Saturday, May 28, 2011

Encuentros policiales/encounters with the police part 1

Men with guns are a very visible fact of everyday life in Guatemala. In addition to transit police (who are generally not armed), the National Civilian Police (Policia Nacional Civil or PNC -- who are armed), one frequently comes across truckloads of soldiers, and also armed security guards at banks, shopping malls and other businesses. 
Antigua, which has a lot of tourists and expatriates, has more police on foot and in vehicles making the rounds than in most other places I've been. Because of the role that police played during the armed conflict, and the 
Today, because of the robbery of my car, I spent more time than ever before in the company of armed men wearing uniforms. I understand that being in the police force is a job, and a reasonably good one in a country with extraordinarily high rates of poverty and un- or under-employment. And so not every person in the police force is necessarily evil, cruel, vicious, corrupt, ineffectual, or all of the above. Or at least not when he or she (there are some female officers, although a small minority) enlists. 
But still, I get uncomfortable around the police and the military as a general rule. This is due in part to my reading of recent Guatemalan history, reading the papers, and talking with friends and colleagues. The general attitude seems to be that the police are at best ineffective, and at worst ... well, you can imagine. Aiding and abetting organized crime, taking their share of the profits, and perhaps even worse.  Maybe one doesn't want to imagine too hard.
Thankfully I have had only limited and mostly arms-length encounters with the PNC. I see their cars along the highways; in Chinique I pass the substation on my way home occasionally.  Today, however, I had no choice. 
The two officers who took down my information seemed moderately competent. One of them did look at me somewhat askance when I changed my estimate of what time  I had come home last night. I had originally said that I got home around 9, but then when he was actually writing the information down, I realized that I had gotten into Antigua a bit after 9, but since I had driven across town to drop Roselyn off, and then had waited for her to find some DVDs she was lending me, I actually hadn't made it back here until closer to 10.  
The other officer made almost no comments to me; in fact, I'm not sure what he was doing.
After writing down somewhat laboriously the information that they deemed important, the officer told me, as I noted in an earlier post, that I needed to go in person to the Ministerio Público to "ratify" the complaint. He explained to me (not very clearly or correctly, as it turns out) how to get there. I was ready to go immediately, but he said that I should wait until after 12 noon. He said that he had already called in the information, however, and that it would be transmitted to other units. I have no idea whether any of that was true, or what difference it would make if it were.
So, a bit after 12, I set off for the Ministerio Público. This was my first experience getting around Guatemala without a vehicle of my own; on my shorter trips I've always rented a car at the airport, and while I've walked, gotten rides with other people occasionally, and once taken a bus, I have been used to independence and mobility. 
Most Guatemalans, most ordinary Guatemalans, do not have their own means of transportation -- traffic jams in Guatemala City notwithstanding. A fair number of young and middle-aged men get around on bicycles. They ride not only on city streets and rural roads, but also, occasionally, on stretches of the major highways. During my travels up and down the Panamericana, I sometimes see, on the edge of the paved road or on the shoulder, the hunched backs of riders (I reserve the term "cyclists" for those spandex-clad individuals on expensive road bikes --and yes, there are quite a few of these in Guatemala -- who pretty clearly are not using their bikes as a means of getting to and from a job as, say, a highway construction worker), wearily making their way to or from a day of what is usually back-breaking labor. 
But many people, of all ages, walk. Old men, middle-aged women, and young children trudge along the roads with loads of firewood on their backs, secured with a rope or strap that is stretched across their foreheads. Mothers walk with one child wrapped onto their backs and two or more tromping alongside, in front or behind them. 
Today I joined their ranks as I made my way out of the "centro", the central part of town, and headed south along the road to Ciudad Vieja (literally "old city", but it refers not to the city of Antigua proper but a community called Ciudad Vieja some few kilometers away). There was a sidewalk, narrow and uneven, for a short distance, and I had to dodge a few vehicles that were pulling out backwards from parking spaces that were off the street. Then the sidewalk ended and I made my way along the shoulder, which had stretches of gravel, stretches of dirt, and huge muddy puddles from last night's rainfall. The day was humid, which made the walk a warm and sweaty undertaking. 
