape, kidnapping, and murder.
Criminals often operate in groups of four or more and are confrontational and violent. Gangs are a growing concern in Guatemala City and rural Guatemala.
Gang members are often well armed with sophisticated weaponry and they sometimes use massive amounts of force. Emboldened armed robbers have attacked vehicles on main roads in broad daylight. Travel on rural roads always increases the risk of a criminal roadblock or ambush.
Widespread narcotics and alien smuggling activities can make remote areas especially dangerous. Though there is no evidence that Americans are particularly targeted, criminals look for every opportunity to attack, so all travelers should remain constantly vigilant.
Most tourists and visitors travel throughout Guatemala without mishap. However, violent criminal activity on the highways continues, and tourists, among others, have been targeted. Many of the robbery attempts have occurred in daylight hours on main highways.
Carjacking incidents and highway robberies are often violent. Four Americans were killed in highway robbery attempts in 2002 and three killed and one wounded in 2003. In 2004 one American tourist was murdered, and women and children were raped in highway assaults. Several highway assaults of American citizens also took place in 2005, but without serious injury to the victims. In 2006, there were 19 incidents of assault against Americans in motor vehicles reported to the Embassy, none of which involved death or injury. In nine of these incidents, the victims were arriving at Guatemala City 's airport.
In 2007 there has been an increasing number of carjacking incidents and armed robberies of travelers who have just arrived on international flights. In some cases, assailants have been wearing full or partial police uniforms and have used vehicles that resemble police vehicles, indicating that some elements of the police might be involved.
Stay in groups; travel in a caravan consisting of two or more vehicles; and, stay on the main roads. Ensure that someone not traveling with you is aware of your itinerary. Resist the temptation to stay in hotels that do not have adequate security.
Travel after dark anywhere in Guatemala is extremely dangerous. It is preferable to stay in the main tourist destinations. Do not explore back roads or isolated paths near tourist sites. Pay close attention to your surroundings, especially when walking or when driving in Guatemala City . Refrain from displaying expensive-looking jewelry, large amounts of money, laptop computers, or other valuable items. Finally, if confronted by criminals, be aware that resistance may provoke a more violent response.
Foreign residents of Guatemala have special concerns. Since December 1999, when the Government of Guatemala appointed a Special Prosecutor to investigate all American citizen murders, twenty-four American citizen residents and six American citizen tourists have been murdered, and suspects have been convicted in only two cases. There have been “express” kidnappings in recent years, primarily in Guatemala City , in which a relatively small ransom that can be quickly gathered is demanded. U.S. citizens have been kidnapped in recent years. At least one incident of a random kidnapping, in which the victim was grabbed off the street in an affluent neighborhood of the city, occurred in December 2003 and resulted in a physical and sexual assault.
Pickpockets and purse-snatchers are active in all major cities and tourist sites, especially the central market and other parts of Zone 1 in Guatemala City and the city of Antigua . In a common scenario, an accomplice distracts the victim, while an assailant slashes or simply steals a bag or backpack while the victim’s attention is diverted.
As in other countries, criminals also use a number of scams to steal money and possessions from tourists in Guatemala . In one popular scam, robbers place a nail in a parked vehicle’s tire. The vehicle is then followed by the robbers who pose as “good Samaritans” when the tire becomes flat and the victims pull to the side of the road. While “help” is being rendered, the contents of the car are stolen, often without the knowledge of the victims. However, in some cases, the robbers have threatened the tourists with weapons.
Parking areas in and around the Guatemala City International Airport are particularly prone to this crime. In another scam, victims are approached in a hotel, restaurant or other public place by an individual claiming there is some sort of problem with his or the would-be victim’s automobile in the parking lot. On the way to investigate the “problem,” usually in a remote or concealed area near the parking lot, the robber pulls a gun on the victim demanding cash, credit cards and other valuables.
A third popular scam involves various attempts to acquire a victim’s ATM card and PIN number. Some sophisticated criminals have even placed boxes outside ATM kiosks that record PIN numbers when unsuspecting victims believe they must enter their PIN number to gain entry to the ATM foyer. After recording PIN numbers, robbers then steal the owner’s ATM card to complete their crime. There are dozens of techniques scammers can use to rob victims of money and possessions. While most people mean no harm, always be cautious when strangers approach you for any reason or make unusual requests.
Parents adopting children in Guatemala have also been victimized in public places and at their hotels by police (or individuals dressed as police) who have threatened to arrest foster mothers and turn adoptive children over to orphanages, but released them in exchange for significant payments, often approaching $1000. Such threats have no basis in Guatemalan law, and should be immediately reported to the Embassy.
For security reasons, the Embassy does not allow U.S. government employees to stay in hotels in Zone 1 in Guatemala City and urges private travelers to avoid staying in this area. Do not hail taxis on the street in Guatemala City . Use radio-dispatched taxis or taxis from major hotels instead.
The main road to Lake Atitlan via the Inter-American Highway (CA-1) and Solola is safer than the alternatives, though attacks in recent years have made traveling in a caravan highly recommended, even on the Inter-American Highway . Robbery and assault have been frequently reported on secondary roads near the lake with the highest number of incidents occurring on the RN-11 (Las Trampas road) parallel to the east side of the lake. Robbers have used mountain roads advantageously to stop buses, vans and cars in a variety of ways.
Armed attacks have occurred on roads from Guatemala City to the Peten. Visitors to the Mayan ruins at Tikal are urged to fly to nearby Flores and then travel by bus or tour van to the site. Violent attacks have occurred in the Mayan ruins in the Peten, including in the Cerro Cahui Conservation Park , Yaxha, the road to and inside Tikal Park , and in the Tikal ruins. Tourist police (POLITUR) patrols inside the park have significantly reduced the violent crime incidents inside the park, but travelers should nevertheless remain in groups and on the principal trails leading to the Central Plaza and the Temple IV complex, and avoid remote areas of the park.
POLITUR (a joint police/Guatemalan Tourism Institute initiative) is present in all major tourist destinations. They should be contacted in case of any criminal incident in such areas, even if minor.
A fair reading of the U.S. State Department information above leaves one cognizant that serious threats of crime are not limited to inner-city and metropolitan areas. Instead, serious risks are present in rural areas too, including the Rio Dulce where many cruisers like us spend hurricane season.
Murder is widespread geographically and falls into several categories. If it is possible for one category of murder to be more offensive than other, then femicide has to be the most reprehensible. Unbelievably, murdering women is an ugly epidemic in Guatemala. Who can even imagine such a thing could be true?
The following article reveals that, for three generations, Guatemala has developed a horrific appetite for murdering its women:
B. Murder mystery in Guatemala
By Olenka Frenkiel, BBC reporter
May 3, 2006
The number of women killed in Guatemala is soaring, but not a single murderer has been convicted. A BBC documentary team traveled there to find out why.
Claudia Madrid, aged 21, lies dead in the gutter, shot while walking with her children.
Investigators walk past her husband in the morgue as he waits to identify her body. They will never question him. "It's the fashion here to murder women. They never investigate such third class crimes," he says. He smiles.
Two refuse sacks containing the body of a woman cut into 19 pieces are found in the street. Her decapitated head lies in the road. Police remove her limbs from the plastic bags to show the press.
If no one comes to identify her she will be classed XX, and buried in an unmarked grave.
The swollen naked body of another woman lies in a dried up river bed. Her mouth hangs open. Her eyes and a gash in her skull have been pecked by vultures. An investigator says: "She was probably a prostitute." He points at her hands. "Red nail varnish," he says.
In Guatemala, the victim is always to blame. Another XX.
Fifteen million people live in Guatemala and two women are murdered there every day.
Even more men are murdered, but the gap is closing fast. In 2005, 665 women were killed - more than 20% up on the previous year. No one really knows why because the crimes are rarely investigated. Not one of the 665 murders last year has been solved.
Are these gangland killings? Crimes of passion? Domestic violence? Serial killers? Probably all of these.
Norma Cruz, a human rights activist explains: "There is no fingerprint data base, no DNA testing, no profiling of the victims, or of the murders themselves. There is no ballistics database, no cross-referencing."
No one knows anything and killers are roaming free, protected by systemic impunity.
The justice system is corrupt and police are afraid to investigate. Witnesses are afraid to testify and bereaved parents are afraid to agitate for action. Even the interior minister himself speaks darkly of the "parallel powers", those really in charge. Generations of killers.
In the 1950s it was the United Fruit Company which had such clout in Guatemala that the US backed a military coup to protect their profits from land reform. Today it is the spoils from drugs which are protected by corrupt institutions at the top and brutal street gangs below. In 36 years of civil war, 200,000 people were murdered and women were routinely raped.
Today the graves of entire massacred villages are being exhumed, yet no one has ever been held responsible for these crimes. Three generations of killers have murdered with impunity. Peace was agreed in 1996, leaving the country awash with guns and those women who have ventured out of their homes to study and to work have now become targets.
One man, a dental technician, collapses in tears when he speaks of his 20-year-old daughter. When neighbours ran to tell him kidnappers had forced her into a car, he begged the police to put up road blocks to help save her. They told him nothing could be done for 24 hours. By then she was dead. Her body was found, mutilated, bitten and shot many times. "I don't want to live," he told Norma Cruz, "I wish someone would shoot me."
"There is total indifference from the authorities to these crimes," says Cruz. Months later, in the home he and his family have abandoned in fear, he finds the blood and saliva-stained clothes his daughter was wearing when she was killed. Evidence that could have been vital in a prosecution is routinely contaminated and returned to the families, or buried in the coffin with the victim.
The President of Guatemala, Oscar Berger, listens as I present him with the latest statistics showing another steep rise from the previous year. "Despite these cruel figures," he says, "I am optimistic. We have reformed the police and we have more radio patrols," he answers, castigating me for my pessimism and denying that the justice system's failures guarantee impunity, not just to this generation of killers but to all those who went before.
He would like the world to believe that the atrocities of Guatemala's past are history.
But the killings will not stop unless the justice system works. And there can be no justice for today's killers in Guatemala as long as those of previous generations, politicians and military men, continue to benefit from this culture of impunity.
(This World: Killer's Paradise was broadcast on Thursday, 4 May, 2006 at 2100 BST on BBC Two. Produced and directed by Giselle Portenier.)
Other sources suggest that a significant portion of today’s murder spree on Guatemalan women is carried out by former civil-war Death Squad members who developed an appetite for raping, killing, and mutilating women.
One of the genocidal features of the civil war was the belief that the indigenous Mayan people could be exterminated more quickly if women were killed and prevented from bearing offspring. Rape and mutilation allegedly became sideline activities part and parcel with the Army’s overall femicide mission.
On a completely independent front, and aside from the uncivilized violence spawned directly from the Civil War, there is a new, perhaps even more powerful problem superimposed on the terrors of the past: opium production and cocaine smuggling have become a huge industry in Guatemala.
Reports of this new destabilizing force began to surface in the early nineties. Check this article out:
C. The New Enemy In Guatemala
1991 Michael Massing
The signs are visible everywhere in Guatemala. Newspapers carry frequent accounts of grisly execution-style murders. Immigration authorities report a surge in the entry of Colombian nationals. Deluxe apartment buildings and office complexes rise dramatically on the outskirts of Guatemala City. A newly chartered bank in Coban, 70 miles north of the capital, is doing a brisk business despite not having formally opened its doors to the public.
Drugs have come to Guatemala. The country has lately replaced Panama as Central America’s foremost trafficking center. In the mountainous region bordering Mexico, hundreds of Guatemalan peasants are cultivating opium poppies. Converted into paste, the crop is sold to Mexican traffickers for processing into heroin. Three years ago, poppies covered about 600 hectares of land; today, the figure is 2,000 hectares and rising sharply, making Guatemala the fourth or fifth largest opium producer in the world.
Cocaine is an even bigger business. Every month, an estimated four tons of cocaine pass through the country on their way to the United States.
The trade is controlled by the Colombian drug lords, and the hallmarks of their work-corruption, murder, and drug addiction-have begun surfacing everywhere in Guatemala.
“We have so many problems in Guatemala: civil war, poverty, and the like," sighs Edmond Mulet, a member of Guatemala’s National Assembly. "And now this."
All of this has dismayed U.S. officials. Just as they were toasting the end of the Soviet threat in Central America, a new enemy has emerged, one posing an even more direct threat to the nation’s well being. And Washington is quickly mobilizing to confront it. Ten years ago, the State Department chose El Salvador as the country in which it would draw the line against communism; today, it has selected Guatemala as the test site for the drug fight in Central America.
Guatemala’s rise as a trafficking center is due, ironically, to one of America’s rare successes in the drug war. In the early 1980s, most of the cocaine entering the United States came through southern Florida. Shipments were flown from Colombia to remote islands in the Caribbean, then transferred to small high-speed boats and rushed to coves and inlets along the Florida coast. Determined to seal off the area, the Reagan administration set up the South Florida Task Force, a highly specialized unit bringing together agents from Customs, the Coast Guard, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, among other agencies. Using radar, patrol boats, and spy planes, the task force erected an electronic curtain along the Florida coast, making it much harder for drugs to enter. Stymied, the drug lords began looking for a more vulnerable point of entry.
They found it along the U.S.-Mexican border. With millions of vehicles crossing into the United States every day, Customs could check only a fraction, and smugglers were able to enter with ease. Cocaine was now flown from Colombia to northern Mexico, then transferred to cars and trucks and driven across the border. This gave rise to a new problem, however. The lightweight Beechcraft and Cessna planes used to transport the drugs did not have sufficient fuel capacity to make the 2,500-mile journey non-stop. A transshipment point was needed.
Guatemala was ideally suited. Situated roughly midway between Medellin and the Rio Grande, the country was within easy flying distance of both. Wild and rugged, with craggy highlands, steep valleys, and thick vegetation, Guatemala offered traffickers excellent ground cover. Porous borders made it easy for smugglers to enter, and, once inside, weak drug laws and a feeble judicial system made imprisonment highly unlikely.
Another important asset was the hundreds of small dirt airstrips that dotted the Guatemalan countryside. Most were located on the country’s southern coastal plain, a lush agricultural region covered with coffee and cotton fincas. The owners of these estates generally live in Guatemala City, flying out several times a week to inspect their investments.
To accommodate the flights, each finca has its own runway. Paying $25,000 or more per flight, the drug cartels were able to procure the use of these strips for their own planes. Arriving mostly at night, the planes could easily avoid detection by the country’s lone radar facility, a weak device located at the international airport in Guatemala City.
Today, several drug flights touch down every week. In some cases, the planes simply refuel and immediately resume their journey. More commonly, though, the flights are met by work crews, who unload the cargo and transfer it to trucks and vans for transport to safehouses.
The [Guatemalan] military, though, has strong reservations about joining the drug fight. Guatemala soldiers are very poorly paid, making them highly susceptible to bribes. Already, a number of military officers, including quite senior ones, have reportedly become involved in the drug trade.
Other sources I have perused estimate that between 80% and 90% of Colombia’s U.S.A.-bound cocaine lands in Guatemala by small plane. It is then stored in warehouses. It is held in preparation to be transported by land into Mexico in route to the U.S.A. In fact, Guatemala has been nicknamed “La Bodega” (the warehouse), by Colombian cocaine cartels.
And this flood of cocaine into and through Guatemala is also fueling the terrible violence that has erupted on the border of Mexico and Texas.
At this point, if you are digesting all of this, you are certainly starting to ask yourself how in the world everyday people can tend to their own personal safety and achieve any sense of personal security in a country the size of Tennessee that suffers such a wild array of turmoil and bizarre violence.
When we arrived in Guatemala, we immediately noticed there were more shotguns, handguns in side-holsters, armed citizens, and uniformed private security guards with pump shotguns than anywhere else we have been in the Third World of South and Central America, including metropolitan areas in Colombia and in downtown areas of Venezuela. In fact, I have never seen anything like it anywhere.
Every food and beverage delivery truck in Guatemala has an armed guard or two, whether in the city or in remote rural areas. There are seriously-armed guards at every door of McDonald’s restaurants in Guatemala City. Even car dealers have armed guards on the premises.
Some of the local gringos we encountered on the Rio Dulce are super-quick to defend all things Guatemala. I casually mentioned the unprecedented presence of guns and armed guards surrounding anything and everything of value in Guatemala and it was “explained away” by locals as being a mere reflection of security being so cheap and available, not because it is necessary: “People make only two to ten dollars a day in Guatemala; all the guns and guards have nothing to do with crime; it’s just so cheap to hire armed guards that everybody takes advantage of it.”
The following article, however, smashes the “cheap security in a safe country” myth to smithereens. Dangers are deadly serious in Guatemala and high security costs are crippling the country
D. The Cost Of Violence
Guatemala: The High Price of Violence
By Claudia Munaiz and Alberto Mendoza
Jan 23, 2007 (IPS)
Civilian violence is costing Guatemala half its national budget, as well as countless human lives and social breakdown, while corruption and impunity walk hand in hand.
80 percent of the population (13 million) lives in poverty, and two-thirds live in extreme poverty. The indigenous majority is most heavily affected by poverty.
The UNDP study reports that 5,337 were murdered in 2005. An overall climate of wariness and distrust caused by other crimes, such as an average of 35 robberies per month on buses in the capital, must be added to the violent death toll.
The roots of the violence go back several decades. In 1996, a peace agreement ended 36 years of civil war, in which more than 200,000 people died, most of them indigenous Mayan people.
Included in that number were 50,000 forced disappearances. According to a truth commission report, the military was responsible for the great majority of the killings.
At present, families and companies spend an average of $6,000 dollars a year for private security.
"We have padlocks, railings, electric fences and an alarm connected to a security company, for which we pay 30 dollars a month," said Julio Mora, a middle class resident in the capital city.
A vendor, who preferred to remain anonymous, is a good example of ordinary people's obsession with security. In addition to all the other security measures, he has a dog and a gun that he periodically fires against a wall as a warning to potential burglars.
"If you hear shots at night, don't worry, it's just the vendor attempting to dissuade criminals," Mora tells newcomers to the area.
But far from providing security, gun ownership has become a problem in itself. The police estimate there are over three million illegal weapons in circulation.
"I don't want a gun. If you buy one, you may kill someone. There are too many guns in the country, that's why gunfights happen," Mora said.
The violence also appears to scare off foreign investment.
Investment growth is 16 percent below the expected level because of the impact of criminal violence on the investment climate.
The tourism industry, one of the country's main foreign exchange earners, sustained an income loss of 474 million dollars in 2005 due to violence.
The family of a murdered 15 year old girl told IPS that "there is too much impunity and corruption in this country and hardly any cases are solved."
The Office of the Public Prosecutor reports that only 46 murder cases out of the 4,352 on their books in 2005 went to trial.
Some 580 women were killed in 2005, according to information from the Human Rights Office of the Catholic Archbishopric of Guatemala.
Furthermore, the Guatemalan state has still not completed the task of indemnifying the tens of thousands of families of victims of the civil war, including those killed by the paramilitary "civil self-defence patrols" that carried out massacres in rural areas.
Marco Antonio Garavito, director of the Mental Health League, states that the social crisis has been exacerbated by the increase in criminal activity and drug trafficking. "The state apparatus is falling apart. Organized crime was hidden during the war, but after the signing of the peace accords it emerged very quickly."
Guatemala has become a narcotics trafficking route to North America. The drugs are smuggled through the jungles of the northwestern department of Petén, on the border with Mexico, where drug traffickers own property and illegal airstrips.
The links between the "maras", or youth gangs, and the drug trafficking rings are becoming increasingly evident. The power of the drug mafias is arousing fears that they may come to exert an influence on the political life of the country.
And while citizens, two thirds of which live in extreme poverty, spend thousands of dollars annually per household trying to achieve security on an “everyman” personal level, headlines reveal that murder and politics are inseparable and that even top-ranking government officials cannot achieve safety and security in Guatemala.
E. A Murder Spree In Central America
By Mica Rosenberg
Just as President Bush plans to visit Central America, the demons of corruption, drug dealing and murder there that have long been kept under wraps, either by official complicity or negligence, are beginning to attract public scrutiny.
The scandal began two weeks ago when the bodies of the congressmen, who were representatives to the Central American parliament, and their driver were found bullet-ridden and charred on an abandoned dirt road in Guatemala.
Days later, four Guatemalan policemen — including the head of the organized crime investigation unit — were accused of the murders. But before they could be tried for the crimes, the four were assassinated inside their maximum-security prison cell, left face down in a pool of blood, shot with their throats slit.
Authorities and opposition politicians in Guatemala say the policemen were part of a group operating within Guatemala's security forces who were responsible for drug trafficking and death-squad style killings.
The four were murdered before they could reveal the full extent of their allegedly illegal activities. "They were killed to keep the lid on Pandora's box.”
The U.S. government says the seven-country region, a land bridge between South America and Mexico, has become a major transit route for over 75% of cocaine moving from Colombia up through Mexico and into the U.S.
Guatemala's politics are notoriously corrupt since the country's 36-year civil war ended a decade ago.
During that war, which claimed nearly a quarter-million lives, the Guatemalan military launched a scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign against leftist guerillas, massacring entire Mayan villages accused of supporting the rebels.
Many wartime figures were never prosecuted for their offenses, and human rights groups and the U.N. have warned that former state security forces — laid off after the peace accords mandated a downsizing of the military — could be involved in the drug smuggling rings.
The country's top police investigator, who was in charge of the policemen accused of murdering the congressman, resigned.
An inept justice system means that only 2% of the more than 5,000 murders each year are investigated in Guatemala.
Read that last sentence again.
It is NOT 2% of the murders that are SOLVED. It is ONLY 2% that are even investigated.
98% of the thousands and thousands of murders in Guatemala each year are simply ignored and there are no questions asked. It is uncivilized.
More reading illuminates just how badly the police in Guatemala are outgunned by organized crime.
F. Drug Smugglers Rule Jungle No Man's Land
Guatemala 's ragtag forces are no match for the gangs that roam the Peten
By Hector Tobar Los Angeles Times
Jul 14, 2008 04:30 AM
EL NARANJO, GUATEMALA–Here in the Wild West of the Central American isthmus, tough hombres like "the Bald Guys" make mahogany trees disappear in the middle of the night. Here, "cattle ranch" cowboys wrangle cocaine that falls from the sky.
This is the Peten, for centuries a thinly populated frontier where jaguars ruled an unspoiled natural kingdom and the rainbow-coloured scarlet macaw flew unmolested over towering Mayan temples.
Now the jungle region is a lawless no man's land, prized by smugglers for its proximity to the lightly guarded border with Mexico and for the swamps and dense forest undergrowth that give them an advantage over the ragtag forces of law and order. It's a place where immigration police have no guns, park rangers have neither radios nor automobiles, and the Guatemalan air force can't see or chase the "kamikaze" cocaine-smuggling pilots.
Drug trafficking is the most profitable activity here, with the Peten serving as a key way station in a vast air-and-land route from Colombian coca fields to U.S. consumers. But many other illicit enterprises thrive, too.
Every working day, young boatman Juan Izquierdo ferries small groups of illegal immigrants into Mexico along the San Pedro River, one of several smuggling routes along the Mexico-Guatemala frontier. Izquierdo helps his passengers avoid a nearby Mexican border post, their first serious obstacle on the journey from Honduras, El Salvador and other Central American countries to the United States.
Izquierdo, in fact, has little to fear. The officers staffing the nearest Guatemalan immigration office, in the river port of El Naranjo, have no guns, no boats and just one vehicle. The post consists of a teetering shack overlooking the river.
Immigration agent Manuel Salguero points out a passing boat that appears to be ferrying immigrants and says, "To tell you the truth, all we do is watch them go by."
Even if they wanted to arrest the smugglers, they face one big obstacle: They have no holding cells.
Staff and equipment shortages are endemic to every law enforcement and military agency operating in the region. An overstretched army brigade of about 700 soldiers covers an area the size of Belgium. Guatemala's air force owns two helicopters and no tactical radar capable of detecting low-flying aircraft.
In June, in response to growing lawlessness in the border regions, the Guatemalan government announced it would dispatch 500 more police and soldiers to the Peten and other areas later this year.
Large chunks of the Peten are ostensibly protected as national parks and nature reserves.
"The wood poachers have satellite telephones, and we don't even have two-way radios," says Claudia Mariela Lopez, regional director of the National Protected Areas Commission, which oversees the reserves.
North of Flores, the Peten capital, a criminal band known as Los Pelones, the Bald Guys, holds sway, according to federal and local officials. Unpaved roads run through here, among smouldering trees and brush set aflame by farmers. "There's no way to oppose them," one official says. "The only way you can come in here is with heavy weapons."
The targets of the poachers are exotic woods in the jungle, especially the umbrella-shaped mahogany trees that bring poachers a small bonanza – the wood is prized for furniture and guitars.
Marlon Hernandez, a ranger supervisor, says he was attacked this year by a mob of 200 people in San Andres, when he and other rangers tried to arrest wood poachers.
"They would have killed us, but we ran away," Hernandez says.
But the money wood poachers make is small compared with the drug trade. "The amounts of money they deal with are so large they can buy any politician, any judge, official or police officer," says Yuri Melini of the Centre for Legal, Environmental and Social Action in Guatemala City.
Organized crime groups have bought the loyalty of large numbers of poor farmers who take over broad swaths of jungle as squatters, Melini says. The squatters present themselves as needy migrants from other regions of this overpopulated country and offer the drug dealers cover and protection.
These "narco cattle ranches" and "narco communities" have spread in ostensibly protected regions of the Peten, Melini says, wreaking havoc on an environment normally lush with towering canopies of trees, spider monkeys, river turtles and countless other flora and fauna.
The Guatemala violence issue becomes clearer and clearer the more you read. Guatemala is out of control. As to where things are ultimately headed, who can do more than speculate? It seems to me that if hot cinders of the the Civil War still smolder, then there is a real possibility that Civil War can re-ignite at any time.
The only thing that is certain is that the murder rate is astronomical and there is absolutely no relief in sight.
The frustration is evident as indicated in this next article.
G. Attorney General Resigns
GUATEMALA CITY, 2008 July 29 (Reuters)
Guatemala's attorney general stepped down on Tuesday after complaints he did little to stamp out violence in a country with one of the highest crime rates in Latin America.
Top prosecutor Juan Luis Florido left halfway through his term, a spokesman from his office told Reuters.
"He presented his resignation, which is routine in institutions like this," the spokesman said, but was unable to give a specific reason for Florido's departure.
Most of the thousands of murders committed this year in the small Central American country have not been solved. Human rights groups say investigators are poorly trained and underfunded.
High-profile murders of politicians in recent years have revealed death squads operating within police forces and corruption in the judicial system.
"[Florido] has not only been inefficient but he has also contributed to the deepening impunity in Guatemala," said Claudia Samayoa, a human rights expert who has written studies on violence in the country.
She said critics have long pushed for him to be removed, but President Alvaro Colom did not give a reason for Florido's decision to step down.
Routing out corruption in the country that is still recovering from decades of civil war and has become a hub for international drug trafficking will be a major challenge for Florido's replacement.
Just hours before the announcement, the brother of a well-known human rights advocate was shot and seriously wounded by gunmen in a upscale neighborhood in the capital city.
It was the second attack against the family of Helen Mack, a human rights leader whose sister was murdered by the military during Guatemala's 1960-1996 war.
At some certain moment during our stay in Guatemala, I became very aware of, and pondered greatly, the dynamics of maintaining a “routine” daily life in the midst of a murder epidemic. After all, there were eight people murdered on the Rio Dulce (that I know of – chances are there were more), in the three short months we were there in the tiny little rural area that makes up the Rio community.
One murder of a local took place only 200 yards from our boat. Daniel Dryden was just a mile away on an anchored yacht just across the river when he was killed; two more were gunned down in a crowded riverfront hotel only three or four miles up the river; and, two more were assassinated just five miles inland from the riverfront at town of Fronteras.
With local murder on the Rio Dulce averaging one every twelve days when divided by the number of days we were there, I began to better appreciate the harshness of trying to lead a “normal” and happy life in extremely dangerous places like Israel, for example, where terrorist bombings occur without warning.
It also dawned on me that I was subconsciously putting distance between myself and the reality of murders all around us. It is a natural survival instinct, I guess. It allows people to emotionally step over victims and keep living and going about their daily lives.
For long-term live-aboard gringos on the Rio Dulce, it means taking trips into town to shop for provisions by day and then holing-up back in the armed security of their marinas by night where they have carved out a retiree’s marina lifestyle of cocktails, dominoes, and dancing . . . all smack-dab in the midst of Guatemala’s madness.
Although the Rio Dulce is arguably not as dangerous as the very worst parts of Guatemala City, here is an article that captures the exact same emotional dynamic that we began to experience on the Rio Dulce:
H. In Guatemala,Violence Is Always Near
03 Feb 2008 20:00:24 GMT
GUATEMALA CITY, Feb 3 (Reuters) - The last time I saw Arnulfo Andrade, I was crouched behind his driver's seat on a smoky city bus, interviewing him about the dangers he faced on his route in one of Guatemala's most violent neighborhoods.
"You go to work scared all the time," he told me over the engine's roar, "but you gotta keep working."
He looked younger than his 30 years with his baseball cap on backwards and a wispy mustache, an easygoing man joking with his young assistant collecting the $0.13 fare.
Arnulfo was just doing his job, and for that he was murdered, shot in the head and stomach and left to die behind the wheel. His 17-year-old helper took a bullet in the arm.
He was the 43rd bus driver to be killed in Guatemala last year; most were executed for failing to pay "war taxes" to violent street gangs controlling certain districts in the sprawling Central American capital.
The gangs pull in millions of dollars extorting daily or weekly fees from terrified shop owners, factory workers, teachers, deliverymen and families under threat of kidnapping, rape or death. Much of the money goes to pay off corrupt cops who do little to protect innocent victims like Arnulfo.
Guatemala is one of the most violent countries in the Americas, with almost 6,000 people murdered here last year. That is 46 victims per 100,000 people, a rate eight times higher than in the United States.
Bodies are thrown in gutters, stuffed in trunks, chopped up and packed in suitcases. Many are victims of the gangs while vigilantes like to target street kids and prostitutes, sometimes helped by police. But with 98 percent of murders left unsolved, no one really bothers to find out why.
At 26, and after brief stints reporting in Mexico, Colombia and New York, I had never seen a dead person before arriving in Guatemala two years ago. At the first crime scene I saw soon after arriving, there were seven. All were gang members, younger than me, killed by vigilantes. Two were women in their 20s, splayed on the ground, clothes ripped off and exposed to the leering crowd.
Two months after I met Arnulfo, I found myself wandering a city cemetery looking for his grave. It was a cold and drizzly day and I got lost shuffling my way through weeping, umbrella covered groups huddled over coffins in narrow pathways.
The sprawling cemetery is, like Guatemala City, segregated by class. The wealthy have elaborate tombs surrounded by iron fences while the poor are stacked on top of each other in moss-covered shelves overlooking the city dump. When families are unable to pay grave maintenance fees, workers dig up the dead and throw them over the fence into the garbage.
After 36 years of civil war that claimed close to a quarter million lives and a decade of peace wracked with violent crime, Guatemalans seem used to the chaos.
I have seen children strike up a soccer game in an empty lot near a crime scene, the ball rolling under the yellow police line. It's a way of dealing with death here -- you ignore it and move on until it catches up with you.
Recently, I have felt it moving closer. Armed robbers beat up a teacher, slashed the arm of a little girl and stole a school bus soon after it dropped off the 6-year old son of the Reuters photographer here.
