Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The dynamics of cell phone air time

One definitive conclusion I can make: if you are working in Guatemala, that is, doing research, it is a given that your Guatemalan colleagues, friends, lovers, hosts, and acquaintances will rarely, if ever, have "saldo" (airtime) on their pre-pay cell phones. Maybe you will be lucky and know a few people who for professional reasons or class position have a cell phone with a monthly plan. But the rest of the country goes from one 10-quetzal recharge to another, which means that most of the time, if you want to talk to people, you have to do the calling ... to take a line from the infamous statement about voting patterns in Chicago, "call early, call often". Or rely upon text messaging, since text messages are much less expensive than phone calls. And, as I learned, you should make sure that you give people airtime if they are going to be making any calls on your behalf -- and preferably before they have to ask you. I learned this the hard way.

Guatemala's three cell phone companies -- Tigo, Claro and Movistar -- all run on different systems, and each one gives you certain benefits and discounts for calling within their network. So, for example, I have Tigo, and it is cheaper for me to call other Tigo phones. I sometimes get free minutes to call other Tigo phones -- but this requires trying to remember who of the few dozen people one knows has the same phone company. Some people, for this reason, have more than one phone -- so they can make and receive calls from different people. The other day a compañero from the resistance movement in Huehuetenango was explaining why he had a Claro phone and a Tigo phone. The Claro phone was better for receiving calls from the U.S. (since you get charged for receiving international calls, apparently) -- for the same amount of money that would yield you 40 minutes of airtime for international calls on a Tigo phone, you would get 60 minutes on a Claro phone. However, Tigo generally has better coverage within Guatemala -- better signal, fewer blackout areas.  All the phone companies offer promotions, usually once a week nationwide -- days when they offer triple airtime (you spend 10 quetzales and get 30 quetzales worth of airtime). Then there are regional and local promotions, usually during the patron saint feast in a particular town (so those aren't offer nationwide but just in a specific locality).  But, as I have noted in earlier blogs, airtime seems to get eaten up very quickly; you get charged, for example, for checking to see how much airtime you have left (more than a few times I have tried to check on how much airtime I had left only to get a recorded message, "You do not have enough airtime for that transaction."). 

However, very few people seem to have much airtime on their phones. Most people I know live fairly close to the bone, and even the people who live more comfortably do not seem to have airtime on their phones. The former situation is easy to understand -- having a phone is essential for most people, but so is food, and then there are often a lot of unforeseen expenses that eat up anyone's modest earnings or savings. The latter situation -- people who do not appear to be in extremely strained economic circumstances, who have cars or motorcycles and computers and modems -- is a little more opaque to me.  

You would think that I would understand this better by now. But I realized with a shock that I still take things for granted. A friend had offered to make some contacts for me, to facilitate some of my research. We had talked about this some weeks back; I had called him shortly after I arrived in Guatemala and we had been in touch several times since then. I wasn't certain about the specific dates when I would be in his area but I had a general idea. However, when I arrived and we sat down to go over my plans, he hadn't yet concretized any of the contacts we had talked about. After talking for a while I realized that he hadn't done it because he didn't have extra airtime on his phone -- and I immediately thought to myself "Why didn't I realize that would be an issue and just buy him some?"  You can easily put airtime on someone else's phone as long as you know what phone company they use; you can just go to any store that offers electronic recharges, of which there are about half a dozen on every block, and give them the phone number to which you want to add airtime. It doesn't have to be your own phone, it can be any number at all, but you do have to have the right phone company, and I have several times done this for friends when I knew they didn't have airtime and needed to make calls. As soon as I understood this, we put some airtime on his phone (more than he would need to make the calls he was doing on my behalf).  So, another lesson for me. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Raids on radio stations and free speech

The attacks on community radio stations continue, at the same time as new stations are opening up. There was a series of raids on radio stations in the area around Lake Atitlán, resulting in some stations closing voluntarily rather than run the risk of being raided. I had stopped by Radio Juventud, a community radio station located right along the Panamerican Highway in Sololá, a few kilometers west of Los Encuentros, on my first trip north this round, but no one from the radio station was present. Then I called Olga, one of the coordinators of the radio station, about two weeks later, as I was leaving Lake Atitlán, even though I wasn't headed precisely in her direction. She told me that they had decided to go off the air until the situation with the other radio stations was resolved.

Then,  a few days ago, the Guatemala City offices of Frank LaRue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Speech, were raided by "unknown persons", according to the local papers. Apparently the police are "looking into" the matter, but it seems pretty clear that this was no ordinary robbery. Frank La Rue, who is Guatemalan, has been an outspoken advocate and critic. I first met him decades ago, during the civil war, when he was one of the representatives of the Guatemalan opposition.  He came to speak at the first encounter of community radios two years ago, in Guatemala City, and has frequently criticized the government's repression of free speech, and the remilitarization of Guatemalan society. What was stolen were computers and some files. While I don't have any inside information about the break-in or who was responsible, it carries all the marks of a "signature attack" -- designed to send a message as much as inflict direct harm (we can hope that he had back ups of everything that was in the stolen computers and hopefully the files were not original documents of which there were no copies). 

Arsenic and old lace: the resistance continues

We spent a few days in San Miguel, conferring with different people from the resistance. They were planning a large concentration (rally) for Sunday July 27, and I decided that I would return to participate and document. The rally was designed to call attention to the failure of the company to make good on the ruling handed down by the IACHR (Interamerican Commission for Human Rights), and the tripartite agreement regarding the remedial measures. Anselmo, one of the leaders of FREDEMI, came over on the night before we left to discuss this, and also to let us know that there was another event that same day, right after the rally. This was the launch of what is called a "comité cívico" or civic committee. 

