Tomorrow Guatemala’s new president, retired General Otto Perez Molina, will be inaugurated. It’s unsure what kind of president he’ll be. While valid questions remain about his role in the civil war in the early 1980′s, he was a key signatory of the peace accords in 1996. The greatest cause of consternation in Guatemala now, from what I can tell, has been the government’s inability or unwillingness to keep organized criminals from preying on and terrorizing the rest of the population, especially the poor who are less able to defend themselves. Perez and his governing Patriot Party have promised to improve security in the county, confronting crime on all levels—extortion rings, drug trafficking, and the general mayhem that’s caused Guatemala to hold one of the region’s highest murder rates. I hope President Perez and his administration also will address corruption within government, rampant violence against women, the outrageous impunity that lets so many bad guys prey upon the weak and get off scot-free, and myriad other impediments to justice. Things are getting off to a shaky start; this morning a legislator from an opposition party was killed by shots from a passing motorcycle several blocks from the central plaza.
Since I don’t really have any further in-depth analysis or deep thoughts about the incoming President, here’s a unrelated anecdote:
In June 1993, my wife, son Daniel, and I drove through Guatemala on our way from Nashville to Honduras. Our Plymouth Voyager was filled to the brim with boxes of clothes, books, dishes, and toys for us to use in our mission assignment in La Ceiba. It took two full days to carefully squeeze it all in there. Daniel’s bicycle was strapped on top.
I had a spooky sensation as we sped along the Pacific Coast highway, not knowing anyone in Guatemala and remembering horror stories about past government atrocities. Suddenly we were stopped by a lone soldier in uniform, holding a combat rifle. After I pulled over, his unfriendly face appeared at the window and his stern voice demanded to see my documents. He stared at them for a moment, and then wanted to know where we were going. I explained we were going to Honduras to serve the church there. He made me get out, pointing his rifle toward the rear gate and following me there. I opened it for him, and he pointed his rifle at the shoulder of the road, telling me to put everything there. At first I wasn’t sure that I heard correctly, so I asked if he meant every single box. He assured me that he wasn’t kidding, that he needed to check the contents of every box.
Here’s how the exchange went after that:
“Like I said, the boxes just have our clothes, books, dishes, toys, and things like that. Do you really want to see all that?”
“You know it’s going to take a long time to unload so many boxes.”
“It doesn’t matter. I have to see all of them because who knows what you might be smuggling.”
“We already went through customs. Isn’t that where these kinds of inspections are supposed to happen?”
“We do inspections wherever we think they might be necessary.”
At this point, I started to suspect he was bluffing. I thought he wanted a bribe, and I didn’t want to give him one. I’d given a bribe earlier in Mexico, and my conscience had been killing me ever since. So I prayed, “Please, God, help us through this one.” Then I said to the soldier, “Okay, if you say so, but you’re going to get bored looking at a bunch of books and dishes, and we’re probably going to get into Guatemala City late.”
“Like I said, I’m a Methodist pastor, and my family and I are moving to Central America to try to help as many people as we can here.”
“I’ll do what you say if you insist, because I know you’re trying to do your job and the last thing we want to do is break the law. And you know, some people might try to help you out in some other way so that you’ll go easier on them, but I couldn’t do that because it would go against my beliefs.”
I slowly lifted out a box, put it on the ground, and removed the packing tape. After he peeked at the kids’ books inside, he snapped, “Now put the box back where it was.” I did, and the soldier waved his hand, saying, “Now you can go.”