A local journalist, distraught by a failed relationship, shot himself on the lawn in front of the house of the Reuters cameraman.
Two blocks from my office someone gunned down the secretary of the leading presidential candidate, Otto Perez Molina, who had served me coffee as I waited for an interview on a plush leather couch. And then I heard about Arnulfo.
I am an outsider and these events have brushed only the edges of my life, but they reveal something about the depth of trauma many people here live with.
" Guatemala is where friends can die under any circumstance at any moment," one close friend wrote in an email when I told him about Arnulfo's murder. "Welcome to my reality." (Editing by Kieran Murray and Sean Maguire) (To read more Reuters Witness stories click here: http://www.reuters.com/news/globalcoverage/reutersWitnesses)
Many of the cruisers staying on their boats for hurricane season 2008 on the Rio Dulce experienced those exact sensations. In individual, private conversations scores of cruisers articulated to me that they felt murder was moving closer and closer as it continued to brush the edges of our lives on the Rio Dulce.
One afternoon, lounging around the swimming pool at Mario’s Marina, a fellow cruiser we were chatting with put it this way: “I have never known anyone who has been murdered. Now, in just a couple of months on the Rio Dulce, two people I knew personally have been murdered within a mile of here. It is very disturbing. We don't have a way to lock our boat and now that bothers us. We never thought about it until all this violence happened on the Rio Dulce.”
Melissa and I experienced the same sensations to some degree. But our short stint on the Rio Dulce only briefly exposed us to the significant level of anxiety that native Guatemalans have learned to live with for generations.
But violence in and of itself is not the end concern. It is even more disconcerting to know that behind much of it are powerful organized crime elements that impact the entire country from top to bottom, as set forth in the following series of reports:
I. Guatemala Under Siege By Organized Crime
Prenza Latina, Latin America News Agency
Guatemala Aims at Organized Crime
Guatemala, Jan 7, 2008 (Prensa Latina)
Fighting organized crime in Guatemala today will be one of the main challenges to President Alvaro Colom, who will assume power on January 14, political analysts said.
According to Carmen Aida Ibarra, of the Myrna Mack Foundation, the country lives under seige and has been penetrated by criminal powers that outlive all governments.
Although drug traffic is the most visible, due to its belligerence and economic capacity, groups devoted to kidnapping people, theft and weapon smuggling, car robbery and money laundering, are also operating in this country.
According to National Civil Police records, those groups doubled the number of kidnappings in 2007, in relation to the previous year, with 92 cases reported, in which eight people died.
Those gangs keep control of territories and authorities, have expert investigators and negotiators, cars and buildings to hide their prisoners, and can even render services to the population that the government cannot offer, namely jobs.
Their work is very similar to that of the Italian mafia family structures, Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein told the Siglo XXI daily.
Asked about how they have planned to face up to the problem, the future Administrative and Security Affairs head Carlos Quintanilla explained that it would be done, strengthening civil, military, and police intelligence.
All heads and leaderships will be new, occupied by professionals, said Quintanilla, and asserted that they would also dismantle groups currently rooted in the security machinery.
The above article predicted that organized crime would challenge the new President, Alvaro Colom, but who could have guessed to what degree?
Just a little more than halfway into his first year, President Colom got a serious “reality check.” Read all about it:
J. Guatemalan President says organized crime behind spying
NISGUA (Network in Solidarity with the Guatemalan People)
Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom said Friday that unspecified organized-crime elements planted the voice recorders and video cameras found hidden inside his official residence and private offices. "There is an impressive system of organized crime," he told reporters after a meeting at the Guatemala-El Salvador border with Salvadoran counterpart Tony Saca.
"These people (the mobsters) are completely losing the influence they had in the security services," Colom said, suggesting the electronic surveillance of the presidential compound was a sign of desperation among the criminals.
"The situation is sensitive. I am personally directing the investigation to clarify that, because it's illegal and we must stop it," the president said.
He added that he expected the discovery of the surveillance devices would bring "a reaction on the part of those who financed these practices."
Colom displayed the clandestine recorders and cameras at a Thursday night press conference where he announced that he was turning over the presidential compound to the army for a thorough security review.
At the same time, he ordered an inspection of the offices of all the Cabinet ministers and other senior aides, noting: "if they put that (the surveillance equipment) in the presidential palace, what couldn't they do in other institutions." Congressional speaker Aristides Crespo followed suit, ordering a thorough sweep of the legislative building, where workmen were seen Friday removing components of the telephone system.
Also taking precautions was Guatemala 's Supreme Court.
"We don't have any evidence and until now, we did not suspect that possibility, but were going to inspect to rule out any situation," C Chief Justice Rodolfo de Leon said.
The discovery of the surveillance devices has already led to the resignations of Carlos Quintanilla, head of security for the president, vice president and their families, and Gustavo Solano, presidential counselor for strategic analysis.
The devices, officials with the president's office told Efe, were discovered by members of Colom's personal guard, a group of former leftist guerrillas who have protected him for more than 10 years.
Weeks ago, Colom said he was the target of "telephone espionage" by people interested in damaging his administration and vowed then to launch a thorough investigation into the alleged spying.
Before Colom made his comments to reporters, army units took control of the presidential residence and of the National Palace of Culture - the former presidential palace and a building where official ceremonies are typically held - and cordoned off both buildings.
The unusual movement of military vehicles at evening rush hour sparked fear among some Guatemala City residents, evoking memories of military coups in the 1970s and '80s. "Beginning today, I'm declaring war on all those who are listening in on calls, on all private intelligence services that are not legal," Colom said.
The head of state was accompanied at the Thursday press conference by all of the members of his Cabinet and security team with the exception of Quintanilla.
Colom said "there's no evidence that Quintanilla is involved" in these incidents, but he said that "it could be someone close to him" or someone inside the presidential residence.
He said he spoke by phone with his defense minister - Gen. Marco Tulio Garcia Franco, now in Canada taking part in a regional conference - to coordinate the military actions that will be carried out to investigate the security breach.
This is "a serious threat against the government and we're going to find out who was responsible," Colom said. "We've taken special measures with my family, my wife, my children and all the ministers. Anyone capable of placing these devices could be capable of anything."
Colom, a center-left industrialist who describes his government as "socialism with a Mayan face," ended more than 50 years of conservative rule in Guatemala when he took office in January. EFE
And in the following report, there is even more extremely dismal information, courtesy of the United Nations: 1) Guatemala has the highest intentional homicide rate of all countries for which reliable data are available; 2) impunity is rampant and criminality is commonplace; 3) political parties are weak and fragmented; and, 3) The greatest weakness identified is a deep-rooted resistance of the wealthiest sectors of society to help fund the State apparatus.
That’s bad news. The U.N’s view: Guatemala is the number one country in the world for murder because it suffers from one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world and the super rich upper class in Guatemala won’t fund a tax base to provide adequate government.
K. United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights
OHCHR in Guatemala. 2008-2009
Guatemala enjoys a rising economy that would guarantee the well-being of all its citizens if its wealth were distributed equally. Instead, Guatemala has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world. The newly elected Government, which will take office in January 2008, faces a myriad of challenges, but none will be more critical than addressing violent and organized crime, which is said to be increasingly infiltrating the political system itself.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Guatemala reports one of the highest intentional homicide rates among all countries for which reliable data are available. The UNDP reckons that violence costs Guatemala the equivalent of 7.3 percent of its GDP each year.
Guatemala , like some of its Central American neighbours, is, according to UNODC, believed to be the transit zone through which 88 percent of the cocaine headed for the United States passes. Civil society is weak. Direct attacks on human rights defenders and both targeted and diffuse threats have prompted self-censorship among human rights groups. Political parties are weak and fragmented, impunity is rampant and criminality is commonplace.
Little progress has been achieved in ten years of postpeace international cooperation, including through the since-withdrawn UN Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), some of which could be attributed to lack of planning and consistency in implementation. But the greatest weakness identified is a deep-rooted resistance of the wealthiest sectors of society to help fund the State apparatus. With a significantly reduced tax base, the State must function with less than 10 percent of GDP, well below the average in Latin America . The exceptionally bumpy road that led to the approval of the UN supported International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is proof of the resistance among important segments of society to what is considered an infringement of Guatemala’s sovereignty.
While the CICIG’s approval, through a national emergency voting procedure in Congress, provides an opportunity for the country to start serious investigations of past and present human rights violations and serious crimes with the support of top international investigators, there is a possibility that its functioning may be hampered by resistance by many sectors within and outside the State machinery. The impact of the establishment of CICIG on the work of the OHCHR’s office in Guatemala will be significant, as the UN system will look to OHCHR to provide analysis and support, both advisory and technical, in understanding the working environment and identifying paradigmatic cases.
Guatemala will be reviewed by the Human Rights Council, under the UPR mechanism, during its second session in 2008. OHCHR will negotiate a renewal of the mandate of its Country Office, which is due to expire in the second quarter of the same year.
As such, according to the U.N., one of the main impediments to the development of a middle class in Guatemala is not a lack of available funds, but rather it is the "deep-rooted resistance of the wealthiest sectors of society to help fund the State apparatus."
Who cares if the citizens of Guatemala are left illiterate and dirt poor? Nobody it seems. While the lady in the above photo begs for her existence, the upper crust of Guatemala.'s rich are too busy to do much about it. After all, they have a lot to manage while living the good life. They even throw private parties that include performances by popular music groups that charge hundreds of thousands of dollars per performance.
Yes, despite rampant poverty, illiteracy, and violence in Guatemala, the band plays on according to this next article:
L. Los Angeles Times Blog: Musicians and Guatemalan Drug Kingpins
Héctor Tobar in Mexico City , Posted January 21, 2008
The mainstream Guatemalan newspaper La Prensa Libre dropped a bombshell over the weekend that was picked up by many Mexican newspapers today. The paper reported that Guatemala 's top organized crime families routinely hire top Mexican grupera and norteño music groups to play at private events such as birthday parties, paying $100,000 to $200,000 per "concert." Two huge names in Mexican norteño music are mentioned, including one group now based in California .
But none of the reports today contained responses from the artists mentioned in the stories. The Prensa Libre story is also remarkable in that it gives the names of the three top alleged crime "cartel" families in Guatemala, "the Lorenzanas, the Mendozas and the Berganzas," something the Guatemalan media has done only rarely in the past.
Héctor Tobar in Mexico City , Posted January 21, 2008
And so, for Guatemala it's the same old song. It can be argued that the tune is the same and only the lyrics have changed. Today, powerful organized crime families are the new United Fruit and their mega-rich empires control the country. Bananas have given way to cocaine as the big-money export of Guatemala.
This new cocaine era, however, is not precisely the same as the banana boom. It brings with it a new and disturbing dynamic. Organized crime superpowers in Guatemala don’t need the support of outside military forces like the C.I.A. as did United Fruit. Those days are over. Now, Guatemala’s well-armed private militias autonomously enforce their own rules.
And that means that the super rich of Guatemala have never been more independent in their ability to maintain the extreme disparity of wealth in Guatemala.
And while organized crime elements within Guatemala may enjoy operating with impunity, ironically, they now have a new threat. Mexican drug cartels have been casting an eye over the boarder and apparently like what they see in Guatemala – a truly lawless land where organized crime can flourish with total impunity.
As this next article highlights, drug wars are now a brand-new crowning feature of today’s Guatemalan violence. Mexican drug cartels are engaging in attacks that seek to expand their drug territories across the boarder into lawlessly lucrative Guatemala.
M. Mexican Drug Cartels Infiltrating Guatemala
CNN, Friday December 5, 2008
By journalist Patzy Vasquez
GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala (CNN) -- Mexican narcotraffickers are gaining an increasing presence in Guatemalan territory.
That was made clear Sunday, when at least 18 people were killed in a face-off between members of a local cartel and a Mexican cartel in a frontier zone between Mexico and Guatemala.
The hypothesis we have is clear, and it is that several cartels here that are operating in Guatemalan territory already have certain alliances with Mexican cartels, specifically the alliances that have been made for the passage of drugs," said Marlene Blanco Lapola, chief of the National Civil Police.
At the crime scene, police found vehicles that were registered in Tamaulipas, a state in northeast Mexico, and documents that indicate the Mexican origins of some of the dead.
According to authorities, pressure that Mexico has exerted on these groups could have led them to use nearby Guatemalan territory instead.
"We are studying the arrival of many Mexicans, specifically members of the Zeta group, who have wanted to come to take advantage of the Guatemalan territory, a situation that we -- as authorities -- will not permit," Blanco said, referring to one group of narcotraffickers.
According to one political analyst, this week's killings are an example of the globalization of crime. He believes that conditions in Guatemala made the country ripe for the establishment of such groups.
"It's no secret to anybody that the institutions in our country are weak, that they lack human and technical resources," said the analyst, Manuel Villacorta.
"Without doubt, organized crime is taking advantage of these evident levels of vulnerability that the Guatemalan institutions present," Villacorta said.
Experts point out that two other events of similar violence have occurred this year in Guatemala, underscoring the fact that the groups feel they are free to act with impunity.
Guatemala is currently the path of least resistance for drug trafficking and organized crime operations in Central America, so much so that outsiders in drug cartels from Mexico seek to cross the boarder and go to war in order to establish a foothold within crime-fertile Guatemala.
Thus, a deadly drug war is now superimposed upon the already violent organized crime presence in Guatemala and all of that rests atop decades and decades of wholly unresolved issues from the long and very recent Civil War. Like stacking napalm on dynamite and soaking it with gasoline. It is the very essence of the term “volatile.”
On another note, I also reviewed several recent articles from National Public Radio, indicating vigilantism murder is not just a popular sideline among citizens anymore.
It is fast becoming a black-market underground justice system in Guatemala. So much so, assassination businesses have opened and are flourishing. These new companies will send professional killers to detect and eliminate persons who threaten their clients.
And there is much in Guatemala that is threatening. Gangs committing extortion are a major problem. There are scores of them operating in Guatemala, especially in Guatemala City.
If you are being victimized, you can have your extortionist identified and assassinated for as little as five hundred dollars. It costs as much as two thousand dollars, however, to have “important people” murdered.
Many of the street gangs ( Maras ) in Guatemala are tough and crazy. Some are engaged in satanic worship and gain favor with the Devil every month or two by eating the heart of a random victim they kill at midnight solely for that purpose.
John Burnett of National Public Radio (NPR) interviewed a 26 year-old gang member whose remarks included the following:
“We sold our souls to the devil, practically, so that he'll give us everything we need. We sacrificed everybody, including innocent women and children. Every month or two we had to do a ritual. So we looked for somebody, grabbed them at midnight , killed them and took out their heart. We fried the heart, on the griddle. We used a little salt. The flavor is so-so, like a stew but without much flavor.”
These brutal street gangs make money through extortion, anonymously demanding money by threatening to kill or injure family members. News sources verify that gangs are not afraid of the police and the gangs operate with impunity.
Considering the Police in Guatemala are useless, a brand source of protection has become available: private assassins for hire. Murder is turning into a black-market cottage industry. In this next article it is revealed that ex-policemen have turned into professional killers. They discuss their new trade as “sicarios” (assassins) in Guatemala:
N. Assassins Discuss Their Lives In Guatemala
John Burnett, NPR.org
December 22, 2008
Christian, 25, and Roberto, 44, are sicarios. Christian left the National Civil Police in April 2008; Roberto left the police in 2000. As sicarios, they estimate they've killed two dozen people between them. Following are excerpts from an interview they did together with NPR's John Burnett:
Here in Guatemala , we're suffering a crisis. It's messed up because there's no justice. They do whatever they want and the people prefer to take the law into their own hands. There are those who prefer, when there's lots of extortion, to pay sicarios (assassins). They pay civilians like us who've left the police, who know how to contact these people.
We do it for the money and because we're friends. They know us. A store owner tells me, "Look, buddy, some people are f—-ing with us. They're asking me for money." I say, "We can do something about it." He tells me, "How much do you want?" I say, "5,000 quetzales ($650)" "Okay then," and we do it.
In place of paying the extortion, it's better to eliminate them at once. For me the most fruitful maneuver is to cut the problem at the roots.
There are people where we live who own buses, they know who they can call, and they call us. Our contracts start at 4,000-5,000 quetzales ($500) and up, per target. It depends on the person. If it's someone powerful, someone who will require more time and more study, it goes up to 15,000-20,000 quetzales ($2,000). Our clients are bus companies, taxi companies, store owners, lawyers, anyone with money.
It's not just us two. We work for a company. We have a boss. He calls us, gives us a job, come to the shop, he gives us a motorcycle or a car and a weapon, gives us the address, and then do the job.
When we get a contract then we learn everything we can about that person. They give us the extortionist's cell phone number. We start to talk with the extortionists and try to figure out who they are, where they are, and how we can get to them. They'll say we know you own so many taxis or buses and based on that we want the payment made in a certain place. So we come in once, twice (with the ransom money). Once we know where they go, where they live, and when they arrive we do the job and it's all finished. Then we ask for the money after the job.
It's better (to kill them) in their car, or in their house. It depends on how big their group is. At times, six of them come. They have AK-47s, they always travel well armed.
How do we like to do the job? It depends on whether or not the person is running away. If he's standing, three or four bullets to the head to make sure the job is done well. You don't want them going to the hospital alive or identifying you.
We're not afraid of the police. We're only armed when there's a job. Otherwise, we don't have any reason to be afraid. And they know us.
There are lots of people (sicarios) working in this. It's become very commonplace. People are obligated to pay us to avoid paying extortion. It's better to pay 5,000 to 10,000 quetzales to us than to the extortionists. Some groups have as many as 30 (sicarios). In our group, there are five to six ex-police. Some are ex-military. They have good experience with weapons.
It's like a chain. An employee will tell you how to contact us. This is not the type of work that we can hand out business cards. You have to have good connections. It's dangerous work.
We work in Tierra Nueva, a colonia of Guatemala City . We have a meeting house. We study lots of plans, know the streets, how to get in and get out, everything. Different groups work in different areas—Canales, Zone 3, Zone 15. There are lots of groups in different colonias. Also, the provinces pay.
We're both married with children. Our wives don't know what we do. I leave every morning at 5 a.m. I tell her I work in a mechanic shop. No one in our families know.
Sometimes we don't have work. We may go several days without work. Right now we're waiting for a call to see if the company needs us. We're waiting in the shop. Some jobs you can do in one day, others take eight days.
Are we a death squad? Well, yes. But on the side of the people. We help the people for a minimum cost. We're helping Guatemala , to clean up all this garbage.
This newest trend is very troubling indeed.
Officers are departing the police force to form professional “Death Squads” that murder for money. Not because they are corrupt police officers gone bad. On the contrary, they have decided it is the most conscientious method of rendering real help to the people of Guatemala.
One can only envision just how bad things have to be for policemen dedicated to law and order to make that leap in logic and begin a career as a professional killer.
It seems one would be hard pressed to find a more powerful indication that Guatemala is moving farther and farther away from ever becoming a nation under Rule of Law and falling ever faster into the abyss called “you just can’t get there from here.”
If you are like me, right about now you are shaking your head and saying: “Lord Have Mercy! I had no idea all that was going on right now in Guatemala!”
I keep searching for a glimmer of hope for Guatemala. The lawyer in me keeps looking for that one piece of information to swing the pendulum all the way in the other direction.
But the deeper I dig the more shocking and sickening the results. Every time I thought I had read enough to begin to understand the depths of the problems in Guatemala, I would turn another page to be staggered anew by how little I knew about Guatemala and how reprehensible the current conditions are.
VI. SADNESS IN THE EYES
I noticed it immediately when we arrived in Guatemala on the Rio Dulce and thereafter throughout our travels inland to all the main tourist attractions: Guatemalans are markedly less outgoing when compared to people we met in other Latin American countries we visited.
This was an unexpected surprise. As a rule, Latin Americans have been some of the friendliest, open, and outgoing people we have ever met. Rich or poor, we found the people of Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama to be quick to smile, funny, warm, and gregarious with bright eyes.
Colombians in particular were very interested in us and would strike up a conversation. They welcomed us with open arms and made us feel at home in the same fashion south Louisiana Cajuns do, and that is really saying something.
Guatemalans, however, were very different at first-blush. They seemed standoffish and almost unfriendly. One day early on, while foraging for produce on the streets of the little town of Fronteras (on the banks of the Rio Dulce), I looked around at the busy scene of a hundred or so people walking about and I could not find many people smiling, and certainly no one carefree and laughing.
I was ignorant then about how bad things are in Guatemala and I just assumed that Guatemalans are somewhat unfriendly. “Maybe it is a Mayan thing” I remarked to Melissa.
Don't get me wrong; they were not rude or glaring at us. It’s just that they were not interested in engaging us and clearly not outwardly happy. “Mass preoccupation” is the best description I can offer.
Happiness and poverty are not mutually exclusive. Venezuelans taught me that. There are concurrently very happy and penniless people in general. So, I knew the vibe I was initially picking on the Rio up was not about Guatemalan poverty.
As time went on I began to educate myself about Guatemala. I got to know a few locals. Then it all clicked. That initial distance I felt, and the sadness in the eyes of the people is not about them being predisposed to an unfriendly mind set; it is all about what has been done to them and their loved ones for generations.
There is a depressing, private worry that you can see in most Guatemalans’ eyes once you learn to recognize it. It is a condition that has been induced by decades of terror. Here are some photos:
It turned out that the Guatemalans I got to know personally, admittedly few in number, are just as warm and wickedly witty as their Latin American counterparts whom we fell in love with in the rest of South and Central America. It just took me a while to understand that many a Guatemalan’s sparkle lives beneath heavy layers of pain, fear and uncertainty. And that is a terrible shame.
I have seen many Third World human rights conditions that troubled me during our adventures on Indigo Moon. Nothing comes close to Guatemala.
There is something fundamentally reprehensible about super-rich Guatemalans with multi-million dollar yachts and multi-million dollar mansions on the banks of the Rio Dulce flying in on multi-million dollar private jets and helicopters, passing right over the dirt-poor town of Fronteras where fearful, shoeless Guatemalan children walk filthy streets.
Let’s shift gears now and ask: how in the world do cruisers fit into a place like Guatemala’s Rio Dulce?
How and why do gringos wind up putting down roots there? What goes through the minds of cruisers? How do they decide where they will and won’t visit?
VII. UNDERSTANDING THE DYNAMICS OF ATTITUDES ON RISK
To set a foundation, we need to review a few remarks from trip logs past.
Despite the fact that the actual odds of being a crime victim while cruising are relatively low for careful cruisers, the odds are extremely high that it will go very, very badly if in fact you get into trouble in a place like Guatemala.
First and foremost, if you become a target on your boat, there is nowhere to run. You are isolated, even anchored amongst other vessels. There are no VHF 16 or cell phone 911 emergency options. Nobody is coming to intervene.
And you can’t expect other cruisers to come to your aid until after an incident of piracy is over.
Regardless, there is a very wide range of strong opinion amongst cruisers on the subject of piracy. A very small handful will even argue that piracy does not occur – their denial fervor being much akin to lunatics who claim the Holocaust did not happen.
Most even-minded cruisers, however, say about crime: “Well, big deal – so what if a handful of crimes have occurred against cruisers. Crime is everywhere these days. Somebody gets murdered in New Orleans every single day, so what’s the big deal; why be worried?”
While a “What, me worry?" stance surely makes for a great go-anywhere-do-anything happy plan, it might not be the most prudent.
Then there is yet another group of cruisers with an even more defiant mind set. They appear to create their vision of reality within the strict confines of “hear, see, and speak no evil” (called "Three Monkey Disease” in the trial law business – it is a virus that can spread like wildfire amongst witnesses).
Those types of cruisers visit all the dangerous anchorages with unlocked hatches and they intentionally ignore crime statistics. Also, the adrenaline junkies out here always take the dangerous route.
On the Rio Dulce there is quite a bit of “Three Monkey” behavior going on, mixed in with a few adrenaline junkies as well.
For example, during our stay in 2008, outspoken members of the Rio Dulce live aboard community continued to declare publicly on the VHF Cruisers’ Network that the Rio Dulce is “safe” all while dead bodies kept stacking up around us on the Rio Dulce.
Back in the Venezuela trip report, I explained that the division in how cruisers assess risk occurs in the precise manner that the subject of maintaining one’s own motorcycle caused intellectual friction in Robert Pirsig’s epic novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It really comes down to Classic versus Romantic modes of thought and analysis (both of which were creatively illuminated in Pirsig’s unique novel).
To refresh your memory, here is an excerpt from Pirsig’s writings regarding these two forms of understanding:
A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance. If you were to show an engine or a mechanical drawing or electronic schematic to a romantic it is unlikely he would see much of interest in it. It has no appeal because the reality he sees is its surface. Dull, complex lists of names, lines and numbers. Nothing interesting. But if you were to show that same blueprint or schematic to a classical person he might look at it and become fascinated by it because he sees that within the lines and shapes and symbols is a tremendous richness of underlying form.
The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than fact predominate. ‘Art’ when it is opposed to ‘Science’ is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience.
Pirsig goes on to set forth that while these modes of understanding are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and a person can at times be either a classic or romantic in their attempts at understanding, it is nonetheless a certainty that two people operating in opposite modes of understanding cannot be in agreement when analyzing the same so-called facts. It is simply impossible for their different modes of understanding to lead them to identical conclusions in the end.
So, when two Cruisers get together for a chat it can be dicey if one is more-classic and one more-romantic in their understandings. Subjects like Crime cannot be comfortably discussed. For example, let’s say anchorage “X” is very pretty, but is experiencing a bad crime wave.
The thrill seekers and romantics will go straight to anchorage X, you can bet on it. They will thereafter boast about the beauty of anchorage X and how they stayed there two nights, or two weeks, or two months, or two years and loved it, and that, of utmost importance: nothing happened to them.
In the science of statistics, a sampling error results from not repeating an experiment enough times to create a valid model. Flipping a coin is the popular example. You might flip a coin five times and get “heads” every time. If you stop and say “coins always land on heads” you will have made a sampling error. The more times a coin is flipped, the more the results shift toward a perfect 50/50 chance of heads and tails, and a reliable statistical outcome results.
Cruisers reports while on the move are, at least to some degree, tantamount to a catalogue of sampling errors and often their outcomes have more to do with luck than fact. But, that does not stop quite a few cruisers from taking the egocentric stance and being all too ready to opine that: “All that stuff about anchorage X is baloney! X is not risky at all . . . it is beautiful; there is no risk! We had a great time at X and nothing happened to us!”
We have heard all sorts of declarations that fit this mold. A compelling example of the sampling error phenomenon is a post I read on the internet from cruisers who stayed at Panama Canal Yacht Club in Colon, Panama. They refused to use taxis to get around that extremely dangerous part of Colon. They smirked that the serious admonitions by locals to use taxis are nothing but a scam. They walked to the store a couple of times and nothing happened. So, according to them, they proved that Colon is safe. Anybody who would post on the internet that the streets of Colon, Panama, are safe and taxis are a scam is perhaps terminally stupid, ridiculously romantic, a death-wish adrenaline junkie, or all of the above. Colon is internationally known as a very dangerous city.
And then there is an apples and oranges phenomenon too. Several live aboard boaters in marinas on the Rio Dulce like to brag that they never lock their boats and have never had a problem and, therefore, the Rio Dulce is very safe. But, they live inside protected marinas with armed guards and their claim of safety is simply not applicable to the unprotected, public areas of the Rio Dulce where theft, murder and piracy have taken place, much less applicable to Guatemala in general where there is no Rule of Law and murder seems to be the national pastime.
Daniel Dryden did not lock his boat on the Rio Dulce and he is dead. Roy Parsons did not lock his boat and a terrible piracy attack was successful as a result. One has to wonder how anyone can brag about not locking their boat after such horrific incidents demonstrated precisely what did happen aboard unlocked boats anchored on the Rio Dulce.
So, conversely,what do classical thinkers do? Do they run and hide like little French Poodles? The short answer is: not at all. The classic thinker might go to dangerous anchorage X too, if the destination really has something great to offer other than the sole experience of heightened risk. He or she will state in the end that anchorage X was in fact beautiful, that they took extra precautions, and that they were lucky and got away with anchoring at X. It is still a place that surely presents increased risk even though there was not an incident during their stay.
Put simply, the romantic will see only palm trees and the pretty beach and intentionally discount and/or ignore other aspects of the environment. The classic thinker will see the palm trees and appreciate them just as much as the romantic. But, the classic thinker will also keep a sharp eye on the suspicious-looking guy who just paddled by and take serious note of it. The classic thinker will pay attention to, and be suspicious of, anything that sends off a bad vibe or does not feel right. The classic thinker will never lose sight of underlying form and facts such as actual crime statistics and facts about social unrest in any given locale. And the classic thinker will heed all warnings and advice. In the end, if nothing bad happens at risky X it is by way of preparedness, vigilance, good luck, and street smarts, not because of an absence of risk.
It is not simply black and white out here by any means. Cruisers, including Melissa and me, come in shades of gray when it comes to risk assessment. And there is plenty of room for both the romantic and classic thinker to both be right to some degree. But, there is one continuing theme that is a favorite of Jimmy Buffett’s army of romantics that is flatly wrongheaded . . . the notion that the U.S.A. is just as, or even more dangerous compared to anywhere else in the world.
For example, the U.S.A. is NOT equally as dangerous as Guatemala! Not even close.
But, go to any cruising internet chat board or local sailing watering hole and mention “the crime thing” and a full-on romantic (they seem to take turns standing 24 hour guard), will JUMP up and quickly scream that the U.S.A. is just as dangerous, or even MORE dangerous than Guatemala, or Venezuela, or wherever.
Then, that same person will predictably go on to explain that there are very dangerous places in their home city in the U.S.A. and that they just heard on the news that some terrible crime just happened somewhere in the U.S.A.
The romantic will opine “my home town/city in the U.S.A. has a bad section of town where there is lots of crime and murder and it’s just as dangerous as Venezuela.”
Oh yeah? Gee, really? So what?!
Would you sail your boat into The Hood in Los Angeles, or New Orleans, or NYC and let your wife prance on deck in a thong bikini all day and then go to sleep with all the hatches open after dark, all while a $15,000 dinghy dangles off a stern cleat like a diamond on a chain?
If you have to couch your "all things are equal" romantic arguments about sailing in "safe" Guatemala or "safe" Venezuela by using comparisons of the worst U.S.A. neighborhoods back home, then you are simultaneously contending that you would sail right into the most dangerous inner-city back home and set the hook and kick back.
To believe that the U.S.A. is just as dangerous as Guatemala you have to have been dropped on your head in mathematics class, or else suffer some mental pathology that renders you emotionally incapable of accepting statistically hard facts that prove Guatemala, Venezuela and some of the other Third World destinations in the Caribbean are a LOT more risky than the U.S.A. in general.
Look at it this way. Would you seriously argue that 65 degrees Fahrenheit is just as cold a 10 degrees Fahrenheit? Of course you would not.
But, somehow, through the powerful miracle of romantic cruising thought and the vision of sailing into dreams rather than realities, many sailors will argue to their death that the U.S.A., with a murder rate of 7.3 per 100,000, is more dangerous than, or at least just as dangerous as Guatemala with its stupendous murder rate of 47 per 100,000.
In fact, there are ten states in the U.S.A. that had 2006 murder rates of less that 2 per 100,000, as follows:
New Hampshire 1.0
South Dakota 1.2
North Dakota 1.3
That means that roughly twenty percent of U.S.A.’s states had an average murder rate of only 1.75 per 100,000 (a mere 3% of Guatemala’s rate of 47).
And as a whole, the U.S.A.’s total murder rate of 7.3 is only 16% percent of Guatemala’s current rate.
But the sheer intoxicating power of romance is spectacular. Chances are, if you patiently explain the mathematical facts of risk and the relevance of crime statistics to a die-hard romantic, the “L” word will be the next line of the romantic’s defense: “Well, I don’t believe any of the statistics; they are all LIES!”
There is not much you can do with those types of cruisers except avoid the “C” word (crime), and talk about anchors or fishing instead.
And while it is certainly true that the odds are still very low that a careful cruiser will become the victim of violent crime in Guatemala or Venezuela, such places irrefutably present significant increases in crime risk when compared to other destinations in the Caribbean and when compared to boating in the U.S.A.
So where does that leave things? What’s the point, you ask?
It is this: the ultimate “bottom line” is that there is nothing to be ashamed of by admitting the fact that 10 degrees Fahrenheit is damned cold. It does not mean, for example, that you should not go see the stunning, breathtaking beauty of the Minnesota wilderness after a fresh blanket of snow (at least once).
All it means is that you have to be prepared for that cold, or you just might become terribly frostbitten or worse.
The same goes for cruising in more risky areas. It’s not about automatically avoiding places. It is about obtaining honest and accurate information and then being realistically prepared.
Sadly, cruisers are getting robbed and murdered aboard their vessels when it could have been avoided or prevented in most cases.
Many deeply entrenched romantic cruising attitudes need to change, but they are not changing. And it is doing severe harm to a few cruisers personally. In the broader sense, it is visiting unnecessary harm upon the general reputation of cruising.
Some cruisers suffer random, unforeseeable, and unpreventable surprises that no one saw coming. True anomalies can happen anywhere.
But, other cruisers have been killed or harmed when local knowledge is not openly shared and the cruisers fall victim to foreseeable risks that have been kept secret by locals, believe it or not. Conversely, some cruisers come to serious harm as a result of ignoring warnings and local knowledge that is openly shared. It can, and is, cutting both ways out here and both problems resulted in dead cruisers in 2008.
Let’s shift gears yet again. I used to think that the entire divide in opinion was comprised solely of differences in romantic versus classical modes of belief and understanding.
As we will see, however, it’s much more-complicated than just that. Other phenomena seem to play a role too, especially on Guatemala’s Rio Dulce. Let’s examine the personality of the Rio Dulce in the next section.
VIII. THE EXPATRIATE SOCIETY OF THE RIO DULCE
A small yet tremendously diverse cast of characters have made the Rio Dulce their permanent home. Some have lived there for decades. There are probably between one and two hundred permanent gringo residents holed up in the Rio Dulce. It’s hard to fix a number because they are spread out in little pockets. They live in various, isolated Rio Dulce marinas, some of which operate like self-contained independent states. Many of the marinas can only be reached by boat.
Called “River Livers” by some and “River Rats” by others, many in the Rio’s gringo society have made a life on the Rio for better or worse.
Old gringos fall in love with pretty young Guatemalan girls in their twenties and some marry. Other old gringos just fall in love with pretty young Guatemalan girls who call them “Poppa” and leave it at that.
A few Rio fixtures are down-and-out bums, living on pennies in probably the cheapest destination in the entire Caribbean. It’s no surprise that a few Rio boaters are pickled drunks. Those types of cruising bums are sprinkled all over the Caribbean.
Druggies of various pedigrees enjoy the open availability of illicit drugs like cocaine and marijuana in a carefree drug-use environment. It was explained to me by a long-time Rio Gringo that "there are a couple of little storefronts in Fronteras where you can walk right past cops leaning against the door sill and go to the back and buy whatever you want."
In one marina, we watched local gringos roll marijuana cigarettes and smoke them in the restaurant where we were eating. We smelled marijuana wafting through our marina several times while there during hurricane season.
I don’t take offense. While I don’t use drugs or alcohol anymore, I inhaled big-time in the old days. So, I certainly don’t judge anyone. Live and let live. I merely point out the alleged open availability of illicit drugs and the open drug use we witnessed because it is surely a part of the Rio Dulce’s personality.
Perhaps Guatemala has way too many problems to worry about to waste any time hassling stoned gringos about their personal stash.
Aside from all that, one or two gringos on the Rio surely must be running from either the law or a wicked past. You get the sensation from a few that serious bridges were burned back home in the U.S.A. or elsewhere.
And, amongst the River Livers themselves, there are quite a few harsh opinions about each other’s habits. It can be a wickedly judgmental place. There are even rivalries between different River Liver marina tribes who are fiercely loyal to their respective live aboard marinas.
One starts to quickly detect an “either you are for us or against us” attitude in whatever marina you are in. It’s certainly not as bad as Gangs of New York, but that type of friction is a noticeable feature of the Rio nonetheless.
I guess part of the gossip emanates from the wide range of activities on the Rio Dulce: sexual infidelity amongst liveaboards and cruisers pent up in the close quarters of marinas for months (and years) on end; sex in the form of a whorehouse in the little town of Fronteras; hookers working the waterfront bars of Fronteras as soon as the sun sets; rumors of pedophilia; poor young Guatemalan women all too eager to cozy up to salty old gringos with a dollar in their pocket; illicit drugs available and used everywhere; significant alcohol use seven days a week by some; and, finally, don’t forget the gunplay of Guatemala. Guns are seen everywhere on the streets.
Wicked hearsay and judgmental pontification have become a professional sport amongst some of the bored, long-term River Livers.
Remember actress Olympia Dukakis’ famous line in the movie Steel Magnolias: “If you can’t say something nice about somebody . . . come sit next to me!”
Put plainly, man-oh-man some folks love to stir shit on the Rio Dulce.
For example, one person will be copying and pirating DVD movies, stealing intellectual property at a rate that is meg-felonious and would send them to prison for life if prosecuted on all counts and, while so doing, have no qualms about concurrently and viciously attacking those terrible “criminals” and “lawbreakers” who smoke pot on the Rio Dulce.
It’s been said that taking one’s own personal inventory is a full time job, but some folks on the Rio Dulce have decided that it is high brow entertainment to take everyone else’s inventory with the zeal of an IRS auditor.
One good cruiser friend of ours who also wound up on the Rio Dulce with us for hurricane season said one day: “Damn, Buddy! Who’d a thunk it?! We sailed all the way around the whole damn Caribbean just to wind up in a friggin trailer park!”
I responded: “Yes, I have a working title for the Indigo Moon trip report: ‘How I sailed 14,000 miles to go back to Junior High School!’”
Let me say this right now, before somebody who loves the Rio Dulce goes “postal” or blows a fuse! There are some REALLY COOL folks "dug in" on the Rio too, but it is just too bad that their good vibe gets plowed under by a few UNCOOL River Livers.
In truth, had I paddled up the Rio Dulce in my hard-partying late teens and early twenties, I’d still be there (probably already dead and buried, though, from partying too hard or picking the wrong fight or girlfriend). It would have been love at first sight to me: a beautiful jungle river paradise with an endless supply of good pot, exotic girls, and an extremely low cost of living – only a hammock required. What more could a wild-at-heart young hippie ask for, right?
Also, if I were a fugitive on the lamb, the Rio Dulce would be high on the list of places in the world where I could get there in a snap and live very cheaply while fading effortlessly into the jungle. There are no police on the waters of the Rio. The police don’t even have a boat.
But, alas, Melissa and I are not running away from anything. And gossip is not my bag. We totally quit drinking and doing drugs decades ago. And I already have my own exotically beautiful woman with me. So, alas, some of the Rio’s most prominent advantages have zero appeal to me.
Aside from all that sensational stuff, a goodly number of other Rio residents are less eccentric and simply seem to be good folk. Some departed from the Gulf Coast of the U.S.A. and got as far as the Rio Dulce and then stopped cruising. It turned out they had more escapist blood than cruiser blood and they are living as retirees in Rio Dulce marinas, all while trying to stay out of the fray.
Some River Livers unintentionally hit a dead-end by making the mistake of trying to go counter-clockwise around the Caribbean. They bumped down the coast of the Yucatan until, like a pinball game’s ball bearing, they rattled deeply into the dead-end of the Rio Dulce where there is no easy escape due to its location.
The only way to keep moving great distances in the Caribbean from the northwestern Caribbean is to first head east, three hundred miles directly into the trade winds and adverse currents along the northern coast of Honduras and then turn south through the pirate territories of the Mosquito Coasts of Honduras and Nicaragua on the way to Panama.
It’s either that, or turn tail and head back to the "evil” U.S.A. – a choice that would be a bitter admission of defeat for ex-pats and stand them facing all those burned bridges, eventually eating crow back home.
Just thinking about those two choices is enough to cause even seasoned cruisers to order another beer, or roll another joint, and decide that maybe another year on the fabulously picturesque Rio Dulce would be really fun. And that alone, it seems, has converted several earnest cruisers into permanent Rio Dulce River Livers who, at most, go a few miles up the coast of Belize during April and May for a vacation and then run right back into the Rio Dulce for another ten months of River Living in a secure marina.
Author Bruce Van Sant, whose book Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South has been a long time favorite on cruisers’ bookshelves, quipped in a recent magazine article:
“Cruisers keep moving. They love the thrill of departure as much as they love arrival in brand new ports. Escapists, however, stop as soon as they feel they have escaped. They do not want to go one port farther.”
And if there ever was a log-jam of escapists rafted-up on boats, it has to be the Rio Dulce.
We found the Rio Dulce’s escapist society to have a surprisingly different personality compared to on-the-move cruising societies we encountered most everywhere else in the U.S.A. and the Caribbean. The Rio Dulce has a unique personality. Some people absolutely love it and some people absolutely hate it.
So what makes the Rio Dulce’s vibe so different? It is several things.
First of all, it hosts an unusually large number of U.S. boaters permanently living long-term in one place, more by far than any other Caribbean destination we’ve been too. That also means those local boaters have developed a serious stake in local businesses, have developed long-term relationships and alliances with locals, and their natural disposition is to primarily support and side with the Rio Dulce and its people, not “tourist cruisers” passing through.
Let me interject that, of course, cruisers are not superior to escapists and visa versa. As the old saying goes, “I am not better than anyone else, but I am as good as anybody.”
The point is that we, and many of our cruising friends who visited the Rio Dulce at the same time we did, quickly realized that we are constitutionally different and often incompatible with the core River Liver society.
For one thing, I readily stipulate that I do not agree with and don’t favor the views of rabid U.S. expatriates. I love the United States and I am extremely proud of the flag that flies on the back of Indigo Moon. I support the U.S.A. through thick and thin, right and wrong, feast and famine. I am a veteran. I am a patriot. I am a living breathing “only in America” success story. The U.S.A. is my country. And I love it.
So, it’s no surprise that I was not about to be recruited into Rio Dulce’s aggressive and outspoken “The U.S.A. Sucks Club.”
Honestly, it would be a welcome change if some of the brashest expatriates of the Rio Dulce backed off from verbally attacking people who still love the U.S.A. Common courtesy and tolerance would go a long way toward making patriotic visitors feel welcome on the Rio Dulce too.
Anyway, let’s dig deeper into the Rio Dulce’s personality.
Defending the Rio Dulce: a minefield with hair-triggers!
Newcomers to the Rio Dulce quickly learn that for the most part the expatriate and boating community has little patience for any criticism whatsoever of the Rio Dulce and/or Guatemala.
Mention anything, even innocently or obliquely, about the shortcomings of Guatemala and/or the Rio Dulce to expatriates and odds are high that you will receive a swift and certain verbal shotgun blast to the face in the form of an angry diatribe about how terrible the U.S.A. is and how there is some failing within you to be crass enough to say anything negative whatsoever about poor little old Guatemala.
It’s akin to a trailer-trash incident where, without really thinking, you innocently mention across the fence that the paint job on your neighbor’s Chevy pickup looks like it is fading and he instantly screams back: “Screw you! I love my pickup truck! It rocks! It is the coolest, fastest, most bad-ass pickup truck in the world! The paint isn’t faded! Your wife is a bitch! Your kids are stupid and ugly! You suck! I’ll kick your ass! Nobody has said anything to your face, but the whole trailer park hates you and we’ll all run your ass out of here! So shut your fat mouth or I’ll come over this fence right now and I’ll get your ass! I’ll run my Chevy truck right over you! How would you like that?!”
You know, actually, I misspoke. It is not akin to that on the Rio Dulce, it feels exactly like that sometimes. And some of the women can be the most vicious of all. Keep an eye on them!
It’s too bad really, because such behavior is a disservice to the overall reputation of the Rio Dulce. When the most hyper expatriates on the Rio Dulce exhibit such caustic behavior it creates lasting negative impressions of what people are like on the Rio Dulce and those bad apples mar the really good vibes that exist amongst nice people living on the Rio.
Anyway, it was definitely a new experience.
Venezuelans, for example, are not defensive in that way; they never deflect a conversation about the troubles in Venezuela by attacking someone else or some other country. They will stick to the point and not shift to a “your country sucks too!” stance. It’s exclusively a Guatemalan gringo ex-pat thing.
Aside from always blasting you with “The U.S.A. Sucks” another main feature of the combative ex-pats’ attack is to always sell Guatemala as representative of the Third World: “You’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto! This is the Third World! Go back home if you don’t like everything about Guatemala! GO BACK!”
A few River Livers have perfected verbal attacks designed to berate, demean, intimidate, indoctrinate and/or simply shut up newcomers to the Rio who innocently strike a nerve with local gringos who are sick to death of hearing about the “fading paint on their beloved rusty pickup truck” that is Guatemala.
The “this is the Third World so shut up” diatribe works best with greenhorn cruisers who arrive in the Rio Dulce fresh from the Gulf Coast and Florida with no experience in the Caribbean. Like successfully selling oregano as marijuana, River Livers convince some newbies that Guatemala’s stupendous violence and colossal corruption is simply run-of-the-mill Third World.
For cruisers like us who have been thousands of miles around the entire Caribbean and spent three years visiting dozens of different Third World counties, it became THE private joke of all jokes. Anytime anybody said anything bad about anything in Guatemala (even the weather) we would scream “Shut up you jerk! This is the Third World!” and then laugh hysterically.
Of course, we had to make sure we were out of earshot of any disagreeable ex-pat River Livers because the joke was squarely on them.
Anyway, saying that Guatemala IS the Third World can only be described to be stereotypically ludicrous as saying O.J. Simpson IS black people. Or David Duke IS white people.
I’m am absolutely certain that quite a few Third World Latin American counties would be pretty freaked out to think that bloody and lawless little Guatemala has been elected “Miss Third World” to represent the condition of entire Third World.
Whether legitimate or not, the River Livers’ big “Third World Paintbrush” surely must help reduce the cognitive dissonance that results within in them after deciding that Guatemala is the best Third World place to tie up your boat for good.
We will examine the theory of cognitive dissonance and wonder at its probable effect on the Rio Dulce later in this report.
Crime and Duplicity on the Rio Dulce: Secrets Can Kill
Crime was THE issue on the Rio Dulce in 2008. It seemed to invade every conversation I had with visiting cruisers. I made it a point one day to never mention crime, but every single conversation I had that day with a visiting cruiser was turned to the crime issue by them at some point.
People were getting murdered all around the little Rio Dulce area and the louder the River Livers screamed that the Rio Dulce was safe and that all the incidents were isolated, the more the murders kept happening. It was brutal.
Immediately following the Dryden murder and the Parsons’ piracy and armed robbery, cruisers became incensed about a total lack of safety and security warnings, and the absence of public security discussions on the Rio Dulce.
The morning VHF Cruisers’ Information Network hosted virtually no colloquy about safety and security.
Instead, even though there were two extremely serious piracy attacks in a week, there was hardly a pause in the daily routine of announcing lunch specials at various marinas and the ongoing dispensation of inane fun facts from local River Livers such as “If you look to the Southwest tonight you’ll see the Space Shuttle” and “My Grand Pappy was a cowboy who slept with his spurs on” and other such tedium.
Visiting cruisers on the river were not worried about seeing the Space Shuttle. Instead, we were worried about why pirates were hacking fellow cruisers to death on the Rio Dulce and why the River Livers didn’t seem to give a damn enough to even discuss it on the Cruisers' Net.
The glib River Liver attitudes about murder stunned the majority of visiting cruisers I talked to.
On the VHF Net there was no rally to help Nancy Dryden. Not a word. There was no rally to help her deal with the boat. Not a word. There was no rally to help raise money if need be. Not a word. There was no offering of updated details of the incident or descriptions of the suspects. Not a word. There was no discussion about where it is considered dangerous to anchor on the Rio Dulce. Not a word. There was nothing, absolutely nothing offered. Not a word.
Some of you may be saying, so what?
Well, for those of you who don’t know, morning radio programs on both SSB and VHF radio frequencies, called “Cruisers’ Networks,” are heavily relied upon by cruisers on the move to obtain current safety and security information, all of which is customarily shared by fellow mariners.
These Cruisers’ Nets are forums primarily focused on the open and free exchange of security and medical information and advice. Volunteer moderators (referred to as “Net Controllers”) take turns hosting the program and they follow a topic format, manage all the radio traffic, and control what topics are discussed and when.
The VHF program on the Rio Dulce is the only program I have ever encountered where the local Net Controllers and local participants aggressively and confrontationally discouraged open security discussions.
It was freakish to behold. And it was not fun to be caught off guard and publicly admonished for trying to discuss security issues on the program. Take it from me.
I got singled out as the trouble making enemy for innocently speaking out on the very first VHF Cruisers’ Network that took place after the Daniel Dryden murder.
I inquired about whether or not there were places on the Rio that were safer for anchoring than others, because a local had told me over the weekend that where Dryden anchored was known to be dangerous (by the way, you would NEVER know that by just looking at the anchorage – it looks perfectly safe).
I waited for an answer and listened to thirty seconds of cross-talk on the program -- talk that suggested there are in fact anchorages that are safer than others. I then rejoined the discussion and suggested that it might be a good idea to broadcast that type of information on the VHF Net so that cruisers new to the Rio would also have access to that local knowledge.
Well, a woman immediately jumped into the colloquy and railed me. On the VHF radio program she shouted down my idea as "hysterical" and then launched into a rabid, rambling diatribe about how she loves Guatemala, she’s not leaving, and she’s been there for four years . . . and that she loves Guatemala, and how she really loves Guatemala. Did I mention she loves Guatemala?
And here is the really fun part: she knew who I was and she was doing this from inside her sailboat tied up right behind Indigo Moon at Mario’s Marina.
Yep, my next door River Liver neighbor was flaming me publicly on the VHF program because I was crass enough to calmly suggest that there should be safety warnings and security discussions and an open dialogue on the Rio Dulce that could prevent more cruisers from getting robbed and hacked to death with machetes like poor Daniel Dryden.
Well, by publicly attacking my ideas on the radio, my neighbor set firm boundaries. I have to hand it to her.
Most cruisers are shy and won’t speak on the VHF Cruisers’ Net anyway. Add in the risk of severe public ridicule by a Rabid River Liver from within the tight-knit society we all had to co-exist with and that pretty much insured that no safety and security discussions of any depth would ensue thereafter.
The River Liver Net Controllers kept a tight rein on the VHF Net and its content, always steering it away from any discussions on safety and security.
As all that was going on, I also started a thread on Latitudes and Attitudes magazine’s internet chat board where I have lots of great cyber friends whom I have gotten to know over the last seven years.
I was frustrated and venting about how insane it all was on the Rio Dulce during that week after the piracy incidents, how badly some people were behaving about the VHF Net, and I harshly criticized the Rio Dulce’s morning VHF program for not fostering open discussions about safety and security. I labeled it the worst VHF Cruisers’ Net in the world, and a disgrace, because it actively quashed safety and security discussions, and, instead, devoted all effort and industry to Rio Dulce business cheerleading and announcing lunch specials at the various marinas.
Well, I guess I should have seen it coming. A renegade local River Liver who agreed with much of my rant found my internet thread and put a link to it up on the Rio Dulce’s local internet chat board. He rubbed my comments (and those of the outside world in response), into the River Liver’s faces.
Here are some excerpts of his post that appeared on the Rio Dulce’s internet chat board only days after Daniel Dryden’s murder:
My name is Brady, and this is my 2nd season on the Rio. Because I tend to keep to myself, very few of you know me. However, I feel the need to respond to what has and has not happened over the last few days.
I am amazed with the lack of communication amongst us (the "cruising" gringos) who claim this as our community. The morning VHF net and this forum have provided very little open discussion, and it seems that the protection of the Rio's economy is the prevailing underlying theme. Are we not recreating, in some way, what we were trying to separate ourselves from—a system where special interests take precedence overall?
I have read so many arguments based on the contention that we deserve some special security over those who are true Guatemalans because our dollars have created and continue to sustain the economy. With such a view, are we not becoming just another branch of the elite who are provided with protection from a police and military force whose primary goal is to protect the wealthy? This does not put us more in touch with our neighbors, "the locals," but creates a greater gap between us.
Another often repeated view is that this is a freak occurrence in Guatemala, while back home (pick your city of choice) robbery, rape, pedophilia, murder, etc. happen on a daily basis." Those crimes undoubtedly happen here on a daily basis as well, but we hear little about them because much of it does not actually happen to us. Thus, these events become irrelevant in our plight for paradise. Crime for us is only an issue when we are directly affected. Comparing the crime rate of a city with a million+ people to this community of a few thousand, where crimes that do occur are rarely reported, is absurd. Another often-repeated sentiment is that "this could happen anywhere." We are not talking about anywhere. We are talking about here, the Rio Dulce. We are not talking about what COULD happen; we are talking about what IS happening.
For several days after I first arrived in the Rio (2/2007), I made sure to listen to the morning net. After a week of the same info conveyed repeatedly, I stopped listening and opted for more sleep time. NOW, once again, I have turned on my radio in an attempt to listen, but my location on the river and a crapped out antenna makes the reception sporadic. However, from what I can hear, it doesn't sound much different from the net I heard a year and a half ago. I listen for updates and hope for an open discussion, but, apparently, that is not entirely welcomed on the net. WHY? At other times, I encounter the opinionated, know-it-all asshole that presumes to sum it all up and abruptly ends the topic in a few blurted words.
Countless times a day I go to the Rio Dulce Chisme-Vindicator [the local promotional web site that also includes the Chat Board at http://riodulcechisme.com/] seeking news' updates and then directly onto this forum to read the discussions. The response has been minimal at best with concentration on "frontier justice" and defending oneself in the event of an attack. I am all for justice and preparing for the unexpected, but perhaps a greater focus on awareness would be a huge step in prevention. Yes, that would mean being upfront with precautionary advice, information that would provide essential knowledge to Rio newcomers and that could have life-saving potential.
In my frustration with the lack of communication here publicly, I began to search Google seeking information at other sites including cruisers' blogs and other forums. Of those reviewed, one stands out on Lats & Atts with lots of input from many outsiders. Buddy, from Indigo Moon, whom I have never met, has opened a discussion there that makes some valid points and observations. I cannot say I agree with everything, but that is not the point. So far, his has been the only site I have seen that seeks some sort of open dialogue and a willingness to share ideas about increasing awareness and prevention. I think it's a shame that he feels he cannot have these discussions where they are needed most, here on this forum, but I can understand why he chose to post elsewhere . . . here is a link to Buddy’s thread . . .
You can read the Lats and Atts thread here if you so desire, but be warned, the language is raunchy: Latitudes & Attitudes Cruisers Forum: Rampage on the Rio Continues!
Brady never came by on the Rio and never introduced himself. I have no idea who he is. I don’t blame him, though, for keeping his head down. If he has to live amongst the expatriates and business owners on the Rio, then he must not make waves lest he become the target of the day. Nonetheless, when Brady held up my thread to the River Livers, it made me pretty unpopular with a few in the River Liver crowd.
I had no idea they even had a local internet chat board on the Rio Dulce. Somebody tipped me off that my name had come up and that I better go see about it.
That’s ok. I have broad shoulders. If my being utterly disliked by the River Livers will help make a difference to educate newcomers, bring pressure to bear to help inform fellow cruisers and keep cruisers from getting killed and robbed, then so be it.
Nonetheless, word traveled quickly about me on the Rio: that outspoken traitor and troublemaking lawyer over at Marios who is broadcasting "poison filled comments" (the truth) about the Rio Dulce to the world on the internet.
The level of Rio Rancor was getting out of proportion. It was clear that it was just too soon after all the murders for anyone to discuss things productively.
And Hoo Mama! My show was not the only one in town and was tame compared to some! There was a ton of other conflict going on that had nothing to do with me. Dagger-sharp tongues wagged and internet chat boards were buzzing in the aftermath of the Dryden murder.
All sorts of internet postings went up, some freakishly inappropriate and cruel to the Drydens. Remember the bumper sticker: “Mean People Suck.” Well, that bumper sticker and would have looked good on a boat or two in Mario’s Marina.
Basically, life on the Rio Dulce in Hurricane Season 2008 was turning into an emotional prison riot and nothing resembling a fun adventure.
Eventually there was a silent standoff between visiting cruisers and the Rio Dulce River Livers. We all simply stopped talking about anything of consequence in public and limited further serious discussion to within our own respective camps.
Almost to a person I talked to, visiting cruisers privately indicated to me that while they were appreciative to have seen the intense natural beauty of Guatemala they were concurrently and noticeably uncomfortable on the Rio Dulce and during inland travel.
Cruisers reported being more aware of and concerned about crime on the Rio Dulce than anywhere they had ever been on their boat (including the Eastern Caribbean, Venezuela and Colombia), and they were terribly disappointed in the business as usual and casual attitudes of many River Livers about murder (not just Dan Dryden’s but all of the Guatemalans who were assassinated and murdered too; more on that later).
One cruiser in our marina explained that he felt like he was being held hostage while enduring the entirety of hurricane season under armed guard and stuck in the marina every night.
In Colombia and Venezuela we were able to walk the streets of cities at night and get out of the marinas and away from other cruisers and go out to dinner and have some personal space. On the Rio Dulce, however, we found ourselves hiding in the armed protection of our marina, night after night, with the same set of cell mates. It became a very small space psychologically.
One of our close friends remarked about some of the not-so-nice cell mates in our marina: “You know, Buddy, we didn’t choose these people. But we damn sure are stuck with them now, aren’t we?!”
And the knife surely cut both ways; they were stuck with so-called disruptive, outspoken visiting cruisers like me.
The problem of "too much togetherness" does not apply to those fortunate cruisers who simply leave their boats stored on the Rio Dulce and fly to their summer homes in Maine, or wherever else for hurricane season. It is estimated that the ratio is getting higher and higher and that as much as 80% of the seasonal boats on the Rio are stored and left in the care of the marina. The Rio is becoming more a storage river and less a cruisers’ hangout.
But, as for po-folks like us who have only the boat to live on, we were stuck. I can verify the sentiments made by other cruisers of being held hostage for the hurricane season.
The majority of cruisers who spoke to me said they felt Guatemala was getting worse and they would not return to the Rio Dulce. One couple had been there three years in a row, but after 2008 they said that was going to be it.
And then something unexpected happened and kicked it all up a notch for me.
Outright duplicity revealed itself.
One River Liver, who is very active in promoting the Rio Dulce, sold it zealously on the internet that the Dryden murder was merely an isolated incident and not indicative of a general crime problem or danger.
But, someone called it to my attention that, behind the scenes, that same person was simultaneously posting the opposite on a local Rio Dulce internet chat board. Amongst his circle of River Liver friends and fans, he wrote that he was seriously scared and wished he had guns aboard his boat.
Then the clincher: that same guy wrote that it is common knowledge amongst some long-time locals that the “upper end of the Monkey Bay anchorage” where Dryden was murdered is well known for being a dangerous place to anchor for the night due to its easy access from a local village. Thus, some River Livers knew all along that where Dan Dryden anchored is very dangerous.
One can only speculate as to whether or not Daniel Dryden would still be alive today had the Rio Dulce VHF Cruisers’ Network routinely dispensed such River Livers’ inside-information and had suggested that newcomers avoid the dangerous portion of the Monkey Bay anchorage where Daniel Dryden was brutally murdered.
Take note that Daniel and Nancy had no Caribbean cruising experience. They bought the boat on the Rio Dulce and were just getting started. They needed all the accurate local knowledge they could get.
But the very idea of dispensing accurate and truthful information on the Rio Dulce just serves-up even tougher medicine that will probably never be swallowed.
For example, any scientific-minded person would be hard-pressed to segregate the Rio Dulce into different sections.
It takes 45 seconds to cross Monkey Bay at its widest point in a dinghy with a 15 h.p. engine (I timed it). Declaring that only the “upper end” of Monkey Bay is dangerous is tantamount to saying that only the back left corner of a risky elevator is dangerous.
The Rio Dulce is busy with scores of fast launches with powerful outboards. Pirates can go as fast and far as they want to and cover the whole river in one night, easily.
But, when anything bad happens, Rio residents immediately declare “it’s an isolated incident” and then draw a mental chalk line around it. As long as their toes are not actually touching the chalk line, then the incident did not occur anywhere near them. “It happened somewhere else, not here!”
And, even worse, if the chalk line does touch the toes, some will simply lie about what happened and claim the line is somewhere else. Take the assassination of the Rio Dulce’s crime under-boss, the Queen of the South.
I was searching the internet for information and stumbled across the report of an eye witness to her murder. Here is what was reported on the internet by a young backpacker who claims to have been inside a local hotel bar and to have watched the Queen of the South's murder:
There was a robbery on a boat a few weeks ago and an American got killed and his wife left badly injured. It later came out that it had been carried out by a gang from Morales, the next big town on the road to the city, and that two of the four men involved had been arrested. The next night the boss of the gang, the so called Reina del Sur (Queen of the South), was shot down in the [Backpacker’s] hotel along with her 15 year old son who apparently was also very active in the gang. I heard the four shots go off outside where the boy was killed. I then saw the assassin come walking in to the bar with gun in hand heading straight for the toilets. Just then the gang boss [Queen of the South] came walking out of the boys toilets for some reason and was met at the door by her assassin. She folded her arms and gave him a look like, what ya gonna do? He raised the gun and shot her point blank in the chest, she fell instantly and he fired another two just to be sure. He then turned around swinging his gun over the whole bar, at which point I ducked having already pushed some of the girls to the floor. He then left the bar untouched and disappeared. I was the first one over to the body and knew straight away she was dead. I started shouting at the bar staff to do something, and they just looked at me like I was crazy. I got them to call the cops at least, who eventually arrived almost four hours later, and then sat and had a drink with the bar manager and didn't even ask for witness statements. I was literally two or three meters from it when it happened and saw everything. It was strangely like a movie or something, but the strangest thing was the reaction from the locals, nothing, nada, niente. I actually saw some people laughing about it while looking at the body. Kind of sickening to be honest. Anyway, the next night the other two men involved [in the Dryden murder] were also shot dead . . . . I just felt obliged to put the truth up [on the internet] since it was covered up a bit by Backpackers Hotel, their official statement was that it happened outside of the hotel on the street. (See this young man's story for yourself on traveler's internet blog at http://www.travelblog.org/Central-America-Caribbean/Guatemala/Rio-Dulce/blog-320164.html)
The morning after the murders, Backpackers announced on the VHF Cruisers’ Net that “there were some shootings out on the street near Backpackers last night” when in fact both murders took place on the Backpacker’s property and one occurred inside the Backpacker’s Bar while filled with on-looking tourists.
