Guatemalans hunker down against rising violence

AP News
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Posted: Dec 16, 2011 12:09 AM
Guatemalans hunker down against rising violence

Guatemala City is a place where people live in fear.

Dire poverty, gang violence and drug trafficking, and the failure of the government to provide a safety net, have contributed to the creation of a society where people isolate themselves from each other and make sure others keep their distance and where many seek solace in religion.

Squalor and poverty are constants in this city of 3 million. Paint peels from walls. Shantytowns sprawl along the sides of mountain ravines.

"We're a sad people, living in a depression," says Marco Antonio Garavito, a psychologist and director of the Mental Hygiene League. "It's hard for us to help each other because we live inside a shell that keeps us away (from others). We have a hard time with physical contact, with giving a good handshake.

Motorists hide behind tinted windows, while security guards wielding shotguns stand outside banks and grocery stores. Hair stylists work behind barred doors. Even crowded buses, with passengers often hanging from the windows, carry guards.

"We have formed a type of shell that in psychology we call defensive desensitization," Garavito says. "The cost of that is that we have a loss of values, especially a loss of humanity."

It's not uncommon to see Guatemala City residents unfazed by the sight of a corpse by the side of the street. In cemeteries, bodies are unearthed when families can't pay fees.

Garavito says the Central American nation was founded with violence when the Spanish massacred thousands of indigenous people. And Guatemala suffered through a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996. During the war, about 200,000 people were killed, mostly by state forces and paramilitary groups.

Still, Guatemalan City residents show resilience every day, with preachers going through busy markets spreading the word of God and Mayan girls in colorful dresses taking a moment among laughter to enjoy candied apples.