Violence In Guatemala City
November 2009

by William B. Plowman

Journalist Rolando Santis was en route to the TV station Telecentro after covering a bus driver's murder in Guatemala City, Guatemala, where the level of violence had been rising for months. Armed gangs were targeting bus drivers with the deadly bargain of extortion or retribution and it now had reached a fever pitch. These public transport attacks, once seen as peripheral drug- and extortion-related violence of the many cartels and organized crime units around the country were, to Santis, perhaps something deeper. Just a day earlier he had uncovered a gang's cache of weapons and was making hints of a political connection. This day, Rolando Santis, one of the country's most prominent and dogged investigative journalists, never made it back to Telecentro – he was fatally gunned down by two men on a motorcycle while returning from the site of another bus driver's murder. He was 42.

© William B. Plowman
A crowd gathers outside the funeral of slain TV reporter Rolando Santis in Guatemala City.
I had been in Guatemala City for three weeks and was looking for answers to the surge in violence taking place. I stood outside the hospital with my friends and colleagues and received of the news of Santis: fatally wounded by gunfire to the neck and chest.

I'd been covering the country for three years and had become captivated by it. And so this past spring and summer I was back again, moving from one crime scene to the next, attending funerals and talking to anyone who would speak with me. The daily attacks were growing – two, three and sometimes four a day. Guatemala City seemed to be under siege. Local gangs, on the face of it, were harassing drivers for small sums of money – the price of a life spared. But was it that simple? All this was taking place on a background of a newly elected and self-proclaimed progressive government with promises of reform and a crackdown on the political corruption that have plagued this country for so many decades. Not to mention the long, dark shadow of a crippling civil war ever present. 

© William B. Plowman
Two unnamed journalists comfort each other as the funeral procession for slain TV reporter Rolando Santis drives past them in Gutemala City.
Guatemala had perhaps one of the most brutal and certainly the longest civil war in all of the region, spanning three decades (from 1960-1996), leaving roughly 200,000 dead and thousands "disappeared" in the conflict. Rampant human rights abuses and a deliberate marginalization of the indigenous population left the country with a host of unhealed wounds. The long process of reconciliation was finally beginning, although haltingly, to take root.

More recently, there was a nasty election season with a fair share of political violence, pitting the tough-on-crime conservative Otto Pérez Molina against the reformist Alvaro Colom. The result was that Colom became Guatemala's first left-of-center president elected in nearly half a century and now he was beginning to come under attack. The reprisals against this new openness came swiftly.

Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman Sergio Morales' wife Gladys was kidnapped and tortured but returned alive a few days later. The promises of accountability were beginning to come under fire and Colom's power began to show signs of unraveling. 

© William B. Plowman
A gang member lies dead on the streets of Guatemala City after a botched extortion attempt on a local bus driver.
Back on the streets the situation deteriorated. Murders and attacks on bus lines increased. The bus companies and their drivers hold a key role in the infrastructure of the city with a majority of the country's denizens relying on public transport. Santis' murder only raised more questions and rumors were rife. Strikes ensued and people shied away from public transport – as much as they can. "What can we do? We need to work," said one woman and she's not alone. Interior Minister Salvador Grandara echoed much of what was talked about on the streets and boldly pointed an accusing finger at something more nefarious – the "method(s) used by organized crime to create a confrontation between the government and the press." It mirrors what many were thinking: a covert attempt at destabilizing this tenuous new government. A country on the cusp of finally coming to terms with the nightmares of civil conflict thwarted by more violence.

The attacks continue. There are whispers of a coup d'etat. And I fear for my friends who daily cover this evolving story, Jacobo Quan and Edwin Benavente, who both lost a good friend and colleague in Rolando Santis.

© William B. Plowman

William B. Plowman has covered crises and conflict in the Caribbean, Central Asia, the Americas and North Africa and focuses on issues of humanitarianism, political and social import. He has been published by the world's leading magazines, newspapers and NGOs, including Newsweek, Time, U.S. News & World Report, Stern, Le Figaro, The New York Times, The Washington Post and MSF. He is currently based in Washington, D.C.

Visit William Plowman's Web site at:

View William B. Plowman's previous DJ Dispatches at:

blog comments powered by Disqus

Dispatches are brought to you by:
canon - dispatches