Backpackers Hotel flatly lied to imply: Backpackers is safe. It didn’t happen here.
Anyway, everything that happens on the Rio Dulce is an "isolated incident" according to the locals. It would be a spectacular joke if the subject matter was not so deadly serious.
Muffins in a pan are isolated, but who can say with straight face that it is not the intense heat of the oven working upon the whole that causes them to individually rise up in numbers. The truth is that Guatemala is one big oven of post civil war conflict, organized crime, drug smuggling, and vigilante murder. It is on high heat and murder is on the menu.
It is so bad that vigilante murders are not even considered “incidents.” Those murders don’t rank with some of the locals. “It’s just another dead Guatemalan, so what? He/she must have had it coming. They know who needs to be killed around here.”
But, many River Livers refuse to admit that the oven is on high. Many are afraid that if the unvarnished truth was told, nobody would come and spend hurricane-season money. So, there appears to be a confederacy of silence, spin-control, and even a crass lie by the likes of Backpackers Hotel now and then (but apparently only when absolutely necessary).
And that begs even more scrutiny: just how bad is a place when you have to publicly lie about it? To my knowledge, nobody else has lied to cruisers about crime or anything else on the VHF Cruisers’ Network anywhere else in the Caribbean. I never before imagined that I could not trust the VHF Cruisers’ Net.
That alone speaks volumes on the dynamics you are dealing with when you sail into the Rio Dulce.
It is all extremely disconcerting. My initial rancor about some of the behavior on the Rio Dulce has now cooled into deep melancholy. I know that many people living on the Rio Dulce are doing the best they can and doing what they feel is right for them and their interests, but that surely does not excuse the bad behavior by some.
Even so, I would bet that more than a few of the residents on the Rio Dulce have not taken the time to really dig in and truly study Guatemala in the first place. Some probably don’t even realize the extent of what is going on in Guatemala, or at least appreciate the true gravity of it in relation to the country’s last sixty years.
In all honesty, it is pretty damn hard to believe that Guatemala is dangerous at all when you lounge in a hammock at a Rio Dulce Marina and sip another beer (or Diet Coke) in the shade. From within the safe zone of a marina with armed guards, it all looks like sheer paradise from that vantage point. Had I not dug deep and studied on my own, I would never have guessed that violence and crime in Guatemala, the Rio Dulce included, are so very troubling.
Basically, if your only view of Guatemala has been from within a secure marina, then what you know about Guatemala and the Rio Dulce is virtually nothing.
All that aside, it still leaves us with a very intriguing question: why does the Rio Dulce’s local boating personality differ so drastically from all the other cruising societies we have encountered?
Let’s look into that right now.
When Prophecy Fails: The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance
I have spent much time ruminating on this trip report, trying to make sense of the Rio Dulce. And, admittedly, I have also wondered at times why the Good Lord threw me into the briar patch of Hurricane Season 2008 on the Rio Dulce, knowing I would, by nature, not be able to bring myself to simply gloss-over what I experienced.
I used to ask the same thing about some of the tough legal cases that came my way: “Why me Lord?” And then, after initially kicking dirt a little, I would dig in and do my level best to represent clients in difficult cases.
This report has been the same kind of undertaking.
For one thing, I have never before found myself profoundly at odds with other boaters. I really did not think that was possible, but now I know it is. I guess it’s true: anything’s possible.
Whenever my views seriously clash with the views of others, I have always sought an understanding as to why we all saw things so very differently. Perhaps it is from years of trial work and the constant requirement that a lawyer must understand and appreciate not only his client’s case but the other side’s case too.
And there is no value in beating a “No it isn’t! Yes it is!” swearing contest to death. It’s a waste of time. One of my favorite lawyer mentors often quipped: “There is no more useless endeavor than two people arguing outside the presence of a judge or jury.” That’s golden advice.
There is great value, however, in shaking off any personalization that might have offended me during a conflict and focusing instead on trying to earnestly make sense of what seems nonsensical. The issue: why do sane and rational people see things so differently sometimes? It’s interesting.
Why do some of the people who live on the Rio Dulce misrepresent it to the point of being disingenuous as far as I am concerned? Why would anybody in their right mind claim that Guatemala and the Rio Dulce are as safe as anywhere else?
You had to be there to believe it.
Within a week of Daniel Dryden’s murder and his wife Nancy’s punctured lung, and only days after the separate piracy attack on Roy and Michelle Parsons aboard Dream Odyssey downriver, I was taking part in spirited discussions on the Rio Dulce and advocating warnings and the open sharing of crime information on the Rio Dulce (a.k.a. “making trouble”).
A local River Liver, ex-pat gringo stood up and cut me off mid-sentence. With a cocktail in one hand and an extended arm and wagging forefinger on the other, he let fly: “The River is Safe! The River is SAFE! THE RIVER IS SAFE! We don’t have any problems here. I’m tellin’ ya! IT IS SAFE!”
Do you remember Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now as the Air Cavalry Commander of the helicopter squadron? He was a surfing enthusiast and wanted to surf part of a shoreline where a Vietnam battle was still winding down.
Artillery was still pounding both the beach and the surf all around him as he stood oblivious to the explosions. He explained to a young soldier, hunkered nearby, that the waves were breaking both to the left and to the right.
The young soldier made the mistake of saying: “But, Sir, don’t you think it’s too dangerous to surf right now.”
Duvall admonished him: “If I say it’s safe to surf this beach, then it’s safe to surf this beach! Now get out there!”
Well, that movie scene went through my mind as I watched this larger-than-life ex-pat River Liver raise his voice and admonish me while declaring that the Rio Dulce is safe.
When pressed immediately thereafter about all the piracy and hostage situations, and numerous dinghy thefts on the Rio Dulce in 2007 and 2008, all in close prior proximity to the Dryden murder, he dismissed those other incidents: “Well, all that stuff is mostly nothing; they didn’t hurt anybody; all they did was tie people up and steal some stuff. That’s no big deal and not a crime problem. That happens everywhere!”
Then he brought up the subject of guns and professed with even more confident swagger: “Hey, look there is no trouble here. Don’t turn your guns in at Customs. Keep a gun on your boat. If people come on board your boat just kill them all, roll them into the river, and go back to sleep. I keep a gun. Just kill them and don’t say anything to anybody and forget it. Go back to sleep and don’t give it another thought. Nobody will care if you kill somebody on your boat on the Rio Dulce. I promise you. That is the way things are done here. Nobody will care and it will not be any trouble at all.”
OK . . . murder locals with an undeclared gun while stuck twenty miles up a river in Guatemala and go back to sleep with blood on your decks? Yeah, right!
You know what makes the game of chess so hard? It’s that too many pieces are moving around to keep track of. There are too many angles and options to keep straight all at once. That is why lying witnesses get into trouble so easily at trial: too many unforeseen trap doors to fall head-first through. Lawyers fall through those same trap doors when they ask questions they don’t know the answer to.
Well, after the whole Safe River Side Show ran its course that afternoon, the conversation cooled and a different topic came up: it seems revenge murder is a passion in Guatemala.
We were informed that there was a traffic accident wherein a kid ran into an old grandfather and dented up his vehicle and moderately injured the elderly man. The negligent kid and his family made good on the damages one-hundred percent, as much as any super-liberal judge or jury would have ever demanded.
The old man healed up ok. But, the family of the injured party decided that was not good enough. They sent word they were going to kill the kid. Two weeks later the kid was murdered. And that was that.
Ok, so what part of this math does not work?
Hmmm . . . Let’s see: 1) keep an illegal gun and kill people on your boat and throw them in the river and nobody will care; and 2) if you hurt somebody in Guatemala, even by accident and pay for all the damages, you will be murdered.
I don’t know about you, but that math sounds like 2 plus 2 equals: negative six-hundred and-sixty-six. It’s pretty weird to keep hearing the words “safe” and “murder” used almost like synonyms in Guatemala.
As these types of discussions repeated themselves over the course of a few weeks, cruisers learned that a constructive open dialogue was not possible with most Rio Dulce River Livers about the true state of crime in Guatemala and on the Rio Dulce. In truth, the input of outsiders was not welcome. I guess I can understand that cruisers were a nagging nuisance to locals who long ago decided to see things from a much different perspective.
Regardless: the Official Rio Position became clear: 1) the river is safe; 2) we have not had any problems here for years; 3) the U.S.A. is just as, or more dangerous; 4) this is the Third World and we love it; and, 4) SHUT UP!”
One Rio Dulce defender and live aboard River Liver wrote on the internet to the effect that “if you read the U.S. State Department’s warnings on Guatemala you would be hard pressed to want to come and visit. Sure, it’s dangerous, but so is Fargo, North Dakota.”
Good Lord! North Dakota was recently rated the safest state in the United States for the 6th year in a row! North Dakota is not a dangerous place. It is an extremely safe place.
These are the manslaughter/murder rates for Fargo, North Dakota:
Saying Guatemala and Fargo, North Dakota, are both dangerous is the equivalent to saying Adolph Hitler and Captain Kangaroo were both sadistic murderers.
Twice as many people were murdered on the tiny little rural Rio Dulce in just the four months we were there than were murdered in six years in Fargo, North Dakota.
But it’s that old saw at work for some River Livers: “Don’t confuse me with the facts!”
Aside from spectacular leaps in logic by some Rio residents, more-troubling things came to light as well.
Pragmatic and realistic people living on the Rio (yes, there are a also straight-shooters there) called me aside and explained to me that it is no accident that crime information is suppressed on the Rio.
Many businesses are afraid to mention anything about safety and security because it is a Pandora’s Box that once opened could hurt business and scare cruisers away for good.
Speak up and be killed
As the Rio Dulce experience kept unfolding in 2008, more and more pieces of the puzzle came to light. A long-term local liveaboard boater wrote on the Rio Dulce’s internet chat board that there was no way to publicly discuss the true crime dynamics of the Rio Dulce. He would say no more except to add: “I value my life.”
The message: if someone locally and publicly broadcasts all there really is to know about the Rio Dulce’s criminal environment, that person could very well be assassinated, and that, according to locals, apparently includes boaters who say too much.
Could cruisers actually be killed for speaking out on the Rio Dulce? Seems far fetched, right?
Well, believe it or not, one cruiser in Mario’s Marina put up a very controversial post on the internet attacking illegal drug use on the Rio Dulce and it resulted in what she described as “death threats” against her (according to her internet blog).
The more I learned, the more it became certain that there is no safe free speech in Guatemala and the threat of being killed for speaking up is very real for all persons. The most infamous case of death by free speech was the assassination of Guatemala’s Catholic Bishop, Juan Gerardi, on April 24, 1998.
The Bishop, a courageous human rights advocate, released a post-civil war report entitled “Guatemala, Never Again!" that contained horrific testimonies of war crimes and murder during the Guatemalan Civil War (that had just ended at the time).
Bishop Gerardi’s report provided graphic details and even listed specific names of those who committed war crimes. The report cost Bishop Gerardi his life. He was murdered only 50 hours after the release of the report.
The Bishop’s murder was particularly brutal. He was beaten to death with a concrete slab in front of his home.
Think about what you were doing in 1998. It’s not long ago. While you were going about your free speech life in the United States, Bishop Gerardi was being beaten to death on the sidewalk for simply telling the truth and exposing the reality of Guatemala’s extreme violence.
There are many other examples, and, obviously, there is a legitimate fear of telling everything there is to tell.
After a while, I got the honest feeling that some of the local reticence about an open and honest VHF Cruisers’ Network is not just based upon protecting business, but is also rooted in a legitimate fear that it could get someone killed.
As all of this kept unfolding, and my jaw kept dropping, I wondered how anyone could know all of this and choose to live on the Rio Dulce and support it. How could any rational person become enamored with a place where very serious crimes are accepted as just part of life and you have to carefully watch what you say or risk being killed?
Moreover, how can anyone who once sailed into the Rio Dulce come to believe that it is even remotely acceptable or morally defensible to keep dangerous anchorage and crime information about the Rio Dulce a secret? What kind of boaters would do such a thing to fellow mariners?
The more I thought about it, the more I kept thinking of When Prophecy Fails.
I took one semester of psychology as a freshman in college. It was very interesting and, believe it or not, I have always remembered much of what we examined in that course. I took the class in 1975, over thirty years ago.
One of my favorite teachings in that class was about what happens “when prophecy fails.” In the 1956 classic book by the same title, psychologist Leon Festinger introduced his new theory of cognitive dissonance, a theory that explains the psychological consequences of disconfirmed expectations.
Below is a summary of comments derived from wikipedia.
In this book, one of the first published cases of dissonance was reported. It examined the curious behavior surrounding a group of people who believed that an alien spaceship was coming to save them. The whole study began when Festinger and his associates noticed an interesting item in their local newspaper: "Prophecy from planet Clarion call to city: flee that flood."
A Chicago housewife, Mrs. Marion Keech, alleged she had received messages in her house in the form of "automatic writing" from alien beings on the planet Clarion. These aliens alerted her that the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21.
A group of believers, headed by Mrs. Keech, took strong behavioral steps to commit to the belief such as leaving jobs, college, and even spouses. The believers gave money and possessions away to prepare for their departure on a flying saucer that was to come to earth and rescue true believers.
Festinger and his colleagues saw this as a perfect case that would surely lead to the arousal of dissonance when the prophecy failed. Altering the belief would be difficult, as Mrs. Keech and her group were committed at considerable expense to maintain it.
The psychologists predicted that the inevitable disconfirmation of an alien rescue would be not be followed by a realization that the prophecy failed, but that instead there would be an enthusiastic effort at proselytizing to seek social support and lessen the pain of disconfirmation.
This is what happened, reported first-hand by Festinger’s colleagues who infiltrated Mrs. Keech's group:
- Prior to December 20, the group shuns publicity and access to inside information is provided only to those who have convinced the group they are true believers who support the group. The group evolves a belief system—provided by the automatic writings from the planet Clarion—to explain the details of the cataclysm, the reason for its occurrence, and the manner in which the group would be saved from the disaster.
- December 20. The group expects a visitor from outer space to call upon them at midnight and to escort them to a waiting spacecraft. As instructed, the group goes to great lengths to remove all metallic items from their persons. As midnight approaches, zippers, bra straps, and other objects are discarded. The group waits.
- 12:05 A.M., December 21. No visitor. Someone in the group notices that another clock in the room shows 11:55. The group agrees that it is not yet midnight.
- 12:10 A.M. The second clock strikes midnight. Still no visitor. The group sits in stunned silence. The cataclysm itself is no more than seven hours away.
- 4:00 A.M. The group has been sitting in stunned silence. A few attempts at finding explanations have failed. Mrs. Keech begins to cry.
- 4:45 A.M. Another message by automatic writing is sent to Mrs. Keech. It states, in effect, that the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm has been called off: "The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction."
- Afternoon, December 21. Newspapers are called; interviews are sought. In a reversal of its previous distaste for publicity, the group begins an urgent campaign to spread its message to as broad an audience as possible.
Festinger stated that certain conditions must be present, if someone is to become a more fervent believer after a failure or disconfirmation and here are conditions that are perhaps applicable on the Rio Dulce as indicated:
- A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have some relevance to action, that is, to what the believer does or how he behaves
(such as expecting the Rio Dulce to be a paradise where the enlightened can escape the rules and regulations of the evil United States and live free and easy in a cheap paradise; and, a belief that it is just as safe – or as dangerous – as anywhere else. Thus, a commitment is made to live there).
- The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some important action that is difficult to undo. In general, the more important such actions are, and the more difficult they are to undo, the greater is the individual's commitment to the belief
(such as selling a home, moving aboard a boat, burning bridges, departing the U.S.A. to go cruising, and finding yourself far up a river in a region of the Caribbean that is very hard to leave due to prevailing seas and tradewinds. Then, you stay tied up long enough that the boat would require great effort and industry to again ready it for sea).
- The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief
(crime statistics, news reports, and incidents of crime and social unrest in Guatemala, including murders and crime on the Rio Dulce, all irrefutably demonstrate that the Rio Dulce and Guatemala present significant risks of violence and crime; it is readily discernable that Guatemala is far riskier statistically than the U.S.A. and many other beautiful Caribbean destinations).
- The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence that has been specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, the belief may be maintained and the believers may attempt to proselytize or persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct
(the tightknit River Livers’ society is strongly unified in support of the Safe River Campaign, and many locals attempt to proselytize and persuade newcomers that there is no unusual crime problem in Guatemala or on the Rio Dulce).
The definition of cognitive dissonance is pretty straightforward. It is the uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The ideas or cognitions in question may include attitudes and beliefs and also the awareness of one's own behavior.
The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people will do what they have to in order to reduce dissonance. They will change their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or choose to justify or rationalize them instead.
An applicable example of two very conflicting ideas would be: 1) “I could sail anywhere, but I have chosen to stop sailing and park the boat and live permanently in the most violent country in Latin America”; and, 2) “I am a smart human being who would never choose to live in the most violent country in Latin America.”
And that is the cognitive dissonance trap that some River Livers of the Rio Dulce have seemingly wound up in. The two obvious choices to reduce cognitive dissonance are: 1) ignore the horrific Guatemala crime statistics, the presence of significant crime elements on the Rio Dulce, the lack of free speech, and somehow come to believe that the Rio Dulce is safe, or at least no more dangerous that anywhere else; or, 2) untie the boat and go somewhere that actually is “as safe as anywhere else.”
Many hard-core River Livers have chosen option number one and they offer each other zealous support.
That said, none of us are immune. We all practice various forms of irrational rationalization. I have mine, you have yours, they have theirs. Everybody does it. I just happen to be unwilling to make the Rio Dulce one of my pet rationalizations.
Smokers, for example, experience cognitive dissonance because it is widely accepted that cigarettes cause lung cancer, yet virtually everyone wants to live a long and healthy life. A smoker can rationalize his or her behavior by concluding that everyone dies and so cigarettes do not actually change anything. Or a person could believe that smoking keeps one from gaining weight, which would also be unhealthy.
But, the fact is that two ideas clash: "I am increasing my risk of lung cancer" and "I am a smart, reasonable human being."
It is often easier to make excuses than it is to change behavior and, accordingly, dissonance theory leads to the conclusion that we humans are rationalizing by nature and not always the rational beings we all like to believe we are.
In a different type of dissonance experiment conducted by psychologist Jack Brehm, 225 female students rated a series of common appliances and were then allowed to choose one of two appliances to take home as a gift.
A second round of ratings showed that the participants increased their ratings of the item they chose, and lowered their ratings of the rejected items.
When making a difficult decision, you forfeit the appealing aspects of the rejected choice and choose something else instead. After the choice is made, the appealing aspects of the rejected choice(s) are discounted to reduce dissonance.
When the Rio Dulce is viewed within the context of cognitive dissonance, things are perhaps more understandable.
The River Livers chose Guatemala and have made serious commitments to live there. By choosing “X”, all the other “Y”’s of the Caribbean are no longer viewed as desirable or more attractive that Guatemala. It is a very interesting phenomenon to behold.
But, of course, cognitive dissonance is certainly not an end-all potential explanation of the Rio Dulce’s popularity. There are surely many other reasons.
There is at least one competing theory I stumbled across: sharks and surfing.
Sharks and surfing; what do those things have to do with the Rio Dulce?
I recently read a magazine article in MAXIM about New Smyrna Beach, Florida, that focused on the city’s dubious honor: it is the shark attack capital of the entire world with over twenty four shark attacks on swimmers and surfers in 2008.
We will cover the article in more detail later on in this report in a different context. At this juncture, however, one facet of the article is applicable: despite the extremely shark-infested waters of New Smyrna Beach, surfers pack the beach.
Some fear the sharks and surf anyway in order to enjoy some of “the best formed waves in the Southeast.”
But for others, they actually LIKE the idea of surfing in severely shark-infested waters. It turns them on and they want to experience the adrenaline rush of the serious risk. It puts the whole surfing experience “over the top” for them.
It got me thinking. It simply has to be the case that some of the River Livers simply love the experience of living on the edge in what they themselves openly describe as Guatemala’s dangerous Wild West environment.
For those types on the Rio Dulce, they don’t need to engage in any complicated cognitive contortions to square their own reality with Guatemala’s danger. Rather, those types are kindred spirits with the daredevil “shark surfers” of New Smyrna Beach. As to those River Livers, it seems inescapable that they know precisely what they have gotten themselves into. And they love it.
For most run-of-the-mill cruisers still on the move, like Melissa and me, it was a no-brainer as to the Rio Dulce: as soon as hurricane season was over and our insurance kicked back in, we were out of there.
Does that make us better, or smarter, or somehow “right”? Absolutely not.
Is anything in this report intended to be a personal attack on Rio Dulce boaters? Most certainly not. I wish them all well.
Does it mean that we are constitutionally at odds in our thinking?
There is no right or wrong in any of it. It’s all a matter of personal tastes and interests.
I am simply pointing out the truly amazing differences in human perspectives and thinking, and all that can be said is that my interests and my beliefs are not compatible whatsoever with a Rio Dulce lifestyle.
The point is that I have a much greater understanding of, and appreciation as to why the Rio Dulce displays the general personality that it does. That’s all I can ask of anything in this crazy old world, I guess.
With all the foregoing in place, it's time. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and take a sobering look at just what went down on the little Rio Dulce in 2007 and 2008.
IX. TIMELINE AND OVERVIEW OF CRIME ON THE RIO DULCE
The Year 2007
Theft of outboards and dinghies reached an alarming level on the Rio Dulce and local live-aboard boaters and marinas held a meeting at a local pub to address the problem. There have never been police patrols on the Rio Dulce. As a result of the meeting and other efforts, local live aboard boaters, local businesses (many of which are owned and/or operated by ex-cruisers and/or expatriate gringos) and local government attempted to work together to reduce crime and protect the reputation of the Rio Dulce.
Funds were raised privately to pay for river patrols to be conducted by off duty Navy personnel. The Guatemalan government did not participate in funding the patrols. Gasoline was supplied and a needed propeller was purchased, but corruption intervened: the gasoline was absconded with and the patrols did not operate for any significant period of time.
Also, adding more frustration and embarrassment to the 2007 patrol efforts, one outboard thief was caught red-handed with bolt cutters, trying to steal an outboard from a cruiser’s dinghy. He was even photographed. But, the Navy patrol did not have authority to actually arrest the thief. He was turned over to the local police in the town of Fronteras on the banks of the Rio.
After being advised as to how things work in Guatemala, the victims feared, as did the arresting police officer himself, the very real threat of being killed or harmed by the pirate’s family or “associates” in the event a prosecution was attempted. When the dust settled, both the victims and the police would not act and the pirate was released.
As a result of these painful failures on several fronts, patrol efforts ceased.
Marinas, local live-aboard boaters, and gringos on the river resumed life in “lock it or lose it” mode and hunkered down at night in marinas with armed guards.
The crime problem on the Rio Dulce became a fact of life. Discussions about it ceased.
As set forth by the internet poster named Brady earlier in this trip log, locals who lived on the Rio Dulce at that time went through a marked transition. Local boaters and businesses turned one hundred and eighty degrees and instead of considering taking more action on crime they simply ignored and/or accepted it.
On a river with no Rule of Law, nestled in an entire country with no Rule of Law, survival instincts kicked in. Locals began announcing “the river is safe” while concurrently quashing information about ongoing crime on the Rio.
All of a sudden, outboard and dinghy thefts were no big deal and labeled “routine and the norm anywhere you go in the world.” The very popular “crime can happen anywhere” rationalization gained favor. The trippy “are you ever really safe in this world?” retort was also perfected with straight face. And always a winner with the egocentrics: “I’ve been here for years and nothing has happened to me.”
The final metamorphosis saw some local attitudes turn ugly and combative against visitors who dared remark that the Rio Dulce is risky compared to other destinations in the Caribbean.
Of course, the truth is that local live aboard boaters and local businesses would never have parted with private money and undertaken extraordinary effort and industry to organize and pay for the private security effort of 2007 on a safe river.
If I know anything for sure, I know that cruisers and businesses do not part with money just for fun, or pay for something that is not necessary.
The Year of 2008
No sooner than the astonishing Safe River Campaign of late 2007 was in place, a new crime wave smashed unmercifully upon the Rio Dulce in 2008. Here is a look:
February 2008 – An Entire Rio Dulce Police Force is Taken Hostage
An angry mob of hundreds took 29 police officers hostage in the town of Livingston at the mouth of the Rio Dulce, where cruisers anchor to check into the Rio Dulce. The hostages were ultimately released in exchange for talks with the government on legalizing ownership of farmland and dropping charges against a jailed farm leader.
A different young local leader had been murdered during ongoing land disputes. The mob threatened to kill all of the police hostages unless authorities agreed to release their leader. The crowd had surrounded the police station, disarmed the policemen, and took them in small boats to their remote village of Maya Creek.
The leader, Ramiro Choc, who was arrested Feb. 14 on charges of illegal land invasion, robbery and illegally holding people against their will, urged his supporters to release the police officers in a telephone call from jail.
Officials accused Choc of inciting community residents to invade land and take over protected nature reserves. The mob wants the government to give legal recognition to the land takeovers. The police were held hostage for two days.
February 2008 – Kidnapping of Belgian Tourists
Also, in addition to 29 policemen being kidnapped in Livingston, the same mob kidnapped bystander tourists too. Four Belgian tourists, two women and two men, were taken captive on the Rio Dulce along with their tour guide.
All of the hostages were eventually released.
April 2, 2008 – Piracy; injury of a cruiser and armed robbery
The year’s first Piracy attack occurs: Bruce Goforth’s personal account of an attack from the yacht Serenade:
“We were sailing in company of two other yachts and anchored just east of the village of El Estor. On our second night, April 2, 2008, four thieves boarded us at 2 a.m. armed with a pistol, machete, night stick, bolt cutters to take our outboard. Waking in the night I entered the cockpit and was confronted by the pistol bearing man and managed to disarm him but I was beaten on the skull by one of the others and retreated to the cabin. The engine was taken and I went to hospital for x-rays and stitches. The police and navy installation there did not respond to my spouse's calls for assistance. We reported the incident to the authorities that night but they said there was little they could do.
The Rio Dulce is safe from hurricanes but not ladrones [thieves].”
June 2008 – Dinghy theft at Monkey Bay Marina
Friends docked at Monkey Bay Marina awoke one morning to find their dinghy painter cut and the dinghy gone, stolen right from their slip and the docks at Monkey Bay Marina. The dinghy was engineless at the time and apparently the thieves decided it was not worth much and cast it adrift in the Rio. It was found and returned the next day.
A couple of weeks later, we got a tour of Monkey Bay Marina where a local boater who lives there bragged that they had not had any dinghy thefts or any problems for several years. We informed him about our knowledge of the dinghy theft two weeks earlier and he said: “Oh. That was no big deal and does not count.”
We later learned that the yacht Tabasco had both their dinghy and engine stolen the year before while at Monkey Bay Marina and it was even an inside job. The dishonest claim that the Marina had no trouble for years is obviously part of the new, disingenuous Safe River Campaign.
August 9, 2008 - Piracy; murder and injury of cruisers
At approximately 10 p.m. on the night of August 9, 2008, 4 men with machetes boarded the vessel Sunday’s Child at anchor in Monkey Bay on the Rio Dulce, an area in the heart of the marina district just downriver from the small waterfront town of Fronteras and just upriver from Marios Marina where Indigo Moon was berthed.
The pirates stabbed Dan Dryden immediately upon boarding the vessel, injuring Dan in the side. Very quickly thereafter, they stabbed his wife Nancy in the chest, puncturing her lung. Dan retrieved a machete and tried to fight back but was stabbed to death.
Two suspects were arrested: Carlos Ernesto Lemus Hernandez, 19, and his brother Elfido Concepcion Lemus Hernandez, 33, both of the village of Esmeralda that is located directly inland of, and less than a mile from, Mario's Marina. The suspects were taken in custody after a search of their home resulted in the discovery of evidence linking them to the crime.
Again, to learn more about Daniel Dryden’s wonderful life and see just what a super cool guy he was, visit the memorial website at: http://www.danieldryden.blogspot.com/
August 11, 2008 – Piracy; crew bound and gagged, armed robbery
Roy and Michelle Parsons were attacked at anchor aboard their fifty-one foot Morgan sailboat Dream Odyssey.
They are held at gunpoint for over an hour while approximately twenty thousand dollars worth of equipment is stripped from the boat.
August 11, 2008 – Piracy; crew is successful in keeping pirates outside the vessel
Farther upriver on the same night as the Parsons’ attack, in yet a separate incident, another yacht was boarded, but the pirates did not gain entry. Luckily, that yacht was in “lock-down” mode and after thirty minutes of unsuccessfully attempting to break hatches, the pirates withdrew, taking only items of value on deck, including a portable generator.
August 11, 2008 – Robbery; locals lose outboards
In addition to the attack on Dream Odyssey and the other vessel, three locals on the river had outboards stolen the same night. This was very unusual according to local boaters and indicated crossing a line from accepted thefts from rich gringo cruisers to thefts from poor indigenous people.
August 12, 2008 – Murder; assassination
According to an eyewitness account, the infamous “Queen of the South” her son were shot to death in public on the Backpacker’s Hotel property.
Rumor spread quickly throughout the Rio Dulce community regarding the relationship and reasoning behind these murders. In private conversations, locals were quick to explain that the Queen of the South was the known fence for all the goods stolen from cruisers on the Rio Dulce and that her efforts were no secret to the local community. She allegedly operated with total impunity until crossing the wrong line in 2008.
August 12, 2008 – Rumors blame Dream Odyssey Piracy Attack on the Victims
Mark Twain said it:“A lie can make it halfway around the world before the truth gets its shoes on.”
The day after the Dream Odyssey piracy attack, a rumor spread that Raul, the yacht agent at the mouth of the Rio Dulce, instructed Dream Odyssey and the other yachts traveling with them, to go straight to marinas and not anchor because of the recent Daniel Dryden murder.
The rumor’s focus was to blame the attack upon the victims and shift the focus away from risky conditions on the Rio Dulce.
River Livers started adding to the effort by claiming the yachts were very careless and anchored where all the cruising guides say it is dangerous to anchor on the Rio Dulce.
In the end, it was all an unvarnished lie.
The yacht agent did not warn Dream Odyssey or the other boats not to anchor out, but instead told them with conviction that “the Rio Dulce is safe as long as you anchor together and out of the main channel to be out of the way of traffic.”
Moreover, there is no warning in any cruising guide ever written that warns yachtsmen not to anchor on the Rio Dulce, much less where Dream Odyssey and their “buddy boats” did per Raul’s bad advice.
The bottom line: In exact accordance with the theory of cognitive dissonance, some River Livers were unwilling to accept that the piracy attack on Dream Odyssey was yet another conclusive disconfirmation of a “safe Rio Dulce.” Instead, many River Livers tried their best to rationalize the attack and shift blame to the victims and away from the Rio Dulce.
August 13, 2008 – Murder; assassination of two piracy suspects
Two men are assassinated, shot to death in the small town of Seja, only five miles inland from the town of Fronteras on the banks of the Rio Dulce. The dead men were reported to be two of the four men responsible for the murder of Daniel Dryden. The assassinations were widely reported to be a continuation of the same retribution efforts that began with the murder of the Queen of the South and her teenage son.
It is presented as absolute fact in private discussions on the Rio Dulce that it was crime elements, and not the police or citizenry, that murdered the suspects. Local web sites and so-called local news sources understandably would not place themselves at risk by printing anything specific. Instead these murders are vaguely referred to as “cleansings.”
