The Rocky theme music played as the mayor entered the boxing ring, perhaps in the hope that he would gain "the eye of the tiger." He didn't.
Standing in the red corner, his shoulders are hunched forward, his fists are down, his face is hidden by the hood of his robe and a baseball cap. There's little swagger here, no movement, no threatening gestures. He doesn't shadow box or warm up. He seems to be more like a defenseless sheep waiting for the blade. Nobody knows what's going through his mind but his arms are stiff and his legs are trembling.
His rival in the blue corner appears to be the exact opposite: radiating strength, spirit and happiness. Despite having almost a decade on the other fighter, he seems like a puppy off the leash. He bounds across the ring, raises his arms, poses for selfies, blows kisses to the crowd, and gets down on his knees to pray. When they give him the microphone, he dedicates the fight to his daughter who he says just underwent cancer treatment in the United States. He talks on and on, until someone in the audience cuts him off. "Fight him already!"
The man in the red corner perks up a bit on the microphone, sending shout-outs to his people, to Guatemala, to the entire world. But he's still not himself. He's lost before the bell even rings. The hours of training covered by the media, on the beach, in the gym, in the pool, submerged in a tub of ice, were just a bluff. There are no image advisors in the ring, there is no editing, and no Photoshop. The boxing ring doesn’t lie.
A lot has been written about Neto Bran, the mayor in the red corner: about his oversized ego, his fondness of costumes, as if life were a role-playing convention, to his strange behaviors, such as launching a line of perfume bearing his name. His woeful management of Mixco as mayor has also attracted notice: such as the 34.6 million quetzales ($4.5 million) from the Municipal Development Institute (Instituto de Fomento Municipal - Infom) destined for specific projects that ended up going to pay the salaries of an excessive municipal payroll.
It is widely known that the players for the Deportivo Mixco soccer team went months without pay and that municipal workers were arbitrarily let go. Major shortages and setbacks have been reported, such as water problems and out-of-control violence that made Mixco one of the most dangerous municipalities in the country.
Guatemala's President Alejandro Giammattei lambasted Neto after arriving in Mixco to declare a state of emergency, saying the mayor should be coordinating security operations instead of taking part in a boxing match far away to the east.
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The mayor in the blue corner, Esduin Javier Javier, alias "Tres Kiebres," has seen his fair share of controversy. A once-successful government contractor, he has been accused by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG) of being a drug trafficker. Although he denies having trafficked drugs, he admits that the Zetas tried to kill him in 2010. But he told InSight Crime that he was a DEA informant.
Esduin Javier has also spoken publicly about his municipality, Ipala, about how poverty and hunger has driven so many people to migrate. well as the poverty and hunger typical of the dry corridor, where migration is the only option. Esduin Javier knows about this personally: he was an undocumented bricklayer in the United States until he was deported.
That two mayors with such controversial backgrounds could organize a boxing match speaks volumes about Guatemala's political climate, now CICIG has been shut down. Traditional politicians are no longer fearful. They no longer have to keep a low profile, hide, or speak in code. Now they can put themselves out there and make a spectacle of themselves in front of the television cameras and the press.
The «Good» Boss
It is 4pm in Ipala's Ismael Cerna Park in Ipala, seven hours before the fight between the mayors is scheduled to start.
Three gentlemen sit on cement benches in the park as they do every afternoon, enjoying the fresh air. They are are Byron Payés, Arturo Sagastume, director of the public school, and Victorino Medina. The three anxiously await the fight and will be at the Ipala stadium to see it.
“We are from the East; we are aggressive and we like fights,” the school director said.
They have no doubt about who will win: Tres Kiebres. “He is one of those roosters in a cockfight that doesn’t run away. If he gets knocked down, he gets back up,” added Payés.
SEE ALSO: Guatemala Mayor 'Tres Kiebres' - The Art of Being ‘3 Times Broken’
“How has Tres Kiebres been for the municipality?”
“He has fulfilled 100% of his promises,” said one of the gentlemen.
“As mayor, he's been the best,” agreed the other.
They describe the public works projects that Tres Kiebres has completed: providing drinking water, paving the roads and above all, developing the Boulevard: a wide road surrounded by flower beds where families take a stroll in the afternoon. The Boulevard leads to Jerusalem Plaza decorated with an enormous gold star of David.
Arturo Sagastume, the school director, has read bad things about his mayor in the press. He invites journalists to come see for themselves how much Ipala has improved.
