LIFE IS CHEAP out here. The murder rate in Guatemala is currently 52 per 100,000 people. Pretty high (Britain's is 1.28), and it's not even the most violent country in the region. El Salvador and Honduras are vying for pole position, with 71 and 67 respectively. The rate in El Salvador is particularly high as it is the birthplace of MS-18, the world's largest street gang. Mara Salvatrucha, in full, derives its name from a street in San Salvador and the name of a guerilla movement from the Salvadorean civil war. The gang is estimated to have 69,000 members spread over California and Central America. Formed in the 1980s to protect the interests and safety of immigrants in Los Angeles, massive deportations of gang members from the States has only exarcerbated the problem; re-patriated members have recruited in their home countries, and new members cross the border back to the US. Their expolits are truly horrific. In Honduras there have been two cases of buses being shot to pieces in retaliation to the re-introduction of the death penalty. The victims were poor workers from nearby clothing factories. Once in this gang, it is almost impossible to get out. In 2003 a 17-year-old girl named Brenda Paz was lured to the banks of a Virginia river and brutally stabbed to death by her two former best friends; she'd given information about MS-18 to the police. In 2006 Ernesto Miranda, a founder member of the Maras, was murdered at his home after turning his back on the gang and convincing youths not to join.
Their actvities range from drugs, prostitution, extortion and murder to people-smuggling and arms-dealing. The power they exercise here is frightening, and it is only getting worse. I'm hoping not to have any contact with them whatsoever, and as a tourist will avoid any areas they inhabit. They're not hard to spot, most having extensive tattoos on body and face to show rank, time served and lists of crimes. The gang is all they have, and killing for it takes no more thought than making a coffee would for you or me. It's a way of life. San Pedro Sula, in Honduras, is riddled with Maras, and is one city I'll be in and out of within half an hour, hopefully.
I've spoken to Guatemalans about crime, and not just MS-18. The levels are high enough, even without their involvement. Myself and Kneehead were drinking on the porch in our hostel one night when Jimmy, one of the staff, limped by with his cane. He asked if we fancied a whisky, we shared the beers out and got talking about all things Guatemala. I asked if he was having hip trouble, unusual for a 28-year-old man. He told us that, 4 months ago, he was out late in the evening when three men jumped from a car and blocked the exit of a street he was on. Instinctively he turned and ran, halting when three shots were fired in the air as a warning. They quickly caught him up and robbed him of his iPod and wallet. Two turned to leave, the third man pointing his pistol at Jimmy's pelvis and firing, shattering his hip. He was told "Next time, don't run." The callous nature is chilling.
Jimmy told us about recent incidents in Guatemala City, where the gangs have been demanding taxes from bus companies for vehicles passing through their zones. One company had been refusing to pay. There were two drivers and conductors shot dead within a week, the killers pulling up on motorbikes, the pillion passengers executing the men with assault rifles. I asked why they didn't hit the company harder, and burn the buses after clearing the passengers out? "It's easier and quicker to stop the bus in traffic. Kill. Then go." Both the companies and the drivers can be extorted, and often the drivers are killed, even if they pay. Between 2006 and 2007 a total of 512 bus drivers have been killed this way. That figure is quite incredible. Imagine doing a simple job like driving a bus, and not knowing if you would see your family again as you left the house each morning?
I was looking forward to Antigua's football game against Xinabajul this afternoon. I met up with a Mancunian named Gary and a local called Alvarado I was drinking with last night while watching United v Chelsea. Alvarado told us we'd have to make do with watching the Barcelona game on TV after the Guatemalan League had been suspended following the murder of Carlos Noe Gomez, vice-president of Xinabajul. He'd received death threats after poor performances, the team rooted to the bottom of the league. After a recent 2-0 defeat at home, Gomez was gunned down by two men in Huehuetenango. No witnesses, no suspects.
This follows on from the murder of Carlos Vasquez, a midfielder with Malacateco. He met a more gruesome end, pieces of him being deposited in five plastic bags. His killers left a note to say he was paying for messing around with other women. There was also the infamous execution of Andres Escobar in Medellin, Colombia, after scoring an own goal in the 1994 World Cup, which cost criminals vast amounts in gambling losses. It is said one of his killers mimicked a football commentator, shouting Gooool! as he pumped him full of bullets. 120,000 people attended Escobar's funeral, and photographs of him are brought to games on the anniversary of his death, in tribute.
This way of death is truly a dark side to what is a beautiful and fascinating country. As I watch the sun set on the hills above Antigua, the sounds of children returning home from school in the street below, it is difficult to comprehend the savagery of this region.