Mid-August 2008 – Outboard and dinghy theft
A yacht anchored at Livingston had its dinghy and outboard stolen sometime overnight. The dinghy was in the water and not hoisted on davits, but it was locked to the vessel via a chain and padlock. The chain was cut and the dinghy and outboard were lost.
August 22, 2008 – Hotel in Antigua under siege by armed gang
Reports of additional crime surfaced that expanded our concerns beyond the Rio Dulce and caused scrutiny regarding inland travel as well. One American tourist, a woman named Jodi traveling alone, came to Mario’s Marina to “baby sit” a boat with a pet on board while the owners traveled inland for sightseeing. Jodi reported just having been the victim of an attack by an armed gang that took control of the entire small hotel where she was staying in Antigua.
Here are excerpts of her account as posted on the internet:
“Last Friday night, August 22, 2008, I was robbed and assaulted in my hotel room in Antigua, Guatemala.
At the gated and locked front door of my hotel, a man rang the bell . . . the clerk opened the door and was rushed by men standing out of sight on either side of the front door. They proceeded to tie up 9 people in the lobby and internet café, empty the safe and then move upstairs . . .
They knocked, I asked who it was, they told me it was ‘servicio’ and I told them they had the wrong room. They insisted I open the door. I repeatedly told them no. They walked away and came back 30 seconds later, same scenario. I dressed quickly and pulled the curtain next to the door back and saw several figures there, one of which had his hand behind his back . . . I started screaming for help in Spanish at the top of my lungs. Not knowing what had happened down stairs I expected them to take off and help to come quickly.
When I continued to deny them access to the room they decided to come in through the window over the door. Next thing I knew [he was hanging half in the window over the door] and I had a gun in my face . . . [he insisted] that I open the door. When I said no he whacked me on the top of the head with the butt of his pistol. Blood started to flow . . .
He insisted I open the door while he tried with great difficulty to keep himself balanced [in the high window] over the doorway. He and I both knew that if he fell he was going to fall on his head and likely break his neck . . . he came further down the inside of the door and reached to try and slide the bolt open to let his friends outside in. He was not successful. . .
Then he pushed himself up and back through the window. Then they tried to kick in the door. After about 30 seconds more of this I heard one of them say the word "police" and they were gone.”
Jodi reported all this on the internet and she told me she was lambasted for posting her account of the robbery. Detractors (Guatemala lovers/defenders) accused Jodi of lying and they steadfastly maintained that Antigua is safe (it is not) and that if the attack had really happened, why didn’t the news report it?
According to Jodi, when the police showed up, they did not do any investigation at all nor even ask her what her name was. That is customary in Guatemala.
This brings up another interesting characteristic about Guatemalans in general.
Wherever we traveled, the locals always warned us about the other places in Guatemala. In Antigua, we were warned to be extremely careful on the Rio Dulce because it is “by far the most dangerous area in Guatemala.” On the Rio Dulce, we were warned about Guatemala City’s Zone One. In Guatemala City we were warned about Lake Atitlan, Antigua and the Rio Dulce.
Enough fingers were pointing in different directions to make the whole country look like a whacked-out porcupine.
Thus, each locality is “when prophecy fails” defensive in its own right.
A fellow cruiser and his family were taking a tour in the old city of Antigua in a medium-sized group of other tourists, none of whom they knew.
At some certain moment, my friend asked the guide if Antigua was safe. The tour guide stopped the tour and launched into a diatribe that lasted several minutes to the point that my friend was embarrassed he had interrupted the group’s tour.
The guide expressed being “sick and tired of being asked about safety” and that Antigua is perfectly safe: “Its places like Guatemala City and the Rio Dulce that are dangerous! Not Antigua! Antigua is safe! Antigua is SAFE!”
Fifteen minutes passed, and several moves later in the tour the guide was pointing up a hillside to a monument. It is a huge cross that stands above Antigua’s cathedral and old city square. There is a trail through the woods up to the cross.
My friend asked the guide if they could go up the trail and see the cross. The guide’s response: “Oh no! There are bandits on that trail and it is not safe at all! We would all get robbed!”
Welcome to the cognitive dissonance generated “ Alice in Wonderland” called Guatemala.
August 28, 2008 – Dream Odyssey Pirates Arrested
Two men were arrested near the Rio Tatin area of the lower Rio Dulce in conjunction with the piracy attack and armed robbery of s/v Dream Odyssey.
It was not an easy arrest. When the police tried to search houses and gain evidence, a mob armed with machetes and boards with nails in the ends chased the police out of town. The police ran away so fast they almost capsized the borrowed boat they used for the search.
August 31, 2008 – Stabbing at the Guatemala City Bus Station
A very popular Guatemalan from the Rio Dulce who works in boat maintenance and construction suffered serious injuries when he was attacked by three men outside the bus station in Guatemala City while returning to the Rio Dulce after visiting his family over the weekend.
Three men demanded his money and personal documentation papers and when he resisted they slashed him in the face and stabbed him repeatedly in the back and shoulder.
Early to mid-September 2008 – Murder of Yacht Agent’s family member
We learn via a Rio Dulce chat board that Raul, the yacht agent in Livingston, has had a relative murdered. No other details were available.
September 27, 2008 – Murder: Mario’s Marina’s guard, Leonides, is shot dead near the property
Leonidas, one of the armed guards working for Mario’s Marina (where Indigo Moon was docked) was shot to death. He was just off the marina property, about 100 yards on the other side of a small wooded area from the marina grounds, walking to work unarmed at dusk.
There is a trail that exits the rear of the marina property, goes through a small stand of thick woods, and then comes out at a gate at the end of a dirt road. It is there that the dirt road begins and runs through and beyond Esmerelda, the small village where two men were arrested for the Dan Dryden murder.
One cruiser staying in Mario's Marina was walking his dog late that afternoon, headed down the dirt trail through the woods out of the marina and toward the dirt road, right toward the soon-to-be murder scene.
But, when he saw a suspicious-looking man blocking the trail, the cruiser turned around and came back into the marina area. Just moments later, multiple shots rang out and Leonides was dead, lying in the dirt road near the gate.
While aboard Indigo Moon and cooking dinner, Melissa heard the shots, but I told her it was probably just guards practicing shooting: “It’s probably just warning shots; I read that you often hear gunfire in Guatemala because guards want to publicize that they do have ammunition and not just empty guns.”
It was not until the following morning that I learned that the shots were not for practice. One of our guards had been shot dead.
I went back to the boat and told Melissa and she broke down in tears. It was a breaking point for all the tension that had been building in the Rio Dulce crime environment. There is strict rule on Indigo Moon: nobody cries alone. The crime and murder despair of Guatemala was upon us full bore.
The murder was not reported by the local Rio Dulce “news” website (http://riodulcechisme.com)
Instead, the murder was kept totally under wraps.
In all fairness, the Rio Dulce Chisme Vindicator news website does not by any means hold itself out to truly be an actual, legitimate news agency. Rather, it describes itself online as follows:
"The staff at the Chisme Vindicator is a conglomeration of boaters on the Rio Dulce who (most likely having too much time on their hands) have decided to have some fun and present an online news magazine chock full of information and entertainment and plenty of plausibly worthless stuff.
If you’ve been on the river for any length of time, you’ll know who we are by our first names alone. Therefore, we’re listed without last names (and also ‘cause if we irritate someone enough, it’ll be a bit harder to try to sue us in the municipal court of Fronteras.
Some staff members want to stay anonymous but you’ll probably figure out who they are pretty easily)."
When Leonides’ murder was not reported, it conclusively demonstrated that there is simply no trustworthy news source for crime information on the Rio Dulce. River Livers pick and choose what they will publicize and have no qualms about totally burying extremely important Rio Dulce crime news if it suits their fancy. Bottom line: it is a certainty that very serious Rio Dulce crimes, including murder, go unreported on occasion.
As vague word of Leonides’ murder spread via the cruisers’ grapevine on the Rio Dulce, people had questions and wanted hard news, not gossip. The next morning on the VHF Cruiser’s Net, a cruiser asked for details about the murder. The Net Controller, a long-time veteran Rio Dulce River Liver, gruffly blew the inquiry off. He refused to discuss it on the radio, instantly quashed the topic, and curtly referred the person to the Rio Dulce’s Chisme Vindicator web site where no such story appeared.
Many of the Mario’s Marina boaters, including us, donated money to help Leonides’ surviving spouse and two very small children. Many, many more cruisers would probably have helped and donated money and Lord knows what else if a public announcement had been made. But, the main priority of the “powers that be” was to keep the incident absolutely quiet.
As such, it dawned on me then that the Rio Dulce’s business interests come before everybody else’s interests on the Rio, both visiting cruisers and even local Guatemalans too.
It is believed that the man who shot Leonides did so because he wanted his job and thought that if he killed Leonides he could obtain employment with Mario’s Marina. Immediately after the murder, it was rumored the killer and his family fled to northern Guatemala, but a few weeks later, the killer was seen back in Esmerelda.
Leonides’ murder remains un-redressed to my knowledge and the situation is ripe for frontier justice at any point in the future. Such a cleansing could take place at any time in the little village of Esmerelda located very near Mario’s Marina. As such, it prompted us to stop taking walks in the beautiful countryside. The only way out of the marina by foot is through Esmerelda, so our world became smaller still.
October 11, 2008 – Allegedly corrupt judge frees arrested Pirates on the Rio Dulce
We learn from the Parsons that all of the pirates who robbed the yacht Dream Odyssey have been set free. It is widely rumored by local gringos that the judge was bribed for one thousand dollars to let all the pirates go. (Editor's Note: at this time the Parsons were led to believe by authorities that the Dryden pirates were released too, but a year after the Dryden attack, the Dryden pirates were eventually convicted. All sources agree, however, that the Parsons pirates did in fact go free).
Thus, as of this date, the pirate gang that robbed Dream Odyssey is free and back on the Rio Dulce.
October 12, 2008 – Attempted theft of gasoline in Mario’s Marina
On the docks of Mario’s Marina, in the dark of night and near the back of the complex, boaters hear and see, and armed guards chase away a trespasser believed to be attempting to steal gasoline from a launch.
October 15, 2008 – Murder of local merchant; subsequent assassination of his killer
The owner of several TIGO cell phone stores in tiny town of Fronteras on the Rio Dulce was the victim of a highway robbery just a few miles out of town. He was shot and killed in the robbery.
The killer’s actions were apparently known by others and word of his involvement in the incident got out. He apparently killed “the wrong person.”
Within 18 hours, there was an assassination of the robber. Private gunmen came upon the highway robber in his car and fired approximately 150 bullets into the front and passenger compartment of the vehicle.
We saw the bullet-riddled car is on display on the median of a boulevard right in the middle of downtown Morales: a billboard with a serious message.
October 29, 2008 – A shot in the dark wakes cruisers at Mario’s Marina
A shot was fired on the marina property at 2:20 a.m. One of the guards heard “sticks cracking” in the woods behind the property and was suspicious that someone was sneaking into the marina. A warning shot was fired to scare away the intruder.
There was no comment by the marina.
October 30, 2008 – Dream Odyssey Crew grants exclusive interview
Ron and Michelle Parsons agreed to let me interview them about their experiences related to Guatemala’s response to their piracy attack (included below in “Cruisers Speak Out” section).
I took my dinghy out to their fifty-one foot Morgan sailboat Dream Odyssey anchored just off from Mario’s Marina and sat in their cockpit and got all the details. The issues that came to the forefront are how spectacularly awful they were treated by the criminal justice system in Guatemala, how disappointed they were with the Rio Dulce’s boating society and its non-reaction to their piracy attack, and how the pirates were set scott free by a corrupt judge.
The popular sailing/cruising magazine Latitudes & Attitudes later purchased my article for publication in early 2009 and I donated all proceeds to the Parsons to help offset their loss of twenty thousand dollars worth of equipment.
November 2, 2008 – New security patrols begin on the Rio Dulce
In response to the murders and piracy attacks of 2008, privately-funded Navy patrols are started again on the Rio Dulce, funded this time in partnership.
Rio Dulce marinas and businesses are paying fifty percent and INGUAT (the Guatemalan governmental tourism agency), is paying the other fifty percent. It is reported that patrolmen will be on the water 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the upper Rio Dulce marina district area.
In extremely peculiar legal language, the patrols will take place with “priority given to taxpayers but not excluding all those who sail and occupy [a.k.a. cruisers] the banks of the Rio Dulce.”
(A few months later, the Eco-Rio organization and the Rio Dulce boating and marina societies held an auction to raise money to help fund the patrols and they have expended great effort to try and provide security and improve the situation.)
November 4, 2008 – Indigo Moon departs the Rio Dulce
Just two days after the new security patrols went into effect we departed the Rio Dulce and headed north to Belize and ultimately to the Florida Keys by Christmas.
The morning of our departure, it was announced on the Rio Dulce VHF Cruisers’ Network that new patrols are in place. The local Net Controller, a rabid River Liver, responded to the announcement by making sophomoric jokes about: “lawyer types who have been jumping up and down.” He went on to say in apparent protest: “If you let the cat out of the bag, it can be pretty hard to put it back in.”
There are still no routine safety and security warnings or open crime discussions on the Rio Dulce VHF Cruisers’ Network. There are still no standard precautionary warnings on marina web sites or local internet sources.
The format is still all one-hundred-percent cheerleading. Marina web sites tout the Rio Dulce an unspoiled paradise that “looks like Disneyland” where you can “relax” on a safe river and “escape the tension of the Eastern Caribbean."
Mercifully, hurricane season was over for us. We had had about all of the "relaxing in Disneyland" we could stomach!
Our boat insurance kicked back in on November 1, 2008, allowing us to move freely anywhere in the Caribbean and still be covered in the event of a named tropical storm.
As we headed downriver, we reflected on the often frightening and frustrating experiences of enduring a cruiser's jail sentence called Hurricane Season 2008 on the Rio Dulce.
We left with a sincere hope that Guatemala actually does become reasonably safe with a Rule of Law environment one day. We contemplated the ongoing difficulties on the Rio.
We came to the inescapable conclusion that the new security patrols will surely be challenged and that staying in a marina with armed guards will still be the only way to responsibly visit the Rio Dulce. Considering that fact, the security patrols are arguably superfluous at present.
While checking out at the mouth of the Rio Dulce, I asked the yacht agent, Raul, if he was making any new safety and security efforts and asked if new information is provided now.
No written warning information is provided. According to Raul the only thing done differently (after both the Dryden and Parsons incidents) is that now he advises people to anchor in Texan Bay (the only anchorage that is legitimately considered safe on the entire Rio Dulce) or head directly to a marina.
December 2008 – Locals complain on the Rio Dulce about continuing crime
With us long gone from Guatemala, and the new security experiment still in its infancy, locals on the Rio Dulce are already criticizing the new patrols. On the Rio Dulce internet chat board, locals expressed disappointment about a dinghy being stolen in the heart of the marina district, right from the docks of a marina on or about December 8, 2008, and that the new security patrols were not even looking for the dinghy; that the patrols prefer to hang around the dock.
Here are some of the posts about Rio Security:
A dingy was stolen from Churrasqueros two nights ago [December 8, 2008]. The new Security team didn't seem to have any effect on that. I don't know if they [Churrasqueros] participate in paying for the service or not.
Regardless another dingy was stolen, from a marina. I haven't seen any major investigation or search for the dingy by the Security Team. Every time I see the Patrol Boat it is either sitting on the river or docked at Bruno's.
Since they don't seem to do much, they don't seem to have any authority and the thefts have not stopped.
What's the point of having them?
I speak for myself and I am not against the patrol.
I simply question their usefulness, and I question the fairness of the marinas having to pay for protection that should be provided by the Government.
We are not on the high seas we are inside the Country of Guatemala. Guatemala cannot protect its own citizens. Why should we think they can protect us? And what good is private protection that has no authority?
I feel it is window dressing and an unfair burden on the marinas who already have their own security. The primary boats at risk are the ones at anchor. Why should the marinas have to pay to protect boats that are anchored?
If there is a need for protection for boats at anchor they should be the ones to pay.
Some predict that the new patrols will amount to nothing while crime continues as usual. And crime is continuing as demonstrated by the local Rio Dulce information above.
Obviously, one can only hypothesize as to whether the current private security efforts on the Rio Dulce will make any real difference. Sadly, reading the locals’ comments on the internet seems to indicate that things are not improving and that jaded locals are not whole-heartedly supporting the patrol efforts.
Regardless, it is of paramount importance to recognize that even if the new patrols catch and arrest the Rio’s thieves, the odds are overwhelming that they will not be prosecuted and will instead be released right back onto the Rio Dulce. Efforts to clean up a street are futile if the garbage truck comes back around and dumps all the garbage back out into the wind again.
Realistically, it is ludicrous to expect gringo cruisers’ safety to be a priority at all. I would expect Guatemala to focus exclusively and unrelentingly on its own people’s plight.
February 25, 2009 – More shots fired in Mario’s Marina
Boaters living in Mario’s Marina posted on the internet that they were awakened by shotgun blasts within the marina. The Marina’s armed guard spotted a dinghy cruising close to one of the boats in storage and fired a warning shot, causing the intruder(s) to flee to open water in the river.
The guard fired a second warning shot and the new security patrol was called . . . the new security patrol boat arrived 45 minutes later! That is plenty long enough for a repeat of the Daniel Dryden murder all over again and then some.
Such a lousy response time is unforgivable and squarely supports the criticisms by locals that the new security patrol is not equipped to act as emergency responders.
Just to provide context, the new patrol only covers a only a few miles of river. I could cover the distance of the entire patrol area in my little 15 h.p. dinghy within fifteen to twenty minutes tops! The patrol boat is at least twice as fast as my dinghy and there is no reason it could not respond to any location in the patrol area within ten minutes maximum.
April 12, 2009 - More dinghy theft at Livingston
Per the Rio Dulce's internet chat board: cruisers checking into the Rio Dulce decided to spend the night at anchor in Livingston before heading upriver. One boat's dinghy and engine were stolen after the locked cable securing it to the vessel was cut. The other boat's dinghy was secured with a chain and was not stolen, but the dinghy's gas tank was not secured and it was taken.
A local who posted this news on the internet suggested the only way to anchor at Livingston and not suffer being the victim of crime is to stand deck watches all night long.
The bottom line: word coming out of the Rio Dulce is that boaters must remain vigilant and that crime has not stopped. Also, it is clear that periodic gunshots on the Rio Dulce can be part of the overall experience, even within the confines of secure marinas.
Let’s shift gears again and turn our focus back to general theories. For example, what happens when cruisers’ vigilance goes by the board? What happens when cruisers don’t heed advice regarding safety and security in dangerous areas? What happens, conversely, when warnings are inadequate or non-existent?
X. CRIME WARNINGS: ARE SOME CRUISERS BEYOND HELP?
Wouldn't it be very easy to issue warnings to cruisers visiting Guatemala?
Well, not exactly. It would take a lot of courage for one thing. It takes guts, anywhere in the world, to post crime and safety warnings on tourism and marina websites in locales that are dangerous.
But while it is not easy, it may be smart. Trial lawyers call it “taking the sting out.”
By readily admitting problems with a client’s case, a good lawyer never lets the other side present/expose/control negative information about a client. If a client needs to fess up to evidence surely to be admitted into the suit record, then the client must admit the unsavory information during direct examination on the witness stand and apologize and demonstrate remorse, etc. That way, the client and his/her lawyer control the language and context of dispensing the offensive information.
In contrast, by hiding or evading unpleasant information, you risk that negative information being dragged out of your client on cross examination and that just makes the information that much more prominent. Your client will look like a liar and a weasel if he or she resists admitting shortcomings sure to come to light during trial. It will sting badly if you let the other side extract and then manage that negative information before the judge or jury.
Venezuelan marinas are smart and take the sting out. The popular Bahia Redonda Marina, where we stayed in during the 2006 hurricane season, long ago decided to put cruisers’ safety before any fear of losing business.
Below is the “precautions” page from the Bahia Redonda Marina’s web site. Pay particular attention to the smart, non-inflammatory language and the couching of the warning as applicable “throughout the world.” The warnings are great and get the job done, all without denigrating Venezuela:
Welcome Pack: Precautions During Your Stay in the Caribbean
We want you to have a safe and enjoyable visit
During your stay please take care, there are things to keep in mind when here. As in any major metropolitan area throughout the world there are standard precautions you can take to ensure a pleasant and safe stay.
Keep all outboard motors locked either to the dinghy or to your boat. Use the bar-type motor lock and/or chain.
Keep the dinghy chained and locked to the boat or the dock.
Anything adrift in the dinghy could possibly disappear.
Whenever you step off the boat be sure to lock it, turn off electrical power and shut off the gas system.
Never leave the boat open while unoccupied neither at anchor, in a marina or on the hard. Secure all hatches and lock the companionway hatch.
At night, lock the companionway hatch from the inside.
Any gear loose topside may disappear.
Keep all cash, cameras, and good jewelry securely stowed and hidden.
Do not invite casual visitors aboard; allow access only to personal friends.
Do not allow casual workmen below deck, except under supervision and in any case first check out their references with the marina office.
Do not allow workmen below deck when the boat is unattended.
Be particularly cautious about anchoring in isolated anchorages where there are no other boats around.
Tap water should be boiled or treated before drinking.
Electrical supply in Venezuela is prone to blackouts, brown outs and voltage fluctuation; take precautions on board.
There are certain areas which should be considered as unsuitable for tourists (Venezuelans and foreigners alike). The marina manager can explain this to you.
In certain other areas it is advisable to travel as a group, in which case hand held radios could be an advantage, especially if someone gets lost.
If you have a cell phone take it with you but keep it out of site. Preprogram the cell phone with emergency numbers.
Keep a map with you for reference, but avoid using it in a public place as it identifies you as a tourist.
It is prohibited to carry arms in Venezuela (fire arms and knives included).
Pepper sprays and electric paralyzers could be an alternative.
Never flash a roll of cash on the street in the bank, in a store, a restaurant or anywhere. Carry small amounts of cash in different pockets to pay for "por puestos." taxis, buses etc.
A legitimate taxi is the safest way to get around.
Leave your passport safely stowed on the boat.
Carry a photocopy of the passport on your person at all times.
Leave your wallet safely stowed on the boat. A bulky wallet is an invitation to pickpockets.
Don't carry more money than you expect to spend.
Carry your money in your front pockets.
Don't carry credit cards unless you intend to use them, and don't carry more than one at a time.
If you must carry a camera carry it hidden in a opaque plastic shopping bag for example, and show it as little as possible.
Don't wear a chain or necklace, expensive looking rings, or an expensive watch.
If you must know the time, wear a cheap plastic watch.
Don't wear a bulging backpack; or anything else that identifies you as a tourist.
Don't carry cash or documents in a belly pack when walking through a low-income neighborhood; put it in your pockets.
Notice how people in town are dressed and try not to look like a rich "yachtie", its better to blend in.
The less you stand out in a crowd, the less likely anyone is to bother you.
Ladies are advised to be accompanied when in the street.
When you go out of the marina we recommend you take a taxi to go downtown.
Never board a taxi that is not clearly identified with yellow license plates, or the taxi line decal.
There have been some problems with pirate taxi drivers who have taken tourist to a remote place and robbed them.
In the event that you suspect you are being followed go to the nearest well lighted public area and call the police.
In case you have a problem or any questions, we recommend you contact the Marina Manager or the Dock Master at your marina. They are always available to help and advise you with any problems. This list is by no means exhaustive and we would be pleased to hear further recommendations to be included.
Despite those warnings on their web site, Bahia Redonda Marina was full in 2006 when we were there.
The vast majority of cruisers took the precautions suggested and there was no trouble amongst those who followed the precautions. Considering there was no trouble, more people came the next year, and so on.
The concept seems so simple: warn people specifically about the full extent of what you know; be open and honest; give all the information you can to help visitors avoid trouble; and, when visitors utilize that information and have a trouble-free stay, the goodwill and good reputation of the destination is preserved and business continues come what may improves.
Nothing goes further than adequate and honest disclosure about local conditions and appropriate up-front warnings to help cruisers avoid trouble. It creates goodwill and trust.
And while, in general, there is no legal duty to warn people, it is certainly the moral thing to do. Plain decency and the camaraderie expected amongst cruisers suggest that locals should warn visiting boaters about known dangers.
But, let’s face it. There is another BIG wrinkle in the pie: What good are precautions if cruisers ignore them? Cruisers have to do their part too, as set forth below.
Warnings Can’t Work Miracles
Even when locals have the courage to provide warnings, that information can only do so much: some cruisers, for whatever reason, ignore warnings.
For example, despite the aggressive and admirable warnings that are offered to yachtsmen entering Venezuelan waters, on November 8, 2008, there was a terrible murder at one of the islands just offshore from Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, where the Bahia Redonda Marina is located.
Two U.S.A. flagged yachts departed Bahia Redonda Marina and anchored at a nearby island named Isla La Borracha. There was a couple aboard each yacht. They had spent a few years in Venezuela and had probably become somewhat at ease in Venezuela.
After anchoring, one couple came over in the dinghy to visit the other, and all four people were aboard one yacht.
About 5:30 p.m. three men in a small boat approached them and asked for water. Soon thereafter, the men pulled out pistols and shot both men aboard the yacht, killing one and wounding the other.
The yachts were anchored at an island close to the Venezuela mainland, a practice that has been strictly warned against for years now. For whatever reason, the cruisers let their guard down, ignored those warnings, and a terrible incident occurred.
In another incident occurred earlier in the year, on September 14, 2008, when a French skipper was coastal cruising along the mainland of Venezuela and ventured near Caracas, the capital of Venezuela where crime rates skyrocket. The Frenchman was shot dead by pirates some time during the night at anchor in the port of Caraballeda.
These two incidents have resulted in a new “black eye” on the reputation of Venezuela as a cruising destination. However, it is also arguable that if all the victims would have simply heeded well-known and highly publicized advice, neither of the murders would have taken place.
The former dockmaster of Bahia Redonda Marina in Venezuela, J.M. Potter, whom we met during our hurricane season stay there in 2006, is now working in Panama at Shelter Bay Marina.
He knew the victims of the recent November shootings at Venezuela’s Isla La Borracha. When he learned of the murder, he posted his feelings on the internet, expressing his sorrow for the violence currently taking place in Venezuela and frustration about the fact that some cruisers fail to follow advice that is crucial to their safety. Here are excerpts, (with Potter’s broken English cleaned up):
“In the name of the Venezuelan Cruiser Host Community, I offer our condolences. I feel really sad for what happened to Mr. Ken [the man killed]. I met him and Cathy [Ken’s wife], working in Bahia Redonda. As a Venezuelan I feel shame and I wish I could somehow change what is happening in my country.
I am sure that everyone at the Bahia Redonda Marina and the rest of the Puerto La Cruz community feel in the same way I do.
Sometimes things run out of our hands. The people who work within the cruising community try most of the time to advise visiting cruisers on what they need to do to be safe in Venezuela. It is a hard job.
I am sure that my friends on the yachts involved, and a lot more yachts that had been in Venezuela, had already been advised about the islands where they shouldn’t be going such as La Borracha [where the murder took place] . . .
With my comment I am not inviting anyone to Venezuela. It is a risk that you take when you decide to cruise to it.
I am not justifying what happened. Venezuelans live with these risks day in and day out. The only thought I have, not currently being in Bahia Redonda, is to hope that locals continue to try and persuade cruisers not to go to the island of La Borracha.
If you decide to come cruising to Venezuela, we, all the people who are affected by this event, we will try to keep you safe if you follow the tips. It's the only way that we can help you to minimize the risk.”
Potters remarks are perfect. He’s not defensive. He does not rationalize; instead he rationally writes about Venezuelan crime as it really exists and he makes clearheaded points.
The Venezuela lesson: even in very risky areas, the odds of being the victim of crime as a cruiser can be greatly reduced if the local community is willing to admit there are problems and provide adequate warnings that reflect the true level of risk. That way, cruisers can be prepared accordingly.
But, conversely, if those warnings are ignored by thrill seekers and/or romantic-minded cruisers, then there is little one can do to protect them. Ironically, in these tragic cases, it is the most romantic of the dreamers who inflict the most severe damage to the dream and reputation of cruising.
The bottom line is that cruiser safety can be increased dramatically even in high-risk volatile counties like Venezuela, Colombia, and Guatemala if both the local community and the visiting cruising fleetwork in earnest together.
Venezuelans are admirably doing their part. Colombians are admirably doing their part. Guatemalans, at present, are not doing their part.
Do warnings scare cruisers away?
We have learned that most, if not all, of the Rio Dulce’s recalcitrance to provide warnings and openly discuss crime emanates from various forms of fear.
Fear of losing business. Fear of reprisal by the River Liver crowd. Fear of actually being killed for speaking out about the true nature of crime there.
I can’t speak to all the fears, except the loss of business fear. I contend that the Rio Dulce’s business concerns are misplaced. Long term Rio Dulce residents speak of a drastic downturn in business many years ago when another boater was killed. It took a while to build up new business again after that. They are so fearful that any bad news could cause another drought, they tend to simply avoid all unpalatable topics. I contend that is the wrong attitude.
The cruisers I know and keep company with are smart, independent types. They are all courageous and make their own decisions.
Most of us will not avoid a truly interesting destination like Venezuela, Guatemala or Colombia merely because it is more risky when compared to other locales we have visited.
I went to every “risky” destination in the Caribbean except for one: St. Vincent in the Eastern Caribbean. There was simply nothing so unusual to see on that island that warranted placing ourselves at that terrible level of risk.
I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the natural beauty all of the risky places we visited, including Guatemala. Guatemala has many awesome natural beauties to behold. We adored Cartagena, Colombia and its people. We loved Venezuelans too and it was a great experience. I am glad we saw all those places for ourselves.
It is true. Cruisers who circumnavigated El Caribe are not afraid by nature. They merely want the unvarnished truth about a destination. Mere warnings, no matter how grievous, do not cause knee-jerk decisions to avoid places. Cruisers simply desire information necessary to realistically prepare for the environment they are about to enter.
Not knowing the truth, or worse -- knowing you are intentionally kept in the dark, is much scarier and forbidding than any possible truth can be.
The open and honest character of people in Venezuela and Colombia allows visiting cruisers to be aligned with locals and support them. When that kind of trust develops everyone can work hand-in-hand and be partners no matter how terribly bad things get. It’s all about honesty and trust.
I’ll leave it at this: scores of cruisers I know personally left the Rio Dulce in 2008 with a very bitter taste of distrust and betrayal in their mouths and vowed never to return. Nobody I know ever left Venezuela or Colombia with such harsh misgivings.
Amity and the Great White Shark: Rio Dulce's “rock and a hard place”
While preparing this report, I came across an interesting article in MAXIM magazine about New Smyrna Beach, Florida, (referred to earlier). That article presented yet more thought-provoking parallels to the dynamics on the Rio Dulce.
New Smyrna Beach has been categorized as the undisputed shark attack capital of the world.
Located just south of Daytona on the east coast of Florida, New Smyrna is located at the Ponce De Leon inlet where the Halifax River and the Intercoastal Waterway empty into the ocean, attracting large schools of smaller fish that sharks feed upon.
According to the article I read: “The inlet forms a deep channel and a sandbar; combined they make for a fast-peeling, irresistible wave. It tosses shark and man together into the dense gumbo.”
In 2008, there were 24 shark attacks, surpassing the prior record of 22 in 2001 when TIME magazine then ran the story Summer of the Shark.