Dinner and conversation with Aniseto
A civic committee is something more than a neighborhood committee but not quite a political party; a civic committee can run candidates for political offices, usually on the municipal level (I am not sure that a civic committee can run candidates for national offices like congress or president). One of the strategies of the resistance right now is to try and take control of local governments, since it is at the level of local government that the company has been successful in creating obstacles, disaccord, and conflicts. So, the resistance has already taken over the COCODE in Siete Platos. Some resistance leaders have been elected to positions in other COCODES and other local organisms; for example, Doña Crisanta, one of the very committed and forceful female resistance leaders in the community of Ágel, which pretty much overlooks the mine, has been elected as vice-president of her COCODE and also president of the local water committee. 

Aniseto ran for mayor in the last elections in 2011, but there was very little time for him to organize the campaign and very little money to pay for advertising or any kind of campaign literature.  Since campaigns in Guatemala are dominated by large monied interests, this puts any kind of grassroots or oppositional candidate at a disadvantage.  So, they did a very quick campaign the last time around, succeeded in getting Aniseto on the ballot but he didn't get a lot of votes. They are hoping that this time around will be different, and they seem to think that there is actually a chance that he could take the mayoralty.  

So, this was the conversation regarding the launch of the committee, and then updating on the state of the resistance. Also during this time, we had a visit from Don Chico (Francisco), a leader from San José Ixcaniche, who came to tell us about the meeting that had taken place in his community and hear about the meeting of the residents of Siete Platos. He came accompanied by his sister-in-law, and the conversation turned to the health impacts of the water contamination.  

According to C., the main contaminant, or one of the main contaminants, is arsenic. So he launched into a teaching session about arsenic poisoning -- all of the various health effects grouped together under the label of arsenicosis. They include lesions on the hands, feet, other body parts, other skin inflammations, hardening of the skin on hands and feet, hair loss, and then various kinds of cancers including skin, bladder and liver cancer. Don Chico said that he knew two young boys who had suffered some of these effects, including hair loss and lesions on the hands.  It was a chilling discussion, because according to C., even the company's own studies have demonstrated high levels of arsenic in the water.

Another mission was to cautiously explore the possibility of starting up a new community radio project in the area. About two years ago, a community radio station was set up with money that someone raised through a Kickstarter campaign, but it hasn't been functioning for some time now, as I mentioned in an earlier blog post. And so we have been talking for some time via email about how to find a group that can undertake the project, as a radio station would be a tremendous asset for the resistance. So, it seems that there is a strong possibility... but more about that later. 

The final mission of this trip was to work with one of the women on an application for a fund sponsored by the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission. I saw an announcement for the fund, called the Voiceless Speak Fund, some weeks ago. I know people in the community in New Bedford who have won this award -- it is a maximum of $5,000 based on a proposal for a project that will work to inform the U.S. public (as the primary but not necessarily the sole audience) about either human rights abuses in Guatemala or the situation of Guatemalans living in the U.S.  It hadn't occurred to me until this summer that it might be possible for someone in Guatemala to apply, so I floated the idea by C. to see if we might help Doña Crisanta, who has not only been an outspoken community leader but has come under attack from the company and supporters of mining -- and has also been marginalized, to a degree, by men in the resistance movement. She, of course, had to be interested in pursuing this. So, we had a meeting with her, and also with another activist who is the more-or-less-official documentarian of the resistance (he also happens to be a relative of hers -- I think either they are cousins or she is his aunt). One idea was that he could make a documentary about her, so they would both benefit, but he seemed lukewarm about the idea.  So, we left the possibility to simmer...

Oye, oye, ahora con traducción!!!

Para las amigas y los amigos que no hablan inglés, agregué un traductor automático a mi blog. Aparece en la parte superior de cada página; dice "select language". Si hagas clic en este botoncito, vas a tener un menu de idiomas, así que, no hay que seguir curso de inglés para leer mis pensamientos y observaciones.

Más o menos así. Vale!

San Miguel: The politics of remediation

Last Monday, the sun rose and lit up the courtyard of the parish where we were staying, and I made us coffee as we plotted out the days we would spend, or tried to. Around 8 a small group of men from the community of Siete Platos came to meet with Carlos, to talk about the meeting that would take place later that morning with the mayor and representatives of the company.  The meeting was to discuss the medidas cautelares -- the remedial measure -- which were the cause of the two-week highway blockade. A bit more background here: the residents of 5 communities of San Miguel Ixtahuacán that are very close to the actual mining operations, and 13 communities of Sipacapa, a neighboring municipality, had brought a lawsuit in the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights, charging that the ground water was contaminated (there is a study conducted by the company that confirms this) and asking for, basically reparations. You broke it, you fix it. You contaminated our drinking and cooking water, therefore, you (the company) had better do something to provide us with a source of fresh water.  The company -- are we surprised? -- has been dragging its feet on complying with the ruling, which I believe was handed down in 2011, and that was why the residents of one of the five SMI communities, Siete Platos, had occupied the highway, to try and force the company to do what it was legally obligated to do. The ruling calling for a tripartite discussion between residents, the company and the Instituto de Fomento Municipal (the Municipal Development Agency) a national governmental agency that is supposed to oversee water and sanitation projects throughout the country, along with representatives of the Mayor's office.
Courtyard of the parish hall

There was apparently some concern about whether any outsiders would be allowed to attend the meeting. One of the key leaders of the resistance, Aniseto, is from a different community, Maquivíl, and the people who support the company and mining were opposed to having him at the meeting. Carlos was unsure whether there would be some controversy regarding his presence. The meeting was interrupted, however, by someone announcing that the meeting had already started at the municipal building and so we rushed out to walk across the square and join the meeting.  We walked around to the back where a large meeting room was already filled.  The company representatives, engineers, representatives of INFOM and the Mayor's office sat behind a table in the front of the room, and the rest of us -- nearly all men, dressed for the most part in dark pants and jackets although a few wore jeans - crowded onto plastic chairs that reached the door. There were about 70 or 80 people present (I did a count at one point but there were a small number of people entering and leaving throughout so hard to get a complete fix and I didn't want to call even more attention to myself as the one foreigner and one of four or five women present by standing up to get a better view of the front rows. I was struck by the appearance of a sea of black when I walked in -- I think the mayor's secretary, Carlos and I were the only people who did not have straight black hair.  