I greeted people I passed, as is the custom here. "Buenos días" (usually a very strong emphasis on the di in días), which often elicits the same in response, sometimes followed by "Que le vaya bíen," (hope all goes well for you).  There were not a lot of pedestrians, but enough that I had company, although most seemed headed in the same direction as me (out of town, not in). I ducked out of the way of buses or cars that came too close to the edge, and looked around a bit. Some wholesale construction supply places; car repair shops; some upscale hotels. But then some areas that seemed under construction, a few roadside vendors. I wasn't sure how far to go; the police officer had said that I should pass a gas station called La Panorama and then the Ministerio Público was about 20 yards in to the left. This may indeed be true but I think they wanted me to go about half a mile further along the main road. I stopped and scooted across the highway (since there was no one on my side whom I could ask) to where a man was tending a small open-air food stall and asked where the Ministerio was. He told me to go down to the end, then take the first street on my left. I  came to a place where the highway curved and there was a paved road on my left; I asked again (since there was nothing evident within 20 yards) and the man whom I asked told me to go to the end of THAT street and on the left I would see a sign for the Ministerio.
So, I walked down, found the ministry, a two-story ochre building, and walked in what looked like the garage entrance (the only door that was open). The guard/receptionist on duty directed me to the first office on my right. No one was in there; there were papers strewn over the desks; my first thought was that this was not very secure.  If I had been nosy or ill-intentioned I could have read everything or stuffed things in my bag.  Not that I would do such a thing, at least not there -- but just saying.
I went back out to make sure I was in the right office and the guard said someone would be with me. I sat back down,  and then a pleasant young male worker came in and I explained I had come at the direction of the police to ratify a complaint. He told me that since the crime had occurred that morning, nothing had come in yet. I explained that I had come at the time the officers who took the complaint had told me to come. He suggested that I go to the police station - a kind of central command -- another block away and inquire. 
So I trudged on over, a wee bit uneasy entering the police headquarters. Although I assumed I was personally pretty safe, again my reaction was colored by what I know about Latin American police during the civil wars or counter-insurgency campaigns in Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Argentina, Chile: if you walk into the door of the headquarters you might not walk out again. At least not undamaged.
However, the two officers there were quite polite. They asked if I knew the names or unit numbers of the police who had taken my complaint. They asked if they were wearing orange vests or simply dark uniforms. After some conversation they seemed to have figured out whom to call, someone named "Chino" and did so. I'm not sure whether that was one of the two officers who had interviewed me or someone else, but after the phone call and some conversation between themselves, one officer told me that the complaint wouldn't be registered until sometime between 16 and 24 hours. I remarked, with some slight exasperation, that if that were the case, then why had the officers told me very explicitly to come at around 12 noon? I said that I had come at that specific time (I actually arrived at 1) because I had been told to come at that time, not because I just felt like it. The officer didn't really reply, but repeated that the complaint hadn't been filed. He said something that I didn't quite understand about if the car turned up and the complaint had already been filed then it would take two months to straighten things out: I'm not sure what things. I refrained from saying that I thought it was highly unlikely that my car would turn up, and asked before I left what time I should return the next day.  The officer told me that I had to come before noon because the Ministerio only worked a half-day on Saturday. I asked what time they opened; he said to come after 8 or 8:30. I've had enough experience with Latin American state bureaucracies to know that there was nothing to be gained by whining or complaining more, so I thanked the officers and left.
I took myself off back up the short, dusty street to the highway, and decided to take a bus, since it had been about a 40-45 minute walk, and not the most pleasant of walks because of the cars and buses whirring past and the less than spectacular roadside scenery. I don't usually use public transportation; I've been used to having my own car, and for short distances I would rather walk. But I decided to make a change. I hailed a bus, which pulled over without hitting me or the other woman waiting. It wasn't too crowded and I managed to snag a seat, and hopped off a few minutes later when it pulled up to the corner of 7ta Calle Poniente (7th Street West) and the Alameda, the street that the market is on.

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