Aside from recitations about grisly attacks upon New Smyrna Beach surfers, the article also drew comparisons between it and the fictitious Martha’s Vineyard town of "Amity" in the blockbuster movie JAWS.
In JAWS, it was deceitful Mayor Vaughn in his tacky powder-blue anchor-pattern sport coat who lectured Amity’s Police Chief Martin Brody that shark warnings and closing New England beaches was not an option, because the town’s survival literally depended on “summer dollars” from 4th of July tourists.
Mayor Vaughn explained to Chief Brody: “You yell ‘Barracuda!’ and people say ‘Huh? What?’ But you yell 'Shark!' and you’ve got a panic on your hands on the 4th of July.”
And so, the Mayor compelled Chief Brody to acquiesce in the amendment of the Coroner’s report to list “boating accident” instead of “shark attack” regarding the death of a teenage swimmer caused by a great white shark attack.
New Smyrna Beach is a real life “Amity” in precisely the same predicament. The city refuses to issue any warnings that include the word “shark.” The Mayor of New Smyrna Beach, Sally MacKay, is quoted: “We’re not going to put up frightening, prohibitive notices in front of tourists who are enjoying our beach.”
As of now the only warning issued is: “Dangerous marine life are common to this area.”
Law suits have been tried twice by shark victims who claim that the shark bite dangers posed to swimmers and surfers greatly exceed the vague warning. One law suit was unsuccessful and one was dismissed on a technicality.
And still, surfers flock to New Smyrna. Tourism and surfing, in particular, drives the local economy. The waves that form at New Smyrna Beach are reported to be some of the “most consistent mid-size breaks in the Southeast.”
The risk of shark attack does not deter throngs of professional and amateur surfers on the Eastern Seaboard.
In fact, some of the surfers like the added adrenaline of surfing in highly shark infested waters. Surfers report routinely seeing sharks. One local said that sometimes the water is so thick with sharks it seems like you could walk 100 yards across the water and not get your feet wet.
Most shark attacks involve black tip sharks five to seven feet long.
There is a powerful conflict of interest at play: full blown shark warnings versus the fear of losing the “winter dollars” that New Smyrna Beach must have to survive.
Private websites are enjoying a feeding frenzy of popularity by providing first-hand accounts from shark attack victims, and by providing images of New Smyrna’s beaches with “DANGER” posted across them.
New Smyrna Beach policeman, Scott Petersohn, was quoted in the MAXIM article I read as relating that New Smyrna is “between a rock and a hard place.” In 2001 they had three shark bites in one day and closed the beach. They virtually never do that, because by eventually opening the beach again they have to say the beach is safe to do so. But, according to Officer Petersohn: “It’s never really safe; it’s the ocean.”
And then the article posed a question found on an internet site: “When sharks attack your beach users every week do you simply get used to it?”
Similarly, the Rio Dulce’s business survival is wholly dependent on hurricane season dollars. It is human nature that the River Liver business owners and residents are resistant to put up what they would surely also consider to be frightening, prohibitive notices in front of cruiser tourists who are enjoying the Rio Dulce.
There are differences, however, that distinguish the Rio Dulce, Guatemala, from New Smyrna Beach, Florida.
For one thing, warnings or no warnings, New Smyrna Beach does not deny nor cover up the facts of actual shark attacks. The attacks get reported accurately . . . all of them.
Also, unlike the Rio Dulce, New Smyrna Beach would never dare claim its tourist area is safe.
Perhaps the most important difference between the Rio Dulce and New Smyrna Beach is more subtle, however. There is no anticipation of loyalty or personal connectivity between New Smyrna Beach's City Hall and longhaired surfers out on the beach. Hippies and surfers don’t expect the Mayor to pass up a Chamber of Commerce luncheon to instead spend her lunch hour kicking back at the beach and smoking dope with surfers.
Cruisers down island, however, rightly or wrongly, expect a connectivity and loyalty from other boaters. And that is the biggest rub. Cruisers expect candor and genuine concern from so-called fellow cruisers. But, that just did not happen on the Rio Dulce.
In fact, much of the overwhelming bad vibes that visiting cruisers experienced on the Rio Dulce in 2008 emanated from the chasm between the expectations of visiting yachtsmen and the actual behavior of some local boaters and businesses.
I had many discussions with many cruisers about it while on the Rio Dulce. It was hard to have candid conversations in the cockpits of vessels and public areas of marina compounds. In such extremely close quarters, there always seemed to be a River Liver within earshot. Just when you thought you were having a private conversation, a shadow would emerge from somewhere.
So, visiting cruisers had the most in-depth conversations while bumping into each other out in public places like the streets in town while shopping for groceries, or by stopping their dinghies and drifting together in the middle of the river for a spell.
And the sentiments were the same. The fleet that had circumnavigated the Caribbean had developed expectations such as an honest VHF Cruisers’ Net, open discussions on all subjects, and a cruiser's best interests viewpoint about everything.
As such, a lot of people, including me, just did not see it coming on the Rio Dulce. I guess we were truly silly in retrospect. But in our defense, in all those years in the Caribbean and all those other risky places like Venezuela and Colombia, we never experienced anything like the vibes we picked up loud and clear on the Rio Dulce.
Regardless, it just did not dawn on us that we were entering a very different society that has almost no resemblance to the on-the-go cruising society we were used to in the rest of El Caribe.
It caused a lot of hurt feelings on both sides of the fence. Many cruisers articulated to me that they felt betrayed and misled. One person bitterly lamented: “this whole damn place is one big fucking lie” and another said that “all the crime here is just business as usual and these damn people on the Rio will never change.”
And, conversely, River Livers said things to the tune of "We will thank God when you sail out of the Rio Dulce" and "your hysterical comments and incitements are not worth commenting on." And that is just a sampling of remarks aimed at me personally on local internet chat boards.
Harsh words from both camps? Absolutely. It was a harsh experience for all concerned.
All of these occurrences drive home the point that it is paramount to remember that in destinations like New Smyrna Beach, the Rio Dulce, and the other risky “Amity” tourist destinations of the world, tourists best ignore the Chamber of Commerce cheerleading and the poppycock of locals, even fellow boaters, and instead depend exclusively on their own personal homework and independent risk assessment.
In the end, the Rio Dulce could, however, take a page from New Smyrna Beach’s “dangerous ocean” slogan and adopt a new, better Rio Dulce mantra: “It's never really safe on the Rio Dulce; after all it’s Guatemala.”
XI. CRUISERS SPEAK OUT ABOUT CRIME ON THE RIO DULCE
Below are articles, excerpts, and comments by cruisers who articulated viewpoints and significant levels of disappointment with their experiences on the Rio Dulce. The same disenchantments are shared by many people.
The first comments by Dick, aboard the yacht Tabasco, explains his experience with Rio Dulce crime.
His comments also touch on what I consider to be the most distressing and frightening behaviors of all that I encountered amongst Rio Dulce River Livers. Long term locals occasionally disclose the Rio Dulce's worst crime secrets to visiting cruisers, but those locals simultaneously make visiting cruisers promise to never reveal that information because it can get someone killed.
It is the anonymous Rio Dulce gringo society in action. If you peruse their local chat boards and the "news" website, many local gringos routinely use fake names, won't divulge their location and, even in the cloak of that guarded anonymity, they still won't write openly about the Rio Dulce, the true landscape of crime there, and the way things really work. It is evidently just too dangerous to do so.
There seems to be a real, legitimate fear amongst local gringos on the Rio Dulce. Visiting cruisers get swept into it as well when they are told about the real conditions on the Rio Dulce in confidence and then sworn to secrecy. It is very disconcerting to be told alarming things about the true landscape of crime on the Rio Dulce and then be told that you have to keep quiet or else be branded a traitor who is hurting the reputation of the Rio Dulce . . . or even worse . . . that if you speak out you can get the local killed for having told you the truth. It puts visiting cruisers in a terrible position.
Let's look at what Dick aboard yacht Tabasco has to say about it:
A. Yacht Tabasco experiences theft and is offended by the Rio Dulce experience
We spent the hurricane season of 2007 on the river tied up at Monkey Bay Marina. We were on the T head next to Lubi's place. Probably less than 50 yards from where Sunday's Child was moored and boarded [the 2008 Daniel Dryden Murder].
We had been on the river only a month when our dinghy and motor were stolen. Because of the circumstances I felt that it was an inside job. That someone close had to have played a part. My feelings were poo pooed by fellow Monkey Bay'ers whom I felt to be in the know and in whose opinion I respected.
A few months later we actually saw the motor, it was rather unique on the river, a Nissan 15 hp 4 stroke, not at all popular with the locals, but we were unable to do anything about it. We heard that it was at Punta Arenas in the hands of a local strong man but were unable to verify.
Then a couple of weeks before we left I was told the whole story, based on trust that I would never divulge names etc. I was told that the theft was indeed inspired by an insider, the information regarding the dinghy was related to persons in Esmerelda who swam in and untied the dinghy and towed it off. One name mentioned as one of the ringleaders was Reina del Mar [The Queen of the South], I can use that name since she was apparently killed by the authorities a few days ago. The dinghy and motor were taken to where the river turns in to the Golfete where the motor was removed and the dinghy stored. The motor did indeed go to Punta Arenas and the dinghy is/was still floating around somewhere down there.
I was in a quandary with this information. If I went to the authorities and we recovered the motor then the bad guys, and it sounds like these are some sure enough bad dudes, might have taken action against the family of the local who shared the information with me. We elected to just forget about it and move on.
My point is this; it took a murder [Daniel Dryden’s in 2008] for the authorities to take action against the gang who has been stealing motors etc on the river. It is just too convenient that a couple of guys in Esmerelda have been arrested and La Riena del Mar knocked off by the cops only a couple of days after the murder and boarding. I would argue that they, the authorities, knew who was running the theft ring and would have never done anything to stop it until the Sunday's Child incident where events went horribly wrong [and Daniel Dryden was murdered].
I don't have to worry about this anymore as we left some months ago and are now in a more Rule of Law atmosphere. But I will say this, Cruisers and Marina Owners/Operators.....don't brush this off. Stay in the faces of the Guatemalan authorities and insist on protection from the next bunch of thugs which will arise in the vacuum just created. You have more power than you think and you can make the river a wonderful place to bring a boat and family.
It was not a wonderful place a year ago and its less so now.
Bocas del Toro, Panama
(There was initial confusion as to who assassinated the Queen of the South. First-hand witnesses have now alleged it was not the Police who murdered her, but that, instead, an unknown man allegedly connected with a crime organization walked into the Backpacker’s Bar and shot her).
C. Cyber friend “Topgallent” speaks out on Guatemala and risky travel:
Here is a post that a friend put up on my controversial Latitudes & Attitudes internet chat board thread entitled "Rampage on the Rio." I like the way he thinks on the subject of traveling in risky destinations like Guatemala and Venezuela:
I think everyone has to do a little soul searching when they go to a place like Guatemala, I know I did. Going to a dangerous place or doing any kind of risky behavior such as skydiving, riding motorcycles, etc, is all very similar in the way you have to think about it - there is some statistical chance you are not going to make it no matter what safety precautions you take. And I think we all have to come to terms with that in some way and let it make sense to us and let it mean something.
One stock market book I read recently had a nice idea in it that said, essentially, that people tend to say they enjoy taking risks, but what they really mean is that they like the thrill of an assured outcome that is momentarily in doubt. If that is any of us when we go to a place like Guatemala then I suggest we are living in an illusion that could become what that same book calls a "forced awareness", wherein our illusions come crashing down in an abrupt way. This sudden shift in perception can cause what recovering addicts sometimes refer to as a "moment of clarity" when they are able to see past their illusions and understand some greater truth about the nature of reality.
If "forced awareness" doesn't sound like much fun, well, it usually isn't, so it is better if we can find a way to perceive the world a little better and not have those illusions in the first place. If we choose not to live in the illusion that we are actually safe, when we really aren't, then we don't have many options except to face the danger head on with an honest heart, and that means we have to make some decisions that are a little more difficult than simply "oh, I'm sure nothing will happen ..."
Here is how I think about it - the chances really are low that something is going to happen to any particular person in Guatemala, and it really depends on where you are, how long you are there, what kind of behaviors you are doing, etc. You can minimize, to some extent, what the risks are - just like in skydiving where you can have two parachutes, certify the people who pack the reserves, check the chutes before exiting the aircraft, etc, while cruising you can do things like lock the boat up at night to help minimize the risks. But we can't eliminate the risks, and the risks are much higher in a place like Guatemala than most other places, so we have to be careful not to again create some kind of illusion in our minds that we are in some way safe . . . we aren't. All the dogs and tacks on deck and knives in the world aren't going to stop 4 determined guys with machetes, it just ain't gonna happen.
Given that we really are in actual danger, how can we deal with that? I think the easiest way to manage that is by keeping it all in context. We are all going to die - that is a 100% certainty, it is eventually going to happen. If we really internalize that and understand it, totally, then we can get past that fact and live. If you're already going to die, then taking a calculated risk becomes more of an option because it's not like if the risk goes wrong that you were some kind of a fool who tossed away their whole life for no good reason, because it's going to end anyway, nobody makes it out alive. So you really might as well have fun while you are here, even if that fun increases your risk level. Of course there are limits, most of us don't want to see our end any sooner than we have to, but you don't want to live in a box either, some amount of risk is exciting, and fun, and really makes life worth living in the first place, because some of the most fun things to do involve risk. We take risks when we fall in love, whenever we go fast, or fly high, or do any number of crazy things, and they add spice to our lives, give us stories to tell, and generally make life worth living.
That's how I think about it. If we can really come to terms with the fact that risky behavior really is dangerous and not just live in denial, and after doing that if we still decide it's "worth it", then great, that's part of what life is all about.
For me, personally, Guatemala is ‘worth it.’ Yes, you can go to the Bahamas instead, but then you're missing out on Guatemala! and Venezuela! and all the other great places that aren't as civilized as where we come from. Isn't that why we all want to go cruising? To see the world, explore, take a few chances, and live a little?
D. Mark Wheeler of Yacht Mima chimes in:
This sort of [crime] activity has been going on for years on the Rio Dulce, but none of the guide books or Web sites give cruisers any warning about the very real and palpable security risks that exist on the Rio Dulce. I have been unable to find any security warnings on local cruiser-based business Web sites.
Although [locals are] verbally sympathetic to Roy and Michelle [piracy victims aboard Dream Odyssey], there seems to be a sense that if we don't talk about it maybe it will go away, or at least won't hurt business. A local ex-cruiser and now [Rio Dulce] resident told me, ‘Everyone knows that if you anchor near the Rio Tatin you will be boarded.’
It is odd to me that no one here on the river has ever taken the time to post anything on the Web or in print for those of us who are first time visitors.
The authorities learned the identity of the robbers within days but were unable to react because, they said, it is ‘very sensitive.’
The take-home message is clear: We must stay ever vigilant and not forget that the world is still a place where greed and selfishness often rules the day.
E. Exclusive interview with Michelle and Roy Parsons of yacht Dream Odyssey
Surviving Piracy on Guatemala’s Rio Dulce
An exclusive interview with s/v Dream Odyssey
By Buddy Stockwell
October 30, 2008
(This article was also published in the May 2008 issue of Seafaring's Latitudes and Attitudes Magazine)
Guatemala’s popular Rio Dulce suffered a violent crime streak in 2008 wherein two separate pirate gangs boarded vessels. On August 9, 2008, Daniel Dryden, aboard Sunday’s Child, was murdered in Monkey Bay. His wife Nancy survived a punctured lung.
Just two days later, on August 11, three yachts, Dream Odyssey, C-Toy, and Mima arrived for hurricane season and anchored downriver away from Monkey Bay. For Roy and Michelle Parsons aboard Dream Odyssey, it became a nightmare: they were boarded, bound and gagged at gunpoint while twenty thousand dollars worth of equipment was stripped from their boat.
These incidents were appalling; however, the focus here is on not on the attacks but the aftermath. Crime can happen anywhere. The more compelling issue is how the local community reacts to it. In this exclusive interview aboard Dream Odyssey, it becomes clear that the Parsons were victims twice, once at the hands of Rio Dulce pirates and once again at the hands of corruption within Guatemala’s criminal justice system.
Thanks for having me aboard and for having the courage to speak out. Before we discuss the aftermath of your attack, I would like to debunk a widespread local rumor that blames the piracy attack on you. It is alleged that the Livingston agent who checks vessels into the Rio warned you not to anchor; that you were told about the Dryden murder and told to go to a marina. Also, local boaters maintain that cruising guides warn against anchoring where you did. What is your response to all that?
The agent told us about Daniel Dryden’s murder. But, he said it was an isolated incident; the first in four years. He emphasized the Rio Dulce is safe. He said we would be safe as long as we anchored together. He did not say anything at all about dangerous areas or going to a marina.
By the time we checked in it was too late in the day to reach the marina areas upriver before closing time. We were going to have to anchor. Rather than anchor upriver where Daniel Dryden was just murdered, we anchored downriver. We read the cruising guides carefully. None of them have any warnings at all against anchoring anywhere on the Rio Dulce.
We were very conscientious but bad advice put us in a very dangerous position and we paid a heavy price.
Let’s move on to the prosecution of the criminals. You wrote online that "lawyers seemed determined to prosecute" the pirates. Tell me more.
The lawyer handling the case said we needed to work together to send the pirates to prison for as long as possible. He was excited. He felt that for once he could get a conviction. He explained that it is very hard to convict criminals in Guatemala.
Why did the lawyer feel your particular case was such a good one?
There was conclusive evidence and a confession.
The pirate gang was a father and three sons with one other man. Our lawyer and police raided their village. The only way to get there is by boat, but the police do not have a boat. So, locals arranged for a private launch and gasoline. Our lawyer and approximately twenty-five policemen planned to search six houses. Three houses were searched and our flat screen television, digital camera, CD player, printer and laptop computer were found. The oldest son then confessed.
The other three houses were not searched because a “Mayan call” went out on the river alerting nearby villages that police were present on the river. While search efforts were ongoing a mob of forty to fifty appeared. Some came by canoe from villages across the river.
Armed with machetes and boards with nails in the ends, the mob ran our lawyer and the police out of town. The police almost capsized the launch while running away. That ended search efforts. The rest of our property was never found. The recovered items were held as evidence and two of the pirates were later arrested.
We also identified one of the pirates by photograph and described the leader of the group and his pistol in fine detail. After all, we looked at him for over an hour while he pointed his gun at us. We were assured our descriptions were a perfect match.
The evidence was conclusive.
Who provided the private boat for the police?
They do not want to be identified. They fear for their personal safety. They claim they could be harmed or killed if word got out they helped the police.
There are rumors that the judge demanded a bribe to release your recovered property, is that true?
It was implied. INGUAT [Guatemala’s government office on tourism] assigned us an agent and interpreter. We never saw the judge; he kept standing us up and sending messages for new, additional paperwork.
We made numerous trips from the Rio Dulce to the city of Puerto Barrios where our case was pending. We kept visiting the Guatemala Ministerio Publico and the Courthouse, but the judge stood us up every time.
It took all day every time we went. Our INGUAT agent finally told us to stop going and that he would go to court for us. Many different times he submitted new paperwork, but the judge would not budge nor see him.
At that point, a lady attorney in Guatemala City was hired by INGUAT to come to Puerto Barrios and get to the bottom of the problem. But, the day before her trip to Puerto Barrios, her brother, also a lawyer, was assassinated. He was shot to death while riding his motorcycle to work in Guatemala City. So, understandably, she could not come.
We were out of options. INGUAT said we could go to the Guatemalan press and expose the whole thing, or offer the judge a bribe, a very common custom in Guatemala.
While we were deciding what to do next, the judge threw INGUAT off the case and sent word that we had to hire a private lawyer. Either he wanted a bribe or figured we would give up and abandon the recovered items worth $3,800.00. This same judge used the same type of stall tactics in the Daniel Dryden murder case.
There are "frontier justice" advocates amongst the expatriates and live aboard boaters on the Rio Dulce who contend that crime problems are handled very effectively in Guatemala, just differently than we “gringos” are used to, that’s all. What do say in response to that?
No one has come out of the frontier in Guatemala to bring us justice, we can tell you that. We will never see the majority of our stolen goods. Policemen with guns can't stand up to villagers armed with sticks and machetes because these matters are "very sensitive."
Twenty-nine policemen were taken hostage at the mouth of the river earlier in the year due to ongoing land disputes in Guatemala. Belgian tourists were taken hostage at that time too. It is not true that the Rio Dulce has not had problems for years. These are ongoing, unresolved problems.
The police are afraid of the people and the people don't trust the police. Our case had hard evidence but the judge let our pirates go as well as the two arrested pirates in the Dryden murder case.
It is widely rumored by locals that the judge was bribed for approximately one thousand dollars to let our pirates go. Who knows? All we know is that the judge let absolutely guilty criminals go free. That is not effective justice it is anarchy.
Your incident aside, though, isn’t the Rio Dulce relatively safe when compared to truly high-risk destinations you have been to in the Caribbean?
No, it is not relatively safe in comparison. We have sailed the entire Caribbean, including high-risk areas in Venezuela and Colombia. The Rio Dulce is just as risky in our opinion because information about crime is suppressed and that puts cruisers at risk.
In all the other high-risk areas of the Caribbean, safety and security information is openly shared. In Venezuela, for example, marinas’ web sites warn cruisers about specific precautions they should take. But, on the Rio Dulce there are no such warnings and no proactive efforts to warn cruisers at all. You hear excuses like it might hurt business, cause trouble, or get someone killed. That is just the way it is in Guatemala.
What do you mean when you say "that is the way it is in Guatemala”?
When we were at our wits end with the judge, INGUAT suggested that our very last resort was to go to the press. But, we were warned that if we elected to do that INGUAT would have to immediately provide armed guards around the clock and we should leave Guatemala. People really do get murdered for speaking out here. Again, that is just the way it is in Guatemala.
Please tell me specifically what the judge’s formal ruling was?
We were told the ruling was “dismissal for lack of evidence." That was extremely offensive. The evidence was perfect; however, our pirates were all released. The same judge also released the two gang members who were arrested for the murder of Dan Dryden. All of them are completely free and back on the Rio Dulce.
Were you in court when the judge released the pirates who robbed you?
We had no day in court, ever. Everything was done behind closed doors. When we learned of the ruling we contacted the U.S. Embassy. They were very upset about a release of criminals who confessed to harming U.S. Citizens. The U.S. Embassy, the Guatemala Ministerio Publico and INGUAT all brought pressure to bear and soon thereafter a replacement judge processed our paperwork and released our five recovered items within ten days. We will never get the other sixty stolen items back.
Did you get to appear before the new judge?
No. We tried but he refused. We can’t tell you what a Guatemalan judge looks like. We were not included in any part of any proceedings.
What about all the various pirates who were set free? Couldn’t the new judge haul them all back into court?
No. All the pirates who were arrested on the Rio are now free again. That is the end of it. (Editor's Note: see updates below; the Dryden pirates were eventually convicted).
What impressions are you left with regarding the Guatemalan government?
Well, INGUAT tried their best to help and the lawyer tried his best too. But, corruption in the judicial system, the ineffective police force, and the public's fear of being murdered for speaking out and standing up for justice in Guatemala makes it very difficult to convict criminals. Don’t take our word for it. Guatemala’s Attorney General resigned in July of 2008 because of the thousands and thousands of unsolved murders that year alone in Guatemala. We feel bad for all the good people who risk their lives and are getting killed while trying to bring justice to Guatemala.
What was the reaction of the lawyer and INGUAT when the pirates in your case were released?
They didn't say much. The impression we got was that they were terribly disappointed and terribly frustrated. It was horrible for all of us.
What was the biggest disappointment for you in this whole process?
We have to say it was the lack of concern by some in the local boating community on the Rio Dulce. Out of all the boaters living there, only two or three came by initially and asked if they could help. Our incident was announced on the VHF Cruiser’s Net on day-one, but by day-two it was no longer broadcast and any attempted discussions on the subject were shot down as unrelated to the format. Word of our attack was quickly and effectively squelched on that program.
We have become accustomed to cruising communities everywhere else in the U.S.A. and the rest of the Caribbean where support pours out when a fellow cruiser is harmed or in trouble. We did not get that support on the Rio Dulce. We were isolated, ignored and alone, partly because many locals do not want to discuss the serious security issues on the Rio Dulce.
It finally dawned on us that the Rio Dulce is not a typical cruising community. It is largely a live aboard and expatriate community that keeps to itself and protects local business interests. In our opinion, cruisers like us are just tourists passing through for hurricane season, that's all.
Do you think cruisers should avoid the Rio Dulce?
No, not necessarily. There are many beautiful things to see in Guatemala. It is a very interesting destination. We don’t shy away from risky places. We traveled inland in Colombia. We spent significant time in risky areas of Venezuela. The only concern we have personally about the Rio Dulce is that many in the local community are, for whatever reason, simply unwilling to inform cruisers about the dangers here.
It is a problem to have an agent welcoming newcomers to the Rio Dulce by saying the river is safe for anchoring when it is common local knowledge that it is definitely not safe to anchor in certain areas. A simple warning could very well have prevented our incident altogether.
What would you tell cruisers coming to the Rio Dulce?
Understand that once you come into the Rio Dulce it is very hard to relocate. Once hurricane season begins you are at higher latitudes on a windward coast. In Venezuela, Colombia and Panama, you are far south and have many options. You can move to different countries and still comply with boat insurance requirements. Once deep into the Rio Dulce, however, you are there for the duration of the season.
We advise making sure you have a reservation in a marina that provides armed guards. Marinas are very reasonably priced and fill up quickly. If trouble breaks out, you do not want to be left out on the hook with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
I am conducting this interview aboard your yacht, anchored upriver in the Rio Dulce just off from one of the marinas where you have been waiting for a slip to come available. Are you concerned about being anchored out now?
A little, yes. Prior to getting robbed, without fail, we always locked up before going to sleep. The pirates were successful because they attacked in the early evening before we locked up. Now we lock up at dusk. Unfortunately, this is not the way we had envisioned cruising.
Even though we are relatively safe when locked in, we still get a little nervous when we hear outboards come very close at low speed after dark. This is a busy river. During the day, most passersby are friendly and wave, but a few guys stare without smiling or waving. Surely some of them are sizing us up. Based on our personal experiences, only a fool would believe otherwise.
Have you gotten over the emotional stress caused by the incident?
We are better. Initially, it was all-consuming. We relived the event over and over; how we were tied up and held at gunpoint for over an hour, all while we feared the very real possibility of being killed. It was such a personal violation.
But, at the same time we refuse to let it color our dream of cruising or diminish our love of meeting new people. We have been very active cruisers sailing the East Coast of the U.S., the Bahamas, the entire Eastern and Western Caribbean, South America, and Central America. We have been on the move for five years now. We will not let this single incident on the Rio Dulce, nor frustration over the lack of law and order in Guatemala diminish our joy for cruising. We love discovering new destinations and learning about new cultures. That will not change. You take the good with the bad.
We are lucky to be alive after what happened and we are counting our blessings. We also pray a lot for Nancy Dryden. As bad as we feel, we can’t even imagine walking in her shoes. Our hearts go out to her and the Dryden family.
Thanks for having me aboard and sharing your experiences. As we speak, the sun is setting and it is time for me to return to Indigo Moon. Thanks again, and may your next hurricane season be less eventful!
Let’s hope so!
After reading all of this, it seems that there is little that can be said in defense of the Rio Dulce’s general personality regarding crime and security information, and the utter lack of said information on the Rio Dulce.
But, could it still be possible nonetheless that it is the visiting cruisers who were totally out of line? Is the visiting cruising fleet too demanding? Did they expect the impossible? Are the visiting cruisers the ones acting outside the norm while, in fact, the Rio Dulce River Livers are the ones behaving precisely as human beings are expected to behave under the circumstances?
The Tipping Point may provide a wholly different spin and perspective on this entire report that is compelling and fascinating in its own right.
XII. THE TIPPING POINT OF CRIME
A. Broken Windows
If you have not read Malcolm Gladwell’s #1 National Best Seller, The Tipping Point, get your hands on a copy. It is an amazing look into the way information travels and “How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.”
These next sections are directly gleaned from Gladwell’s unique book.
Gladwell sets out an intriguing and fresh overview of the dynamics of social epidemics such as fashion trends, diseases, and behavior patters such as crime.
By viewing the Rio Dulce through a wholly different lens, even more understanding comes to light.
We all remember Bernard Goetz, New York City’s subway vigilante. On December 22, 1984, he was accosted on the subway by four, rowdy youths who demanded money. Goetz pulled a revolver and shot and wounded the four youths, each of which had serious criminal records and were “the embodiment of the kind of youth thug feared by almost all urban dwellers.”
This occurred during NYC’s most troubled time wherein crime had reached epidemic levels with well over 2,000 murders per year [take note . . . this epidemic was only one third the current murder rate in Guatemala].
The subway systems were in chaos and a trip under ground to the subway system was like a journey into Dantes Inferno.
But, suddenly, just after 1990, crime in NYC plummeted. Something had caused it to “tip” the other way and people simply stopped committing crimes.
It was somewhat mysterious, because the reduction in crime could not be linked to any obvious causation.
Author Malcolm Caldwell points to the “broken windows” theory:
“If a window is left broken and unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that ‘anything goes.’”
In Guatemala the “broken window” is, unfortunately, a staggering murder rate with almost zero prosecution, rendering the whole country a place where anybody can be murdered with impunity.
On the Rio Dulce, the “broken window” crime progression happened predictably: dinghy theft in 2007 went unchecked, then piracy in early 2008 went unchecked, then murder and piracy later in 2008 also went unchecked in terms of Rule of Law and criminal prosecution (private assassinations of some criminals aside, of course).
Also, not just the severity of the crimes increased, but so did the range of victims. The crimes started as only against visiting gringo cruisers -- considered fair game. It is reported that local Guatemalans on the Rio Dulce consider all gringos to be rich and have boats full of cash.
As more “broken windows” went unrepaired in the form of continuing crime against cruisers with impunity, the Rio Dulce gangs started stealing outboard motors not just from gringo cruisers but from local Guatemalans too. The more people get away with criminal behavior, the more accepted the behavior becomes and a rise in crime always follows according to criminologists. That seems pretty commonsensical.
What is NOT commonsensical is that criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, as part of developing the broken windows theory, came to the conclusion that crime is actually contagious in precisely the same way a fashion trend is contagious.
The “tipping point” that ushers in a crime epidemic is not caused by a certain type of person, but instead comes directly from some external feature(s) of the environment.
In order to address the serious crime in NYC subways, Kelling was hired by the City in the mid-1980’s and, along with a new subway director named David Gunn, the broken windows theory was pursued.
How? Not by adding police, or more security, or creating harsher laws. Instead, they went about cleaning up the subway and removed all the graffiti from subway cars. It took years to do. Great effort and industry was expended to insure that no subway car bearing any graffiti went back into service the next day.
The theory was that the dirty, graffiti-clad (inside and out) cars were sending an anything goes message to patrons using the subway.
Kelling and Dunn even planned the graffiti removal program in such a way as to be especially cruel and heartless to graffiti artists. It takes three nights of trespassing on the train yard to create a graffiti masterpiece. One night the train car is painted white for a base coat and allowed to dry. The next night, outlines are painted and allowed to dry. On the third night artists color in the outlines.
Little did they know that they were being watched and as soon as they stood back and admired their work on the third night, subway personnel would appear with paint rollers and obliterate the artwork: “the kids would be in tears, but we would just keep rolling up and down.” This finally broke the graffiti epidemic and it too tipped.