There are no photos of the meeting. At the beginning, the mayor announced something about the community having asked for no recording of the meeting, and so although I had a camera, I didn't take it out.  However, later, people asked me if I had photographs of the meeting, and I explained that I had thought that I wasn't supposed to take any.  So the only photo I have is of the small group of community leaders who came for the pre-meeting, walking in front of the muni.

One of the things that struck me was the difference in body type and physical demeanor between those who sat on the other side of  of the table and those of us who sat in front as supplicants. The men on the other side wore more expensive clothing (even the engineer who wore jeans and a baseball cap), they were on average heavier, their faces more relaxed looking (and better fed) and several of them sat back in their chairs, legs spread, while the men from Siete Platos were smaller and leaner, their faces lined with work and exposure, and most of those who were seated were leaning in to hear what was being said.  

The mayor opened the meeting saying that there had been problems and conflicts between neighbors, that the municipality was there to make sure that everyone came together. That it was in no one's interest for there to be conflict. That the issue wasn't with the municipality but with the central government. He called for everyone to listen to each other, to not interrupt, that everyone had a right to express their views, and no one should shout anyone else down because they disagreed. Then he opened it up and one after another, men stood up and talked about the issues. It was hard to understand the relative size of the two groups, but it seemed the majority were opposed to mining and wanted the company to take responsibility for ensuring potable water, and a minority (but very vocal) tried to discredit the others as being opposed to progress and controlled by outside agitators. Several times, the people who supported mining (and therefore didn't want to make the company responsible), made accusations against Aniseto, one of the leaders of FREDEMI (the Front for the Defense of San Miguel), saying that they didn't want anyone from outside, from other communities, coming in and bringing bad ideas ("malas ideas"). We don't go to other communities and spread bad ideas, but these people want to destroy our community. And that if Aniseto came to Siete Platos, they would take measures against him. They may have made more direct threats against him. Probably a good thing he didn't come to the meeting.

Perhaps the most recurrent word in the entire discussion was "development". Both sides said they were in favor of development. Or, the people who supported the mine, and who criticized the blockade, accused the others of being against development. They said that the highway blockade hadn't produced anything (although in my view, the fact that the meeting was taking place at all was proof that the blockade had had some result). Those who had organized the highway blockade said that they, too, supported development, or they were not against development, but that they needed clean water. The company and government representatives kept emphasizing that it wouldn't be possible to bring water to the communities without the residents lending a hand.

Another issue that arose in the meeting was the question of the COCODE, the Community Development Council. The previous COCODEs (people usually refer to the COCODE in plural when they are talking about the members of the COCODE) had mostly been in favor of the mine, and the community had recently held new elections and removed the COCODEs and replaced them with COCODEs who supported the resistance. The Mayor called into question the legality of the election, and told the community members that they would need to bring an "acta" -- the official minutes of the meeting where the election had taken place, together with not only signatures of all those present but also their DPI number (document of personal identification), since, as he noted, anyone could write a signature.   

There were well over a dozen people from the community who spoke, mostly from the resistance but also from the other side. The company representatives and those from INFOM also spoke. One of the key points was how the work would proceed, and who would pay for what. The company kept repeating that the community had to contribute unskilled labor for the work. The community leaders asked about payment for permission to put the pipes that would carry the water from the springs, and who would pay for the rights to use springs that were on private land. The company representative read out from the agreement to ask, "And where does it say we have to pay for that?" One of the community leaders from the resistance seemed to agree that the community would have to contribute unpaid labor for the installations.

After a long discussion, the mayor tried to bring things to a close by saying that the community should put together a commission (basically a task force) with 10 people, five from the resistance and five from the other side, supervised by the auxiliary mayors (the community-based traditional leadership) and that INFOM and the company would visit the community to look into the situation and evaluate the needs of the community.  The mayor and officials then announced they had to leave and go visit another community, San José Ixcaniche, where there was another meeting of this sort. They took off while all of us stood in line to sign the book of minutes to record our presence. Both my attorney friend and I signed as observers (his presence was noted several times, both by the mayor and some community leaders; some people from the community had wanted him to speak but he strategically - and correctly, I think - decided to stay silent so as not to give further credence to the discourse of outside agitators and manipulation). 
Chemical lake, from cleaning the ore

After the meeting ended, my attorney friend met with people to evaluate the meeting and plan for the visit the following week. He then got a call from one of the leaders from Ixcaniche and we set off to try and find out where that meeting was taking place. We headed down a treacherously steep and windy road that took us past the mine; as we drove, we saw several vehicles with small orange flags brandished aloft: mine security. 
Throughout my two visits to SMI, I constantly saw these mine security vehicles on the highways and even in the town center of SMI. Why were they patrolling so much, I asked, because although I had seen them on my previous visits, there hadn't been as many of them, and only in the area directly around the mine. "Because they think they own everything around here," was the reply. As we drove down, my friend commented that all the NGOs and development agencies in the area belonged to the company, that there was very little in the area that was truly independent except for the resistance, but that the resistance was taking over some local governments and other structures like water committees and reforestation committees.

