Sunday, May 3, 2009

"For Your Safety, We Have Paid Off the Gangs."

I had never been to a staff meeting before. I had just joined a large, private language school in Guatemala. It was my very first day, and my very first encounter with my boss. She kicks off the staff meeting with this lovely declaration: "Because your safety is our number one priority, we have paid off the maras." At first I thought I had heard wrong. Maras---as in gangs?

However, her next words dispelled all illusions of a simple misunderstanding. Apparently, any business that does not pay a protection fee to the local gangs risks having their staff kidnapped and held for ransom, or their buildings vandalized.

I guess I should have realized what I was in for when I had to show my ID to the armed guard at the door, and pass another guy wielding a machete. I guess it should have been some sort of clue. However, I am a perennial optimist. I assumed that this was just a routine security measure. Maybe not.

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