In addition, fare beaters and other small crimes in the subways were stamped out. Cops started arresting offenders and cuffing them together on the subway platforms for several hours for all to see. As it turned out, these small crimes had served as tipping points for the serious crimes.
After the environment was cleaned up, crime plummeted. This also points to a theory that in many instances criminals are not necessarily bad people who are predisposed to crime, but that they are instead prompted to commit crimes based on the perception of the world around them.
This goes a long way to explain the deep trouble Guatemala is in as a whole, including the Rio Dulce. The environment in the whole of Guatemala is one of systemic impunity. It is an anything goes Wild West that is much like the out of control subway system of NYC in 1984.
The success of NYC’s “broken window” approach is compelling.
Applied to the Rio Dulce, it is ironic that the Rio Dulce area is reported to have been covered in graffiti and had some gang troubles eight to ten years ago. That graffiti was cleaned up and the gangs moved on according to locals. That was a step in the right direction, but that did not end the Rio Dulce crime. Why? There are still huge broken windows in place, namely impunity enjoyed by criminal elements and the system's chronic inability to convict and incarcerate criminals.
These ongoing conditions suggest that all the security patrols in the world will not help if all the “broken windows” are not fixed first. The environment must be significantly altered to one that exudes law and order instead of the Wild West. Crime, both organized and random, must not be tolerated.
Criminals, whether powerful, organized, rich, or poor, must be publicly convicted and incarcerated for all to see (much like the fare-jumpers in the NYC subway were handcuffed on the platforms and left there for the public to gawk at).
And the citizenry must support law and order instead of self-help murder.
All that seems to be a total impossibility in Guatemala at present.
Regardless, who can even speculate as to how overwhelming the “broken windows” message was on the Rio Dulce in 2008 when there was an unconscionable, corrupt release of serious criminals in both the Daniel Dryden murder and Dream Odyssey piracy cases? The only sure thing is that it can’t be good and offers a legitimate explanation as to why a dinghy and outboard engine was stolen right out of a marina located in the heart of the marina district despite the installation of the brand new security patrol.
B. Did 2008 cruisers have unrealistic expectations on the Rio Dulce?
There are always two sides to an issue. Some of the outspoken River Livers took the position that it was not their business to look after visiting cruisers and that cruisers who expected to be coddled and protected on the Rio Dulce were naive and should not have been so impractical as to expect the River Liver community to have behaved any differently than they did.
One local boater said bluntly: “I made it up this river without anybody warning me about all the dangers . . . so let everybody else make it on their own too. I don’t want to hear a bunch of crap about safety on the VHF Cruiser’s Network. I don’t give a damn.”
As harsh as that sounds, Malcolm Gladwell’s comments, in yet another section of his book, suggest that perhaps cruisers like me who visited the Rio Dulce in 2008 actually did, in fact, expect way too much from the local boating society on the Rio Dulce.
A very infamous incident is oft used to demonstrate “the cold and dehumanizing effect of urban life.” In 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was chased and attacked three times on the streets of New York City. As thirty-eight neighbors watched from their windows, Kitty was stabbed repeatedly and the assaults went on for half an hour.
No one called the police and she was ultimately killed.
There is much to learn about human beings from the incident. It’s beyond the scope of what we can cover here. The shorthand name for the phenomenon is the “bystander problem.”
The bottom line is that when people are part of a group, such as the tight knit River Livers Ex-pat society, it was evidently expected human nature that they will desensitize and feel much less responsible for assisting, warning, or getting involved in the maladies of visiting tourists (cruisers).
That explains a lot. From within their safe marinas festooned with armed guards, and from within the emotional boundaries of their respective social “marina tribes,” the locals on the Rio Dulce in general seemed to feel no responsibility to act, publicly warn cruisers, get involved, nor discuss the crime incidents on their local VHF Cruisers’ Net, or across the dinner table for that matter.
This human phenomenon unpredictably stands the concept of “safety in numbers” on its head. Experts contend that Kitty Genovese would still be alive if only ONE person had witnessed the initial attack and perceived that no one else saw it. It was the fact that everybody saw it that NYPD was not called to save her.
Taking this theory one step further, let’s flip this around and apply it to cruisers like me. Melissa and I sailed around the Caribbean for three years, into and out of various areas of high risk like Venezuela and Colombia.
We traveled mostly alone but sometimes in very small groups of two boats on average. As such, there was never any “urbanization” of the fleet. Even though there were often a larger numbers of boats arriving and staying together in some areas, the vast majority of the fleet traveled in small cliques of three boats or less, or else mostly alone like Melissa and me.
As such, we developed a keen sense of serious responsibility for fellow cruisers and shared all information about all risks such as crime, navigational hazards, and any other daunting issues that arose. And this strong sense of responsibility for the safety of fellow boaters was at its peak for cruisers entering the Rio Dulce from the South. Those cruisers had been through thousands of miles of every type of cruising risks imaginable (not just crime) and had come to expect fellow boaters to take seriously the obligation of looking out for each other. Notice the word "obligation" and not "option."
I now notice in retrospect that, in general, the few new cruisers I met who were just beginning their adventures and arriving on the Rio Dulce for the first time from the north and the U.S.A. were markedly different in their attitudes than the cruisers arriving from the South. Having no long-term cruising experience with the Caribbean fleet, and arriving fresh from urban locales in the U.S.A., these greenhorn arrivals seemed much less offended and/or concerned about the lack of warnings and security information flow on the Rio Dulce.
In the end, the only thing that can be said for sure is that, knowing all that I know now in hindsight 20/20, it was utterly predictable that there would be a tremendous difference in the expectations of visiting cruisers and River Livers.
It is also fascinating that the Rio Dulce “experience” suggests that no matter if in a New York City neighborhood, or a small marina neighborhood on a small jungle-lined Third World river, human beings can’t avoid group dynamics that naturally take hold within our species.
Taking things a step further, it becomes very paradoxical that Venezuelans, in truly urban big-city locations like Puerto La Cruz where urban desensitization and a diminished sense of responsibility for cruisers would be absolutely expected it is just the opposite.
Conversely, in the comparatively tiny rural jungle community of only a couple of hundred boaters on the Rio Dulce, the response to crime was utterly “big-city urban.”
What could cause such incongruity? The only thing I can hypothesize is that there is an intense national pride in Venezuela, a country much larger and more prosperous than Guatemala with more of an emerging middle class (at least before Chavez took hold).
In Guatemala, however, the whole country is still immersed in severely violent post-civil-war flux. There are way too many ongoing atrocities in Guatemala for cruisers’ safety to even show up on the nation’s emotional radar, much less be something that the citizens should be embarrassed about when cruisers get into trouble. As the old saying goes, “they have other fish to fry.”
In the end, we were very lucky. We were vigilant and had no trouble. We got to see the amazing natural beauty of Guatemala and made several trips inland to see all of the major tourist attractions. I would be lying, though, if I did not also admit that that all of it came at an emotional price. There was a significant edge to endure.
Bottom line: I am not going to say I am sorry we visited Guatemala, because it provided unique experiences that made our cruising adventure richer.
But, then again, Guatemala is not for everybody. There are hundreds of spectacularly beautiful anchorages in the Caribbean and in the world where you don’t have to put yourself under armed guard, increased risk, real fear, and weather the intense social provocations that were inescapable in 2008 on the socially turbulent Rio Dulce.
That is not to say that everywhere else in the Caribbean is totally “safe” either. The Eastern Caribbean is experiencing an increase in high-profile murders of cruisers as well.
C. Tipping Points? Violent crime also on the rise in the Eastern Caribbean
Sadly, more and more Eastern Caribbean islands are also experiencing problems with violence against cruisers and yachtsmen, making it tougher to pick and choose your cruising destinations these days.
It seems that more and more Caribbean destinations are at the threshold of tipping points for the worse.
Antigua – January 29, 2009:
Superyacht skipper, Drew Golan, was shot and killed on the streets of Antigua, the island that hosts the largest regatta in the Caribbean. It's a huge, worldwide event.
It is reported that armed robbers demanded Golan’s wife’s purse and that he was shot in the failed robbery attempt. A British couple living on the island was also murdered on the island last year.
Many yachts have pulled out of Antigua. Also, cruising sailors in the area have set up their one Caribbean Safety and Security Net to try and help with issues on the island.
Puerto Rico – February 9, 2009:
Puerto Rico was rocked when professional yacht chef Sara Kuszak was raped and murdered in Ceiba, Puerto Rico. She was out on a morning jog when she was abducted.
Eliezer Marquez Navedo, 36, grabbed Kuszak as she ran by his car and forced her into the trunk. He drove her to a remote location and raped and killed her. Her half-naked body was found about 75 feet off the road with her throat slashed. She was five months pregnant with her first child.
Navedo is in custody and will reportedly face charges of first degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and two counts of rape. If convicted, he could be sentenced to as much as 130 years.
Kuszak was engaged to be married to yacht captain Cheshire McIntosh. They met in Fiji. They worked together on several yachts. They were getting married the next month.
Guadeloupe– January 29, 2009:
The French island of Guadeloupe, in the Eastern Caribbean, is embroiled in a labor strike and the threat of civil unrest resulted in the removal of the entire Swan charter fleet from it base in Pointe a Pitre.
Sources report that charter fleet captains who are long term residents of the island felt it was necessary to pull out of Guadeloupe.
Racial tensions reached alarming levels, exacerbated by severe shortages of food, water and power.
Despite the seriousness of these conditions, very little coverage of the incident has made news in the Caribbean or internationally. Armed gangs are blockading routes and white French nationals are suddenly being randomly targeted, causing many residents to begin to fear for their safety.
And while these Eastern Caribbean “street crimes” do not fall into the same alarming category as armed piracy and the murder of yachtsmen at anchor aboard private yachts in Guatemala and Venezuela, these acts are no less alarming and tragic to the victims and the visiting yachting community as whole.
It is encouraging that actual prosecutions and prison sentences are likely to result in the Eastern Caribbean cases, as opposed to the ghastly “revolving door” corrupt court systems in Guatemala and the Rio Dulce. Also, it is encouraging that cruisers in Antigua are engaging in open and aggressive dialogue regarding safety and security on their own VHF Cruisers’ Network.
If you remember, we reported that, during our visit to Antigua, the island was already experiencing a severe illegal drug use epidemic amongst the island’s youth. Famed blues guitarist, Eric Clapton, has an estate on the island and also operates a prestigious chemical dependency treatment center there. The pricey and famous treatment center serves a worldwide clientele, but, in an effort to help Antigua, Clapton offers free treatment to Antiguans.
As already articulated in past reports, it is very difficult on small islands for youths to change the “people, places and things” that are “triggers” to their addictive drug use. As such, it has been an uphill battle.
Some Antiguans are actually blaming visiting yachtsmen for buying illegal drugs and creating the demand that brings drugs to Antigua. I’ve got news for them: whether or not visiting yachtsmen buy and use illicit drugs is not an issue at all. The island’s own population is suffering a terrible drug problem. If all the yachts went away, drugs would still be a problem on Antigua.
Regardless, the bottom line is that the complexion of the Caribbean Cruising Experience seems to be changing. And all of it is a moving target.
As such, glassy-eyed romantics expecting a Bob Marley “One Love” experience down-island will surely be surprised to find that in more and more cruising destinations these days one must maintain the same or even greater vigilance that is exercised in big U.S.A. cities.
As ominous as this entire trip report is, the Caribbean in general is still a fabulous cruising ground like no other. We would not hesitate to circumnavigate it all over again and see the exact same places if we so desired. It is still an awesome adventure, albeit one that now requires the removal of the old rose colored glasses.
The point of reporting on crime is to encourage cruisers to seriously realize that they will largely be responsible for assessing risk on their own when traveling outside the U.S.A. Cruising guides are severely lacking and tend to promote local businesses rather than provide unvarnished crime and risk information. Also, as we have seen, the local boating society can not be relied upon either in some destinations.
Some of the internet sources we have used to keep up with Caribbean crime are presented below.
Jimmy Cornnell’s “noonsite” where cruisers report incidents: http://www.noonsite.com/General/Piracy
The Caribbean Safety and Security Network: http://www.safetyandsecuritynet.com/index.html
The U.S. State Department website index of countries: http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1765
In the end, in order to prudently plan a Caribbean cruise, one must utilize all sources of information available on any given destination and then separate the wheat for the chaff in order to make independent decisions on personal comfort levels in light of the risks presented. As the saying goes, “you have to be the Captain of your own ship.”
There is only one more piece of unfinished business. Considering there is no reliable source for general warnings about entering the Rio Dulce, Guatemala, I would be remiss if I did not share with you what I consider to be, based on our experiences, a rudimentary warning and information guide for cruisers planning to visit the Rio Dulce.
XII. GUATEMALA SAFETY AND SECURITY GUIDE FOR CRUISERS
Guatemala is an amazing destination that holds beauty and intrigue unique in the Caribbean. Melissa likes my analogy of a Bengal Tiger. Some people will not stand anywhere near the Tiger’s cage, some people will press their face between the bars for a better look. Thrill seekers want to go inside the cage and get an even closer look at the Tiger. Ultimate risk takers want to pet the Tiger and will do so if given the chance.
Everyone is divided on risk assessment, but there is one thing that all people totally agree on: the Tiger is phenomenally, stunningly beautiful.
And that is Guatemala.
You will never forget a visit to Guatemala. But be forewarned that it is one of the riskier cruising destinations in the Caribbean and the Americas. Guatemala suffers very high murder rates and violence statewide, even throughout its rural areas. Violence happens anywhere anytime.
Nonetheless, thousands of tourists visit Guatemala each year without incident. If you educate yourself about the dynamics of Guatemala and its serious troubles, you will not take any unnecessary chances. Such vigilance can greatly increase the odds of a trouble-free and enjoyable visit.
The general observations and advice below are derived from personal experience, first-hand experiences of friends, and information available from sources such as traveler’s warnings from the U.S. State Department. Do your own homework, but here are a few basics you need to know:
1. Guatemala currently suffers an epidemic of violent crime. Murder is at record levels and still rising. To put it into perspective, Guatemala’s murder rate is eight times that of the U.S.A. and fifteen times that of Nicaragua. Murders are not restricted to local conflicts, or gangs, or inner-cities. Violence occurs statewide. Guatemala is roughly the size of Tennessee. It’s a tiny country, only one-eighth the size of Venezuela and one-tenth the size of Colombia. It is rather unique in that the majority of the population still resides in rural areas, not urban areas.
2. Due to a weak and ineffective police force, severe corruption within the judicial system, and serious instability and corruption within the government post-recent civil war, the citizenry of Guatemala is forced to rely mainly upon self-help. Thus, private security is utilized extensively throughout Guatemala and the Rio Dulce, more so by far than anywhere else we have ever been.
3. It is widely accepted advice that cruisers visiting the Rio Dulce should stay exclusively in marinas with armed guards. To my knowledge, all the marinas on the Rio Dulce provide armed security, but make sure you confirm that when making a reservation and do not stay anywhere that does not provide armed security from dusk to dawn.
4. After the Rio Dulce suffered a terrible season of crime on cruisers in 2008, a new private security patrol went into effect at year-end. There are no police patrols on the Rio. The new private patrol is only for a small stretch of the Rio Dulce where most of the marinas are located. Official language describes the patrols as giving priority to taxpayers [Guatemalans] but “not excluding others.” The project is brand new, is a second attempt after similar efforts failed in 2007, and the new patrol has already been criticized by locals as ineffective “window dressing” to appease tourists. One dinghy theft occurred since the patrol took effect and some locals claim the new security patrols did very little to investigate the crime. A second dinghy incident involving gunfire in February, 2009, resulted in a deplorable security patrol response time of 45 minutes. Another dinghy was stolen just days ago in April, 2009. As such, strong advice still stands: the new security patrol has not proven itself reliable as of yet and one should never anchor out at night on the Rio Dulce. The Rio Dulce is a “lock it or lose it” destination regarding both property and life.
5. Even more important, take note that two different pirate gangs were operating on the Rio Dulce in 2008 and responsible for the murder of a U.S. cruiser at anchor and, in an unrelated incident, the armed robbery of other cruisers also at anchor. Pirates from both gangs were arrested, but all of them were released and are again free and back on the Rio Dulce. Some of the pirates confessed, but it is rumored that a corrupt judge was bribed to free them.
6. When traveling inland, do not let your guard down. The people of Guatemala are extremely poor and, as in all poverty-stricken countries, some people will be on the lookout for an easy payday. Guard your belongings. Scams on buses include people seated behind you pulling your purse or backpack from under your seat and literally passing it around the bus to be rifled through by everyone seated behind you. Or, a local might strike up a conversation to distract you while an accomplice grabs a purse or bag. Also, razors and knives are used to cut bags under your seat and even cut the straps of bags around person’s necks, all without the victim even noticing. The only safe place for your carry-on bag is holding it in your lap.
7. At hotels, ask to see your room before checking in. Inspect both the hotel’s and room’s security. Ask questions. In destinations like Antigua, armed gangs rob small hotels at gunpoint and have been known to empty all the rooms and tie up the occupants. The police do not investigate these crimes and there is little recourse if you are a victim. Choose a hotel with adequate security, good locks on the rooms’ doors, and do not answer your door if an unexpected knock comes after dark. Don’t make a sound and convince the bandits the room is empty.
8. Nighttime in Guatemala is very dangerous. Never travel at night or use your dinghy at night on the Rio Dulce. Many vessels do not use navigation lights and travel at high speeds. Locals have been severely injured and killed in crashes. While inland, your first inclination should be to never walk the streets after dark anywhere in Guatemala. By the time the sun sets, you should be locked inside your secure hotel compound or safe inside your armed marina compound. There are a few exceptions you will learn via local knowledge, but ask several people so that you get realistic advice and not tourism hype. For example, we learned after the fact that we should not have been walking at night in Antigua and got bad initial advice that put us momentarily at greater risk than we are comfortable with.
9. Risks on the Rio Dulce are not limited to piracy. Conflicts and murder over ongoing, chronic land disputes in Guatemala have resulted in tourists and entire police forces being taken hostage on the lower Rio Dulce. The hostages were released unharmed, but it is obviously extremely risky to become involved in such disputes. Thus, even in daylight hours, be perfectly vigilant and avoid crowds.
10. There is a local fear of child-stealing on the Rio Dulce and throughout Guatemala. Tourists innocently talking to children on a river bank got into trouble with a mob of five-hundred locals who quickly assembled when the tourists were suspected of attempting to steal a child. In Guatemala, do not talk to, approach, or photograph children who are not in the presence of an adult you have been formally introduced to and have obtained permission from first. Any interest in any child, however slight, can be misread. Mobs in Guatemala have killed suspected “child stealers.”
11. Vigilante killings occur periodically and are routine in all parts of Guatemala. Absent Rule of Law and with no recourse through the police and courts, everyday citizens have turned to “cleansings” wherein a mob will soak a suspect with phosphorous or gasoline and burn him/her/them alive. Thus, avoid crowds and keep a low profile. Also, hired killers are now operating in Guatemala. Keep your awareness high and if something does not “feel right” about any given location, move on quickly.
12. Conflicts between organized crime and drug smuggling factions result in assassinations that can take place anywhere and anytime. Guatemala is currently involved in significant cocaine smuggling activity and it is reported that between eighty to ninety percent of Colombia’s U.S.A.-bound cocaine passes through Guatemala. Five alleged crime-related assassinations occurred in the Rio Dulce area in hurricane season 2008, one in a popular riverfront bar that was crowded with tourists who became stunned onlookers. In another incident, an automatic weapon battle between Mexican and Guatemalan drug smugglers lasted twenty minutes and left many dead in a small town between the Rio Dulce and Guatemala City.
13. Proactive efforts and avoiding trouble through heightened vigilance is paramount. If you are the victim of crime in Guatemala there is extremely little chance that criminals will be convicted even if caught red-handed. There is virtually no justice other than vigilantism to be had in Guatemala at present. You can be killed for attempting to prosecute the criminals responsible for your harm. Thus, avoid trouble at all cost.
14. Buy a TIGO cell phone. They are dirt-cheap. For less than thirty dollars you can buy a new phone and buy scratch-off cards to add more time to the phone when you need it. Put all the safety numbers you need into your phone’s memory so that you will not be alone and without a way to call for help in an emergency. Get all the numbers for your marina, including personal cell numbers for the manager and the dock master. Also, input numbers for the U.S. Embassy and Guatemala’s INGUAT toll fee numbers for tourists. Guard your phone and make sure pickpockets don’t steal it. INGUAT’s 24 hour tourist number is 1-801-2464-8281. Also, the U.S. State Department offers up-to-date information regarding travel security conditions. Call 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the U.S.A. or if outside the U.S. call 1-202-501-4444. The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala is located at Avenida Reforma 7-01, Zone 10, Guatemala City. You can call the American Citizen Services Unit by phone at 011-(502)2326-4405, by fax at (502)2331-3804. The after-hours emergency number is 011-502-2331-2354 or (502)2331-2354. Keep all this information in several places. Aside from inputing all these numbers in your phone, I recommend each person carry a copy of their passport with all this information written on the back. Fold the copy flat and keep it inconspicuously in a back pocket independently of other articles and valuables on your person.
15. INGUAT provides earnest hard-working support for tourists in trouble and they will be your best Guatemalan friend locally in the event of an incident. INGUAT’s efforts can only go so far, however, within the failed police and judicial systems of Guatemala. But, friends who found themselves in trouble reported to me that INGUAT is a trustworthy organization that will be loyal and do everything possible within Guatemala’s oft futile justice system. And, of course, the U.S. Embassy will provide assistance as well.
16. Time your arrival into the Rio Dulce from sea so as to cross the shallow bar at the entrance of the Rio Dulce very early. Anchor off the town of Livingston at the mouth of the Rio Dulce and hail the yacht agent Raul on the VHF. Also, hail the Port Captain. Be anchored and hailing on the VHF by 08:00. They will arrange for a water-taxi to bring officials out to your vessel. Once that has been accomplished, you will have to go in either by your own dinghy or by water taxi and wait for Raul to take your passports to Immigrations and to pick up your papers from Customs. Raul’s office is very close to the shore and easy to find. Raul is very affable and will make you feel welcome.
17. Scam artists may approach you while you wait for Raul. One who took advantage of me was the water taxi driver who brought the officials out to our boat. Once back on land, he claimed that I owed him for the taxi fare. I had no local currency. He offered to show me where an ATM was. I asked how much I owed and he insisted “whatever you think is fair.” I paid him about seven bucks and returned to wait for Raul. Upon Raul’s return, I discovered that Raul pays the launch fees and that it was all a scam. Raul called the Port Captain and complained. The bottom line: nothing was done because I decided what amount to pay, not the scam artist. My interpretation of what was fair could have been nothing. So, it was my fault to have paid according to the Port Captain. Upon returning to my dinghy, a local on the dock demanded money for watching my dinghy (it was not mentioned when I tied up). Turns out that was not a scam. It’s hard to tell in Guatemala. Go slow; ask questions.
18. You should be cleared into Guatemala well before noon. Time is of the essence. Pull anchor, enter the river, and get going. It will take several hours to get upriver to your marina. You will enter a canyon and gorge area that is as wondrous as anything you have ever seen. The Rio will look peaceful and sirens and mermaids will call to you. Your eyes will not detect anything risky-looking at all. Seasoned cruisers who love to anchor out will not detect any risky vibe at all. They will want to anchor and their gut will tell them it is one-hundred-percent ok. Do not make the mistake of thinking you can "eyeball" Guatemala and size it up. You cannot. It is impossible to do. Resist the urge to anchor and head to your marina where you already have a reservation and get installed well before dark.
19. Navigating the Rio is straightforward, but be aware of two things: 1) locals in small fishing boats have been known to cut in front of and try to force vessels into shallows and run them aground. Thereafter, they will demand a fee to pull the grounded vessel out of the shallows. Thus stay well clear of them and do not assume you can pass closely without mishap. Give them a wide berth and slow down or stop before being herded out of the main channel by any of them; and, 2) there is a submerged and totally hidden old channel marker at the mouth of the El Golfete. Ask Raul about it. He forgot to mention it to us and we missed the obstruction via dumb luck.
20. Do not deviate or be distracted from the mission of making it into your marina on day one. Do not accept any local advice, trust any cruising guide or local boaters, or give the slightest credence whatsoever to any information that would suggest any course of action other than one-hundred percent vigilance and a non-stop daylight passage directly to your marina. Thereafter, you can exhale, relax and meet people in your marina and elsewhere on the Rio. Some of them will be very eager to fill you in on the latest current affairs in both Guatemala and on the Rio Dulce. Things change very quickly in Guatemala. Many serious crimes go unreported by the media and crime information is aggressively suppressed. In 2008 it was almost impossible for word-of mouth and gossip to keep pace with Rio Dulce crime. So, take your time and get your bearings. Talk to both local boaters and visiting cruisers on the Rio in order to get a broader feel for what is actually going on. Once you become adequately informed and feel you have established your own risk assessment, then take appropriate precautions based on that and go for it! Head out there and pet the“Beautiful Tiger” that is Guatemala!
As they say in the lawyer business: “We finally threw that skunk on the table and got it over with.” The crime and cruising issue is now dispensed with as far as I am concerned!
Hey, wait a minute! Someone is surely asking WHAT ABOUT GUNS ON BOARD, BUDDY?! YOU DIDN’T ADDRESS THE ISSUE OF FIREARMS! Well, that is easy. Bring a gun if you want to and then deal with the complications that guns automatically bring aboard your yacht when entering foreign counties that have varying laws regarding the legality of weapons on board.
The debate regarding guns on board is a hot one. Tremendous volumes of argument have been written about it. But really, it is a "no brainer." Your decision on whether to carry a gun aboard will be made alone in the end anyway. We did not bring guns. But many of my cruising friends brought stacks of guns. One guy has a rolling suitcase stuffed with weapons, including an AK47!
It’s all up to you and you alone. So, my opinion does not mean anything anyway.
In closing, this has been a tough report to write. I cannot have any greater, or more sincere wish than for the country of Guatemala and the wonderful folks on the Rio Dulce to achieve Rule of Law and real peace. It is long overdue and the people there do not deserve their current fate. The same goes for Venezuela and troubled spots in the Eastern Caribbean as well, of course. I love the wonderfully diverse Caribbean.
We all knew about Venezuela's troubles already because it is so often in the news. But, odds are that you were completely shocked to learn of the true depths of trouble in today’s Guatemala.
I hope that more people speak out and bring Guatemala’s plight to the attention of the world. I hope that the media will expose Guatemala to more and more “sunlight” to help “disinfect” the persistent plague of corruption, organized crime, murder and violence that still predominates there. But, alas, it is a tiny little country of little political and economic interest to the rest of the world.
There is only one single statistic that will signal true improvements in Guatemala and Rio Dulce security: a tremendous rise in criminal prosecution rates. As long as criminals are set free and crimes like murder are intentionally ignored by the authorities, nothing will change.
As for the Rio Dulce’s personality, I genuinely hope that a non-defensive and non-confrontational, honest and open dialogue eventually develops on the Rio Dulce that fosters the open disclosure of ALL crimes and allows visiting cruisers to actively promote cruiser safety and security without being harshly castigated and asked to leave.
There is nothing more I can say, nor care to say about any of this. I have nothing more to offer on the subject of crime and cruising. I respect those who are diametrically opposed to my way of thinking on the subject and wish them great success and good luck while cruising their way. We all need to live within our own comfort zones and "live and let live" is the best advice.
Nothing I have said is intended to be a personal affront to anyone, but there will always be someone who unfortunately takes things that way. There will probably be hurt feelings (a.k.a. anger) in regard to this report amongst a few friends and a few people I truly admire. I am sorry about that.
In fact, I thought long and hard about this report and considered not even posting it. But, then I thought about how far all of you have come with us on this adventure and how I have been completely forthright in reporting what Melissa and I have experienced along the way be it good, bad, or ugly.
All that said, Cheer Up! There is GOOD NEWS! Now we can move on to the attractive features of Guatemala. There are quite a few fascinating people there, amazing vistas to see, and much more to experience in Guatemala!
The next report will be a fabulous journey up the Rio Dulce and then inland into Guatemala to experience unparalleled natural beauty. Mayan Temples soar over the jungle canopy and tremendous volcanoes rim deepwater lakes. Canyons create stunning natural cathedrals over rivers and volcanic mountain ranges provide breathtaking vistas.
And the whole of it is made all the more spiritual when viewed against the intriguing mystery of the ancient Mayans who established tremendous societies in the jungles of Guatemala. There’s simply no other place like it on earth.
So stay tuned, in the next full trip report we will turn our focus back to the fun and interesting aspects of cruising and highlight captivating experiences that we enjoyed in Guatemala.
Addendum to Guatemala Part One: Final Updates
The following information has come to light after the posting of PART ONE:
New Safety and Security Efforts and Information on the Rio Dulce
A. New internet source for up-to-date safety and security information
Local volunteers on the Rio Dulce have taken on the task of creating and moderating a local internet forum from the Rio Dulce. Persons interested in visiting the Rio Dulce can obtain current information and no-nonsense answers to specific safety questions.
It’s is not a chat board, nor place to engage in controversy. Newcomers will not get verbally attacked for posing hard questions and/or raising unpleasant safety and security topics.
The mission of the safety and security forum is described as “all business” and designed to be a clearing-house for current security information that will help keep cruisers up-to-date on developing security issues.
Of course, the value of the effort will be determined solely by the willingness of the creators to collect and provide raw security information without the temptation of promotional filtering. The efforts are new, and like anything else, they will surely evolve.
Here is a link to the new forum: http://riodulcechisme.com/bbs/viewforum.php?f=33
The forum is titled the “Ground Truth” and is a brand new effort by concerned and conscientious local boaters and business people who are undertaking an effort to provide proactive security information to visiting cruisers and tourists.
B. Onsite written information on safety and security
Printed written material is now supplied to all cruisers at the mouth of the Rio during the check-in procedure.
These materials include a map with safety and security information, including any hazards to navigation. Said materials will allegedly be designed to ensure that all newcomers are provided with all basic security information necessary to tremendously increase the odds that they will have a wonderful and trouble-free stay on the Rio Dulce.
C. Security Patrols
The upper Rio Dulce is now patrolled 24/7 by private security. You can peruse the current map of coverage on one of the threads at the new Ground Truth forum (linked above).
These patrol efforts are being paid for in significant part by local businesses and the major marinas in the upper Rio Dulce area.
Here is a list of the major marinas on the Rio Dulce that are funding the security patrols:
Catamaran Hotel and Marina
Nana Juana Hotel and Marina
Hacienda Tijax Hotel and Marina
Bruno’s Hotel and Marina
Monkey Bay Marina
These businesses are providing real financial support for tangible and substantial measures that are surely ushering in the dawn of real change. They are to be commended for pulling together and bringing such positive change. Thus, one might do well to consider supporting those particular businesses during a visit to the Rio Dulce
There is talk of a second patrol boat to handle the lower Rio Dulce and address the continuing problems with dinghy theft and boat burglary at Livingston.
Also, feedback suggests that the business of the Rio Dulce have finally gotten the attention of top government officials who are now cognizant of the gravity of the past problems on the Rio Dulce. Things are in the works, and huge amounts of genuine effort and industry are being expended to provide true confidence in the new security of the Rio Dulce.
The bottom line: great people on the Rio Dulce are doing great things.