We passed through San José Ixcaniche but the person who was supposed to be waiting for us to lead us to the meeting was nowhere to be seen. I saw a lot of cars parked along the highway in front of the school and my suspicion was that this was where the meeting was taking place, but since C. didn't seem to want to stop and go in without someone from the community, we continued along the road, and stopped in front of a house where he said one of the leaders who had not been able to attend the meeting lived, don Miguel Angel.

I waited in the car while C. went into the house first, and then emerged to wave me inside. He explained that don Miguel Angel was also a traditional healer using natural herbs, and that this his house and also his office. We were gestured to sit down on a small bench which was there for the use of patients, and talked for a while about the meeting and the strategy for the next stage. His wife and two small daughters hovered around while we talked and C. went over what had happened in the meeting.

As we left, C. pointed out the painting on the school building next door, a kind of wavy blue line. That stood for M, Montana, the name of the mining company (Montana Exploradora de Guatemala). They hadn't purchased the school, but had paid for the paint job and some repairs, and so wanted no good deed to remain unacknowledged, apparently. Montana's radio and other ads tout their service to the community, their commitment to providing health and education as well as highways for these poor rural areas of the San Marcos highlands.

As one of the leaders had pointed out at the meeting, the highways were really meant to serve the company, and not the community. What the community needed was water, not more roads. 
Company-sponsored NGO
As we drove back into town, we noted that the other meeting had apparently ended (Later, someone from that meeting came to give us a report on what had happened -- more of the same). Walking around town in search of a luncheonette that was open (comedor translates as restaurant, eatery, canteen, lunchroom;  however, a comedor is less formal or elegant than a restaurante; canteen has a more precise cognate in Spanish, cantina, which is a place that might serve food but whose main attraction is alcohol; and luncheonette is probably not quite right as comedores typically serve breakfast, lunch and dinner), we passed several large hotels that were in various stages of completion, that seemed somewhat excessive for a town of this size. 

Apparently someone or ones was banking on there being an economic boom of some sort, although it was hard to imagine a thriving tourist industry since people don't exactly flock to see open-pit gold mining and arsenic-contaminated lakes.  But the development discourse was apparently contagious. At least to the people with enough money to invest in construction of three-story buildings.

However, at the same time, there was evidence of the resistance movement in graffiti painted on walls throughout the town, and along the highways (the latter was much harder to photograph as the roads are -- like in most of the rural areas throughout Guatemala -- narrow, steep and winding, with few places to pull over safely, lacking guard rails, and so forth, so it's not very practical or life-enhancing to try and take photographs along the road, even less so if one is the driver of a vehicle, and so one needs to have a companion in the car with a camera.  

This graffiti is not directly about mining; it says "Totonicapán, your struggle is our struggle." This refers to the massacre on October 4 of 2012, of people who were participating in a peaceful protest along the highway. The protest was called by the traditional leaders of the 48 cantones (rural communities) of Totonicapán, although the actual protest took place along the highway in Sololá, at a place called the Summit of Alaska (cumbre de Alaska), and the military opened fire on those who had blocked the highway, killing at least 6 people. 

Here's one of the few roadside graffiti that I was able to capture without sacrificing life, limb or the well-being of my vehicle (which is critical to the maintenance of the former two). It reads "mine death" (translated literally) --in other words, 
"mining equals death", or "death to the mine". I'll go with the former, as it is perhaps an unconscious nod to the famous slogan of ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), "Silence=death". 

Friday, August 2, 2013

It drives me crazy: how many banks does it take to get a vehicle sticker?

Guatemala is notoriously lax when it comes to traffic rules and regulations and most things that have to do with vehicles. You can drive around with smashed tail lights and a missing mirror and no PNT (transit police) or PNC (regular police) will bat an eyelash or give you a citation. Trust me on this one.  Emissions inspections? Excuse me while I fall over from laughter. There are thousands of aged Bluebird school buses, now serving as inter-city transport, clogging up the highways, spewing clouds of black smoke thick enough to cause coughing fits or force asthmatics to suck hard on their inhalers. However, apparently they do want you to pay your annual vehicle tax. Nonetheless, they don't really enforce that. I have been driving around with a vehicle tax sticker from 2011 which is when I bought my car. I have not been deliberately trying to be a scofflaw or not pay my fair share, but since for all of the trips I made to Guatemala in 2012 and the early part of this year, no police officer ever pointed out that my sticker was expired, I never thought much about it. Since I don't live here full time and I never changed the address on the registration document  that came with the car when I bought it, I guess I didn't get the notice that they were supposed to have mailed notifying me that I needed to do something about this, or else face the consequences. 

So, two days ago, July 31 to be precise, at around 5 p.m., I got a text message from a friend who is an attorney asking me if I had taken care of getting the sticker. No, I told him, I hadn't. The deadline was today, he said, and there's a fine if you are late. Since it was already 5, I figured I couldn't take care of it, but to make him happy, said that I would do it the next day, which was yesterday (Thursday). He kept on texting me and reminding me that I needed to do it.  He made it seem like a big deal; I didn't bother to tell him that I had been driving around with a 2011 sticker without any official taking notice.  So, I tried to figure out where I could pay the fee. The agency that collects taxes is called the SAT (Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria: the Superintendency of Tributary Administration), but another friend, who used to be a transportista (driver of inter-city transport)  told me I could pay the fee and get the sticker at a bank. He advised me against going to Banrural, the rural development bank, since that is one of the most popular banks -- that is, it is widely used by peasants and everyday people -- and the lines would be longer.  So, after having a frustrating morning (because I had driven to Chichicastenango hoping to spend a few hours at the radio station but had to turn around and head back to Santa Cruz del Quiché since there was an emergency meeting of some sort regarding the radio station and I wasn't invited to be present), I decided to be a good girl and make my friend happy and pay my tax.

