Lake Atitlan Stories and Tips

Co-existing with the Mayans, Part II

The Civil War in Guatemala ended in 1996. There are no physical scars to see anymore, but the emotional scars still run deep. For the casual traveler in Guatemala, it will not be noticeable. For the Mayans I spoke with, the memories and wounds became apparent. This is something I only learned after spending more time in San Pedro. After a few weeks of Spanish classes, my instructor, Jose, opened up to me about it. He explained to me how as a child he cowered in the corner of his parents’ cinder block home at night. Soldiers would noisily amble through the town - sometimes drunk - enforcing curfew and the "lights out" policy. Any home that still had a candle lit was lucky if the soldiers only heaved large rocks onto the corrugated tin roof, producing a terrific clanging. After the war, the soldiers disappeared from San Pedro, as did a number of Mayan civilians all through the Civil War.

In San Pedro la Laguna today, around the corner and down the street from Casa Rosario where I lived and studied was the local headquarters of the Policía Nacional Civil. The PNC had only recently established itself in a two-story villa, and was home to a couple of officers and their 4x4 vehicles. (The PNC was not even founded and deployed until 1999, hence I do not write "re-established".) Jose and a few other villagers I spoke with made it quite clear that they were not altogether happy with the re-introduction of an armed federal presence to the village. The return of the gubierno to San Pedro in this manner was less than ten years after the massacre in neighboring Santiago Atitlán. The Army there had fired on a peaceful street demonstration, killing 14 civilians, and wounding 19 – some of them children. Because of these and other experiences during Guatemala’s long Civil War, even this small handful of cops was not welcome. (There was not even a jail at this police station – the nearest was across the lake above Panajachel in Sololá.) The locals still preferred their own local Mayan constabulary called the Alguacil. Jose explained that the Alguacil still made an appearance occasionally, recognizable by their jackets and long wooden staffs.

An incident that I sadly bore witness to, was the accidental death of a tourist in San Pedro. Two Dutch boys who were my neighbors at the Casa Rosario decided to try out their snorkel equipment in the lagoon in San Pedro. Losing their orientation in the water, they came too close to the embarcadero for the Santiago Atitlán-bound boats. A launch that was arriving at the pier never even saw them, and the prop subsequently mangled one of the boys. Peter immediately went into shock, and attempts to keep him alive failed after 15 minutes. The blood loss was too great, and there were miles of bad road between him and the nearest hospital. There was not even sufficient time for adequate first aid. The PNC was tasked with investigating the accident scene, arresting the launch’s pilot, questioning witnesses, notifying the Dutch Embassy, and transporting the body.

These were all tasks that the Alguacil alone could not have accomplished. Jose and a few other locals admitted as much. Perhaps this leads to a grudging acceptance of the necessity of having some sort of police presence in the village? It is hard to say. The distrust of authority is very great, and too many crimes committed here during the Civil War remain unpunished. And while the PNC may be a shining example of professionalism in this one situation, I have heard stories of police shaking down backpackers for money in other situations (a very simple shakedown where they threaten arrest for drug possession – hardly a baseless accusation in San Pedro!). More seriously, I have also read articles in local newspapers featuring reports of alleged police brutality. I would expect the best advice in a confrontation with the PNC is to treat the officers respectfully, and ask for a receipt for any "fine" you have to pay. This is not a sure-fire solution of course, as one agent who shook me down was happy to sign a scrap of paper confirming my stupidity in paying an additional $10 "tourist tax" for leaving Guatemala at the border with El Salvador.

The Mayans distrust of central authority is only matched by their devotion to religion – be it their own traditions or Christianity. I cannot overemphasize the devotion to Christianity I found in Central America. Mayans religious communities were no exception, and they performed regular religious procession with gusto. Throughout Central America (Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica is where I personally witnessed this), the locals lay down lush green carpets of plant clippings along the center of a main road accentuated with a multi-colored gilding of flower petals. They then stuff themselves into pick-up trucks festooned with balloons and placards, and parade through the town. These Hooray for Jesus Pep Rallies as I called them, were primarily Evangelical and seemed to highlight the local weekly social calendar. In San Pedro, these rallies were naturally smaller in scale, but they did allow the locals to dress up in their bona fide Sunday best and strut their stuff.

I met at least one local who did not participate in these activities and went as far as to disdain them. With disgust, he pointed out to me a number of schools, churches, and buildings in San Pedro that had all been funded by various competing religious denominations. I got the impression from him that post-Civil War San Pedro had been a sort-of sectarian land grab similar to the California Gold Rush. His argument was that these religions would not effectively address all the issues (societal and political) facing San Pedro and the surrounding communities. Political representation and land reform stood at the top of his list. To him, this side of the lake had little political clout and was overshadowed economically by Panajachel and Sololá. Would we really have suffered a power outage every night while they did not if this was not the case? I kept my mouth shut and did not mention the political work and lobbying that many missionaries did on behalf of the Mayans during the Civil War, but he had a point.

Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip