A UN report puts Guatemala among the top five most violent countries in the world, with 40.6 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants. It’s difficult, in this country, to imagine a life without death. However, in the world’s fifth-most violent place – it’s strange, but true – there are places without homicides, with just one murder in a decade. And there’s others where death is overflowing. You just need to spend a few hours on a highway to see these contrasts – from Sibinal, San Marcos, to Puerto Barrios, in Izabal, for example.

Puerto Barrios: hot, humid, 36 degrees. A city-port in northwest Guatemala that receives visitors with red, green, blue, pink, yellow and grey. These are the colors of the tombs in the cemetery, visible when entering this town, which for three years now – according to police statistics – has ranked as number one for violent homicides in Guatemala. Death greets you in Puerto Barrios.

“What never ends here are the dead.”

The following are excerpts of an article that was originally published by Plaza Publica and was translated and reprinted with permission. See the Spanish original here

Upon pronouncing this, the voice of Cesar Barrera (shadow of a beard, small eyes, small body) resembles an EVP recording. He’s in charge of coordinating burials. He’s the gravedigger, the head of the municipal cemetery in Puerto Barrios, although he says he doesn’t like the word “gravedigger” at all, it gets on his nerves, he prefers (and asks) to be called the handler of affairs of the deceased, the one who keeps everything in order. But sometimes it’s difficult, he says, sweating. For two years now, between 60 to 70 people are buried in Puerto Barrios every month. Simply saying the number wearies Cesar, who is now immobile under the hot noonday sun.

“Today we buried one. Someone killed him for stealing his motorbike. This week we buried under two. A woman who died of natural causes. Another one murdered, if I’m remembering right.”

According to statistics, Puerto Barrios is the municipality with Guatemala’s highest murder rate. “People are killing each other here,” says Cesar. For this municipality that borders Honduras, the mortality rate was the only one in Guatemala to reach three figures in 2013. There’s 106,722 people living in Puerto Barrios. And 137.74 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants. A statistic that’s resented inside the cemetery.

“On average, murder victims, I bury some six or eight every month,” says Cesar slowly. Now he’s become a guide in this town of gravestones. He wants to show the most recent graves, the ones he remembers were violent deaths. Between the multicolored tombs, the dried-up and plastic flowers, Cesar signals, explains dates and names, recalls robberies, revenge killings, bullets, stabbings and bodies cut into pieces. This is his territory. But he confesses that the cemetery is also a dangerous place. “They rob here, they open the graves, they look for valuables like good teeth. If someone is killed violently, after their death they keep experiencing violence. That’s how it goes,” he laments, passing a destroyed grave, half a pile of bones lying outside its resting place. “I don’t touch them. That’s up to the Public Ministry,” he says.

The sun finally sets when Cesar stops at the edge of the cemetery. We’ve walked for more than an hour. During this time, Cesar has recalled a great deal of Puerto Barrios’ violence, which, at the end of the day, he seems to carry upon his shoulders, supporting himself on a stick. We’ve arrived exhausted to the place where those without name are buried, the unidentified who die in Puerto Barrios and are claimed by no one. “About 15 in two years,” says the grave digger. No one knows who they were. Now they rest in the farthest corner of the cemetery, where there’s no colors, no flowers, no visits. Just Cesar, standing in front of the heaps of earth, where he explains that the space here is disputed; there’s no more room in the cemetery, those buried for free in this corner (usually it’s 280 quetzales a year for a grave) will have to be moved and leave this patch of ground for those who do have someone who remembers them.

“They’ll go to the mass grave.”

“Why is there violence in Puerto Barrios?” I ask Cesar at this far corner of the cemetery.

“For drugs. For contraband. Because we’re a port, a frontier. Because someone owed something to someone. Because there’s few rich people and a lot of poor. Because you’ve also got to defend yourself,” he theorizes.

SEE ALSO: Our coverage on homicide rates


But even in the fifth most violent country in the world, there’s places where no one kills anyone. In fact, of Guatemala’s 335 municipalities, 53 have a murder rate of zero. Five of these have reported just one homicide over the past 10 years, according to police statistics. Sibinal, in San Marcos department, is one of these… it’s the other extreme of Guatemala’s violence.

Why do we kill? Why don’t we? There may be answers in the municipality with the highest homicide rate, and in a municipality with one of the lowest.