I found a parking spot a bit away from the center and walked to the Parque Central and started going to banks. The armed security guards actually know a fair amount about what goes on at the bank so when I need to take care of some business at a bank I usually ask the guard if it is possible to do X or Y before going to wait in a long line.  The guard at the first bank said that they had run out of stickers. When might they have them, I asked? Sometime next week, he answered (this was on a Thursday). I asked where he thought I should try next. He pointed to two banks across the street. I tried the first one. The guard said that the system was down (meaning, I presumed, the computerized record keeping system that would allow a bank to tell me how much I owed and record my payment). I went to the next one (now my third bank). They also said their system was down. I walked up the street to the Banrural, just for fun. They also had no stickers left. I then thought I would try another route, and went to one of a number of agencies that are located near the SAT headquarters that advertise that they take care of transactions involving motor vehicles. In Guatemala, if there is a transaction of some sort that you need to take care of, there will be someone who makes his or her living offering to take care of it for you, or at least to  handle the paperwork. I chose the one right next door to the SAT. The pleasant-faced young man shook his head and said "there was no system" (no había system).  I told him that I really wanted to pay it, that I'd been to the banks and hadn't been able to do it.  He tried to check something on his computer to at least tell me what I would owe but said he couldn't even get that information. I said that I would then go directly to the SAT. He responded, somewhat dismissively, that I could do that if I liked but I would just be wasting my time because it was their system that was down. I thought this was pointless and so texted my attorney friend to tell him I'd made the effort but hadn't been successful. I was halfway back to my car when he responded, telling me with some urgency that I at least had to pay the fine. I told him that none of the banks would take my payment. He replied, "ni modo", which the dictionary defines as "no way", but which I took to mean, "So what, doesn't mean anything, you better do it." He told me to call him and I did, and he said I had to do this and I should go to SAT directly. I think I have mentioned in a post last year or whenever that no one in Guatemala ever has airtime on their pre-pay phones. Text messages are cheaper than calls, and so someone who wants to speak to you (and think that you might have airtime on your phone (which in my case is a pretty good bet) will text "llamame" (call me). So I did, and after listening patiently to his mini-harangue, I turned around and retraced by steps, heading to the SAT office, a large (for Quiché) and ugly bunker-like building with a concrete yard surrounded by a wall topped with barbed wire, looking more like a jail than anything else. There were a couple of wooden pew-like benches outside, about half-full with people. The guard queried me with a facial expression, flashing a few gold-rimmed teeth at me, and I asked the guard whether I could pay for the vehicle sticker or at least pay the fine. I tried to look as penitent and responsible as possible. He told me that their system was down but that maybe it would be back up in a couple of hours and I should come back. 

I went to take care of a few other things like packing up my bags since I had decided to leave Quiché, so I went back to Agua Tibia and begged a bit of lunch from my hosts; mashed black beans (frijoles volteados) and a few tortillas with a bit of chile, and then I squeezed everything back into my suitcase, checked around a few times to make sure that there were not any stray essential toiletries or chargers or cables lying around, and then with Sandy's help (the wife in the household) trudged back up the path that was now somewhat drier and less slippery (since the night's rainfall was now more than 12 hours behind us), exchanged hugs and kisses with the kids and took off. Well, carefully backed out of the drive onto the highway,craning my neck to  make sure that there were no vehicles whizzing by, and calculating my backwards movement so as not to end up in either of the two ditches that line the highway. As usual, my maneuvers were observed with interest by whomever happened to be walking by or waiting for a bus -- one is rarely, if ever, alone for more than a few minutes in Guatemala. 

I  then came back to SAT a bit later than the time the guard had told me, to be on the safe side (if someone tells you an office will be open, or a document will be ready at a certain time, it's usually a good idea to give the person or agency at least a half hour leeway). There were a few people milling about outside, and a vendor's cart parked on the street near the entrance.  The guard ushered me inside the room whose entrance he had been partially blocking, and pointed me to a seat over on the side. There were rows of pew-like benches, containing about 8 or 9 people, and I didn't know if I would have to wait for all of them to be processed. Mostly men, but a few women. There were two windows, one dealing with vehicle issues and one for other transactions. A few people were handling transactions that looked like getting their licenses, as after papers were shuffled and examined by the clerk, he told the applicant to sit still and took a picture with a small camera. After a while some other people came in, and the guard then told me to move to the seat closest to the window and soon I was called. The young man serving that window listened to me politely and told me that SAT did not handle any financial transactions of any kind and I would have to take care of it at a bank, those were the places that were authorized to accept the payment. Why the guard hadn't told me this two hours earlier, I don't know. I said, "But I don't want to accumulate an even higher fine, and I don't want to get a fine for driving without the sticker." He said that there was nothing he could do and I would have to find a bank.  I said that I was trying to be responsible and he agreed, but said that there was nothing that they could do and I needed to find a bank. I told him I had been to four or five banks already and none of them could help me. He repeated that I needed to go a bank, in any part of the country, the next day or the day after and pay it. He looked up what I owed (including for 2012, which I had never paid, and for which I never had a sticker) and I took off.

So, I texted my lawyer friend and he urged me to take care of it the next day (which was today, Friday).  I treated myself to a latte from "my" café in Quiché and headed off to the Boca Costa, the area near the coast. I will maybe write about the drive at some other time. Or not, since most of you are probably questioning my sanity in terms of my driving habits in Guatemala. Let's just say that all this banking stuff had taken a lot of time and I left later than I had originally planned and it started to rain very steadily after it got dark and after I had passed the part of the route that I travel often and know well. And because it was dark and raining I missed a (poorly marked) turn off and went about 10 km out of the way, heading into the town of Retalhuleu instead of taking the route that goes around the city, and when I stopped at a gas station to ask directions my car stalled out... I did get it started again -- after the gas station owner and the security guard and I spent about 15 minutes futzing around, and eventually the owner called a mechanic friend who brought his scanner and told me what replacement part I needed -- it turned out to be an inexpensive and easily available one - and did some small adjustment manually that allowed me to start the car again.  But, as I said, that is really another story.

So, during a lull in today's activities (the radio station I am visiting shuts down for a few hours in the afternoon during the rainy season as the electricity often goes out and they have decided it's better to not risk short circuiting the transmitter), I decided to head to the nearest town that had a bank (the next town down the road towards the highway) and try and make the payment. La Ceiba, where the radio station is located, does not boast many amenities, it is really not a town but a hamlet, technically speaking, and therefore no bank. I drove to San Pablo Jocopilas, just down the road (well, part of the road is a narrow, deeply rutted and rocky dirt road, so it's not exactly the most fun ride) picking up two middle-aged men who were headed down that way, and easily found the Banrural ( had been told that it was likely to be very uncrowded on a Friday afternoon). The guard told me that they had no stickers, and that the bank in the next town didn't either, and that I would have to go the branch in the big shopping mall, Plaza America, in Mazatenango -- a much bigger town about 20 minutes away). So, I set off. One of my passengers was now standing on the side of the road in San Pablo looking for a ride further down the road and I told him I was heading to Mazate and he hopped in back again, getting off a few hundred meters short of where the road I was on hits the highway to the Pacific.  The driver behind me honked with annoyance (I'm not sure there is any other way to honk) but there wasn't much I could do as the man hadn't told me in advance where he wanted to get off, just tapped loudly and rapidly on the back window of the cab of the pickup to let me know he wanted to get off, and I stopped as soon as I could without getting rear-ended. But that driver was also loaded down with passengers, I could see through my rear-view window, so he would have to understand. The man got off, I accepted a quetzal from him (about half what the fare would normally be), and I continued on.

The mall is highly visible with a Taco Bell and Burger King and Crocs store, an upscale stereo equipment store, an upscale chain bakery called Anfora, and a couple of banks. I hesitantly asked the Banrural guard if I could pay for the sticker. He said yes, and showed me which line to stand on. Unbelievable. I felt both virtuous and relieved. I almost pulled out my phone to text my lawyer friend, but remembered that you are not allowed to use cell phones in Guatemalan banks. I noticed a sign saying that the bank would no longer exchange any U.S. bills in denominations smaller than $100 - a note for next time. And a good thing that I have been using ATMs for the most part - -I had had some cash with me to start, but no bills larger than $50 and mostly 20s. There are a lot of issues exchanging U.S. currency here, having to do with fears about money laundering.  Any slight tear in the bill -- and I mean slight, like 1/4" or less, something that we would mostly not even notice -- and most banks won't accept it. Every time I bring cash to Guatemala I end up with at least 2 or 3 twenty-dollar bills that look fine to me but won't pass muster at a Guatemalan bank.

In a few minutes I made my way to the window, stated what I wanted to do, handed over my registration card (the fee is based on the model and year of one's vehicle) and was told the sum I needed to pay: Q371.48 (for 2012 and 2013). So, I paid my due to society (or at least to the tributary administration superintendency), and am now the proud possessor of a sticker stating such, which I have duly affixed to my windshield as indicated on the instructions.  And, for good measure, I stopped at the upscale bakery and bought some cookies for my hosts, and another bag for other friends. I liked the slogans written on the bag. One said, "Te mejoro la disculpa" (I make the apology better) and the other, "vale por ciertos derechos" (good for certain rights -- here the phrase "friends with benefits" is translated as "amigos con derechos" -- friends with rights, so this is a play on that concept).
 And for even better measure, I stopped at an auto-repuesto (replacement parts) place on the way back and got the replacement tube I needed (actually a nearby mechanic supplied it and installed it, for Q20 or less than $3).  So, I am now safeguarded against the highly unlikely scenario that a police officer will stop my car on the highway and actually take a look at the sticker on my windshield (something that has not ever happened in all my driving adventures).  There are many fewer highway stops than before. Since there was a massacre of 8 police officers in the town of Salcajá, on the highway leading to Xela, a few months back, apparently the energies of the police have been redirected, and they no longer station themselves along the roadways as much as previously.

But in case anyone wants proof of my civic virtue, here it is: 

Extortion, or the high cost of doing business - and why some people migrate

This is the story of a family in Guatemala. They could be from any part of the country that is poor, and for their protection I won't say where they are from originally. I can't tell you much about them, because they are still scared that someone from the "mara" (gang) that extorted money from them might come and find them. I also won't say where the extortion took place; the maras work by territory, and even saying the city, or the neighborhood where this took place, would identify the gang and thus endanger the people who spoke to me. I didn't seek them out, but was asked by someone who knows them to talk with them, and I think since that what I am about to say is very general and applies unfortunately to hundreds if not thousands of Guatemalan families who are preyed upon by extortionists, that they are not further endangered by my talking about their situation. Much of the population of Guatemala's major cities is made up of rural migrants who flocked there not because they were enchanted by the promise of bright lights, big city, but because their small land holdings were insufficient to provide sustenance for the family -- or perhaps they lacked land of their own entirely, whether as a result of having been swindled or robbed outright. During the war, peasants who fled the violence often returned to find their homes and land occupied by the military, their supporters, or the wealthy landowners who used the refugee flight as an opportunity to expand their economic and political power. Or they had no land because of earlier land grabs by elites, or because someone signed papers that they didn't understand because they were in Spanish.

