Monday, December 12, 2011

Encounters with the law

Guatemala's police, the Policia Nacional Civil (National Civil Police) don't seem to ever have much to do. Certainly apprehending miscreants does not seem to be high on their list. No one wears a seatbelt, everyone talks on their phone while driving, most of the motorcyclists do not wear helmets. I have yet to see anyone receive a ticket for any of these violations. In the last couple of months there has been a spike in the sale of contraband gasoline. At first I would occasionally see gallon jugs propped up along the roadside with small signs listing the price (usually 3-5Q cheaper than at the gas station). Now they are everywhere; at least 10 people selling contraband gas on the  16 kilometers of highway between Los Encuentros and Chichicastenango.  But the police whiz by in their cars without stopping. Now, I am not suggesting that their time would be better spent harassing poor folks who are trying to eke out a living. I personally would never buy contraband gas because I would not trust that what I was getting was pure product, but the existence of the contraband sales is as indicator of poverty and lack of opportunity. And of course the street level vendors are not the ones who are trafficking on a large scale.

Throughout the department, there are several places where the PNC frequently position themselves and stop drivers.  They do not stop every driver, just some, and it sometimes seems completely arbitrary or capricious as to whom they stop and whom they wave by.  Every so often I get stopped. Much of the time I get waved through, especially here in Quiché, where I think it is the same policemen who are stationed on the highway between Santa Cruz and Chichicastenango. But when they stop me it is pretty perfunctory. I hand them my license and registration, one of the cops (there are usually 4 at least) walks around to check the number on the license plate against the registration, then they hand the documents back, I wish them a good day, they wish me a good take ("Que le vaya bien") and off I go. Once on a different stretch of highway the cop took a look at my Massachusetts driver's license and asked to see my passport. I told him that I did not generally carry my passport, and he suggested that I should since I did not have an international license. I have since started doing so.  Of course, I only know what they do and say to me; I have no idea what their interactions are like with other drivers. When they wave me on, I always wave back. I do not like cops as a general rule (especially the way they have been acting in U.S. cities against Occupy protestors, but that is another story). In Guatemala, I really do not like the cops. I don't care if their name pronounces them as "civil", as far as I am concerned they represent the military apparatus. During the war they collaborated with the military which means hands stained with blood. Of course, most of the current police are too young to have been directly involved, but surely some of the older officers were.

They give off a brutish, brutal air, as a general rule. Most are not well educated (some seem barely literate) and do not seem well trained either. But I do not go out of my way to alienate them or treat them disrespectfully. They have guns and I don't. Of course, they are not the only people with guns around here. There are armed guards in a lot of places, and I know a few people who work as guards.

In any case, the sight of police vehicles does not bring a warm and fuzzy feeling to my heart. Yesterday, Jeanet and I were on our way to visit a remote hamlet of Patzité, the smallest of Quiché's municipalities, and we saw a police vehicle on a very sparsely traveled section of highway. I knew that they would not wave me by; after all, there was almost no traffic on this highway and they had to justify their existence somehow. So I stopped, and rolled down the window and greeted the captain, who was clearly ladino, not Maya (the cops on the departmental highway that runs between Chichi and Santa Cruz all appear to be Maya).  I explained that all my documents were in my backpack in the back seat, and got out to retrieve them, and handed everything (including the passport, without being asked) over.  He separated the passport and made a comment about that being what he really needed to see. I thought that was a bit strange but figured prudence is the better part of valor and kept my mouth shut. I asked if he minded if I took some photographs (it was an absolutely spectacular view from that part of the road) and he said no, so I got out my camera and scrambled onto the embankment on the other side of the road and snapped some photos of the landscape. I am sure that the other cops thought I was a bit strange if not totally crazy, and this might not have been the smartest thing I have ever done in my life (at least making the request; once they had said it was okay, taking the photos posed no risk, I think). I just had to find some very small way of demonstrating a modicum of resistance.

The cop-in-chief copied down my passport number, asked if Lisa was my first name or last name, and then asked if I worked for an NGO. I said no, I was a college professor and was doing research. He asked me what I was researching. I told him that I was doing research about Maya women in el Quiché (that's a very oversimplified explanation but I figured less is more here).  He then looked at me and said, "Are you just studying women?" I started to explain that, of course, women lived in communities where there were men (thinking maybe he was making some kind of gender critique), but then he asked, "Are you sure you aren't studying anything about the armed conflict?" That stopped me cold for a moment, and I decided to reply somewhat honestly. I was not really sure where that question was coming from. I said, "It's not the subject of my research. It is probably part of the experience of some of the older women here, but it's not what I am studying." He seemed satisfied, and asked if we were going to Patzite. The highway only goes to Patzite, so there were not a whole lot of other possibilities. I said yes, we were going to a meeting of a women's association, and then gave me back my documents. While this was going on the other cops were just standing around watching, and probably looking at Jeanet in the car. I got back in, waved, and then turned the car back on, slowly released the emergency brake and then carefully shifted and accelerated, keeping a watch in the rear view mirror. They watched us for a while, and then turned back to doing whatever they were doing before -- telling dirty jokes, staring at the empty road, wondering what they were going to eat for lumch and where they would eat.

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