Sibinal, the most peaceful

[…] Since January 2012, the Ministry of Government – headed by Mauricio Lopez Bonilla – decided to withdraw the national police force from the municipality of Sibinal. There were more than 10 municipalities where the police withdrew. The majority: territory inhabited by the Mam indigenous group. The last violent death in the past ten years dates back to May 2011, when the police still had a presence in Sibinal. Nonetheless, no one remembers the name of the deceased. The people of this municipality bordering Mexico don’t even remember the incident.

[…] The indigenous mayor of Sibinal, Lorenzo Mejia Ortiz, meets with me, but doesn’t arrive alone. He can’t, he says, because everyone in the community should know that there’s going to be a conversation about the lack of violence in this municipality. Five community leaders arrive to the Sibinal park at nine in the morning. Standing before a monument commemorating the 36 victims of the civil war in this municipality, each of the five – hats, leather jackets – have a theory why there’s practically no homicides in Sibinal. But first, they try to do a count. They search their memories for the last death. A drunk who poisoned himself. Some two months later, a woman who was raped then killed. “But that was on the border of our municipality, the woman died in Tacana [north of Sibinal],” says the indigenous mayor Mejia Ortiz. Violence due to homicides isn’t a conversation topic; “it doesn’t exist,” affirms Porfirio Bartolon Roblero, member of community indigenous organization the CPO.

“Sibinal is a strange place in the fifth most violent country in the world.”

“Why did the police withdraw? What happened?” I ask them.

There’s several answers, mixed explanations. One version that may combine them all is the following: Sibinal is surrounded by other municipalities that have been the protagonists of different conflicts, say the community leaders. There’s a historic land conflict between the municipalities of Tajumulco and Ixchiguan, both adjacent to Sibinal. This squabble over territorial divisions has resulted in deaths. Not so in Sibinal, which has always remained a spectator in these disputes. “We don’t get involved,” says Ortiz.

They also explain that Sibinal is so isolated – two volcanoes (Tacana and Tajumulco) and a mountain range that keep them separated from more violent border municipalities like Tecun Uman or El Carmen. “The police are more interested in other borders,” say the community leaders.

[…] After an hour of conversation, the community leaders in the park are still trying to recall at least one violent death. They try. They give up. Despite this, the mayor says, “Even though things are peaceful, just turning on the TV or reading the newspaper makes us nervous.” The five men of this municipality of 16,585 inhabitants continue the discussion in the park, they go over the names of the deceased, one after another from the entire municipality, but none have died at the hands of another human being.

Sibinal is a strange place in the fifth most violent country in the world.


Explaining the violence (and lack thereof)

If we were to zoom out of Sibinal, in San Marcos department, and zoom out of Puerto Barrio, in Izabal, you’d see nearly all of Guatemala’s territory extending between the two places. On the eastern side – Puerto Barrios – we see the border with Honduras, on the western – Sibinal – we see Mexico. It’s a space closely scrutinized and filled with meaning by analysts, investigators and statisticians, nearly all of them based in the capital. All of them as attentive as predators closing in on the kill, closing in on the numbers that will finally solve the riddle. This is what the phenomenon of Guatemala’s violence is like: it doesn’t provide a single answer. There’s no one explanation. As the academics say, there are contrasts, circumstances that shape the most violent regions – and the most peaceful.

How to interpret the statistics? What do the homicides tell us? Carmen Rosa de Leon Escribano, director of peace-building organization Iepades, has dedicated the last few years to analyzing Guatemala’s violence. De Leon has split Guatemala into two primary regions based on her studies: “a space in the West where violence is minimal, and another in the East where violence is very high,” she says.

SEE MORE: Guatemala Country Profile

Puerto Barrios is in this Eastern region, Sibinal, at the other extreme. “And in examining these two zones, there’s a trend worth understanding. The whole Western area that borders Mexico has historically been an area for contraband, from colonial times until today. And that implies a certain order – respect for hierarchy and for territory. An implicit understanding between actors. From the 1980’s, the Sinaloa Cartel has used this zone for their drug trafficking operations. And to do so, they’ve made use of groups that already existed here (contraband-runners, drug traffickers, poppy growers). It’s known who controls each area, each point along the border. Just one cartel has controlled this border and, with no rivals, there’s parts of San Marcos department that have homicide rates similar to those in Europe.”

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel Profile

Sibinal is one place that could well represent the analyst’s theory. But when interviewed, community members remained silent on the topics of drug trafficking and contraband. If asked, from their perspective they see these phenomenons as a normal part of life. It’s not a serious problem, but something that explains how peaceful things are. “It’s a difficult area to investigate,” explains de Leon, and confirms the statements that Minister of Government Mauricio Lopez Bonilla made around the time he withdrew the police force from Sibinal: poppy has been found in the San Marcos region since the civil war, for more than 30 years.