So, this family couldn't make ends meet where they were, and so about 15 years ago they packed up their belongings and a few generations of kinfolk living in an extended multi-generational household and headed to a city, where they were able to open up some small businesses. Nothing major, just a few small stores in a neighborhood populated primarily by people very much like themselves -- poor folks with rural (and indigenous) roots. 

However, for small business people, it is not easy to make a living in the city. There is fierce competition from dozens of other people with similar needs and ideas -- every urban block, it seems, is now crowded with several small stores, mostly offering the same things: prepared foods, packets of soup mix, instant noodles, laundry soap, other sundries, maybe some individually packaged over-the-counter medications, and probably phone cards. But the biggest obstacle to a family gaining any kind of stability (success is a distant dream for most) is extortion. Most neighborhoods, or micro-zones within neighborhoods, are controlled by gangs that demand weekly payments from store owners as the price of doing business. On top of the weekly payments, the gangs ask for "bonuses" for Semana Santa (Holy Week), Christmas, and other times.  If the business owners fail to pay, the gangs tell them, they will kidnap their relatives or kill them (the business owners, their children, and so forth). So, most pay up -- at least up to a point.

This happened to a family I know, and during this trip I spoke to several members of the family about the extortions. They started several years ago, and went on for a period of nearly a year. The gangs started out by asking for 200 quetzales a week, and then "bonuses" of 1000 quetzales. Then they started to make more extravagant demands: 5000 quetzales (which the family managed to scrape together somehow), and then 20,000. This was beyond the means of the family to pay. At one point (I spoke to several different relatives and they had slightly different experiences), someone went to report the extortions to the police but, they told me, the police didn't seem to pay any attention or help them out. One of the relatives, an older man, was in his store when some gang members broke in and fired their guns.  He was not hurt, but has been in a state of shock since then. He walks with difficulty, and has had some other health problems that the doctors believe were caused by the attack. He hasn't really been able to work since then.

One of the women in the family was in one of the stores alone because her husband was away. The gang figured out where he was going and robbed him, and also went to the store, knowing the wife was alone, and demanded more money from her at gunpoint.  

The extortions just kept on going over a period of a year, and eventually the family decided that they couldn't make the payments and it wasn't worth risking their lives, and so they returned to the place they had left years earlier, leaving all the property (stores and residences) in the city.  So now they have basically nothing. They are in a small rural settlement outside a small town; their property is about 20 minutes by car from the nearest highway (a highway, in Guatemala, is a 2-lane blacktop -- a paved road that connects towns, and connects them by running right through them). So we are not talking interstates here. The road that leads up to the settlement where they live has only one small part that is paved -- and not really fully paved. There are two parallel concrete tracks, each about a foot wide, that run for about half a mile. However, the concrete tracks are badly broken in places, and so while they give the illusion of a better surface, they are really not much better than the packed dirt and rock that comprise the rest of the road.   They are scared, they told me, to go anywhere, because they fear that the gang is still pursuing them. They stay in the rural village for the most part, and rarely go into the larger town nearby; they are always fearful that there will be someone who works for the gang there who will report their presence and they will then be afraid for their lives.  Occasionally someone will go into one of the smaller towns, but they stay away from the larger towns. They have two telephones that they use for about 12 people (normally in a family that large, all the adults and most of the teenagers would have their own phones), and they are very worried about anyone having their number, because the extortioners would be able to reach them and figure out where they are and then come and bother them or worse.  

As I sat in their sparely furnished home, on the one chair that wasn't completely falling apart, listening to one after another of the adults tell me about the extortions, it was hard to not feel complete despair. Their situation seemed so hopeless, like the Sartre play, "No Exit". What remedy did they have? Reporting to the police or Ministerio Público would expose them to retribution -- the police, for the most part, are unwilling to take action against the gangs, and so for many people there is little to be gained by reporting extortions, threats of violence or actual violence to the police, and much to lose.  

There are very few jobs in the area -- no large farmers or maquiladoras that hire people, and thus  few opportunities for paid work. The town government hires a few people but those jobs go to people with political ties to whatever party is running the local government. The small businesses in town -- and this true throughout the country, not just in this area -- rarely "hire" people but mostly depend upon relatives. Some of the wealthier families hire domestic workers but there is not enough of an elite to provide jobs for all the indigenous women and girls who might want to cook, clean, do laundry or take care of children. So the "job market", for all intents and purposes, barely exists.

 One of the younger generation became frustrated with the lack of an "opportunity structure" in the rural area and so decided to go back to the city. S/he went to a different neighborhood, thinking that this change of location might shield him/her from the gang that had terrorized the family earlier, but this was a false hope, and s/he found her/himself pursued by the same people, and if I remember correctly, was attacked, and decided to leave -- leave Guatemala, that is, and make the long journey north as an undocumented immigrant, hoping that some relatives who had already settled in the U.S. would at least be able to give him/her a starting point for a new life.

They told me that they had been in touch with some of their former neighbors in the city, and that the price of extortions had gone up. Instead of 200 quetzals a week, the gangs were now asking 300 quetzals a week -- a 33% increase. They said they thought that the reason that it had gone up was that the gangs used to hit up the bus drivers for money but since there had been a switch to fare cards (because there was so much extortion and so many murders of bus drivers), bus drivers were no longer a useful target as they didn't carry cash. And so the gangs had stepped up the pressure on the small businesses.