But change is never easy. It is reported by reputable sources that some of the local gringos were initially opposed to the security patrols because, while the patrols brought better security to visitors and tourists on the Rio Dulce, the security presence also brought the enforcement of ALL rules and regulations on the Rio. Thus, it took away part of the “anything goes” Wild West that some of the long-time resident gringos love best about the Rio.
For example, Guatemala’s navigational and boating laws are the same as back here in the USA. Life jackets, anchor lights, navigation lights, Rules of the Road while navigating, and being responsible for one’s own wake . . . all the parameters of safe boating in the USA are applicable on the Rio too. The new safety patrol’s job mandates the enforcement of ALL law on the Rio, and rightly so.
Thankfully, I am told that many of the initial detractors have "seen the light" and are now supporting the patrols for the most part. And that is all very good news indeed.
D. The Last Word on 2008 Rio Dulce Security Issues (posted September 2009)
In Guatemala Part One above, we related our 2008 crime impressions, including fallout from the Dryden’s and Parsons’ piracy incidents. The Parsons informed us during their interview for Latitudes and Attitudes Magazine that the armed pirate gang that robbed them was released, despite compelling evidence and a confession by one of the pirates.
The Parsons also stated that they were told by officials that the pirates in the Dryden murder case were released too.
Something remarkable must have subsequently occurred in the Dryden case, however, because now, almost a year later, a Guatemala’s news agency, Presna Libre, reported that on or about July 24, 2009, the two arrested suspects in the Dryden case were convicted and sentenced to 30 years for the murder of Daniel Dryden, 20 years for the attempted murder of Nancy Dryden, and 10 years for aggravated robbery. You can read the article (in Spanish) here:
While surely delivering unexpectedly good news, the tiny 100 word article also illustrates, however, the extreme difficulty in obtaining accurate and comprehensive news concerning events in Guatemala.
For example, the article incorrectly states that the Dryden attack took place at Livingston, over fifteen miles downriver from where it actually occurred.
Also, there is no explanation as to what happened procedurally in the Dryden case during the entire last year. There is no comment as to whether or not the sentences are to run consecutively or concurrently, or whether parole is an option.
Moreover, there is no mention of the sentencing guidelines and whether or not maximum sentences were handed out. For example, first-degree murder in Louisiana (the intentional killing of a human being while committing armed robbery), results in the death penalty, or life imprisonment without parole.
No information is offered as to whether these two convicted criminals were the principals or accessories to murder and attempted murder. Basically, the Prensa Libre piece is a headline, not an article, and it leaves many mysteries.
Regardless, when viewed through the lens of the “broken windows” theory of crime and the “tipping points” of crime, the Dryden case criminal convictions signal hope for a positive shift toward Rule of Law and better security on the Rio Dulce.
This news positively affects our final impressions about crime and our visit to Guatemala in 2008 and we wanted to share the encouraging information. Please take note, however, that “come what may” in Guatemala and the Rio Dulce from here on out, good or bad, we will provide no further commentary whatsoever about Guatemala. We are not journalists, so please look to other sources for news of recent developments in Guatemala.
In the wake of our extensive crime and cruising trip report, it is timely to specifically remind readers that the Indigo Moon site is not a “news agency” or a “cruising guide” and has never claimed to be. When preparing the Guatemala report, we looked to and cited professional journalists' works to try and understand the troubles in Guatemala and suggest you do the same.
As for the Indigo Moon site, we write a simple, personal cruising commentary and openly share our personal experiences, nothing more.
We don’t have sponsors. We don’t have paying subscribers. We don’t undertake campaigns for, or against, anyone or anything. We neither endorse nor oppose any causes. We do not “design” this website to create any effect, nor do we produce it for an audience.
The sole mission of our site has been utterly selfish: to record our true personal impressions and experiences, both good and bad. By so doing, our cruising record remains genuine and impervious to outside pressures.
Promotional websites with advertising, cruising guides with advertising, magazines with advertising, and internet commentaries by persons with special interests at stake are all crafted “products” to some degree.
We, on the other hand, do not make a product and are not selling or promoting anything.
The only so-called “advice” we can suggest in passing is to do your own homework and decide for yourself as to whether or not any activity is within your comfort zone.
Thus, please keep things calibrated.
If Melissa and I are lucky enough to grow old and gray together, we can look back on this web site and it will be an independent, unflinching record of our personal experiences and personal impressions, not some counterfeit cruising-pabulum fantasy designed to sooth an audience or accomplish some diplomatic mission.
That said we are genuinely happy to share our website with those of you who are interested in it for what it is and perhaps, more importantly, for what it is not.
Feedback from the Edge
Finally, as you might have guessed, I received various feedback about the Parsons’ interview in Latitudes and Attitudes magazine. People outside the Rio Dulce appreciated the article and feedback was positive across the board.
A few folks on the Rio Dulce were very bitter about the Parsons’ story seeing daylight. One guy posted on line that the article was “written by a self admitted ‘Louisiana Lawyer’ who obviously capitalized on his friends who were boarded to gain his fifteen minutes of fame.”
Not all folks on the Rio Dulce shared such hostile sentiments. One Rio Dulce boater wrote:
“I read Buddy's article in Lats & Atts and thought it was well written and unbiased.”
I also received feedback about the Indigo Moon web site’s PART ONE on Guatemala and Crime and Cruising:
From a Rio Dulce local boater: “Your Part 1 trip report was an excellent and comprehensive read about Guatemala (et al). As a 4 yr 'River Liver' on the Rio Dulce I'd say it should be a Must Read for anyone considering coming . . .”
There were “middle of the road” responses from the Rio, such as:
“The general feeling here on the Rio is that it [the Indigo Moon update] was a well written article. Not fair… but well written and thought provoking.”
In the end, I was happy to see many more positive and rational comments coming out of the Rio Dulce compared to the few personal attacks upon me (those are sure to take place when such a stimulating installment is written).
In fact, one boater and small marina operator/owner wrote: “You are welcome at my house [on the Rio Dulce] anytime.”
The bottom line is that the overall feedback helped confirm my personal opinion that the majority of the folks on the Rio Dulce are really genuine, good people who are concerned about cruisers’ safety.
To a person, all Indigo Moon website feedback from sources outside of the Rio Dulce was extremely positive and many people expressed sincere thanks for my willingness to write about all my experiences, not just the fun ones.
It turned out that one word was prevalent in the feedback describing PART ONE: “fascinating”
A few responses were more than passing comments.
One person liked the report, but took issue with historians’ oft-cited proposition that United Fruit Company and the U.S.A are to blame for the Civil War in Guatemala and had this to say about the trip report:
“[The Indigo Moon report is] real food for thought and the writer has put a lot of thought into processing what happened in the river in 2008 and also to reactions of the boaters who live there....it is a very thought- provoking read.....I do take issue with the idea that United Fruit/the USA is the bad guy....President Barrios and others actively promoted Guatemala for European and US development and the Germans were actively recruited as well. Germans established the large scale coffee fincas [plantations] at the end of the 19th century, for example. Guatemala did not have the capital or engineering skills at the time to build railroads, bridges, an infrastructure or an export economy. It took foreign talent to do that. It is historical fact. Guatemala is just one of many countries that once begged for foreign capital and development including professionals of all sorts from foreign countries and then certain elements want to ‘liberate’ the industries so developed.”
We receive emails from around the world, literally. Our website software shows that new viewers come from a plethora of sources, many just stumbling upon the site by accident and others by direct referral.
You just never know.
I sure did not expect THIS feedback: a former cruiser wrote. She arrived in Guatemala via the Rio Dulce with her husband in 1999, aboard their sailboat.
She fell in love with Guatemala and now lives with her husband inland in the city of Antigua, Guatemala.
Here is the unexpected part: she is a psychologist and offered her professional views regarding my layman’s opinions about the potential applicability of the theory of cognitive dissonance to social dynamics on the Rio Dulce.
I found her remarks so interesting, I wrote and asked if I could publish her writings and she said yes! I also invited her to write more and to explain what she loved about Guatemala.
Here are her responses:
I am originally from Texas though I have lived in New England, Chicago (grad school), Ga., and Florida. I am a retired academic psychologist//college and university administrator.
We bought our 45' sloop in '95 and my husband refitted it for long distance cruising. We retired and left Ga. in 1997. Like you, we found the cruising community to be wonderful. People we met from Mexico southward all helped each other and we all knew our lives might depend upon one another.
When we were at Isla Mujeres in particular, the cruising community was wonderful. People shared charts to copy in Cancun, waypoints for reef entrances, taught each other skills (my husband learned to tear down and rebuild our dingy motor from another boater)....everyone was just wonderful.
When we entered the Rio Dulce we hung around with friends we had already made in Mexico, but we didn't get a big feeling of openness from "River Livers" as you call them. At Mario's there was a couple running the place that had run it for years: Daphne and Barry. Daphne was the best marina operator we have ever met anywhere and famous throughout the western Caribbean for her hospitality. When you left your boat it was well cared for and when you returned if you called ahead she had her help strip and wash your linens, clean the inside of boat and you came back to a boat as clean or cleaner than you left it (free and included in your marina fee!).
Barry would drive into the capital twice a month for gourmet goodies like croissants, delicious filet mignons, gourmet produce and the like. A cruiser's dream come true after so many months of a ship's stores diet.
There were thefts in the river of dingy engines, even then in 1999. It has been a going concern for a long time...a cottage industry it seems.
Anyone who had a newish Yamaha had to REALLY be careful. Our engine was a beat up and rebuilt over and over again Johnson but my husband wrestled it onto the deck and chained it down to a stanchion block whenever we anchored out anyway.
We found the river to be beautiful...a tropical paradise beyond our expectations and readings about it in the cruising guides and magazines. But we were dismayed by all the thefts. At Isla Mujeres we did not use locks on our dingy, no one did. We left them at the dingy dock and they were always safe.
I am an amateur artist and other cruisers had shown me photos of Antigua. We arrived on the Rio Dulce in late March of 1999 and we were shocked at the heat. We later realized March and April are the hottest months. We anchored out to have breeze but each day it got hotter and I can't take too much heat.
After a couple of weeks on the hook my husband put me on a shuttle to Antigua and got the boat ready for storage at Mario's. After a week or so he came to Antigua. I painted watercolors and adored the town.
Then we fell in love with a local family and got involved with other local families. The cook and the maid at the house we stayed at more or less "adopted" us and had us to their homes to get to know their families and the owner's family included us in their social life with the old families of Antigua. So we knew people from the lowest echelons to the highest, including multimillionaires of the ruling class.
It was tremendous....a six month period we will never forget.
Our plan had been to head off to Mexico after staying in Antigua a couple of weeks but that never happened....we were hypnotized by the people we met, the places to paint and the research library CIRMA in Antigua. I researched history topics, etc. and got to know many older people in the family and friends of the family who had LIVED the stuff I was reading about.
I got the living history stories from both sides and getting to know some of the upper class what I learned from them refuted some of the leftist stuff I was reading that is so popular about Guatemala.
One has to examine both sides of the culture and we realized that as educated N. Americans we had a lot in common with the "ruling elite" that is so criticized. They are educated in the Western tradition (mostly at Marroquin University or American and British universities). They share our values and knowledge of the world and history.
Of course the poor here do not have such educations or values or attitudes. Mostly they lack problem solving/analytical abilities of the most basic kind...they have little concept of cause and effect, even the ones who complete what we call middle school which is the highest most indigenes can hope to go.
Teaching is mostly by rote like one sees at the Islamic madrasas...chanting memorization is what passes for public education here and most private education is the same. Thus a person may be able to use math but can simultaneously adopt the belief that it is best to use a bush branch to switch a child's legs to exorcise fevers...I kid you not.
I could have written a novel or a cultural history of Antigua/Guatemala I had so much material and so many sources. For an academic, it was a feast for the mind like no other I have ever experienced. We, and especially I, was hooked!
We moved here permanently in 2004 (after coming back yearly for several months each year even though we still had the boat...we flew in from Fla.). We began searching for a house.
Antigua real estate is very pricey as it is all going/gone commercial. The only options in town at anything like a reasonable price to own are condos which we did not want. They are perfect for seasonal residents as they can just lock up and go away but they have no gardens, views nor much space.
So we began looking outside Antigua. We had rented all over Antigua and environs which made it easier. We finally found a rustic but not too old house on a decent lot with enough room for a flower garden and great views of the volcanoes which is what we were looking for.
My husband had been a building contractor early in life. We were lucky to find some good workers and we struggled along in our slowly growing Spanish. We have another two years to finish the house. The first year was hell, living on one room while the rest were torn up but after that is has gotten to be fun...our hobby. When we finish we will have a comfortable house.
The crime on the Rio Dulce is a taste of what it is like in the countryside. We have had to build 18'-20' walls although we already had 8-12' walls...at great expense. Although we have high walls and now razor wire and electrified we still need two guard dogs and metal bars on all openings of the house inside the walls.
When we first came we felt Antigua was safe and the countryside where we bought was as well....not for long. As we have lived here we have known more and more people who have been "hit" by burglaries and some armed robberies. We know of one person in a shoot out where they lived but killed two Guatemalans among the four invading his house in broad daylight. We know dozens of stories and more each year.
As a psychologist, I am well familiar with cognitive dissonance and you are right, it explains much of people's reaction to the crime here.
In the honeymoon stage the newcomer does not want to let in ANY thought of the crime here. The honeymoon stage can last for several years...it depends on how much the person gets to know people who HAVE been victimized.
At first one feels the crime stories are exaggerated or it only happens to people "out there" not in their close circle of friends. People at that stage can become rabid in their defense of Guatemala. I don't think I have ever been rabid, but I used to perceive that Guatemala was much safer than I now do.
Most tourists are in for a week and so are unlikely to have problems unless they are terminally stupid like flashing money and goodies which I see all the time...true incredible stupidity...gold jewelry worn on the street, purses put on chairs in restaurants by windows. For tourists who have never traveled anywhere outside the USA, they seem to act as if Guatemala were Disneyland.....all quaint and cute.
We were not that naive even in the beginning having traveled widely in Mexico. Some of these people have a sharp and fast education in Third World hassles and petty crime. Most make it out w/o incident as they are here briefly.
We figure and we have read, that it costs a homeowner 10%-20% of the cost of their home for security...walls, barbed wire, metal grills, extra locks, guard dogs and in many cases a guardian. We have added levels of security to our house to give us time to get help here should we be invaded while home.
They have to first get over the high walls and electric razor wire, then deal with the dogs, then break in the barred windows or doors and finally we are building a "safe room" to hold our pricey entertainment stuff when we get it at the end, and to head to that room as a final layer of security.
However, we know our vulnerabilities....we make a big show to outsiders of barking dogs etc. We KNOW people would like to break in here but they are going to have to work hard at it and we let it be known we have little cash on hand. We pay everyone by check. Our money comes from the USA to a local bank just once a month, in hopes no one thinks they can get a bundle by kidnapping one of us. It is a siege mentality and we know it.
It has happened slowly over time over a decade to get from the "la, la, la...isn't this place heaven" stage to the "siege stage."
We enjoy our lives here. We could sell up and go back to the USA (and many do), but we adore the climate, the challenge of living here, our many friends, the beauty all around us....we have learned to be careful with Guatemalans who work for us...we have been lucky as ours have been good SO FAR.
But we don't tell them our plans ahead of time and if we ever go on a long trip we will have to have someone stay at the house so it is lived in...one cannot go away for extended periods or one's house will be emptied of everything...Antigua, the Rio Dulce, Lake Atitlan....doesn't matter...anywhere in Guatemala. Luckily there is an American Legion group here and plenty of veterans on limited budgets whom we know who can housesit and are comfortable with security issues and guns....
Life here is not for the meek and mild...that is for sure...but to us, for now, it is far superior to life in the states. My husband says we could always sell up and move to a high rise in Miami watch the waves roll in and drink ourselves to death (he is kidding about that part)...but for us NOW, life in the USA is too dull. Of course that opinion would change in a heartbeat were we to be kidnapped, shot or anything like that.
You are most welcome to use my comments with or w/o attribution, it doesn't matter to me.....I can't think of anything I said I wouldn't say in public in front of strangers......
I do wish you luck with your publications and I would love to contribute to your article on the positives on Guatemala. Obviously I love the place or I wouldn't put up with the negatives.
There seem to be many theories about the causes of all the crime here. Some of them I can think of offhand are:
1) The Civil Wart scarred the people with terror and the current crime is a legacy of the violence perpetrated against them. I personally think this is hogwash. Many of the gang members involved in crime are 18 and were 6 yrs old or so when the Peace Accords were signed. The slaughters were largely in remote and small places, so very few people would be bearing the psychological "scars" of witnessing the violence first hand...certainly not the large numbers of people obviously involved in gangs and crime here....statistically that argument makes no sense AND some of the gang members are children of refugees who went to the USA (L.A. mainly) and got involved in gangs in the states.
2) Another theory popular with academics at the moment: Most of Latin America is psychologically scarred culturally at the macro level (i.e. the entire society) from the white man's rapacious destruction/influence upon indigenous culture. Choose the white man one prefers: Americans, Spaniards, etc. I think this argument is hogwash too when offered as an explanation for personal choice of crime as a method of getting one's needs met. I think that this favorite argument of current scholarship on Latin America at most universities is utter crap. Everyone in the world can claim to be part of some historically aggrieved group. I am Scot (and part British) generations ago....I could hate the British and blame them for my family having to leave Scotland when they robbed my border family of its lands in the late 1600's. My family lost its home in the American Civil War as well...either of those or other historical grievances would hardly serve as explanation for me deciding to go on some thieving/killing spree....
3) A third theory explains crime at the more personal level as being a product of poverty. It posits that people are "so poor they have to steal"....I think that holds no water either. Though there is poverty, I think the overwhelming majority of poor people in Guatemala do NOT adopt a life of crime to try to meet their needs. I think in large part "poverty" is a rationalization. If one examines the things stolen, the majority is NOT food or basic necessities but are small easily transported and sold items. I have a close friend who is a Catholic lay missionary. While she is Asian/American, she actually LOOKS Guatemalan. She told me she was at mass in a town near Antigua where she was visiting one day and in the priest's homily he actually said: "It is NOT a sin to steal from the rich and the foreigners....they have so much and you have so little." I would not believe this coming from anyone else's mouth but this woman has served the Catholic community here for nearly two decades. This is the kernel of liberation theology.....I personally am of the opinion that it is a deep insult to poor honest Guatemalans who make do, get by, and who live honorable lives without resorting to theft. I think those Guatemalans are in the majority.
So....why all the crime in Guatemala?
As a psychologist I believe each person IS influenced by their culture and their environment of course. I think that while there is a culture of thieving and that anything left open, unlocked, in plain view, lying around or whatever WILL be stolen more readily here than in most parts of the USA and there is a general expectation on the part of Guatemalans that this is normal behavior, the majority of people tend to be honest in most situations.
One of the questions on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory [MMPI] is a forced choice: "I have never stolen anything in my life." True/false. It is one of the questions used to determine if the test taker is giving "socially desirable" answers...essentially one of the "lying scale" questions to weed out con-artists/anti-social persons. This test [MMPI] is used by clinical psychologists as the most reliable diagnostic tool for psychoses and neuroses. EVERYONE almost without exception HAS at least as a child "nicked" something.
If they have a conscience and are honest they will admit to having taken a towel from a hotel or a candy from store as a child SOMETHING. So psychologists view thieving on a continuum: those who will take matchbooks intended as advertisements anyway (very few people would view taking those as stealing), ashtrays NOT intended as advertisements, and on up the scale into violent crime involving theft such as boat/home invasions and being willing to injure or kill someone in order to steal.
I think many factors play a part e.g. family background in terms of what one sees one’s family of origin doing plays a more significant role than society in general. Action values (i.e. what the family DOES) are more important than espoused values...social desirability.
Even in Guatemala, everyone knows culturally it is "wrong" to steal whether they are religious or not, whether they are indigena, ladino or Hispanola. So, espoused values count for little or nothing. I DO think the culture is far less law abiding/rule obeying than the USA/Canada/Europe.
I KNOW that to be the case from long observation and experience but still some individuals choose to remain generally honest and they are in the majority though that majority here I do believe may be smaller than in many other countries.
So.... it’s all food for thought. I am sure my ideas on all this will continue to develop as I live here. But you will definitely do a service to boaters to warn them that the culture here is very, very different than many other cruising areas.....
As for law in Guatemala, one would think from the laws passed that Guatemala is one of the most forward-thinking liberal countries in the world. You should read their labor laws: no pregnant or nursing mother can be fired; there are reams of legislated holidays; and, there is an entire booklet of laws we buy every year so we can stay strictly inside the law with our workers.
No one abides by these laws except gringos and large corporations . . . no one.
Laws are treated as "suggestions" in Guatemalan and most everyone lithely lives their lives ignoring them all. Traffic law enforcement is a joke here as is almost ALL law enforcement. The legislators busily pass reams and reams of "laws" that are totally meaningless.
Really enjoyed your site....
Sybil Francis, Ph.D.
And more, Sybil was kind enough to write a second time and delineate what she loves about living in Antigua, Guatemala:
This is why I love Guatemala (in spite of its problems):
The climate is sublime where we live on the skirt of Volcan Agua near Antigua. In Central America, altitude is everything. We have year-round spring weather. We got so accustomed to living outdoors in the free air on a boat for so many years that the idea of being shut up in a house running heat or a/c is more than we can bear. We have built patios and terraces all over our house. The outside has received far more attention than the inside. We are outdoors most of the day on covered terraces, reading, writing, painting, whatever....we have replicated some of what we loved about living aboard a boat.
We are able to have year-round flowers in our garden and we can more readily afford here the things that make a beautiful garden. Also the volcanic soil will grow anything and the plants we can grow include plants from temperate zones to tropical. We have limes and tangerines from our trees and could have oranges, coffee, etc. We removed those trees for more ornamentals as fruit is so cheap here.
3) COST OF LIVING
Overall it is better than anywhere in the U.S.A. This section likely will not be of any interest to cruisers but you might want to know yourself.
Although the land is pricey where we live and building materials cost as much as in the USA (in earthquake country one must use lots of rebar) resulting in USA home prices, property taxes are a new phenomenon and only cost about $80 a year no matter how grand the house.
Electricity costs more per kilowatt hour here than in the U.S.A., BUT one does not have A/C or a furnace and generally uses less electricity than in the USA. We do have fireplaces and enjoy a wood fire about 10 times a year but they are not strictly necessary. One can easily get by with no heat or temperature control outside of clothing.
Propane gas –
Most cooking is done with propane gas and we have on demand gas water heaters and have a gas clothes dryer and a gas stove...gas costs less here than electricity. We buy it in 100 pound tanks since we use it for so many things.
We personally use a satellite dish system emanating from Mexico to get US channels (CBS from L.A.) and movie channels like HBO, etc. It costs about 10% less than in the U.S.A.
Computer service –
We use Turbonet on a hard telephone line from Telgua, one of the Guatemalan phone companies. It offers the best speed available: about 850mhz usually. It is not as good as the U.S.A., BUT so much better than what used to be available. We have in the past used "highspeed" wireless but it is not as fast as what we now have. Cost is a tad less than in the U.S.A.
Car transportation –
Our annual vehicle tax is $100 but is more than the usual because it is a van. Car tax is less. There is a VAT tax on car purchases. Different models of cars like Hyundai, Toyota etc. are imported here than in the U.S.A...sometimes the engines are lower powered as Guatemalans are more concerned with operating costs than power in their vehicles. Gasoline and diesel cost about 20% MORE here than in the U.S.A. but distances are not as great for most purposes and speeds are lower (as they have to be in mountainous areas) so one burns less fuel for the distance traveled as well. WE put only about 3,000 miles per year on our vehicle. We fill our tank with diesel about once a month! BUT were one to live outside Guatemala City and commute into the city (a horrific thought with the traffic congestion) commuting costs would be high.
Any labor costs are of course far lower than in the U.S.A. We personally have three workers helping to construct our house. We pay about 10% OVER the top of the scale per worker's level. We do so to salve our conscience that we are not exploiting them and we do demand honesty and punctuality and good quality work for that price. Middle class Guatemalans resent gringos paying higher wages and say we spoil them (no one knows what WE pay...this is a general statement). We all have to live with our consciences: to each his own.
Household items –
When we first lived here we lived simply and our living costs were much lower. After a few years one wants decent things...a washer, a dryer; decent dishes, pots and pans....a comfortable chair.....creature comforts. They cost MORE in Guatemala because they are imported and have a 17% import VAT tacked onto the price.
Medical Care –
In general private medical care in Guatemala is good. For routine illnesses and even surgeries done at a private hospital the medical care is SUPERIOR to the USA. Patients receive far more attention. Medical doctors receive good educations, nurses are not trained at the RN level but rather are more like nurses’ aides or licensed practical nurses in the U.S.A., BUT they are far more attentive than U.S.A. nurses can be. We know this because my husband was an E.R. nurse before retiring (his last career) and I taught nursing students and others psychology. I also administered a college nurses’ aides program (along with many other college programs at the same time). We know whereof we speak. Costs are of course much lower than in the U.S.A. One would not want specialized highly technical surgery in Guatemala (organ transplants, open heart surgery, limb replacement surgery...most of these are not even attempted in Guatemala but patients with the money fly to Miami for treatment). Routine things are fine. Doctors do home visits for $12-20 USD!
Meds are far cheaper. Many drugs can be purchased w/o prescriptions.
Routine dental care is good and low cost. We once flew down here from the U.S.A. just so my husband could have partials/bridge work. In the U.S.A. they wanted $4,000.00 for upper and lower work while in Antigua it cost us $400.00. The difference paid for a month's stay in an apartment, our airfare, and a vacation. It took two weeks.
Plastic surgery: I have not had any done but I have friends here who have...things from Botox to full facelifts and they look good. And of course cost less but, one should research the credentials of any doctor, dentist or surgeon here.
4) Overall quality of life FOR US is superior to the USA
This is totally dependant upon what one wants to do with one's time. We spend our time socializing with friends ( Antigua in particular offers a wide range of cultural events) mostly in private homes now though we sometimes go to restaurants. There is a gringo breakfast every Thursday at Cafe Condessa which my husband helped organize and nurtures. It meets at 9:00 a.m. and ranges from 10 people to 20+. It is a totally informal group, no rules; no donations; no reason for being except to get together and travelers are welcome. The social life in Antigua can be busy or one can be a recluse and everything in between. There are a large number of couples who are Guatemalan/American which gives one an entree into Guatemalan social groups as well if one wants that. We did, in fact we scrupulously avoided gringos the first several years we were here wanting to get to know Guatemalans. Now we have American, Guatemalan, British, Irish, German, and Canadian friends/acquaintances....and in almost every group there are Guatemalans...it makes for a lively mix of people.
We read (the American Legion sponsors a small but decent English library). Annual membership fees are low. There is also CIRMA, the Central American research library sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation with closed stacks and a reading room of the most amazing collection of research on Guatemalan weaving, Colonial history, volcanic studies, volumes on orchids, birds, mammals and other natural history subjects of Guatemala and Central America, cultural history of Guatemala, epidemiolgy (historical data and accounts of diseases from Colonial times) modern political history....on and on it goes, food for the mind sufficient to satisfy any academic hunger one might have. Most academics who specialize in ANY subject on C.A. or Guatemala have used the library at one time or another and have also donated their own works, master's theses, dissertations...on and on.....
We garden (covered previously) AND Guatemala has had an export industry of plants, roses and the like. We have learned the wholesale nurseries for everything from orchids to other plants that are near us and are able to buy most all our plants wholesale....Guatemala is a gardener's heaven.
We travel....in-country mostly, but one reason we chose Antigua over the lake [ Lake Atitlan] was to be able to get to an international airport within an hour or two (depends on traffic). And the last president, Berger, has transformed the airport from a 1960's airport to a modern one. We are an hour away from the Pacific beach where we go to see the ocean. We spend a couple of days each month to get our ocean fix...the Caribbean is too far. The Rio Dulce is about an 8hour drive for us and then one isn't on the Caribbean itself, of course.
I paint. There is no end of subject matter for an artist...the countryside, the ruins in Antigua, the gardens and plant life, the people for a portrait artist......enough interesting subject matter to satisfy any artist for a lifetime.
The culture from the organized events to the indigenous culture remains endlessly fascinating.....
And for us at this stage of life that is enough. There are volunteer opportunities galore and we have done a bit of that and may do much more when our house is done, but for now finishing the house is a passion just as the boat was consuming much of our energies, the building and design work....
5) Adventure –
There is as much adventure as one can stand all of which involves risk at some level. Risk of crime or whatever: hiking, volcano climbing, horseback riding, bike treks and tours, canopy tours, river rafting and viewing (Semuc Champey for example), hot volcanic waterfalls and springs....too many to list.
So there it is....use what you like. I think most cruisers would not be interested in most of that but that is what KEEPS one in Guatemala....
How can we thank Sybil enough for taking the time to provide her thoughts on all these fronts? Her remarks provide insights and answers that help us understand even more Guatemala.
Now, shifting gears, I stated that one of the reasons I decided to bifurcate the Guatemala report is because I want to strongly emphasize that cruising is, on balance, a safe, wonderful and exciting, adventure.
It is everything the “The Dream” suggests it should be. Nothing in the prior report serves as a legitimate reason not to go cruising, nor to avoid ANY popular cruising destination in the Caribbean or the world if you have current and reliable information and advice on what measures are necessary in any given locale.
Cruising in the Caribbean is no more dangerous crime-wise than going to WalMart at night. You just need to know what neighborhood you are in.
Thus, the message is that it pays to lose the rose colored glasses and be a careful, commonsensical cruiser and do your own homework. By so doing, the odds are extremely low that you will ever have a problem anywhere you go. That’s the goal.
Most importantly, it increases the odds that you will not avoid fabulously interesting and picturesque destinations simply because they present increased risk. Pragmatism, realistic expectations, and appropriate precautions are all that are necessary to make “the game worth the gamble.”
The bottom line: I cannot imagine having missed Venezuela, Colombia, or Guatemala. At the same time, I can not believe we went to those places, considering their reputations.
And I would do it all again in the same fashion, without any reservations whatsoever.
How can that be?
Just to help illustrate it, I bifurcated the young man’s Backpacker’s blog too.
Remember the guy who witnesses the Queen of the South meet her end? Remember how he could not believe he saw the shooting? And that he was shocked by the locals’ seemingly callous reaction? He screamed at them to get the Police and they initially ignored him, etc. And it did not sit well with him that the incident was not reported accurately.
You would think his final comments would be a pledge never to return to the Rio Dulce, right?
Here are his parting words at the very end of his report:
“I really loved this town [Fronteras] and the people in it, I already miss it. It really is a natural paradise and I'm sure I'll be back again some day. Adios Rio Dulce.”
“I’m sure I’ll be back again someday” . . . NOT what you would have guessed, right?
It is something you have to experience personally to understand. The Rio Dulce, and Guatemala in general, has a beautiful side that is so intense it defies adequate description, even by skilled, professional authors.
There is something magical woven into the tapestry of Guatemala that is indescribable; a synergy of both natural beauty and the spirit of the Maya (and all Guatemala’s peoples) that is so spiritually powerful and overwhelming that it can readily eclipse all of PART ONE.
It’s powerful stuff!
So, stay tuned and get ready to come with us on a fabulous tour through Guatemala where we will see amazing vistas and experience unique cultures. It is unlike anything else in the Caribbean and the world.
Until Next Time
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