 At the other extreme of the country, the East, violence has exacerbated in the last few years. De Leon indicates that drug trafficking is another factor here, part of what’s causing this: “The fight is over territory and the drug trafficking routes. In the West, close to Honduras, the dispute has been like that for over five years now. The Zetas, the armed group that broke off from the Gulf Cartel, arrived to this zone in 2008 and confronted local drug traffickers. They implemented another level of violence, just bloody. Their presence caused a reaccommodation. In recent years, this organization withdrew and went back to Mexico, but left a fragmented territory in the West – many groups fighting over the drug trafficking routes.”

Puerto Barrios is in Guatemala’s most northeastern department, Izabal: the country’s only exit point to the Atlantic Ocean. That is to say – as De Leon points here – here are the only ports that connect Miami, in the US, with Guatemala. “Contraband has also historically been here, but… today there’s many groups fighting for control of the entire zone.”

“The two Guatemalas” is an idea belonging to statistician Carlos Mendoza, a numbers fiend, founder of Central American Business Intelligence (CABI). One area that Mendoza focuses on is ethnicity as a factor that can explain violence, or the lack thereof. “In the municipalities with the highest indigenous population, in the most rural and poorest areas, violence levels can descend to a single digit, while the areas that are majority mestiza – less poverty, more urban and greater police presence – violence can reach up to three digits,” he indicates.

“Curiously, where there’s more equality, there’s higher indices of poverty and less violence. And that refutes that violence is due to poverty.”

Culture is another influential factor: Mendoza talks of how a collective – with customs and structures – has the strength needed to influence people at a very personal level. “Many times, the aspirations of a young indigenous person revolves around achieving certain responsibility or a service for the community. From childhood, they’re educated to form part of a structure with inherited customs. Beyond the rural, in urban areas there’s other aspirations: the seek for status via objects and possessions, and this leads to a constant struggle to reach higher social status. It doesn’t matter how you do so, be it legal or illegal, including the extreme measure of killing someone.” (Mendonza is referring to homicide rates. When it comes to sexual violence, for example, the statistics are reversed and the Western region ranks higher). The inhabitants of Sibinal already intuit this…. as does the grave digger of Puerto Barrios: there’s always a social context.

But if Guatemala is two completely different things within the same piece of Earth, it’s fundamentally due to inequity, says theorist and consultant for international organizations Aldo Magoga. “Curiously, where there’s more equality, there’s higher indices of poverty and less violence. And that refutes that violence is due to poverty. And if we examine the more urban areas, inequity goes up, and when inequity goes up violence goes up. But Guatemala is complex. The Gini index, which measures economic inequality, is 55.9 – 70 percent of the nation’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of 30 percent of the population. It’s nearly similar to Chile, but in Chile they don’t kill as they do here.”

But speaking of the rich and poor in Guatemala is something else. The difference can be felt, breathed, intuited in many people’s conversations, just as in Puerto Barrios as in Sibinal: the few wealthy and the many poor. The general poverty index of Sibinal, that number which measures quality of life, is 90 percent; the index for extreme poverty: 43.9 percent. In Puerto Barrios, poverty is 24.3 percent and extreme poverty, 2.8 percent.

Magoga doesn’t just divide Guatemala into two regions, as other academics do. For him, there are four areas: “One: lots of robberies and lots of homicides. Two: few crimes and lots of homicides. Three: a bit of both. Four: a lot of crime, but few homicides.”

Of course, there are other factors that grab the attention of academics. There’s the gun issue, which also divides Guatemala: “The more guns, the more violence,” says de Leon. With more guns, the rate of lethal violence explodes. And, she explains, “there are more guns in the East, in the entire region where drug trafficking routes are disputed.”

The analysts consulted here were also conscious of migration: the population of a port city, depending on the dates and hours, is very difficult to measure: “it grows and diminishes every day, and every day the statistics are modified,” says Mendoza. “The violence occurs at the highest rates in areas of confluence with plenty of commerce. Even if a population has a fixed number of residents, the comings and goings of so many people impacts the data and affects the violence trends.”

Puerto Barrios and Sibinal are very different places, far apart. What unites them is the fact they are immersed in one of the most violent countries in the planet. A stigma. An indicator. A number. Despite this, the causes of violence in Guatemala are diverse, fluctuating, disparate. Day to day, in a very particular manner, the people of these border towns live either close or far from death. They live, they survive, and explain how they may do so. 

The following are excerpts of an article that was originally published by Plaza Publica and was translated and reprinted with permission. See the Spanish original here

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