There was an awkwardness to the conversations, because it wasn't clear what good talking to me was going to do.  I was talking to them at the request of one of their relatives who no longer lives in Guatemala, and I was in some ways just a messenger.  So their stories would leave Guatemala with me, but I couldn't quite tell them what would happen next. I felt kind of helpless to do anything that would materially change their circumstances.  The first time I visited (I had to come twice, as one of the people to whom I was supposed to speak had been on a rare trip into town when I came over), they apologized for not having prepared a lunch for me, saying they didn't know what I wanted to eat, but I assured them that I had just eaten (which was true).  The second time, just as I was getting ready to leave, one of the family members handed me a small carton of fruit nectar that they had obviously purchased to have something to give to me.  I felt awful, in a way, that they had spent money buying something for me (and something that I don't drink). I didn't want to insult them by not accepting it, but I also didn't want to take something that they had purchased and then not actually drinking it, so I thanked them profusely but as I was already walking to my car, I said that I really had to leave because I needed to take care of some business (which was true) and that I hoped that one of them or one of the children would drink it for me. 

 Most of them seemed tense, on edge, with an air of deep sadness but also resignation. Where could they go to escape from this weight hanging over them? Anywhere in Guatemala, they would fear that the gang would come find them. They lacked the resources to get the entire family out of Guatemala, and so in Guatemala they would remain, it seems. Driving away was troubling; whatever everyday dangers there are in Guatemala, I was at least free from what one of the men had described to me as being trapped and constantly worrying that someone was coming to get them. 

A parade for all seasons, or the patron saint of drivers

On Wednesday it took me an extraordinary long time to make my way from my friends' home outside Chinique to Chichicastenango -- normally it would take between 50 minutes to an hour depending upon traffic. First thing, when I went to pull my car out of the steep and often slippery driveway (it's been raining a lot lately, and since the driveway is all dirt and rock, it gets quite mucky, and since it's on a slope downward from the road, it sometimes takes all the driving skill I possess to get the car moving in reverse without the wheels spinning into the mud), I noticed one of the front tires was flat. That meant a trip to a pinchazo (flat fix). The only pinchazos nearby that I know of are on the other side of Chinique -- not the side I was on, but on the road leading out of town in the other direction. Which meant going through town and out the other side. Usually not a big deal as town is all of about 10 blocks long. However unbeknownst to me, there was a parade scheduled today with school children. The parade route ran along the route that one would normally take to get through town. So, I had to figure out how to work my way around it, which involved a few false turns and then backing up all the way down one block so I could turn and go a different way.  Eventually I made it out and got my flat fixed, and then followed the line of traffic on an circuitous detour so I could get back out on the side that I had been on originally and head to Chichicastenango.  The son of friends was in the middle of town as I drove through, waiting for a bus to Santa Cruz, and so I offered him a ride; we got a chance to talk about his plans for finishing up his bachillerato (high school degree) and then going to university.

All was smooth sailing -- there are no longer police stationed along the road between Santa Cruz and Chichi - until I hit the entrance to Chichi where everything ground to a halt.  There was a long line of cars, trucks, and buses stretching about half a mile from the arch at the entrance to the city, and a few drivers were standing on the side, looking to see what was going on, buying refreshments or talking on their phones. I heard explosions in the distance -- this being Chichi, any kind of festivity is marked with fireworks. Obviously something was afoot. I asked one of the drivers and he wasn't sure. I called my friend Ixchel, whom I was going to visit at the radio station in Chichi and she told me that it was a parade for "el día de los choferes" (the day of the drivers), but that she thought it would be over soon. Eventually, some cars started coming from the other direction, heading towards us, and some were decorated with flowers and balloons and streamers. After about half an hour, we were able to start inching slowly up into town, although traffic was detoured, and I could hear the noise of occasional explosions throughout the town. When I finally got out to the other end of town and tried to enter that way, it was blocked. The radio station is located near the entrance on the Guatemala side -- that is, the opposite end of town from where I had entered -- and since it is on a one way street I had thought to go all the way through town, out the other side, and then re-enter so I could park near the station. However, since that street was blocked off, I had to try and re-enter the same way I had just come (traffic was being re-routed). Eventually I inserted myself into traffic heading back the way I had come (Chichi has very narrow cobblestoned streets, and with Guatemala's aggressive drivers, getting into the line of traffic and then navigating two-way traffic on streets that barely accommodate one-way traffic most of the time was not fun).  

Later someone told me that it was the day of San Cristobal, who is the patron saint of drivers. Given how aggressively and recklessly people drive here, I guess they need a patron saint. Later Ixchel and I walked through town to get to the market to have lunch, passing a street that had been blocked off, where members of the drivers' association were serving lunch to people who had gathered to celebrate. A tarp had been stretched across the street to offer some protection from the sun (and rain if it were to rain later), and pine needles strewn over the pavement.  Later, when we passed that way on our return, the food had been cleared and many of the people were gone, but inside one of the storefronts I could see a small altar and I could hear the voice of the priest from the Catholic Church, leading a prayer and preaching regarding the significance of the day.

But it does seem that nearly every day is the day of something or other. The day of the child in October. The day of the radio announcer. The day of the teacher. And so forth.  Some are days recognized by the UN -- the day against violence against women, on November 25. Not all are celebrated with great fanfare, but usually at least by the corresponding professional associations, and in the case of the day of the child or the day against violence against women, by advocacy groups and social movements.

Of course, it was ironic that the day of the driver was the occasional for parades that made it pretty much impossible for anyone to drive anywhere.. and I could make some snarky comments that given the way people drive, especially those who drive for a living (the drivers of buses and vans), they really do need a patron saint to make sure that they and most importantly their passengers arrive at their destinations safely.  Every time I see a car or bus bearing some religious slogan, like "Guide me, Lord", stenciled on the windshield, I think "I bloody well hope so, because you surely need it, buddy".  But that, my dear friends, Is Guate-loca.