Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dispatches from Guatemala: No Guns, No Smoking

The sign in front of the upscale steak house in Guatemala City used the familiar red circle and backslash to forbid guns and smoking.  Such signs are not uncommon in Guatemala, but one admonition is taken seriously and the other often ignored.  And therein lies a paradox of this complicated place: no smoking but plenty of shooting, a country that is crumbling while it is flourishing.  Violence is rampant and the state has largely abdicated control over the police and legal system; all the while, many social indicators are up, with infant mortality going down and education improving.  And, oddly, it is much easier to slip a gun into a bar than to get away with sneaking a cigarette.  

Guatemala is a violent place.  The first thing most visitors notice is the ubiquity of guns.  Guns, guns everywhere.  Armed guards are not only in front of banks but in office buildings, neighborhood pharmacies, and on coke trucks.  Alfredo, a middle-class businessman I know, carries a gun daily for protection—to get past the metal detectors in office buildings he has a pocket full of decoys: a ring of keys, a metal lighter, and finally a knife, which satisfies all but the most vigilant guards and leaves him with his 9mm. 

For Alfredo and his peers, such weapons provide a sense of protection against the violence sweeping the streets.  Guatemala City’s murder rate is 109 per 100,000; for comparison, New York’s rate is below 6.  This is a whole new magnitude of violence outside of war, and it affects all aspects of life for the city’s residents.  The papers are daily filled with gruesome tales of the slaughter, and everyone has their own stories to tell, every life having been touched.  

The most poignant examples for me are the most mundane—the little, often taken for granted, ways violence defines cultural norms.  Take window tinting, for example.  The fashion in Guatemala now is to tint all of a vehicle’s windows midnight black—even the front windshield.  This makes for dangerous driving, and for pedestrians, but potential thieves have no idea how much firepower might be inside.

Still, Guatemala is making great strides with a number of new social policies.  Starting in February 2009, Guatemala banned smoking inside of bars and restaurants.  One would have thought—and indeed I did—that in the context of such lawlessness and violence, such a prohibition would have little impact.  But, lo and behold, it has taken hold, and is widely enforced.  A justified cynic might say it is because smoking in bars would be an ideal target for mordidas (bribes), thus encouraging police to vigorously enforce the regulation, if for private as much as public gain.  But it also shows how quickly new ideas can take root, and how advances in public goods are being made even crime grows.

And there are many other signs of hope.  Riding buses in Guatemala City has become dangerous.  Last year, a bus driver was killed on average every other day, and gangs extorting money had taken to lobbing grenades at buses.  Borrowing an idea from Bogota (and a few other cities), Guatemala City has open a new Transmetro.  Often described as an above-ground subway, the Transmetro is a bus system that runs on dedicated lanes and makes stops only at fixed stations.  The stations require a prepaid card be swiped for entry (eliminating cash on the buses) and there are security personnel in the stations and on the buses.  It reduces traffic congestion, decreases crime, and speeds bus travel--another example of effective public policy.

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