He is not the only one. Around the park, nobody has much bad to say about Tres Kiebres. Some don't want to talk but everyone else sings Javier’s praises.
One couple, who asked for their names not to be mentioned, was particularly effusive. They depicted Tres Kiebres as a justice of the peace, ruling on conflicts concerning land or cattle. According to them, Javier listens to both sides, resolves the issues and satisfies both parties.
According to the wife, when her neighbor's house was on fire, Tres Kiebres was there, throwing buckets of water at the blaze. She said he also donated some of his own money to an organization helping people with disabilities.
"Kiebres is said to be linked to many bad things," said the woman. “They are all lies. He has worked hard, he was a bricklayer in the United States. He is a great person."
Tres Kiebres seems to the stereotypical "good" elected official. What do criminal accusations matter when he helps the poor? There are many examples of this in Guatemala. When Waldemar Lorenzana and Juan Ortíz ‘Chamalé,’ both major drug lords, were arrested, their communities protested and demanded their release. A group of women in San Marcos even gathered every Saturday to pray for Chamalé’s freedom after his recent arrest.
The couple’s only complaint is the price for tickets to see the fight: 150 quetzales ($20) for general seating and 300 quetzales ($40) for the VIP section. Few in town can afford this.
"A worker earns 45 quetzales ($6) per day of hard work,” said the husband.
"And a woman earns 500 quetzales ($65) working as a cleaner," added the wife.
They will watch the fight on television.
In The Stadium
It's now 5.30pm and the line outside Ipala's municipal stadium is over 100 meters long. Stands sell food, candy, cigarettes, even cowboy hats.
The security presence is impressive. Men wearing guns at their waists and black shirts bearing the slogan "NB vs 3KO" patrol the area. Their boss is Walter Marroquín, the security director of Mixco. They say that men, including police officers, from Mixco and Ipala, the mayors' two towns, have joined together to provide security for the event. The police from Mixco said that they came willingly on their day off as they didn't want municipal funds to go toward the fight.
The press has come to cover the event. At least 15 media outlets are waiting to enter the stadium. One of the organizers explains the rules: the fight cannot be broadcast live, no photos can be taken from the attendees.
Later, a reporter from Ojo Con Mi Pisto, a media outlet that has criticized Neto Bran and Esduin Javier, was reportedly intimidated. The organizers asked him to leave on the grounds that he did not have media credentials, but the online media outlet vowed it had requested the media credentials a week prior to the event.
In one article, Ojo Con Mi Pisto revealed that the municipality of Mixco spent 182,280 quetzales ($23,800) every month to pay the salaries of 29 staffers on Neto Bran’s communication team. Another investigation found that this boxing fight had somehow required the presence of 76 public officials during the event.
The stadium continues to fill up. People from Ipala sit in the general seating area while those from Mixco take the VIP seats close to the ring. There are not enough beer vendors. Night falls and the music starts: a cumbia group from the capital plays as well as a local group playing norteña music.
Meanwhile, the boxers, the real ones, warm up in front of the makeshift changing rooms. There are five preliminary fights, helping young members of the national boxing team gain experience before the Olympic qualifiers.
Tres Kiebres’ trainer, Waldemar García, explained how they organized the preliminary fights: the best fighters will face each other first and the level will go progressively down. This way, when it comes time for the mayors to fight, “they won’t look so bad.” García has no doubt his pupil will win. “Neto Bran won’t make it to the second round,” he predicted.
Carlos López, the head coach of the national boxing federation, stands alongside the young men in shorts.
"Doesn’t this all look like a circus to you?"
"I look on the bright side,” he responded. “It gives boxing more visibility. All these people are thinking about sports. The fight between the mayors shows that it doesn’t matter what job you have, everyone can practice a sport."
"We know that this is not going to be a showy fight," he added. "But I’ll tell you something, to get in that ring takes character. It takes character."
Finally it’s time for Tres Kiebres and Neto to enter. The bell sounds. 25 seconds go by. One right hook from Tres Kiebres and Neto Bran is on the ground. A few more punches and it's over.
Guatemala continues unchanged: with its beloved narcos and its violence. Minutes after the fight, a red pick-up truck that was leaving the stadium is found riddled with bullet holes on the side of the road between Ipala and Agua Blanca. Three more deaths to add to the statistics.
*All photos courtesy of Plaza Pública