The International Writers
Travel in Central America
Then I flew in to Yucatan,
Eastern Mexico. As I wait in the queue for passport control, a guy in
front of me smacks another one in the face real hard, and they both get
taken away. Thats still in the international airspace. Its
another country here, everybody get your passports ready.
Guns of Central America
trip, from Havana to San Salvador, took me through five levels of
Central American gun culture. My journey started in Havana
probably the safest capital in Latin America. The Castro regime
has put so many cops on the streets that I was instantly told from
the very beginning that any assault on a traveller is unthinkable.
Scams, theft, yes. But in terms of violence, it is pretty obvious
on the streets of Havana who is the boss.
In the evening I went to a bar. The waiter entertained American tourists
by pulling out a deactivated revolver and aiming it at people while his
colleague would throw a metal tray on the floor as hard as he could. It
was all a good harmless laugh, but it was also the beginning of my journey
through the real gun culture.
Both in Havana and Yucatan I only saw handguns on cops hips. In
Chiapas, a little further south, I advanced to Level 2. The area had suffered
some turbulence due to the Zapatista rebellions of the Maya population.
In awe, I got my first sight of 3-4 men police squads armed with M4 carbines
and M16 assault rifles. After watching a video about the rebellion, and
finding myself in a Zapatista village by accident, I understood why they
were there. Still, that was just a very localized reaction to an extraordinary
situation, not a status quo. Once I crossed to Guatemala, things really
The border was not even a border - just a walk through. It resembled a
refugee checkpoint. Could have easily not even shown the passport. A different
feel straight away. Angry gangsta reggaeton blasting out, a wanted "armed
and dangerous" poster on the wall, dirty cowboys selling USD, hordes
of counterfeit sellers.
Level 3. Full Guatemala of guns. First, there were M16s carried by the
police. An M16 was literally the first thing I saw in Guatemala after
crossing the border. Four cops at the gas station were carrying them by
the sight-handles, sipping coffee like a bunch of businessmen with briefcases.
But thats kind of normal. There are plenty of countries even in
the developed world where you can see guns, as anyone who has ever flown
through Heathrow Airport in London will know.
But then there were the shotguns and they were a lot more confusing. They
were everywhere at museums, stations, pharmacies, even McDonalds.
The confusing part wasnt as much gun itself (although that too,
but I will come to that later) as the people who carried them. Who were
they? Collectively called "security" they included anyone from
fifteen to sixty years old. Very loosely uniformed (a shirt and a baseball
cap), I doubt they were well-trained or underwent extensive trigger happiness
tests. I once asked a kid with a shotgun bigger than him if I could take
a photo, while he was nervously guarding a truck. For a few seconds his
face showed extreme confusion: to be friendly to a tourist or to shout
"contact!!" down his (non-existent) radio? In the end he frowned
and muttered an angry "no" through his clenched teeth.
This one time I trekked a volcano and the guide shop gave me a shotgun
escort because the path wasnt too safe. That kid was just as young,
16 at the most. As I braved the path I kept thinking, maybe I should just
take the shotgun and let him tag along with my walkman? It was a ridiculous,
and a bit unnerving, situation.
If you see that outside McDonalds, you can imagine what it is like inside
a bank. They are literally fortresses. One bank I visited had a tower
in the center, with two guys with shotguns, another armed trooper at the
door and a small window just under the ceiling with a freaking sniper
in it! I am really not joking, he had his bolt-action ready, crouched
behind the ledge and scouting the floor underneath him.
Still, the guns were obviously not to be carried by the rest of the population.
I wont lie and say that I saw a Glock resting on the passenger seat
in a taxi. But people did find ways to create more security even without
the firearms. I guess there can never be too much security
For example, there was a bizarre neighborhood watch arrangement near my
hostel in Xela (Quetzaltenango). At 9 oclock a group of 10-14 youths
would come out in balaclavas and ski masks, with baseball bats and all
other kinds of close-quarter combat melee weaponry, and
the neighborhood safe, very actively. One of the guys in the hostel wasnt
aware of it and had to take a lengthy detour on his way home one night
when he saw them outside the hostel. Too right, youre not gonna
think they are security, are you?
Also in Xela, I found it curious how many tombstones are in the shop windows.
Business must be good
But it wasnt until El Salvador that I saw the Central American gun
culture in all its magnificence
Level 4. A sunny afternoon, a lady frying up corn pancakes, next to her
a guy yawning on a chair, stroking an Uzi on his lap. A youth smoking
a cigarette outside an internet café, casually swinging a shotgun
from side to side. Walking in a park you would share enjoying the nature
with a tactical squadron of 6-7 men on bicycles, with shotguns strapped
to their backs and handguns to their thighs. Im not even talking
about nightlife one of the strip-clubs we passed had six (!) very
big, very fat and very bald Salvadorians with shotguns. Even the uniforms
partly disappeared a white shirt or t-shirt would indicate a good
guy, like in a spaghetti western.
For a long time I was
pondering this choice of weapon. I mean, even if you look scary would
you really use it in a shopping mall? Apart from all the collateral damage,
surely its just ineffective unless its point blank. Then one
day it dawned on me its cheap! Its just a barrel, a
pump and a trigger. To hell with the collateral damage, you can arm 5
times more people with these than with M16s! If you cant even afford
uniforms, that must count for something.
spent quite some time in San Salvador. The guys with shotguns are
so numerous that I quickly worked out they were the easiest option
for directions, since they know where they are. And whenever a traveler
asked me for directions and I couldnt help, I would just say
"ask the guy with the shotgun".
Once again, though, those were security. Normal people kept guns at home
and walked around with machetes. Those were everywhere. I still dont
know if its just a universal household item, or a poor man's shotgun.
I did ask a lot of people why I only see security carrying guns if gun
possession is legal. And I was told that yes, many people do wear guns,
they just dont show them. IANSA (International Action Network on
Small Arms) reports 1.6 million guns in Central America, of which only
500,000 are legally registered. Most of those are found in Guatemala,
El Salvador and Nicaragua as remains of the armed conflicts. Over 70%
of homicides in those countries are committed with those guns.
Whether you see the guns or not, you just know they are there. A simple
reminder is an abundant sign in bars and nightclubs: a diagram of a pistol
in a red circle crossed diagonally, much like a "no smoking"
sign. Sometimes it is accompanied by "no guns allowed here".
You can hear the frustrated sigh of a new customer, or a few youths deciding
to prefer another place on a Friday night just because you could take
guns there, like a group of smokers in Ireland.
It all sounds shocking, and at first it is. In a few weeks, however, you
stop noticing them, they become a part of the scenery, just an item, metal
and plastic, like a mobile phone. And instead of freaking you out you
are often quite happy to see them. In a country like El Salvador, at 3
am in the morning, walking from a bar on a quiet narrow street, seeing
a silhouette of man in the distance waiting for you
becomes shorter and you finally see the outline of a baseball cap and
. Phew, its the guy with the shotgun.
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